Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Summer Begins on Plum Island
June 27, 2020
By Steve Grinley
The summer solstice was last Saturday and I thought I would share with you again how Doug Chickering celebrated the start of summer some years ago with a rewarding trip to Plum Island:
“I pulled into Parking Lot#1 on Plum Island just at dawn. The red giant of a sun was just clearing the dunes and spreading its light out over the quiet salt marshes. I got out of my car to take a quick look around. I was alone in the parking lot. There was a thin line of clouds to the east; being scattered by the rising summer sun. Directly to the west another line of clouds was approaching and the interaction of the sun and distant clouds produced a truly spectacular rainbow that spread across the entire length of the low western horizon. It was brilliantly bright at the two ends and faded a bit as it traveled high up into the arc. I silently hoped that this would prove a good omen, but no matter what transpired that day it was a spectacularly beautiful start.
“The rainbow slowly faded away and I drove down [the island] with the goal of finding a Seaside Sparrow. My first stop was a mere hundred yards from parking lot#1 at a point where the Plum Island river came closest to the road. Lois and I had seen Seaside Sparrow at this point in the past; the not so recent past. I pulled over and got out of my car and had hardly closed the door when I was greeted by the sound of a few strange clicks. My mind searched for an identification. Could it have been the anomalous last chips from a Red-winged Blackbird? It didn’t seem likely. Then the call came again, sending a shot of excitement through me as I instantly recognized it as the call of a Clapper Rail. It was near by; coming from the far bank of the river right before me. For at least ten minutes it called out; occasionally the sound moving up and down the bank but never once did it show itself.
“I thought of calling Tom Wetmore but it was still very early in the morning and I still hadn’t seen anything. Finally the bird stopped calling and with a mixture of frustration and relief I moved on, turning my attention to the elusive Seaside Sparrow. Yet I didn’t go far; only about fifty or sixty feet when I stopped to scan the marshes. As soon as I was out of the car the Clapper Rails call started up; clear and near and from the same area I had heard it before.
“Then much to my relief Tom Wetmore arrived. As I expected, he was favorably impressed by the call and together we searched until, finally, I found it as it walked out into the open. It was a warmer brown than many Clappers I had seen but there was no obvious dark cap, there was a lot of gray up in the head and it was persistently calling with the classic Clapper call. It disappeared, then reappeared and seemed quite active. Tom and I had prolonged, good looks at this bird and we agreed that it was clearly a Clapper Rail. Tom hadn’t heard of any other sightings of this bird so we surmised that it was a recent arrival.
“The Clapper was just the pinnacle of what was otherwise a full and rewarding birding day; especially for the end of June which can be muted and a bit dull. Tom put me on a fantastic seaside Sparrow just north of the Pans – a beautiful classic specimen sitting high in a clump of grass, calling and looking around. White throat, standing out from the drab dark body and the small yellow lores clearly defined in its pristine gray head. We had several Saltmarsh Sparrows; one sitting and singing only ten yards or so away. I can’t remember the last time I had heard its faint buzzy song and I had never seen one actually singing that song.
“Later we heard a Least Bittern calling nearby from the marsh trail at Hellcat. At the ocean overlook at Parking Lot#5, Tom picked out a pair of Wilson’s Storm-petrels fluttering over the surface of the water and we found a family of six Piping Plovers on the beach right below us. The four young darting over the smooth sand couldn’t be more than a few days old. To cap off the day I found the Blue-winged Teal at the Stage Island Pool.
“My expectations for the day were modest. I just wanted to keep the biting gnats to a minimum, avoid the green heads and see a few good birds. The gnats were brutal in the early morning; the green heads have not yet made their dreaded appearance and the birds? Clapper Rail, Seaside Sparrow, and Wilson’s Storm-petrel – I need not elaborate.