Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Plum Island’s Good Birds & Annoying Flies
July 18, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Those of you who read last week’s column about our young friend, Sam and his quest for 300 life birds have probably been on the edge of your seat since then. As you might recall, Sam had reached 299 after our whale watch, but he was going to try for a life whip-poor-will one evening. He did hear two whip-poor-wills on Plum Island on last Friday evening making his 300th bird a very memorable one!

     Sam joined us on a visit to Plum Island last Saturday and he was able to add #301 to his list. As we drove past the Salt Pannes on the refuge, we noticed Tim and Nancy Walker, along with Tom Wetmore and Nancy Landry with scopes set up and all staring intently out across the pans. Margo rolled down her window (quickly to minimize the greenhead invasion) and asked what they were seeing. They had a seaside sparrow perched and singing, which would be a life bird for Sam.

     So we parked and took out our scopes and looked across the pans to the grasses along the edge. The seaside sparrow is one of those rather secretive marsh sparrows that fly from spot to spot and quickly disappear into the tall grass. They often will land and disappear a short distance from their nest, if feeding young, and then walk undetected the rest of the way to the nest. So unless they are perched up, perhaps singing, do we ever get a decent, but brief look at these birds. 

     It so happened that this morning, this particular bird spent more than a few seconds perched up and singing so loudly that we could hear it all the way across the pans. We all got very good looks through the scopes. We could see its dark gray coloration, white throat, and the yellow lores (in front of the eyes). Both new and seasoned birders always appreciate good looks at the elusive species we encounter so infrequently.

     We headed down to the Bill Forward Blind where we could view a few shorebirds that had gathered at Bill Forward Pool. Short-billed dowitchers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, least and semipalmated sandpipers were all feeding on the exposed mud flats of the pool. A juvenile killdeer warranted second looks as the single wide, black band across its chest suggested semipalmated plover or, even a rare Wilson’s plover. But its large (but not enormous) bill and REALLY long legs for its size made it evident that it was just a young killdeer. A nearby adult killdeer, sporting its usual double breast bands, was also a convincing clue.

     As we stood in the blind, cedar waxwings were flycatching all around us. They were in the tops of the pines and also flying out over marsh grass trying to catch flying insects. In fact, we saw many waxwings all up and down the island. They are feeding on insects and the first of the bayberry is starting to ripen as well. Also at the blind were a red-breasted nuthatch and some brightly colored male purple finches.

     As we stood watching the shorebirds and the waxwings, we were also entertained by a very well versed mockingbird. Just listening to his repertoire, we could add tens of different bird songs and calls to our list. Catbird, yellowlegs, killdeer, phoebe, and a few convincing mechanical sounds were all his doing. Over the last few weeks of hearing this bird, we were well aware of his talents as he fooled many a birder with its midday whip-poor-will call. 

     As we continued down the island, we came across many great and snowy egrets feeding in the marsh. More snowy egrets were at Stage Island Pool along with a few more dowitchers and yellowlegs. We also caught views of a spotted sandpiper from the tower at Parking Lot 7.

     All-in-all the greenheads were not too bad. They always attacked the car and we were constantly cracking our windows to let one out. But once we stepped out and away from the car, there was enough of a breeze to keep them at bay. Still their numbers will grow and peak and be problematic in the days ahead, only to disappear after the next full moon tide.

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