Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Wednesday Morning “Shore”Birding
September 17, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     Twenty–four birders joined leaders Donna Cooper and me in two vans and 3 cars for Wednesday Morning Birding out of MAS Joppa Flats. The group included visitors from Pennsylvania and California. The skies were mostly sunny and temperatures in the seventies with a nice breeze. The tide was high so we decided to head down Plum Island and the Parker River NWR to concentrate on shorebirds in the pools.

     Our first stop was at the Salt Pannes, where we saw only about a dozen small shorebirds feeding on top of the algae growing there. There were several Semipalmated Plovers with a group of five Semipalmated Sandpipers and one Least Sandpiper. All these birds were feeding close to the road and we had excellent views. Everyone got to see a side-by-side comparison of these two “peeps” – the Semipalmated with grayer coloration and dark legs, next to the slightly smaller, brown coloration and light legs of the Least Sandpiper. It was a good first lesson for the beginners in the group.

     The Bill Forward Blind had no open parking spaces, so we proceeded down to Stage Island Pool where the birding became more challenging. Along the way, we stopped for a Northern Harrier hunting the marsh, a couple of small groups of Great and Snowy Egrets with a few Great Blue Herons. A kettle of seven Turkey Vultures floated along side us for a short way. Also en route, numerous Gray Catbirds and a couple of American Robins and three Northern Mockingbirds crossed out path. An Eastern Towhee and Cedar Waxwings could be heard along the way.

     At Stage Island Pool, we birded from the road, which gave us the best sunlight direction and accommodated our large group. Certainly the majority of the birds were Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. The challenge was to pick out something different in between the short flights that the shorebirds kept taking, as they seemed quite jittery the whole time we were there. 

     I caught sight of a Western Sandpiper among a small group of Semipalmated Sandpipers, but they all took flight before I could get anyone else on it. I had better luck with a Baird’s Sandpiper that was feeding in a group close to the road. Several birders saw it before it disappeared into the vegetation along the edge of the pool. We had much better luck with a Short-billed Dowitcher whose rich brown coloration in the sunlight was breathe-taking for most to view through the scopes. Everyone got good scope views of Double-Crested Cormorants drying their wings of the flats. 

     The shorebird show at Stage Island came to abrupt end when a Merlin swooped down out of no where and chased groups of birds, trying to single one out for the kill. It was not successful in the time we were these. We decided to head back up island to look at Bill Forward Pool while the falcon was busy at Stage.

     Parking was tight at the blind, but we managed. All twenty-six of us crowded into the small blind, taking turns to see some of the specialty birds that were there. And special they were. We saw two Golden Plovers among the twenty Black-bellied Plovers. Even the single Black-bellied Plover that was in alternate (breeding) plumage, sporting his jet-black chest and belly, contrasting with the white and gray of his wings and back, was admired by all.

     Also special were two Buff-breasted Sandpipers, which kept disappearing in and out of the grass. With patience, many of the group did manage to catch at least one of them out in the open. Others got to see a Dunlin and a Piping Plover in the mix, which also included more Dowitchers and Yellowlegs. While we were watching all the shorebirds, a Northern Harrier was tussling with a Red-tailed Hawk directly over the blind!

     We then headed to the Hellcat dike, hoping that the sun would not be too much against us there. Walking out the dike, the initial conversation concerned the high number of Carp corpses along the edge of North Pool. A gull was feeding on one of them. 

     Looking toward Bill Forward Pool, where there were some numbers of shorebirds close enough for good viewing. We had some close views of White-rumped Sandpipers and we were all able to study them at length along side some Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers for, once again, nice comparisons. As we discussed the differences between them, we all agreed that “shorebird identification is tough!”

     As we walked back from the dike, our last species of the trip was not a shorebird at all – it was a Heron, a Night Heron that is. More specifically, there we two juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Herons standing on either side of the North Pool channel. They posed for all to get good scope views and they were a great finish to a wonderful morning of birding!

     Wednesday Morning Birding happens at 9:30a-12:30p every Wednesday (except for inclement days) out of Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. Birders of all levels, beginners and experienced, are welcome. It is always a fun group and a great way to learn. Pre-registration is NOT necessary, just show up and bring binoculars and a field guide if you have them. For more information, contact them at 978-462-9998 orjoppaflats@massaudubon.org.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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