Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebird Numbers Building on Area Beaches and Flats
July 28, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     We started last weekend early by visiting the New England Biolabs property in Ipswich to try to view the red-headed woodpecker that I saw earlier in the week. Margo wanted to see the bird and get some photos of it. This striking bird was, once again, quite cooperative. We watched the bird moving from tree snag to tree snag, occasionally “hawking” insects like a flycatcher. A couple of times, the bird flew into the grove of oaks in the picnic area near the parking lot. That is where we had the closest views and Margo was able to get some great photos. We ended up spending most of the afternoon with it, as other observers came and left. A stunning bird, indeed!

     We spent most of last Saturday with the shorebirds of Newburyport and Plum Island. We arrived at Plum Island late in the morning on Saturday and, on a normal summer weekend day, we wouldn’t even attempt to get on the Refuge after 9 or 10am. However, I had heard that the Lot 1 beach was also closed this past week, so there was no beach access at all on the refuge. That led me to believe that they wouldn’t be closing the refuge because the lots were full. The tide was high, so birding the pools for shorebirds might be productive.

     When we got to the gate, there was no line and we were told there were very few cars on the refuge at all. The attendant also mentioned there were a few parking spaces open at Sandy Point. Surprised at that, we decided to head directly there and see if there were any flats left, or perhaps some shorebirds would be roosting on the higher sand.

     Walking out Sandy Point, we were amazed to see how much it had changed. It almost looked like you could walk to Great Neck in Ipswich as the long spit of sand continues to be added to. We hadn’t been out there since the big storm in June that washed over the grass area where plovers and least terns were nesting. Previous to that, we had seen piping plovers with small downy young that likely didn’t survive that storm.

     On this day we did count eighteen piping plover at Sandy Point, but they were all adults. We learned afterward that there is one renesting attempt by a plover family on Sandy Point. What few grassy patches were left had been taken over by least terns, which were protecting there territory from anyone that got anywhere near one of the roped off enclosures. We were dive bombed on several occasions, even when we were not within fifty feet of the protected areas.

     The tide was in pretty far and there were a few terns feeding offspring along the edge of the beach on the inlet side. Most were common terns, but there was an adult and juvenile roseate tern on a floating log about 30 feet offshore. Lesser yellowlegs, dowitchers and a few semipalmated plovers and semipalmated sandpipers were also along the shore, but most of them, small in number, were roosting higher in the sand off the beach. We scoped them thoroughly, but didn’t find anything unusual.

     As we left Sandy Point, we received a call that Lynette Leka had spotted a black skimmer on the beach off Lot One. Lynette was on duty as the Plover Warden at the edge of the town beach, so we ended up walking out the town beach to where she was stationed at the north edge of the Refuge. When we got there, Lynette still had her scope fixed on the skimmer that was resting on the edge of the beach less than a hundred yards away.

     Black skimmers are uncommon on the north shore. A few nest on Cape Cod, which is about the northward extent of their breeding range. Many more can be seen further south from the mid-Atlantic states to Florida. It long orange bill has a longer lower mandible which is used to scoop up food as it “skims” along the water –this, its name. So it is always fun to see one or more on Plum Island. While we were there, he would often walk around in a circle, occasionally lifting its wings and take brief flight, only to settle back down. It preened a lot, so we expected it to leave at any time, but it didn’t. It was still there when we left a couple of hours later.

     During the time we were watching the skimmers, we also watched piping plovers with cute downy babies in the newly protected Lot 1 beach area. At one point, one of the furballs started running toward us as if in an attempt to sneak off the Refuge. Lynette had told us that two of these babies had previously crossed over onto the unprotected town beach where dogs and other predators roam. She was able to “herd” them back to the safety of the Refuge. She was once again able to head off this little guy and steer him back to the protected area.

     After leaving Lynette, we decided to do a quick check of the harbor at the tide was ebbing the mud flats were starting to be exposed. Shorebirds were arriving and their numbers grew as we watched more of the flats emerge. More than a thousand semipalmated sandpipers and a few least sandpipers, along with dowitchers, hundreds of lesser yellowlegs and fewer greater yellowlegs fed along the flats. Plovers were well represented with hundreds of semipalmated plovers and a number of black-bellied plovers as well.

     The highlight was a godwit that had flown in undetected early on, but we watched it feed for almost an hour as the tide went out and it got further away. It was certainly a Hudsonian godwit, the more common of the godwits that appear in the harbor. But the evening light was tricky, and we carefully examined it to make sure that it wasn’t something more rare. Still it was our first for the year and a great ending to a wonderful day with the shorebirds.

     Margo’s photos of the cute baby piping plover, the black skimmer and red-headed woodpecker may be viewed at:http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/7633794246

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