Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
A Transitional Period for Birds and Birders
June 18, 2021
By Steve Grinley
There were two unusual birds this past week on Plum Island – unusual in that they are not regular breeders there. A yellow-throated vireo has been singing vigorously throughout the Hellcat Swamp Trail, giving only brief looks to those patient enough to catch it among the thick foliage in the trees above. More regularly found nesting in swampy edges of Martin Burns or Crane Pond Wildlife Management Areas, this bird seems to hope to lure a mate to the splendors of Plum Island.
The other unusual bird is a king rail, that had been most cooperative in the early morning, in the marshes between the Wilkinson Bridge to Plum Island and the Lot 1 boat launch on the Parker River Refuge. This large rail has been calling loudly, seen well and photographed by those who arrive on the island at the crack of dawn.
Many of our birds have settled down to “breeding mode.” Most have established territories and are somewhere in the process of raising the next generation. Doug Chickering of Newburyport shares with us his day on Plum Island during what he calls this “transitional period”:
“I headed over to Plum Island just after the morning’s rains had stopped… I was preparing for the transitional period after migration. For that the day was near perfect. It was cloudy and cool and this managed to suppress the annoying biting insects and beach-weasels. I encountered and chatted with Tom Wetmore but saw no one else. Just right for the quiet transition I sought. Although there were no sightings of Seaside Sparrow, I did have seven Saltmarsh Sparrows out in the salt marshes between Lot two and the Pannes.
“It was a fine transitional day. Gone was the electricity of the migration, the anxiety and excitement of tracking down reported sightings, now I was free of the chasing of year birds and rumors of life birds. Everything had mellowed into a soft tonal quality that soothed rather than excited. Now, instead of seeing birds, I could watch them. I loved it.
“The morning was replete with unhurried sedate events that indicated that the birds had finished sorting out their pairings and vying for attention. At Hellcat I could still hear the plaintive and persistent song of the luckless Yellow-throated Vireo still pathetically calling for a mate. Out on the Marsh spur there was a Swamp Sparrow with a beak full of former insects, chipping aggressively at me before diving down into the phrags, and a Marsh Wren singing and pirouetting above the top of the cattails. Lots of Catbirds and lots of Cedar Waxwings about. But both seemed to be more deliberate and quick and paid scant attention to my presence.
Willow Flycatchers were calling here and there and at the edge of the cattail marsh I caught sight of an Alder Flycatcher high in a tree calling out for free beer. They were clearly on the mission of renewal. The nesting season was transitioning to the hard work of feeding new nestlings. Yellow Warblers darted past me on the boardwalk and at one point I saw and heard an extremely angry Yellowthroat burst out of the underbrush and assail another yellowthroat who couldn’t get away too fast. Even among these little explosions of activity there was a general aura of peace and a basic calm that seemed to indicate that the birds’ lives had returned to the general order of things.
“Although I can’t come up with a special instance, my memory tells me that during this placid time I have encountered some unexpected and special events. I had one today. As I walked out to the deck where the old blind used to be in Hellcat I stopped as I thought I heard a Virginia Rail grunt. I stopped and listened, but nothing was repeated. I wasn’t surprised that I heard it for Virginia rails have nested here in the past.
“Then when I stepped onto the deck, I immediately noticed a small bird swimming across the channel that connected the pool right in front of the deck with the main North Pool. It was immediately clear that this wasn’t a duck. Before I could bring my binoculars to bare it flew to the left side. A Virginia Rail no doubt. I was overjoyed. I had seen Virginia Rail a few times this spring, but this was the first for Plum Island. I wondered if they could have nested here this year.
“Almost instantly my wondering stopped as I spotted two tiny forms making their way out into the channel from where the Rail had flown. Two tiny black birds awkwardly heading for the right side and then two more appeared and then a fifth. In my binoculars there was no doubt. Five tiny black puffballs; Virginia Rail chicks. Although they seemed to struggle, they continued to persist and make headway. When the first pair was just about to make it to the marshes, the adult suddenly flew out of the left side of the channel marsh and right over the chicks to vanish into the reeds on the other side. They couldn’t have been more than a few days old and here they were pushing gamely across the short stretch of open water with the nervous and frantic adult in attendance.
“Needless to say, I was beyond excitement. It was the event of the day, probably of the migration and maybe, the year. And perhaps one of the most memorable sightings of my lifetime. At least it seems so right now. I only wish that my friends were there with their cameras. As it is this sight is now lodged firmly in my memory, where it belongs.”