Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Plum Island Provides Labor Day Solice
September 08, 2012
By Steve Grinley

      We enjoyed some delightful weather this Labor Day Weekend. We decided to do most of our birding on Plum Island all three days and the birding was mostly enjoyable. There were lots of shorebirds around, though overall numbers of birds were past peak. There were only remnant flocks of tree swallows, numbering in the hundreds, a far cry from the tens of thousands present on the island in early August. The other migrating land birds are starting to trickle through and they added another dimension to our birding days.

     Each day, we got to the island too late to get a parking space at Sandy Point on the southern tip of the island. Those spaces were filling well up before 8:00 am on this holiday weekend. The tides were not really right for birders that early in the day as the shorebirds are more easily seen there on either side of high tide. Some birders did arrive at Sandy Point at 6am during the very low tide, just to be assured of parking, when most of the shorebirds were scattered over the flats. A few birders waited the four or five hours for the tide to come in sufficiently enough to bring the shorebirds in for closer, and more concentrated, viewing.

     We, instead, chose to bird our way down the island with intention to be at either Bill Forward Pool or Stage Island Pool around noon for the highest tide, which would bring the shorebirds into the fresh water pools. Our first visit to the Bill Forward Pool revealed that the water levels were too high for most shorebirds, considerably higher than they were the previous weekend. I dont remember any appreciable rain, but, for whatever reason, the levels were not lowered for the migrating shorebirds.

     Stage Island Pool , which had more exposed mudflats, was more productive at high tide, though parking there was also a problem. The one hour parking spaces at Lot 6, designed to allow wildlife viewing from the Stage Island platform rather than all day beach visits, were not being enforced. The 30 minute spaces at Lot 7 were enforced, however the tower overlooking Stage Island Pool was not useful to birders last weekend as the water was too low, therefore, making it too distant to identify shorebirds, even with a good scope.

     Still, the times we were able to get to the platform on Stage Island, we found some very nice birds. Among the flocks of black-bellied plovers and yellowlegs were a few red knots, spotted, pectoral and western sandpipers, and a couple of stilt sandpipers. Most special were the two buff-breasted and two Bairds sandpipers that we eventually had great looks at. Of course it was a challenge when a peregrine falcon would come through and scatter all the birds, often moving all the shorebirds out of the pool at once.

     The Pines Trail was quiet the couple of times we stopped there. We did hear red-breasted nuthatches there each time, as well in several other areas of the refuge. There seems to be a large invasion of red-breasted nuthatches in eastern Massachusetts already this year, so look for them at you feeders. In the field opposite the Pines trail, there were two whimbrels, tall shorebirds with long, decurved bills, feeding in the grass.

     Along the Hellcat trail there were catbirds everywhere, it sounded like a feline rescue shelter! Robins and towhees were also numerous. A few migrating warblers were also present including a black and white warbler, a northern parula, and a northen waterthrush. Several red-eyed vireos were joined by a couple of less common Philadelphia vireos. The passerine highlights of the weekend had to be the lark sparrow and the two clay-colored sparrows that were found at the Wardens, also known as the Maintenance Area. When we were there, a clay-colored sparrow was hanging close with the much larger lark sparrow. Everywhere one went, the other was right by its side. Very strange, indeed.

     We enjoyed the refuge more in August when the entire beach was closed and we didnt have to contend with constant beach traffic up and down the refuge road. It was more peaceful then. We still had to suffer through the menacing bi-plane that continually uses the refuge airspace to do all its maneuvers overhead, providing a constant drone of its loud engine to kill the ambience and give me a headache! The annoying plane was there again, or still, this weekend.

     Still the beauty of Plum Island and the birds that visit it, made for an enjoyable Labor Day weekend.

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