Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Shorebirds and Swallows on the Move
August 20, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Though autumn is officially a month away, the fall migration of birds has been in full swing for many weeks now. Shorebirds are blanketing the mud flats in Newburyport Harbor and Plum Island Sound at low tide. During high tide, the shorebirds move into in the salt pans in the marshes and nearby fresh water area that may be shallow enough. On Plum Island, on the Parker River refuge, they can be seen at fairly close range in the Salt Pannes and from further distance at Bill Forward Pool. Further south on the refuge, Stage Island Pool has finally begun to be lowered and smaller numbers of shorebirds can be seen feeding at the southern edges of the pool from the Lot 7 tower.
These areas of the Great Marsh are an important stopover for many birds on their journey south. Thousands of sandpipers and plovers feed on the mud flats, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated, least, and white-rumped sandpipers as well as black-bellied and semipalmated plovers. One should also see short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings. Less frequently, Hudsonian godwits, red knots, stilt, Baird’s, pectoral, and western sandpipers are found here. These shorebirds will feed for a day or more to increase their body fat for the next leg of their journey.
Watching these shorebirds feed is fascinating, seeing the different ways that they feed and interact. It is a challenge to identify the various species, and even more of a challenge to try to count the large numbers of them. Invariably, as you try to count, they will all lift up off the ground and circle the area, and usually settling back down for you to start counting again. Sometimes it is a peregrine falcon that puts them up, and the drama begins as the peregrine tries to catch its next meal. Often it results in the flocks leaving the area for another spot in the Great Marsh.
In addition to the shorebirds, the long-legged waders, the herons and egrets, also feed in the marshes. Their numbers are on the increase as they gather and feed to boost their energy in preparation for their flight south. As their number grow, so does the spectacle of seeing so many of these beautiful birds congregating in one area. Large numbers of egrets have been seen in the marshes of Salisbury, Newbury and Rowley.
This is also the time of year when the tree swallows congregate on Plum Island. Their numbers continue to build as they gather and feed in preparation for their journey south. Clouds of swallows will fill the sky, as they did one afternoon at the Salt Pannes when Margo and I arrived. Opposite the Pannes, they were in a massive feeding frenzy on every bayberry bush in sight and even more filled the air around us, many swooping down at eye level. It was if we were caught in the middle of a swallow “tornado.” Others folks were stopped and out of their cars, beholding the spectacle that was happening around us.
You can see the large congregation of swallows anytime during the day, all along the Refuge road, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. You have to be careful to drive slowly, (which happens so less often on the refuge these days), as these birds often land on the road. Thousands of swallows are often perched atop the cattails and phragmites in the North Pool as they feed over pool for insects. The swallows form large, swarming clouds as they feed, and you can watch others skim insects off the surface of the pool.
With plenty of fruit and insects available on Plum Island, the Refuge is an important staging area for hundreds of thousands of swallows in mid August, and it is another bird spectacle in our area that is worth seeing!