Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Coastal Areas Offer Excellent Shorebird Viewing 
August 09, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     As I mentioned last week, we are nearing the peak time for shorebird migration in our area. Some of the best shorebirding in the Northeast can be found right here in Essex County. Thousands of acres of tidal marshes and mud flats, stretching from Salisbury and Newburyport Harbor through Newbury and Rowley, to the coastal marshes of Ipswich and Essex, are an oasis for tired, hungry shorebirds. These birds stop to rest and feed on the crustacean-rich mud flats and salt pans.

     The best time to watch shorebirds along the rivers and the harbor is when the tide is ebbing or with the incoming tide as the birds move closer to you as you watch. About four hours before or after high tide is a good rule of thumb. Dead low tide generally means that the birds may be too dispersed or too far out on the mud flats for you to view well.

     The best vantage points for Newburyport harbor is from the seawall at Joppa Park on Water Street or from the Massachusetts Audubon Joppa Flats property at the beginning of the Plum Island Causeway. Greater and lesser yellowlegs, black-bellied and semipalmated plovers, least and semipalmated sandpipers, short and long billed dowitchers are all common migrants that frequent the harbor mud flats in migration. Hudsonian godwit have been seen in the harbor and on Plum Island, and less common shorebirds such as Western sandpipers or marbled godwits may be found in the weeks ahead.

     At high tide, the shorebirds move to salt pan areas, shallow pools of water amid the tidal marshes. Areas along either side of the Plum Island Causeway are good places to scan for shorebirds during high tide. On the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island, salt pans are scattered throughout the marsh all along the west side of the road. These are especially good spots to get closer views of white-rumped and Western sandpipers and an occasional phalarope. 

     The Bill Forward Pool behind the Hellcat Swamp nature trail on the refuge has a lower water level this year and is already attracting numbers of shorebirds during high tide. Many dowitchers, stilt sandpipers and even a buff-breasted sandpiper may been seen there in the coming weeks. Viewing is best from the Bill Forward Blind in the morning, and from the dike area in the afternoon and evening. An added bonus to the Bill Forward Pool is the collection of herons, egrets and glossy ibis that stop and feed there in the early morning or in the evening.

     Further south on the refuge is Stage Island Pool where more shorebirds collect now that the water level is low enough to expose the mud flats. Stage Island Pool has historically been an excellent spot to view Baird’s, buff-breasted, and stilt sandpipers as well as threatened red knots. Egrets and herons also stage here in the evenings.

     Looking toward Emerson Rocks from Bar Head, at the first lot on Sandy Point, or a walk out to the beach at Sandy Point at the southern tip of the island may turn up a piping plover in the sand or black-bellied plovers, and sanderlings along the water’s edge. Many other shorebirds gather at Sandy Point as the tide comes in and roost during high tide in the dune area roped off for nesting piping plovers and least terns. 

     Wherever you choose to look at shorebirds, be sure to bring your binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one. Many of these birds are often far enough away to require more than the naked eye to see any detail. A good field guide will help you differentiate the many species. 

     You can also join an organized trip out of the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center. They have Wednesday morning and evening walks, as well as Saturday morning field trips that leave from the Center. Going with more experienced birders can help you discover the best areas to go and they will help you sort through the shorebirds that you are seeing. There will be good numbers of shorebirds in our area for the next four weeks or so, which should provide plenty of opportunities for getting good views of these birds.

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