Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Persevering Search for Labor Day Birds
September 07, 2019
By Steve Grinley
Labor Day wasn’t a beach day – cool and mostly cloudy, with occasional threats of rain from nearby dark clouds. So we decided to spend the afternoon birding Plum Island. There was only a smattering of cars at Lot 1, so we stopped at the Lot 1 platform to check the ocean and the beach. There was a group of gulls further down the beach, but they were the usual herring and great black-backed gulls. A few semipalmated plovers were scurrying near the wrack line, but the piping plovers and least terns that were present a week ago were gone.
We did see one laughing gull fly by, but we had watched more than forty of them moving south a week ago. There were no ducks or loons on the water. Four gannets were all we could spot for pelagic birds, so we moved on.
We stopped at the Salt Pannes where many “peeps” were feeding on the algae that were covering most of the water. Many of the small sandpipers were very close to the road so we could use the car as a blind and scan the birds with our binoculars. Most were semipalmated sandpipers but we could pick out the longer white-rumped sandpipers among them. We could also easily find a western sandpiper with it larger, longer, down-curved bill and red scapulars.
We proceeded down to the maintenance area where an uncommon lark sparrow had been found the previous morning. We had spent time the day before looking for it in vain. But we searched again this afternoon anyway, just in case it found its way back to this popular fall “hangout” for sparrows. A few song sparrows were all that we could find.
We were soon sorry that we spent as much time as we did making our way slowly down the island when fellow birder Constance Lapite came over to our car after we pulled into the Hellcat parking lot. She announced that she had seen a Hudsonian godwit shortly before we got there. Margo had seen one a few weeks ago, but I thought that most godwits had already passed through and that I would go through the year without seeing one.
We quickly proceeded up to the dike and looked down Bill Forward Pool. There were not a lot of shorebirds present, mostly semipalmated plovers. There were some yellowlegs, a single black-bellied plover, a couple of dowitchers and the American avocet was still present further down the pool. We were able to pick out a stilt sandpiper feeding near a dowitcher.
We looked on the North Pool side of the dike and there were more yellowlegs, both greater and lesser, and more dowitchers, including a couple of long-billed dowitchers. One of the long-billed dowitchers was go big that I tried to make it into a godwit! It stood tall among the other birds and its bill was VERY long. But it wasn’t upturned like a godwit, more drooped at the end like a dowitcher. Darn!
We walked to the south side of the dike to try to get a closer look at the birds further down Bill Forward Pool. As we were scanning, Tim and Nancy Walker came onto the dike and joined us. “We had the godwit earlier from the blind.” they reported. We stepped up our search of the pool in the direction of the blind, but to no avail. We continued our search even after Tim and Nancy left.
As the weather continued to threaten, we decided to scoot down to Stage Island Pool in the off chance that the godwit flew down there. We checked every salt panne and puddle of water on our way down without luck. We arrived at Stage Island and quickly realized that there were but a few yellowlegs in the thin stream of water that was once a large fresh-water pond. The refuge had drained it dry! Why?
We then went to Sandy Point, and walked to the edge of the beach and scoped the area quickly when the raindrops started. No birds! The skies opened on our return trip back to the car, and continued all the way up the island. The rain let up just as we passed through the gate to leave the refuge, so we decided to turn around for one more try. Back to Lot 4, we ventured to the Hellcat Dike amid a few sprinkles once again, when Margo finally spotted the Hudsonian godwit fly into Bill Forward Pool! Perseverance paid off. As a bonus, we discovered seven immature yellow-crowned night herons on the edge of the North Pool as we left the dike.
With a falling tide and setting sun, we then stopped at the harbor on our way out, where a flock of sixty Bonaparte’s gulls were among the other gulls awaiting the ebbing tide. We then saw a flock of about thirty black-bellied plovers fly over the water looking for open flats on which to feed. We could see a lone golden plover within the flock, which finally settled on a sandbar on the Salisbury side of the river.
We also watched a flock of about 40 common terns moving in and out about the harbor. We could both spot one black tern among them as the terns banked in the remaining sunlight. The terns eventually moved out to the mouth of the river as the sunlight faded, and we headed home after a successful afternoon of birding.
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