Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds, Swallows and Nighthawks Moving South
August 25, 2018
By Steve Grinley

     Finches have taken over the feeders at our house. The adult birds are busily feeding the many recently fledged young birds and, sadly, one cowbird. Titmice continue to feed their young and the chickadee, mourning dove, downy and red-bellied woodpecker babies are pretty much feeding themselves these days. But it is the finches that are depleting our thistle and sunflower feeders so rapidly.

     We went to Conomo Point in Essex and Great Neck in Ipswich yesterday during low tide to try to view migrating shorebirds, though we knew that the birds are more scattered with so much mud and sand exposed. In Essex, the most numerous were the semipalmated plovers, along with several flocks of semipalmated sandpipers. Black-bellied plovers were on many of the mud flats and we found a few greater yellowlegs feeding off the Clammer’s Beach. I counted 180 double-crested cormorants along with the gulls on a distant sandbar there.

     We saw fewer shorebirds of the same shorebirds from Great Neck but we did see a small flock of snowy and great egrets congregated in an inlet along Jeffrey’s Neck Road which looked like they had just finished a feeding frenzy. The tide was going out, so there were likely some bait fish that were caught in a shallower area, making for easy pickings.

     We could only spot a few black-bellied plovers from Pavillion Beach and a number of gulls. The terns, apparently, have mostly left. We did spot our friend Sam, with binoculars, across the water walking along Sandy Point with two fiends. He later reported a fly-by whimbrel that we did not see.

     The shorebirds are more concentrated at high tide when they are roosting above the wrack line at Sandy Point on Plum Island, or feeding in mudflats of Bill Forward or Stage Island Pools on the Refuge. A large flock of killdeer have been feeding on the grasses at the Plum Island Airport, and there has been a single golden plover there the past couple of weeks.

     This area is an important refueling stopover for many shorebirds on their journey south. Thousands of sandpipers and plovers utilize the marsh and mud flats, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated, least, and white-rumped sandpipers as well as black-bellied and semipalmated plovers. One is also likely to see short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings.

     In addition to the shorebirds, the long-legged waders – snowy and great egrets – also stage in the marshes and fresh water pools. 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.

     With plenty of fruit and insects available on Plum Island, the Parker River Refuge is also an important staging area for hundreds of thousands of swallows. As I said last week, they are nearing their peak. This past week we saw many cars parked along the road just south of the North Pool Overlook, photographing the swarm of swallows that were perched on every available shrub and weed in the North Field. It won’t be long now before they disappear from the island and head south.

     Another event that happens in late August is the nighthawk migration. A few hundred migrating nighthawks have already been counted in Concord and Manchester, new Hampshire and in Western Massachusetts as well. Nighthawks are not hawks but, rather, members of the goatsucker family, cousins to the whip-poor-wills. These are nocturnal birds that feed primarily on insects. Though the majority of nighthawks migrate further inland, many nighthawks can be seen along more coastal routes, especially if evening winds are generally from the west and northwest.

     I decided to sit out on the deck last evening just before sunset with the hope of possibly seeing a nighthawk or two. We are surrounded by trees, so we have limited sky visibility. Still, I wasn’t out there a minute when I watched a nighthawk flying erratically across the sky from the northeast toward the southwest. The white stripe across their long, pointed wings is a diagnostic field mark that is readily seen. It was a few minutes later that I saw another flying over from the northwest, joining two others just above the trees to the east, and the three headed south.

     The nighthawk migration usually peaks before Labor Day, so check the evening sky around your house over next week or so and see if you can spot these migrating birds!

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