Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Little River Trail a local birder’s best-kept secret
June 30, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Margo and I checked out the Common Pastures area last weekend for the Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas. We were able to confirm a number of nesting species and we also discovered one of Newburyport’s best-kept secrets.

     We first checked the Newburyport Industrial Park to see if we could locate the kestrels that had been hanging around there all spring. We had not been able to find them nesting in any of the boxes that we knew about. After touring the area, we finally found a male kestrel perched on a wire on Opportunity Way.

     Atop a nearby building, we spotted a young kestrel, flying short distances and returning to the building. We soon spotted a second young bird, with the adult female kestrel keeping an eye on that one. We then saw the female carry food to one of the young birds, and later watched as she tried to teach the youngster to hunt for itself by hovering in place as they characteristically do. It was great fun to watch!

     We then went to the Scotland Road area of Common Pastures and found a male bluebird near the newly acquired Wet Meadows property. We had seen a pair there a while back and they may have nested, but there was no sign of the female on that day. We stopped at Coffin’s Island and heard a warbling vireo singing near the entrance. A male Baltimore oriole was flying back and forth across Scotland Road there as well. Redwings scolded us from the cattails as we approached the island, but there was very little activity that day on Coffin’s Island itself.

     We then went to Hale Street and surveyed the new North Pasture conservation property. We could see male and female bobolinks out in the field, flying in and out of the grass, carrying food for young. Red-winged blackbirds were doing the same. It was hard to estimate, but we guessed six to eight pairs of bobolinks and more than ten pairs of redwings nesting in this field.

     I’ve encountered many fields around the area, including the traditional one on Pike’s Bridge Road, that have already been mowed at the cost of many bobolinks and other grassland nesting birds. These birds were doing just fine. Our main objective that day was to walk the Little River Trail, which, as we discovered, was a gem of a property with some good edge habitats, and was home to many species of birds.

     We decided to enter from the Hale Street end, but you can also enter the trail from Storey Avenue across from the C&J Bus Terminal. As we turned to head down the Little River Trail, a black-billed cuckoo flew across the road and quickly disappeared.

     Just as we got on the trail, a woodcock flushed from the wet area below. We walked down the paved trail, which was the old Route 95, where we heard more common yellowthroats singing and another catbird – this one carrying food to a nest. Song sparrows and goldfinches were also singing, as were several Eastern towhees. We heard the buzzy notes of a blue-winged warbler, but only Margo caught a glimpse of the bird as it eluded us. Two male indigo buntings were more cooperative, one singing its series of double notes from atop a small tree, obvious on its nesting territory.

     The other further up the trail was giving a sharp chip note as if aggravated that we were in its territory. Mourning doves were everywhere, cedar waxwings flew back and forth over the trail, and a rose-breasted grosbeak flew high overhead.

     A small observation platform overlooks the marsh along the river from which a female mallard took flight. As we approached the forested area made up of conifer and deciduous trees, we could hear several red-eyed vireos singing their repetitive songs. Wood thrushes sang their flute-like song from deeper in the woods, and the “teacher, teacher, teacher” call of the ovenbird rang out occasionally. Pine warblers trilled from the conifers. A phoebe sat quietly next to one of the water culverts that went under the trail. It is likely that this bird nested under the culvert.

     In addition to the many robins we saw walking along the paved trail, we also encountered a coyote and a red fox and, perhaps, a second coyote on our way back.

     We then decided to take the Crow Lane trail through the woods. It was there that we encountered two adult ovenbirds feeding two fledglings. The adult birds are cute enough, but the scruffy fledglings are just adorable! Closer to the other end of the trail, we discovered a female scarlet tanager with worms in its mouth. We watched quietly as she made her way to her nest, about 40 feet up in an oak tree. That was the first scarlet tanager nest that I’ve ever found!

     At the Crow Lane end of the trail, we found a pair of downy woodpeckers, and we watched a male common yellowthroat feed one of its crying fledglings. As we walked back in the sunset, we commented on how productive this area was, and how special it was to see ovenbirds and scarlet tanagers feeding young, and blue-winged warblers and indigo buntings singing on their nesting territories.

     We seldom hear of anyone birding the Little River Trail, but a return visit to this “secret” gem of a birding spot is definitely in our future.

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