Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Piping Plover Have a Mean Streak
July 20, 2013
By Steve 

     Margo and I decided to brave the greenheads and no-seeums last weekend and headed down to Sandy Point on Plum Island. We were lucky that a good breeze kept most of the bugs at bay. We were disappointed that there were not many shorebirds yet, (but their numbers have been increasing this past week as the water levels have been drawn down in the North Pool, Bill Forward Pool, and Stage Island Pool on the Refuge.)

     We did see many least terns that day, and only one common tern. We did see a couple of little “puff balls”, baby least terns running around outside the enclosure. The parents let us know we were close, by dive-bombing us as we walked by.

     I counted about a dozen piping plovers all over the sand. We didn’t spot any chicks, but we didn’t really check the enclosure well. There were two photographers there and we didn’t want to disturb whatever they were photographing. Seeing all those piping plover reminded me of the plover story that Paul Roberts of Medford shared with us about six years ago. It is worth repeating here, in case you decide to brave the insects and venture to Sandy Point to watch the plovers this month:

     “It was as nice a July day as one could ever wish for on Plum Island. Sunny and warm, but with a nice sea breeze. Greenheads were not a problem on the beach. I can’t recall ever seeing so many people, especially kids, having fun on the Plum beach with no need to swat bugs, except for that one day last January.

     “Relatively few shorebirds were in, a disappointment for me but a good sign for their breeding success this year. I ended up spending considerable time observing piping plovers at Sandy Point. We had one, possibly two, group(s) of four adults and one first-year bird, flying around and feeding. Also had three, at times four, first-year birds hanging out together, feeding, strutting, roosting. It was beautiful. … Another bird was on nest.

     “However, one of the most colorfully plumaged adult plovers started running after another adult. Run 5 to 10 yards, slow down to a walk, and then run again after the target bird. It almost seemed choreographed, like a diplomatic conference. Chase (or flee), take a 30-second break while maintaining the same distance between you, and then chase (or flee) again. There would be several spurts of running, followed by a frenetic flight to the water’s edge, with loud calls punctuating the sound of the waves gently breaking on the shore.

     “Regrettably, all this happened after I had told my wife to go ahead around the point, and I would follow shortly. I was wrong. This macabre dance continued unabated, allowing me opportunities to photograph the birds. It went on for well over an hour, for reasons I still do not understand. There was no actual contact made until a very bizarre incident in this kabuki dance.

     “There was a large 20-gallon white plastic bucket lying on its side in the protected area, and there appeared to be a depression in front of the open end of the bucket – I thought possibly even a nest, though I could not see anything there. Whatever, the fugitive went stuttering nonchalantly over to the open end of the bucket, and was just standing there. Mr. Mean came around the far end of the bucket, out of sight, caught the fugitive by surprise, grabbed him by the feathers around the neck and pulled him to the ground.

     “Killer Kowalski couldn’t have executed a better takedown. In so doing, both birds rolled into the depression amid a cacophony of piping. They rolled in the sand like entangled tumbleweeds for maybe ten seconds, separated, and then began a flying chase again. After about an hour and a half, I took advantage of a seeming cessation of hostilities, or just another intermission in the drama, to catch up to my wife.”

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