Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds and Terns Gather on Plum Island
August 20, 2011

By Steve Grinley

     Shorebird numbers continue to be impressive in the area. The flats in Newburyport harbor at half tide are covered with semipalmated and least sandpiper, greater and lesser yellowlegs, and good numbers of semipalmated and black-bellied plovers. Careful examination of the hundreds of shorebirds will sometimes reveal some white-rumped and pectoral sandpipers or a red knot. Dowitcher numbers were down this past week, but their numbers may fluctuate as we move into September. Last weekend, a lone whimbrel made a stop on the mud flats, and we saw Hudsonian godwits there in the previous weeks. A few hundred Bonaparte’s gulls add to the spectacle in the harbor.

     At high tide, a trip down Plum Island is worthwhile as the shorebirds move to the Salt Pannes and the fresh water Bill Forward and Stage Island Pools. Of course, you have to drive very slowly now as swarms of swallows are now all over the road. The Salt Pannes can be viewed easily from the turnout or along the road, with morning viewing being best to keep the sunlight behind you. Bill Forward Pool is best viewed from the blind in the morning and from the dike behind the Hellcat Nature Trail in the afternoon for optimum light.

     The water level in Stage Island Pool is quite low and the birds are best viewed from along the road if you can stand the constant dust raised by cars racing down the dirt road for non-existent parking spaces at Sandy Point. In the morning, a view from the tower across from Lot 7 keeps the light behind you, but the views are distant given the low water levels. Lot 7 fills up fast and the thirty minute parking spaces, originally for tower use only, are not enforced. In the afternoon, you may want to walk out to the platform on Stage Island to view the pool with the sun behind you, but, unless it is a cloudy day, all the spaces at Lot 6 are taken by beach-goers. Again, the one hour spaces at Lot 6, for those that want to walk to the platform, are not enforced. For those who can gain access, Stage Island Pool has rewarded with some good birds. One birder saw and photographed a possible little egret, from Europe and Africa – possibility the same little egret that Margo and I saw in Maine a month ago. Stilt sandpipers have been seen regularly and Baird’s sandpipers have been spotted in the dry areas around the pool this past week. We saw a black tern flying over the Stage Island Pool, first from the tower, and again, in better light, from the platform last Friday afternoon.

     Many shorebirds and terns are gathering at Sandy Point. You have to arrive early, especially on weekends, as these parking spaces are the first to fill up by beach-goers and, to a lesser extent, by fishermen. But the shorebird numbers are impressive here at high tide, as are the number of terns. We had two marbled godwits there last week. We also saw 15-20 piping plovers gather here. I have heard, unofficially, that this was the best season in a long time for piping plover nesting success on the island, with 35 or more young successfully fledging.

Common, Roseate and least terns are all feeding their young at Sandy Point. The adults swarm over the sound, diving for fish that they bring back to shore to their begging offspring. This year, there are a few late nesting least terns with a few adults still on eggs and many downy, still flightless, young present last week. A few of these nests were outside the roped off area – I guess the terns didn’t read the signs. But, apparently, some humans can’t read either as one birder reported seeing people going into the roped off areas trying to retrieve some wood for the make-shift “cabana” structures that have been erected along the beach. The birder did say something to the intruders and they retreated, but we all should know better.

As we watched the shorebirds and terns on Sandy Point last weekend, all of a sudden they would all take to the air. The young terns and adults on the nest would stay motionless. Sure enough, a peregrine was swooping in from over the trees, looking for its next meal. We watched the falcon chase a shorebird, each time being eluded while we were there. But this occurred many times that day, other times at Stage Island or Bill Forward Pools. The birds would all put up and a peregrine would come charging by. Our friend, Phil Brown of Essex, was able to photograph one of the two peregrines in flight at Sandy Point. He blew up the photo and could read the band on the legs. He was able to confirm that this was a bird banded in Cambridge, and it is believed that this bird’s parents return to its original nesting site in Cambridge each night to roost!

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