Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds, Egrets and Swallows Gathering for Migration
August 23, 2008
Steve Grinley

It is hard to top the amazing scenery and birds that Alaska provides, but back home in the Newburyport area we have our own spectacle of birds.

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 at low tide and, during high tide, they are feeding along the edges of the Salt Pannes, Bill Forward and Stage Island Pools on the Parker River Refuge.

This area of Great Marsh is an important refueling stopover for many birds on their journey south. Thousands of sandpipers and plovers utilize the Marsh and its mud flats, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated, least, and white-rumped sandpipers as well as black-bellied and semipalmated plovers. One will also see short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings. Less frequently, Hudsonian godwits, red knots, and stilt and western sandpipers are found here. These shorebirds will “stage” on the flats, feeding for a day or more to increase their body fat for the next leg of their journey.

In addition to the shorebirds, the long-legged waders – herons and egrets – also stage in the marshes. Their numbers 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.

If you stand on the Hellcat dike in the evening, (perhaps on the tower to catch a breeze to help keep the mosquitoes away), you can watch small flocks of egrets and herons fly toward their evening roosts. Most of these small groups contain snowy and great egrets, but occasionally you may see a little blue or tricolored heron mixed in. Great blue herons also move by, sometimes singularly or in pairs.

From the tower on the dike, you can see one of the large roosts in the marshes, just north and west of the Parker River and south of Pine Island. A couple of hundred snowy and great egrets huddle in the marsh at night as a refuge from potential predators. They will use this roost until the time comes, in the next weeks, when they will head south. The large number of white birds against the green marsh grasses is something to behold.

The egret roost in Salisbury is also spectacular again this year. Hundreds of great and snowy egret are draped on the bare trees above the swamp along Route 1. Among the egrets are a few great blue, little blue and green herons as well as black-crowned night herons and glossy ibis. The birds roost there at night – their lofty perches above the water proving protection from predators and a spectacle for those traveling along Route 1!

Back at the Hellcat dike, you can also watch the night herons leaving their roost in the Hellcat Swamp and heading out for their nocturnal feeding. The other evening, I watched seven night herons head North over the dike, but my view became completely obscured by the thick clouds of tree swallows that had formed. Tens of thousands of these swallows are “staging” in the cattails and phragmites in North Pool and they were feeding on the evening insects. The swallows form large, swarming clouds as they feed, and you can watch others skim insects off the surface of the pools.

You can see the large congregation of swallows anytime during the day, and all along the Refuge road, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. You have to be careful to drive slowly, as these birds often lite on the road. In addition to feeding on flying insects on the wing or plucking insects off the top of the water, many swallows gather to feed on the bayberries growing on the bushes along the road and in the dunes. 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 birding spectacle in our area that is worth seeing!

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