Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Even piping plovers have a mean streak
July 28, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Word is getting out about the egret roost on Route 1 in Salisbury. Large numbers of great and snowy egrets have been flying into a pond area just south of the center.

     I’ve stopped there on several evenings and have seen 60 to 75 egrets, looking like giant ornaments in the trees who have chosen to spend the night there. They are joined by several great blue herons and an occasional green heron or tri-colored heron.

     There are also many wood ducks on the pond, and we’ve observed a kingfisher or two on our visits. Each time that I have stopped there, so have some passers-by, including a few families sharing the spectacle with the children. It is fun to share views of these birds through my binoculars or scope.

     Egrets are also gathering in the evening on Plum Island, congregating at Stage Island Pool, only to move elsewhere by nightfall.

     The piping plovers and terns are winding down their nesting season on the island. It is hard to believe that those cute, petite, piping plovers have a mean streak and can have knockdown, drag-out fights among themselves. Just such a behavior was observed recently by Medford birder, Paul Roberts: “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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