Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Searching For Rare Shorebirds
August 25, 2023
By Steve Grinley
It is still peak time for swallows gathering on Plum Island feeding and preparing for their departure south, which could happen anytime now. Great egrets and snowy egrets continue to congregate late day at Stage Island Pool, feeding before they move to their night roost. Smaller numbers of egrets can be seen throughout the day feeding in the pans throughout the refuge.
Nighthawks are on the move with hundreds being reported from several locations in New Hampshire. Most of those are west of us, but many often come through along the coast. In fact, one was seen daytime roosting on a branch along the refuge road in the Hellcat Swamp on Plum Island. In years past, we have seen nighthawks roosting parallel on a branch in Hellcat or the Pines Trail on the Refuge.
Shorebirds are also in their prime during these weeks. At low tide they can be viewed on the Joppa Flats in the Newburyport Harbor. As the tide rises, they move into the salt pannes and fresh water pools on Plum Island and other pools throughout the Great Marsh. The smaller shorebirds consist mostly of semipalmated sandpipers and semipalmated plovers. Black-bellied sandpipers, yellowlegs and dowitchers make up the bulk of the larger shorebirds. A spotting scope is almost essential for identifying shorebirds that are any distance away.
Mixed in all these shorebirds may be least sandpipers, red knots, pectoral sandpipers, and golden plovers. Less common Baird’s sandpipers, buff- breasted sandpiper, whimbrels, and godwits are also being seen. This week, we watched nine whimbrels flying over the pans, and a buff-breasted sandpiper on the Plum Island beach at the newly opened lot 2. While watching the sandpiper, we spotted three Oystercatchers flying south over the ocean about a half-mile out.
A golden plover was reported at Sandy Point and Baird’s sandpipers have been seen at the Salt Pannes and Bill Forward Pool. A Hudsonian godwit was reportedly seen at the Salt Pannes early one morning. A possible western sandpiper was spotted among the hundreds of semipalmated sandpipers at the Pannes on another morning.
Looking through hundreds of shorebirds and trying to find something different can be both relaxing and challenging. Many times, they are just all just the same common birds. Those times, we enjoy watching their habits and their interactions. Drama comes when a peregrine falcon swoops in out of nowhere and scatters them all! Often the peregrine will leave without success and the birds settle down and need to be looked through again for something we missed.
Two extremely rare plovers have been found in Massachusetts during the past month. Margo and I ventured outside Essex County and made two trips to Cape Cod to try to see these birds.
In late July, a mountain plover was found on Long Beach in Centerville. This plover of the western prairies resembles a golden plover, or black-bellied plover in basic plumage. This was only the sixth east coast record, and was last seen in Massachusetts in 1916.
Chasing this bird was a last minute decision. We have seen it out west, but never in Massachusetts. One hot Sunday afternoon, we were locked out of the Parker River Refuge due to “no beach parking available” (even though we wanted to just bird.) I decided we would make the four-hour trip to the Cape. We encountered relatively little traffic and we were on the beach by 6 pm.
It was an easy half-mile walk down Long Beach Road from the Craigville Beach parking lot. A short path took us to the sand and we could see the area where the bird was last reported. We ran into only one birder, who pointed to where the bird was and we saw it almost immediately. The bird seemed undaunted by beach walkers and gave close views through the scope. It was a “State Bird” for both of us.
A week ago, Margo and I made a trip to Mashpee for a first state record, a lesser sand plover, previously called the Mongolian plover. We had seen this species in Thailand, but never in North America. This trip was more difficult, requiring a half-mile long walk through soft sand. This bird was also reportedly less cooperative as it spooked more easily and would fly off and not return for hours at a time.
Birding friends were coming off the beach and we were encouraged when they said that the bird was being seen around the first distant point. It took us a good twenty minutes to make the walk. We rounded the point and finally found other friends who were watching the bird. There were several semipalmated plovers moving about the beach fifty yards ahead of us. With our scopes, we could pick out the slightly larger bird, with longer black bill, that had a hint of rufous on its breast instead of a dark band. It was a North American first for everyone there!
And so we continue to “sift through” the hundreds, and sometime thousands, of local shorebirds, hoping to find the next rare bird!