Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Migrating Shorebirds Highlight Area Birding
August 29, 2009
By Steve Grinley
Most of the orioles have headed south and many of the hummingbirds as well. More will be migrating through from further north in the weeks ahead. Nighthawks are on the move, and a few warblers and vireos are starting to migrate through, but the highlight continues to be the shorebirds that cover the mud at Joppa Flats and on Plum Island. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares his shorebirding experience from one day last week:
“There are few things in this birding world that can surpass an early morning like this one. I was at Sandy Point on Plum Island first thing this morning. It was a little past six the sun was rising above the bar head, the tide was low and coming in and a light northwest wind was a pure pleasure when measured against the stifling days just past. What’s more, as the tide came in, so did the shore birds. When I arrived, just after dead low [tide] there weren’t many shorebirds about, and I set up my scope to take a long leisurely scan of the area around me.
“I started at the small wet cove to my right; covered with some scraps of plastic detritus, frosted with a muddy sand and sprouting small patches of eel grass. With my scope I saw that there were birds, more than I had expected, and one of the first I spotted was my target for the day; Baird’s Sandpiper. A good way to start the morning. He was shortly joined by another Baird’s and they fed leisurely among the scattering of Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers around them, providing a great and stark comparison.
“I watched them for a quarter of an hour until they were put to flight by a Peregrine Falcon that glided over from Crane’s beach, spreading it’s usual consternation and then settled down on the beach. At first it seemed at though the Peregrine had something, but when it took to flight I saw that his talons were empty. Like the Peregrine I had been watching yesterday, this one seemed almost casual in its actions. It was juvenile and although it made a few passes at the birds it put to flight; occasionally singling one out for attention, it never seemed serious in catching anything. Perhaps it was satiated and simply testing the health of the crowd.
“The Peregrine left, the Baird’s returned and the tide came in. As the tide rose the birds came crowding in settling in log-packed strings at the water’s edge. These shorebirds don’t visit Plum island in the numbers that are commonly counted at South Beach, but for Plum these numbers were good.
“Once I attempted to start counting the Semipalmated Plovers. I knew the effort was futile for, with the rising tide, the birds got restless and occasionally took flight; swirled around in wild, tight well choreographed swoops before settling down again. I still started my count and got to 450 before they got up. Immediately I could see that I had counted only about a half of one of the two flocks. Assuming the configuration of each flock was roughly the same I calculated that the beach contained between 1500 and 2000 Semipalmated Plovers – conservatively. And there were more Semipalmated Sandpipers than Plovers. Mixed in with this mass were two Red Knots, three Piping Plovers, a meager pair of White-rumped Sandpipers, over fifty Black-bellied Plovers and about two dozen Short-billed Dowitchers.
“On my way out I decided to check out Stage Island Pool. I noticed on my way to Sandy Point that the water level at Stage Island seemed lower. The new boardwalk and attending deck at the base of the tower were finished and I soon discovered that the water was indeed down . There were shorebirds here as well. Shorebirds were tucked into the newly exposed weeds and their numbers weren’t obvious until they took flight. There were at least three large flocks. Nearly as many as I had seen at Sandy Point. Later, I talked with the assistant manager and he informed me that the refuge was dropping the water level, which meant another good place to scan for peeps and their friends. Bring on the Buff-breasted Sandpiper!
“A brief passerine note: around Cross Farm Hill I came across a Baltimore Oriole that was nearly as red as a Scarlet Tanager. The only distasteful part of the day were the clouds of dust blown up by desperate beach weasels as they rush down the island to claim one of the diminishing number of parking spots. The dust hung in the air and coated the foliage on both sides of the road giving it a dead, ghostly appearance. Still, its hard to complain when the place is so filled with migrating birds.”
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