Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birders Enjoy the Mammal Show on Plum Island
June 25, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     I would like to share with you a tale of birds, mammals and fish that Paul & Julie Roberts experienced on Plum Island recently. Here is Paul’s account:

     “A nice morning on Plum Island. Julie and I had gone looking early for the Gull-billed Tern, which finally decided NOT to hang out at the Salt Pans. No one we talked to had seen it this morning, at the Salt Pans (pannes), at Sandy Point, at the New Blind, wherever. After enjoying willets (without visible young), and great looks at female Bobolinks (rare for me), we had good company and nice shorebirds at the New Blind: Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, multiple Black-bellied Plover, and a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes, all in breeding plumage, Semipals of both persuasions. It was cool and comfortable, with good views of Salt Marsh and Field Sparrows, and orioles. A nice day to be out after ten days of yard and office work.

     “We were preparing to head home when nature called and we stopped at Hellcat for the restrooms. Just to check things out quickly, we walked up the dike, seeing a Red Squirrel and a really fast Meadow Vole close and well. Anytime I see a Meadow Vole well is a good day. It has, in fact, been an unusually good spring for seeing meadow voles in multiple places on Plum. Good for attracting raptors later in the year.

     “Carp, some very large, even enormous, were feeding and apparently spawning in the North Pool, creating a lot of ruckus. Otherwise there were a few Mallards, a Killdeer, and a Semipal Plover. Pretty prosaic. Suddenly I spotted very sleek, long torpedoes speeding along the inside shoreline of the pool. River Otter! No, THREE River Otters rocketing from the long channel and paralleling the dike along the inside shoreline. One very large otter, and two somewhat smaller otters in the behemoth’s wake. 

     “An enormous Carp had just approached the inside shore across from the beaver lodge and flailed wildly, nosily. Maybe good for attracting female, egg-bearing carp, but also good for attracting an adult otter with hungry kids to feed. It was the last splash that carp ever made. The lead otter corralled it quickly between itself and the close shore and whipped into the carp, grabbing the enormous fish in its jaws. The battle was over before it began. I presume Dad…turned immediately and swam back up the route just described, heading north up the west side of the pool, followed closely by two apparent youngsters. Even locked in the otter’s jaws, the fish was so large that both ends still were in the water out of sight. Had to be at least several pounds, and maybe well above that. Julie and I just looked at each other incredulously, and two women photographers nearby who asked “what was that?“ were quickly briefed. We’ve seen otters on Plum every year or two, but never this close and this well, and taking prey. We were ecstatic.

     “Experienced (read “old”) hawk watchers know that when something is happening in front of you, you should look behind you as well because half of all wildlife on earth is always behind you. I looked, expecting the same birdless flats I had seen just minutes earlier. Only there was a mink, running across the mudflats with what appears to have been a large rat in its jaws! Undulating across the flats making for the water, and then swimming to the distant dike and carrying the prey back to its den. What? Get real? Three otters and a mink within 30 seconds! I have not had that conjunction of mammals in 40+ years of visiting Plum. Or anywhere!

     “What? Behind me again I then spied a single river otter swimming along the far shore and disappearing into the marsh just across from us. I looked behind us again, and there was the mink, swimming back across the Forward Pool and disappearing into the marsh grasses while Killdeers raised holy hell. We lost sight of the mink, but knew exactly where he/she was…. Then loping back across the flats with another prey item in its mouth. Run the video again. Swimming back to the den, and almost immediately returning to swim back across the channel…Encroyable! How many hungry little minks were in that den?

     “Julie and I love mustelids but rarely see them well, and almost never this well, with prey three times. Run the video again, Sam. The mink goes swimming east once again, this time accompanied by three Mallards! They swim alongside the mink nonchalantly (and yet I have seen mink take Mallards!). The ducks even lift off and land just in front of the mink as it swims along, but the weasel paid them no attention. They knew something… They had to. The mink disappeared into the vegetation once again, but did not come out again whiled we waited.

     “Suddenly I shouted out loud to Julie. A beautiful, fairly, large white bird was flying right in front of us, just above eye level, checking out the Bill Forward Pool. The Gull-billed Tern! I pointed out the large, black bill and uniform color to Julie, who could not recall ever seeing the species before. (She had.) Close and well, making several sallies over the cove before heading north. The bird we had been specifically looking for, and the best and closest views I’ve ever had in Massachusetts, and amongst my best ever…

     “Back in the car I said to Julie that our experience on the dike was really remarkable. It ranks up there with our sudden, great but all-too brief look at a Lynx in Alaska, a species I had never ever expected to see. Or just not thinking ahead clearly and suddenly seeing two pods of Killer Whales on that same trip to Alaska, including two mating right next to our boat. Julie took issue with my word remarkable. “It was memorable!” she said. Not just remarkable. Memorable. Whatever, it was incredible. Absolutely incredible.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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