Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds Highlight Wednesday Morning Birding
August, 23, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     A couple of weeks ago I was discussing shorebirds and ways to learn the different species. I mentioned the Wednesday Morning Birding programs out of the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center as a great way to learn to identify birds. Sanctuary Director Bill Gette, along with Dr. Dave Weaver, led a group of participants to Plum Island this past Wednesday and they spent time observing the different shorebirds (and other birds) that were present. Dave Weaver shares with us his account of that fun morning of birding: 

     “Oh, what a beautiful morning!! Indeed, it was a most beautiful morning! I guess after last Wednesday’s washout, it was only right to have such a pleasant morning – partly cloudy, temps ranging from high 60s to low 70s, and winds light and variable. At just past full tide, we headed for Plum Island and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge with shorebirds in mind. After all, the migration was still underway. 

     “First stop was the main salt panne where we found a number of “peeps” feeding on the water’s algae mats. Many of the peeps were close enough for good views through our bins, but scope looks gave us wonderful looks at the crisp juvenile plumage of several Least Sandpipers and a number of Semipalmated Sandpiper adults. We were able to compare the different field marks of the two species – the yellow-green legs of the Least and the black legs of the Semi Sand; the rufous-brown color of the Least and the overall gray of the Semi Sand; and the finer, slightly drooped bill of the Least and the stouter, straight bill of the Semi Sand often with a bulbous end to it…

     “While enjoying the peeps on the algae mats, a couple of Saltmarsh Sparrows made brief appearances as they are want to do. In the adjacent wetland, a small island offered a loafing spot for some yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

     “As we traveled south along the refuge road, there were many Eastern Kingbirds evident, often perched high in a shrub or tree, many of them juveniles. It won’t be long before these guys are off the island and heading south to their winter quarters in western Amazonia, including Peru, Bolivia, western Brazil, southern Colombia, and Ecuador. 

     “Also in evidence, were the continuing large numbers of staging Tree Swallows. This is a spectacle you don’t want to miss – especially as the bayberries ripen and these birds are gorging themselves in prep for their migration south, which, compared to the kingbird, is somewhat shorter. Eastern Tree Swallows winter primarily in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, with many spilling over onto Cuba. Shorter [flight] though it may be, good body fat is required for the journey and the high lipid content of bayberries greatly help to provide that fat to burn for travel south.

     “We made a brief stop at the North Pool Overlook. The species of note there, and one for which there were decent scope views, was a Cooper’s Hawk perched high in the big juniper on the North Pool dike. We had a good discussion about the salient field marks for this bird – its size, its slender appearance, and its long, rounded tail. Also present were some American Black Ducks, a number of juvenile Mallards, and two Lesser Yellowlegs.

     “Several Barn Swallows were seen along the way and there were a few spots where we witnessed large gatherings of Great and Snowy Egrets. Stage Island Pool was a bit disappointing relative to numbers of shorebirds seen. We did pick up the first of several Short-billed Dowitchers that we would eventually see, this one busily feeding rapidly with its sewing machine motion.

     “Retreating up the island to the new blind overlooking Bill Forward Pool at Hellcat, we had the pleasure of seeing a number of Black-bellied Plovers in various plumages – all molting adults ranging in looks from nearly complete breeding (alternate) plumage to those with just remnants of their black bellies in the form of small blotches of black, all on the way to their winter gray plumage. There were also quite a few Semipalmated Plovers busily scurrying about in search of food, and, of course, the usual Semipalmated Sandpipers being the most numerous shorebird in the mix… 

     “There was a lone adult Great Blue Heron standing in the middle of Bill Forward Pool. Bill pointed out the defining black and russet carpal joint – the bend in the wing. That and its obvious scruffy-looking molt made the individual an adult. And, with great amusement, we watched one molting adult Black-bellied Plover chasing after another for as long as we were there. No idea what was going on. It was back and forth across the mud flats with an occasional lift off and the chase continuing in the air, but quickly resumed on the ground. What on earth?? . . . . This went on and on and on.

     “Other birds seen during the course of the morning: Mute Swan, Wild Turkey, Double-crested Cormorant, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Killdeer, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, American Crow, Gray Catbird, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winger Blackbird, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.” 

     If this all sounds like fun to you, you are welcome to join any Wednesday Morning Birding Program, 9:30 am – 12:30 pm. Preregistration is not necessary, just be at the Center before 9:30. Or if you prefer Saturday mornings, Saturday Morning Birding is 9:00 am-11:30 am and just be at the Center before 9:00 am. Good Birding!

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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