Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fall Shorebird Migration is Commencing
July 15, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     It seems like we are just getting into summer, so it is hard to believe that the fall migration has started already for some of the shorebirds. Small flocks of least sandpipers and short-billed dowitchers have already been seen on Plum Island and in Newburyport Harbor. A stilt sandpiper in breeding plumage was seen this week in the Salt Pannes near lot 3 on Plum Island. 

     Many of our shorebirds nest on the arctic tundra and migrate all the way to South America, so they tend to get an early start. Late July and August is the peak migration time for shorebirds heading south along the Massachusetts coast. Places like South Beach in Chatham and Monomoy Island on Cape Cod as well as Duxbury and Plymouth Beaches on the South Shore are popular spots to watch shorebirds as they stop to feed en route. 

     Some of the best shorebirding in the Northeast can be found right here in Essex County. The thousands of acres of tidal marshes and flats are are an oasis for tired, hungry shorebirds. Our Great Marsh stretches from Salisbury and Newburyport Harbor to the Parker River and its estuaries in Newbury and Rowley and to the coastal marshes of Ipswich and Essex, Shorebirds stop to rest and feed on the crustacean rich mud flats and salt pans throughout this area.

     The best time to watch shorebirds along the rivers and harbor is when the tide is ebbing or, better still, with the incoming tide as the birds move closer to you as you watch. About four hours before or after high tide is a good rule of thumb. Low tide generally has the birds too dispersed or too far out on the mud flats for you to view well.

     The best vantage points for Newburyport harbor is from the seawall at Joppa Park on Water Street or from the Massachusetts Audubon Joppa Flats property at the beginning of the Plum Island Causeway. Greater and lesser yellowlegs, black-bellied and semipalmated plovers, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short and long billed dowitchers are all common migrants that frequent the harbor mud flats in migration. Western sandpipers or marbled and Hudsonian godwits may be found there in the weeks ahead. The north end of Plum Island provides good views of the mussel beds that often attract Hudsonian godwits or a wayward American oystercatcher.

     At high tide, the shorebirds move to salt pan areas, shallow pools of water amid the tidal marshes. Areas along either side of the Plum Island Causeway are good places to scan for shorebirds during high tide. On the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, salt pans are scattered throughout the marsh all along the west side of the road. These are especially good spots to get closer views of white-rumped and Western sandpipers and an occasional phalarope. The Bill Forward Pool behind the Hellcat Swamp nature trail on the refuge has a lowered water level this year and is already attracting some shorebirds during high tide. Many dowitchers, stilt sandpipers and even a buff-breasted sandpiper may been seen there in the coming weeks. An added bonus to the Bill Forward Pool is the collection of herons, egrets and glossy ibis that stop and feed there, especially in the early morning or evening.

     Further south on the refuge is Stage Island Pool where more shorebirds collect when the water level is low enough to expose the mud flats. So far this year, the water level in this pool has not been lowered for the shorebirds. Stage Island Pool has historically been an excellent spot to view Baird’s, buff-breasted, and stilt sandpipers as well as the threatened red knots.

     Looking out toward Emerson Rocks from the first parking lot at Sandy Point State Park, or a walk out to the beach from the last lot at the southern tip of the island may turn up a piping plover in the sand or black-bellied plovers and sanderlings along the water’s edge.

     Wherever you choose to look at shorebirds, be sure to bring your binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one. Many of these birds are often far enough away to require more than the naked eye to see detail. A good field guide will help you differentiate the many species. You can also join an organized trip out of the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. Also, the Brookline Bird Club leads free trips in our area that can be found atwww.brooklinebirdclub.org.

     However you go, there is usually an abundance of shorebirds in our area over the next couple of months, which increases your chances of getting great views of these birds!

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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