Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Insects Challenge Shorebird Viewing
July 14, 2023
By Steve Grinley
The hot summer weather is now here and with it come the greenheads all over the Great Marsh. Greenheads, along with mosquitoes and “no-see-ums” (and beach traffic), make birding Plum Island a challenge at best. However, the Fall shorebird migration has already begun and birders find a way to see the birds despite the annoying insects.
Short-billed dowitchers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, and least and semipalmated sandpipers are already here in small numbers. A few semipalmated plovers, stilt and pectoral sandpipers have also been seen. The summer resident willets are constantly vocalizing over the marsh and the killdeer are guarding their young along the roadside, gravelly areas, and mudflat edges. A view of the closed beach area will reveal the piping plovers with young.
At low tide, some shorebirds can be seen from Joppa Park along the exposed flats. Lately, the tides have been high and even low tide hasn’t exposed the flats long enough for good viewing.
During high tide, the shorebirds move to the salt pannes and fresh water pools of the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, if the water is low enough. This time of year, we try to find viewing areas where there is enough breeze to keep the insects at bay. The breezy viewing platforms at Lot 1 and Lot 5 give views of the beach and ocean where piping plovers can be seen and there is always the possibility of a whimbrel flyby or a rare tern. Margo & I saw a royal tern sitting on the beach below Lot 1, and 2 Caspian terns flying by there recently. Wilson’s storm-petrels have also been viewed recently flying not far offshore.
The main Salt Pannes pull off is a good viewing spot where you can view the closer birds from the car. If using a scope, we find that setting up away from the car will keep most of the greenheads off if there is a breeze. Wearing light colored clothing helps as well.
The viewing towers at Lot 4 Hellcat dike and Lot 7 Stage Island Pool usually have a breeze to make viewing more pleasurable. Unfortunately, the water level at Stage Island Pool has not been lowered for the shorebirds, but pied-billed grebes, Virginia rails and least bitterns have been seen or heard there. Hopefully the water levels will be dropped as shorebird migration peaks in August.
The viewing from the Lot 6 Stage Island Trail is no longer worth the stop. The grass, even along the trail, is not maintained enough and the ticks are particularly bad this year. There has been little or no trimming in front of the viewing platform there as yet and that use to provide one of the best views of the Pool.
The North Pool water level is also too high for shorebirds right now, though it is often lowered enough to accommodate shorebirds at either end. If it is, the North Pool Overlook, just south of the Maintenance area, is worth a look. Exposed mud across the pool often attracts some nice shorebirds and the elevation there helps keep the bugs off. The other end can be viewed from the Hellcat dike and often has a congregation of yellowlegs and dowitchers if the mud is exposed.
Bill Forward Pool with lower water levels has provided the best shorebirding so far. Most of the dowitchers, yellowlegs, and least sandpipers have been seen there. It also has provided great views of the least bittern family moving about the reeds. Unfortunately many of the shorebirds are too far south in the pool for easy identification with no closer viewing opportunities there. The vegetation along the dike and in front of the Bill Forward Blind is in need of more trimming for better observation. Still, when the birds are in the northern section of the pool, the viewing can be the best on the refuge.
Shorebird migration will peak in August and continue into September. Despite the challenges of greenheads, mosquitoes and no-see-ums, it is still worth the effort to try to catch views of the amazing shorebird migration that this area is known for.