Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

New Adventures Await In a Favorite Birding Spot
August 13, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     The last new moon and astronomically high tides squashed this year’s greenhead July uprising, so visits to Plum Island and other area marshes can resume without the need to also donate a pint of blood. The bird migration is in full swing and area birders can resume their search for rare birds and enjoy more of those that are common and familiar. Doug Chickering of Groveland visited the Boat Ramp across from parking Lot 1 on the Parker River Refuge recently and shares with us his experience:

     “It was the revival of a tradition, more or less. When Lois Cooper and I were birding in the summers of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first we used to have a tradition of setting up at the boat ramp on Plum Island for a morning watch. We would start in mid-August and carry through to the end of September. In those days the boat ramp was somewhat different than it is today. It was a cruder affair; no kiosk, no large mooring poles and a little rougher and more overgrown. It also seemed as if it was more productive. Maybe the productive part is a little inaccurate? In the old days we always found Saltmarsh Sparrows (then called Sharp-tailed Sparrows) frequenting the edges of the eel grass and running up and down the slippery cobbles of the boat ramp itself. 

     “I saw my one and only Nelson’s Sharp-tailed there on a September morning. To my amazement it was a juvenile; bright orange and devoid of streaking. A juvenile? I asked myself. Could it have been hatched nearby? The boat ramp had its share of other rarities like the Clapper Rail that we had seen on at least two occasions, and, believe it or not, once a King Eider. Over the years; as the Boat Ramp was changed to accommodate kayakers, Lois and I visited it less frequently. 

     “Today everything seemed to align. There was a low tide, the green-heads had dramatically fallen off, and it was August. I got the notion that maybe we should trundle down the bumpy road to the Boat ramp and see what was there. Truly we didn’t expect much. Birding, however can be filled with surprises, most of them pleasant surprises. Today was no exception. “We stayed at the boat ramp for a half hour and I counted 25 species. There were not the several Saltmarsh Sparrows of the past. Back when Lois and I used to come down they were all over the place. But there was one, lurking in the high grass. We had eight Lesser Yellowlegs in the mud flats and both Least and Common Terns fishing the shallows. There was the usual array of small shorebirds; Semipalmated Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover as well as Least Sandpiper, Dowitchers and Willets and an active Marsh Wren. There were Tree Swallows, Osprey, and Purple Martins overhead, Great Egrets out in the marsh and an assertive Eastern Kingbird making life miserable for a Crow. 

     “But best of all, and reminiscent to the glorious days gone by I spotted a small dark sparrow at the boat ramp, near the edge of the mud bank. My interest peaked and as I brought up my binoculars it flew. Fluttering across the remnant of the Plum Island River it landed at the edge of the eel grass and started to hop into the grass. But before it could make good its escape I got on it and there to my delight was a Seaside Sparrow. 

     “I have seen Seaside Sparrow this year, farther down the island, on the other side of the pans. Always a treat. But I hadn’t seen one at the boat ramp, probably, for a couple of decades. I can remember being there before the turn of the century. Lois and I were with friends, waiting and birding and chatting. At one point Lois interrupted the discussion with that word all birders know and cherish “look”. 

     “We followed her pointing and there sitting high on a piece of grass sat, big and bold, a Seaside Sparrow, large bill, dark gray, with a bright yellow lore and white throat probably ten feet away. I think, at the time, we didn’t fully appreciate the moment. Yet this sighting has made its way into the array of my fondest and sharpest memories. Now we fully appreciate the incident. Despite the poor road conditions, Lois and I are reviving the Boat Ramp adventure.” 

     The shorebird and swallow numbers have increased remarkably since Doug wrote this a couple of weeks ago. The shorebirds are gathering on the flats in the harbor at low tide, and at high tide they move to Sandy Point and to Bill Forward Pool and Stage Island Pool on the Parker River NWR on Plum Island. An Avocet, Hudsonian Godwits and Red Knots have joined the more usual shorebirds recently.

     The swallow spectacle has begun, with thousands of tree swallows swarming the bayberry bushes on the island and they can be see forming small clouds of birds all down Plum Island. Drivers must be careful to drive slowly, as these birds are often on the road. It is a spectacular sight, even if you have seen it before.

     If you need binoculars or a scope to help you enjoy these birds even more, a reminder that our FREE Optics Fair is happening today, Saturday, August 13th, 10 am to 3 pm at Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift. Representatives from the optics manufacturers will be on hand to demonstrate products and answer any questions. They are offering great discounts and rebates on most optics and tripods, and these specials will continue through the weekend. It is a great time to compare binoculars or spotting scopes that will enhance your birding enjoyment. And we will pay the tax on everything in the store all weekend long! We hope that you will stop by!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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