Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Shorebirds, Swallows and Nighthawks on the Move
August 27, 2016
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 congregating on 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 is an important refueling stopover for many birds 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 will also see short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings. Last weekend, we found a Hudsonian godwit, a western sandpiper and a buff-breasted sandpiper among the regulars on Plum Island. Also seen this past week was a golden plover and a marbled godwit appeared on the island. All of these shorebirds will “stage” on the flats, feeding for a day or for several days, to increase their body fat for the next leg of their journey south.

     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.

     Many of these egrets are stopping to feed in Bill Forward Pool and Stage Island Pool on Plum Island in the evenings, just before they head off to roost. Many will continue on to a night roost on Kettle Island off Magnolia. Other night roosts can be seen locally in a pond off Scotland Road in Newbury and in a Marsh off Route 95 in Georgetown. Occasionally you may see a green, little blue or tricolored heron mixed in with the egrets. Egrets will use this roost until the time comes, in the next weeks, when they will head south. 

     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 in mid August, and this birding spectacle is one worth seeing before they are gone in the next week or so. Thousands of swallows are still “staging” in the cattails of North Pool and 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 still see large congregations of swallows anytime during the day all along the Refuge road, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. 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. Drive slowly along the refuge road as these birds will also land on right on the pavement.

     Another event that happens in late August is the nighthawk migration. Common Nighthawks are migrating through our area now, as they do every late August and early September, often peaking just before Labor Day. This weekend might bring the peak numbers of them through. 

     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. Nighthawks were more common decades ago in larger cities where they nest on flat, gravel rooftops. But as gravel roofs give way to modern roofing materials, the nighthawks moved elsewhere. 

     Now we only occasionally hear their “peenting” call midsummer in Boston, Lowell or Lawrence. There have been large numbers of migrating nighthawks already reported in the western part of the state. The majority of nighthawks migrate further inland, so Worcester County and west usually have the highest counts in the state. Still, many nighthawks can be seen along more coastal routes, especially if evening winds are generally from the west and northwest. 

     Nighthawks migrate singly or in small groups, flying erratically across the sky, often feeding on flying insects as they go. The white stripe across their long, pointed wings is a diagnostic field mark that is often readily seen. 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
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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