Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Plum Island’s “Greatest Show” Has Begun
August 02, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     It has been a good summer season of birding so far on Plum Island. The greenheads have been tolerable and there have been a few rare (or at least uncommon) birds that have shown up in July. Two royal terns, 2 gull-billed terns, and a sandwich tern made appearances at Sandy Point and on the beach just south of Lot 1 on the Refuge. As many as five black skimmers were seen on Sandy Point and one has lingered at Bill Forward Pool for the past week, giving birders close views as it skimmed the water up and down the pool. 

     Back on June 19, two American avocets were discovered in the Rowley/Ipswich marshes from the morning train to Boston by MaryMargaret Halsey of Newburyport. She saw them again on her way home in the late afternoon as well. Birders traipsed through the marshes to try to get a glimpse of these birds with varying degrees of success. 

     The avocets apparently wanted more attention so they started to show up on Plum Island on June 21 and been seen regularly in Bill Forward Pool ever since. These striking birds were a brightly colored pair, but are now losing some of the color as they molt into fall/winter plumage. It will be interesting to see how much longer they stay. 

     The shorebird migration is in full swing as their numbers continue to climb, feeding on the exposed mudflats at high tide in the (almost completely) drained Bill Forward Pool. Their numbers should peak by mid-August. The yearly gathering of swallows has also begun on the island. Last weekend was the first time this season that we saw the tree swallows landing in the road. At one point we had to come to a complete stop and just inched our way along as they dispersed. Please be careful when driving on the refuge so as not to harm these beautiful birds.

     Doug Chickering of Groveland just posted a report about the swallow phenomena on Plum Island:

     “Last week when Lois and I birded Plum Island I couldn’t help but notice that I had trouble finding a Tree Swallow. In fact, there was a day when we couldn’t find one at all. I found this most peculiar and a cause for concern. Just when I expected to see the first indications of the oncoming staging of the Tree Swallows; that glorious and awe inspiring annual spectacle, I was finding quite the opposite. No Tree Swallows. They had nested here and brought forth their fledgies and had proceeded to feed in modest numbers, up and down the island. Just as they had always done. Now suddenly they had vanished. “I suspected that my memory of the middle of July was somehow faulty; that this happened every year but that I just failed to notice it. Still I was haunted by the possibility that something had gone awfully wrong. I even paused at one point to inspect some Bayberry bushes at the side of the road. I was somewhat encouraged by the fact that the berries were numerous but still a time away from being ripe. Although I fully subscribe to the warnings and findings of the scientific community about the decline of bird species, I also reflexively recoil from the more apocalyptic visions. I suppose I am a hopeless optimist but I couldn’t imagine a deep summer on the island without the greatest Show on earth; the staging of the Tree Swallows.

     “Of course Plum Island has other bird extravaganzas occurring on a regular, reliable schedule. In fact right now the shorebird migrations have arrived with their multitudes and with an endless series of expectations and surprises. There is the spring arrival of warblers and other migrants as well. These, however are sights that are almost reserved for the birding community; almost by invitation only. One has to know where to go and when. 

     “The Tree Swallow staging is a different case altogether. Anyone who drives down the length of Plum island on a late August or early September day will encounter this show and only the incredibly dense or opaque will fail to notice the packs of Tree Swallows; feeding at the side of the road, roaming through the air or spread across the road. To me it would be heartbreaking if anything happened to this special event.

     “Therefore it was heartening a few days ago when Lois and I noticed a few clusters of Tree Swallows near Parking Lot#1 and a few more scattered up the length of the island. Today (July 30) there was a measurable revival of Tree Swallows numbers. Not the dense flocks that we will eventually see but they are clearly building to a crescendo. It was a welcome moment when I arrived early enough to come across a number of swallows just as they began breaking from a roost they had taken in the phragmites at the small pond by the Wardens. Even though they were thinning out as I watched, there was about 100 tree swallows in the group; many of them new boys; along with seventeen Barn Swallows and a dozen Bank Swallows. Clearly it has begun. One of the grand annual events on Plum Island has started.”

     If you enjoy Doug’s writing, his collection of essays in his book “Reflections On a Golden-winger Warbler” is a must read – available at our store.

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