Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rarities, Shorebirds and Swallows Peak Birders’ Interest
August 18, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     I was almost late for work one morning this week due to our latest new yard bird – a Louisiana Waterthrush! This bird is a less common member of the warbler family, usually preferring fast moving streams in woodlands.

     Margo thought that she saw this bird late on Sunday but only had a brief look as it teetered along the top wet rocks of the retaining wall in our backyard, but it quickly flew off toward the woods and creek behind the house before she could get her binoculars. Yesterday, she heard and recorded it chipping, and she also heard it sing!

     This morning we both had great looks at this bird as it, again, walked along the top rocks of the retaining wall, perched on some higher branches in the trees and chipped loudly. I even heard a few song notes. The sharp white supercillium and clear white throat were easily seen with our binoculars as the bird moved about, 40 feet or so behind the house.

     At one point, I watched it tussling with a second bird, about the same size and, I thought, chipping as well before they both flew into the woods. Margo had seen it interact with our Carolina wren, but I can’t be sure that this wasn’t a second waterthrush that I saw. We’ll keep an eye out just in case. Certainly our coolest yard bird yet!

     Away from home, the birding is getting interesting. A rare raptor from Mexico and Central America, a Great Black Hawk was seen a week ago near Kennebunkport Maine. A Wood Stork and a Neotropical Cormorant have been hanging out in New Hampshire for the past week.

     More local is the snowy owl that is still being seen in the Industrial Park in Newburyport. This juvenile bird should have been back on the Arctic tundra months ago!

     The shorebirds are numbering in the thousands in Newburyport harbor at low tide and they move to Plum Island and the marshes during high tide. The numbers are also peaking for the swallows, mostly tree swallows, that are congregating on Plum Island. This yearly spectacle was commented on by several this past week, including Doug Chickering of Groveland:

     “I stopped twice and pulled to the side of the road just to watch. Today was a cloudy, gray day spitting rain on Plum Island which kept down the usual Sunday crowd and seemed to push the birds lower. Both times I stopped it was almost as a reflex action and not planned or even thought about. It’s not like I hadn’t see this before. I wait for it each year and promote it openly to anyone who will listen. I can’t be the only person who is struck with wonder when it occurs but I hear few others mention it.

     “The staging of the Tree Swallows at Plum Island is now building to a crescendo. I had been watching the Tree Swallows since I drove onto the refuge, and as expected they were filling the skies. Friday, there were two strangers who stopped me while I was taking my walk to inquire about these small birds. I guess they saw my binoculars and concluded I would know something about these birds. And today there were even more; a lot more.

     “I wouldn’t be totally surprised if I was informed that these spectacular staging was taking place elsewhere in Massachusetts. I do remember a similar report of massive numbers of tree swallows swarming on Cape Cod a couple of years ago, but don’t remember it as a regular thing. On Plum Island it is an annual event and I start anticipating it when I first notice a small uptick in the number of Tree Swallows flying in mid to late July.

     “At one point they had spilled out onto the road. I pulled out and slowly got out. There were flying Tree swallows high in the sky and streaking right by me. Off to my right they were collecting onto a largish Bayberry bush, actually bushes. They seemed to cover the entire dune side of the roadside vegetation and the frantic, hypnotic sound of their flashing wings seemed to settle into the rumble of distant thunder. The movement of the multitude of wings seemed to set up a tremor in the air that could actually be felt.

     “It’s not a rarity, but a regular, annual event. It will last the rest of this month but the next few weeks will probably be the peak. Don’t miss it.”

     Glenn D’Entremont of Quincy had this to say about the phenomenon:

     “Every August birds get quiet. It is a deafening silence.

     “One of the bird sounds which liven the air is the Tree Swallow; thousands of them.

     I try to get to Plum early enough before the sun hits the thickets where the swallows roost. It is amazing. Almost total silence. The sun hits the thickets. Quickly the air is bursting with birds as thousands of swallows take off to fill the air with gurgles and chortles. Off they go and for a minute and a half the air is full of birds as they take off over the marsh.

     “After two or so minutes, the show is over. Silence again.”

     Sandy Selesky of Westford shared the enthusiasm:

     “Yes, I agree with Doug Chickering. It’s a fantastic sight that I also look forward to every year in August at the refuge on Plum Island. … This regular event is spectacular in my opinion and even as a passionate bird photographer I sometimes just like to stand by the side of the refuge road, at the North Pool overlook, or on the Hellcat Dike before sunset and just watch the huge flocks of swallows lift up into the air above me or fly swiftly past me in the sky, over the bushes and marsh, and over the water. I look forward to going up there again this week… we are fortunate to be able to witness part of this spectacle locally before they are gone for the winter months. So as Doug says, don’t miss it!”

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