Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Shorebirds and Swallows Highlight Plum Island Visits
August 18, 2023
By Steve Grinley
The shorebird migration is in full swing with hundreds of birds feeding in the Salt Pannes and fresh water pools of Plum Island when the tide is right. The tree swallow show is nearing its peak on the island with thousands of swallows now gathering to feed on bayberries and insects. The local raptors are putting on a show as well, as Doug Chickering of Newbury describes a recent visit:
“Can there be anything significantly better than birding the Refuge on Plum Island in 70 degree weather and no Green-heads? That was today. There was that persistent dry cool wind off the ocean. This day the best place to pick through shore birds was the blind at hellcat overlooking the Bill Forward Pool.
“Here the crowds of Semipalmated Plovers were a bit larger than those of the Semipalmated Sandpipers. A nice big, bright Long-billed among the few Short-billed Dowitchers, and a Least Bittern briefly peaked out from the phrags before vanishing once again.
“The arresting event of the day came here, when we saw a raptor gliding in and a frantic response from the feeding shorebirds. At first I expected a Peregrine, but instead a Northern Harrier swept by, obviously looking for trouble. I had expected the falcon because of the reaction of the shorebirds. I don’t recall shorebirds being so flushed by a Harrier.
“As it was, the shorebirds were seeing more than I was, for as I watched the Harrier a bird swept in with obvious evil intentions. The Peregrine Falcon, the one I expected and the bird that scattered the shorebirds in fear, attacked the Harrier.
“The Harrier was unimpressed and ready to meet violence with violence. She struggled to gain altitude and the Falcon continued to attack her with a series of swoops and dives. Although I have witnessed similar scenes before I don’t think I can recall watching such a graceful demonstration of avian violence. It was also remarkable in its duration. I didn’t actually time it but it was surely five to eight minutes.
“The Harrier was amazingly agile in fending off the Falcon and the peregrine was persistent in its attacks. It made me wonder why the falcon would risk an obviously dangerous situation instead of targeting on of the little sandpipers. Finally they broke off, and it was uncertain which bird prevailed.
“Also the tree swallow numbers are approaching the astonishing. And the Bayberry crop seems to qualify as bountiful.”
A week later, Doug was absorbed in the swallow event:
“Even as I paused at Parking lot 1 on the refuge I knew that there would be Tree Swallows. It was their time and even here there were many flying and flying low. Even prepared, I was thoroughly startled when I encountered a feeding frenzy of Tree Swallows near the pans.
“I knew something was up when I first spotted a kettle of Tree swallows swirling around the tops of the bushes across from the pans. There was a strange combination of orderliness and chaos to the activity. I got out of my car and took a step into the road to see better and saw the center of their frenzied activity. They were gorging themselves on a set of bayberry bushes with a singular fury that was fascinating and a little intimidating. I have seen this before, recently, and hope to see it again. It never gets old.
“All around this furious energy more Swallows came in. Some perched on nearby bushes and a few joined in to feast. They did this in an eerie quiet as the soft thunder of their wingbeats seemed to muffle everything else. They may have vocalized, but not so I would remember. I will pay closer attention in the future. The Tree swallow extravaganza has begun.”