Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Marsh Birds Continue to Delight Birders
July 01, 2022
By Steve Grinley
The good news is that the rails, herons and egrets are still on display on Plum Island. The bad news is that the greenheads have begun to emerge. We had a few around the car last evening. We spotted the tricolored heron feeding with snowy and great egrets in the southern most salt panne as we headed down the island. However, we were able to take out the scope and stand away from the car and the insects were not too bothersome.
We made our way down to the Hellcat dike where we looked in both pools for herons and rails and least bitterns. A good breeze kept the insects at bay and allowed us to spend a lot of time scanning the pools. Not too much activity, but there were a number of egrets flying south over the marsh. A few were fishing in the pools, but they were keeping their distance from all the ducks, geese and swans that had young.
Then Margo spotted one of the Virginia rail chicks fairly close along the shore of Bill Forward Pool. It was still a small, black “puff-ball,” but not as small as the ones we saw the week before. They grow fast! We alerted a couple of photographers that were on the tower and they came down and they got some excellent shots of the bird. They said that we “made their day!
An adult black-crown night heron flew over and landed on the west shore of the pool. We could see its beady red eye shine in the evening sun. The photographers got a few pictures before it walked into the reeds and disappeared.
We didn’t stay for the other night herons that usually come in before dusk, and we didn’t see any bitterns this visit. But if you can pick an evening with a good breeze, you might be able to enjoy the marsh birds as much as we have. Doug Chickering of Newbury also had a great evening there a couple of weeks ago and shared his enthusiasm:
“It was so perfect that my imagination entertained the possibility that I was not sitting on the dike at Hellcat on Plum. Instead that I had died in my sleep and already stepped into paradise. It couldn’t have been more perfect. A few drifting puffy clouds in the endless blue sky. Enough wind on the dike to keep away the biting insects, and in front of us; an extraordinary and stimulating scene.
“There were eight or so birders, gathered at the base of the tower on the dike at Hellcat, enjoying the occasional Least Bittern show, when someone shouted out. “Look swimming across the North Pool. Rails!!” And sure, enough a cluster of small black rallidae were chugging out from the main phrag marsh towards the phrags at the edge of the dike. Everyone got on them- everyone was joyful and amazed. I saw baby Virginia Rails under similar circumstances last year and it’s a stimulating and happy event.
“The rail family slipped into the reeds, but only for a moment. Now I have seen many Virginia Rails in my birding career and even some young chicks as well. In fact, earlier that morning we had another Virginia Rail chick in the cove right across the North Pool from the dike. That Rail was older than these chicks. They vanished into the reeds, but not for long. First the chicks, then the adults emerged into a spot where there was a small branch. It was quite close and through a scope; the view was unmatched.
“The family then emerged; one at time, chicks first onto the beach or right at the edge. I have seen Virginia Rails countless times. This is the first time I have ever been able to actually watch them. They stayed at or near that little stretch of beach for well over a half hour. They were in the sun and in our scopes and we were thrilled.
“I got to see details and behavior. I noticed that the chicks had an exceptionally fine black down. So fine that when they moved or turned their heads you could see the pink skin underneath the plumage. Yet the feathers were so efficient that moisture was turned into glistening little droplets, shinning in the sun. I could distinguish the two adults as one was significantly darker in the head than the other. I have no idea which was male or female.
“When the adults fed, they would tip their heads close to the surface of the water before snatching at something. They didn’t do this all the time, but they did do it. The Chicks little pink bills with black pied stripe indicated, to me, that these were young birds, likely only a few days old. There is a chance I may be corrected on this estimate.
“Needless to say, the excitement and joy rippled across the spectators. New arrivals were amazed, and the rest of us simply could not leave such a show. Once in a lifetime, a subject for memories exchanged around a fire in winter. What other delightful surprises lay ahead. A day like this cannot but help infuse optimism. One of those days I am glad to be a birder.”