Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Marsh Birds Highlight Plum Island Visits
June 21, 2008
Steve Grinley

     June is usually a quiet month is the bird world. Birds are settling down to nest and the foliage is obscuring our views of them. However, it has been an interesting time non-the-less. A flock of nine black-bellied whistling ducks showed up in a pond on the Biolabs property in Ipswich last week. These ducks are normally found in south Texas and Florida, but, as it turned out, this same flock was seen and photographed in Nova Scotia a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, they only stayed in Ipswich the one day.

     More excitement is happening up in Newmarket, New Hampshire where three Mississippi Kites have taken up residence. These raptors of the South are rare in New England, but they have been seen copulating and sitting on a nest in a residential area. Stay tuned!

     Locally, on Plum Island, several of the more secretive marsh birds have been more visible this past week. The American bittern has been seen strutting around the North Pool Overlook and the Warden’s area. Up to three least bitterns have been seen in the reeds, fishing regularly around the edge of the North Pool from the Hellcat Dike. This may be indication of a successful nesting.

     A usually reclusive pair of king rails have been very vocal, and visible, around the Warden’s area on the Refuge. The day we were there, the bird was calling so loud that it was heard echoing off the buildings, and it could be heard from the North Pool Overlook. Many folks have been lucky enough to get great views of these birds, including Doug Chickering of Groveland, who tells about his encounter:

     “Lois Cooper and I heard this bird last Sunday morning. We had parked at the Wardens and were walking out to the trees on the edge of the marsh in hopes of picking up something interesting. We had reached the pile of logs when we suddenly became aware of an unexpected call beneath the usual chorus of Mockingbirds, Bobolinks, Song sparrows and etc. A soft hoarse rhythmic call that caught us by surprise. It was the unmistakable call of a Rail; one of the large Rails. To me it sounded like a King Rail, but it was coming from the salt marshes which I have always associated with Clapper Rail. And I must admit that my experience with large calling Rails is limited. The call was clearly coming from the small inlet that reaches in from Plum Island Sound to the edge of the trees. I naturally assumed that a King Rail would be in a fresh or brackish habitat. This was salt water.

     “By the time we had reached the inlet the bird had stopped calling. We waited. We searched the eel grass for movement and listened for the calling to resume. There was no movement in the grass — naturally, and he never called again so we left. The call had been like a phantom in the warm morning air, and although we hated the prospect of walking away from the possibility of a King or Clapper, the thing had apparently vanished.

     “It was with a mixture of emotions that we read last evenings posts. Steve and Margo and Rick Heil had found the bird exactly where we had heard it. There was the triumph of having the bird confirmed and the disappointment that we hadn’t seen fit to wait it out. Harboring no illusions of being rewarded, Lois and I were drawn to that inlet again today. This bird had surely flown from this incongruous location. After all it was just a short flight over to the North Pool, much more suitable habitat for a King Rail.

     “But as we approached the trees in back of the Wardens once again the same call came floating over to us; loud and unmistakable. We were caught in that internal conflict of wanting to hurry before it sped away and moving slowly so not to spook it. Mostly slowly and carefully we approached and the Rail kept up his chatter. We reached the edge of the inlet; it was right before us. Calling from the still grasses. Sound but no motion; as if calling from out of a different dimension.

     “We stood riveted to the spot; not moving, not breathing as it kept calling. The sound kept moving in back and forth in front of us. The grasses never stirred. It was fascinating and it was eerie. Out of frustration I did my best to return the call. The Rail ignored my efforts. It didn’t emerge and it didn’t flee. I might as well have been whistling the star spangled banner for all it cared. It simply continued it’s persistent call.

     “Then it stopped for a few minutes and our hearts sank a bit when it resumed calling from the other side; about fifteen or twenty feet farther away. No, No, we thought, don’t leave us don’t break our hearts. Then as if answering our silent plaintive entreaties, it emerged from the grass and walked up onto the thick dead wrack line about fifty feet away. It was brown and black and white and it was beautiful. Once in plain sight it cocked it’s tail and almost casually walked along the edge; stopping now and again to probe the wrack, or give a stanza of it’s whispery call, and then proceeded.

     “We had those great looks that a birder aches for and dreams about. Lois and I went over the field marks and marveled at the clean bright beauty of its plumage. I think that I have had as good looks at King Rail as this, but certainly none better. He was in view for four or five minutes and then leisurely slipped back into the grass. Ah, another magic moment for the books.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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