Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Pleasant Summer Afternoon Birding on Plum Island
August 12, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     On Thursday afternoon of this week, Margo and I met up with Matt Palm and his thirteen-year-old son, Jonathan, from Germany. They contacted us the night before saying that they had arrived in Boston and were staying in Newburyport for a day before heading to the Audubon Camp on Hog Island in Maine for a week.

     After enjoying some Haley’s Ice Cream and Duncan Donuts coffee, we headed to Plum Island to do some birding. They had been on the refuge earlier in the day and saw lots of shorebirds at Bill Forward Pool and Jonathan did some swimming on the Plum Island beach. They didn’t have a scope to see the shorebirds well, so we brought one along.

     This was my first visit to the refuge this summer, and it felt good to get out and enjoy the birds. High tide had passed, so we headed directly toward the Hellcat Parking Lot. The late afternoon sun made viewing the marsh and the salt pans difficult on the way down the island. What few shore birds we saw were mere silhouettes.

     We did stop to see a large congregation of egrets in the North Pool, best viewed from the North Pool overlook. There were easily sixty or seventy egrets staging here, with the great egrets outnumbering the smaller snowy egrets. It was still early, so more would likely be arriving. 

     I expected a larger congregation of egrets in Bill Forward Pool, but as we found out later, that wasn’t the case – the water level was likely too low. And we didn’t make it down to Stage Island Pool, a favorite staging area for the snowy egrets. These birds in the North Pool might later head down to Kettle Island in Magnolia or just move into the marsh west of Plum Island to roost for the night.

     We continued on to Hellcat and walked up onto the dike. The water level in Bill Forward Pool was very low and we could see a large number of shorebirds further down neared the southern end. Wwe decided to walk to the southern most access on the dike for a bit closer viewing.

     As we headed toward the tower, Margo and Matt spotted a larger bird flying across the pool to the nearby reeds. “Least Bittern” called Margo.

     I was able to get view of the small, heron-like bird with the scope by angling it from a little further along the dike. We all had excellent views of the colorful adult bittern with rusty wing patches as it stalked the fish along the edge. It soon walked out of sight, deeper into the reeds.

     We continued to the southern side of the dike and scoured the shorebirds on the flats in Bill Forward Pool. Though Matt said there were more birds earlier in the day, there were still lots of semiplamated plovers and semipalmated sandpipers, black-bellied plovers and least sandpipers. We found a few white-rumped sandpipers among them and a spotted sandpiper worked the edge of the pool. A couple of least terns were flying around and an osprey dove for fish to feed the young on the nearby nest behind the Pines Trail, viewable in the scope.

     Numbers of swallow, mostly tree swallows and a few barn, were feeding along the tops of the water. Their numbers will certainly climb in the weeks ahead, a spectacle that we will certainly return to see.

     On our way off dike, I scanned the edge of the North Pool once more and thought I spotted the least bittern again. But this bird was much larger with a heavier bill and striped front. It was a green heron! 

     Margo thought she saw the least bittern again with her binoculars across on a mud flat. I scoured with the scope and found it was a Virginia rail! Though it was in and out of the reeds, Margo and Matt also got good looks at it through the scope.

     We ended the day with a stop at Lot 1 so that Jonathan could enjoy more swimming in the chilly Atlantic. The purple martins were twittering above the parking lot we headed to the beach. Jonathan enjoyed the water, as we used binoculars and the scope on the platform to view passing terns and gannets, and a common loon on the water. 

     Highlights from the platform included two Manx shearwaters flying south through the scope, and watching the great black-backed, ringed-billed, and herring gulls stealing, and enjoying, an unattended bag of pretzels on the beach!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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