Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Gulls and Shorebirds Highlight Wednesday Morning Birding
October 3, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     I led the Wednesday Morning Birding group for the Joppa Flats Center again a week ago, and it was even more rewarding than the previous week. This time we had about sixteen participants and, once again, everyone seemed thrilled with the birds that we saw.

     The tide was going out when we started, so we first headed to the boat ramp on Water Street. A large flock of about two hundred Bonaparte’s gulls were sitting in water just off the mud flats. These are handsome, small gulls, smaller than out more common herring gulls and ring-billed gulls. They have a gray mantle (upper wing) with contrasting white in the outer primary feathers, and black tips to the wings. All that wasn’t visible as they sat preening and resting in the water, but we could see the black spot behind their eye, which replaces their black hood in their basic plumage. A few birds were walking on the mud flat and we could see their bright red legs.

     Then, all of a sudden, the whole flock ascended into the sky. They started to swoop together, like a squadron of bees, changing direction in unison as they went back and forth over the water. I looked around, but couldn’t see any potential predator that may have caused this sudden movement. As we watched the flock of gulls in constant motion, it was almost artistic. The cloud changed shape and form, with kaleidascope-like color flashes of gray and white as they twisted and turned through the sky. Then, as quickly as they rose, they settled back down on the water, and continued their resting and preening. It was quite a show.

     We took some time to study the yellowlegs that were feeding in the mud close by. We could notice the size difference between the greater and lesser yellowlegs. I pointed out the different bill lengths, which is helpful when they are not so cooperatively side-by-side for comparison.

     We then headed down Plum Island where our first stop was the Salt Pannes. There among the black ducks and mallards were two male greater scaup. It is a little early for these ducks, but later in the fall, more scaup will arrive and become more plentiful in the harbor and nearby reservoirs. There was also a male kingfisher perched on one of the tree swallow boxes. His large bill and “bad hair day” look is always a crowd-pleaser.

     We continued on to the North Pool Overlook where we found a pintail among the many gadwall and mallard ducks. A harrier soared over the phragmites and a distant turkey vulture hung in the morning breeze. There were a couple of juvenile semipalmated plovers on the mud that everyone had a good look at through the scopes. A peregrine falcon flashed by, swooping down near the water, but it didn’t seem to disturb the duck population there.

     At Bill Forward Pool we hit the jackpot. There were numerous black-bellied plovers feeding at the edge of the pool with about twenty dunlin. There were yellowlegs and snowy egrets feeding nearby. Another kingfisher was perched atop a stick at the water’s edge.

     As we made out way down the south dike, another peregrine falcon came through and put up all the shorebirds. Among the ensuing frantic mixed calls I heard a whimbrel from further down the dike. We could see it fighting the westerly breeze in an effort to fly over the dike. Its large size and long, down-curved bill was clearly visible. It then landed on the dike for all to see, but he didn’t stay long enough to get a scope on it.

     As everything quieted down, the shorebirds returned to the nearby flats. One person pointed out a large, brown shorebird returning with them, and I first assumed that it was the whimbrel. But when it landed, I could clearly see that this bird had a upturned bill – a godwit! Everyone then had excellent scope views of the marbled godwit as it fed close by.

     I then decided to study all the shorebirds once more before we wrapped it up. Among the black-bellied plovers I discover an American golden plover. Its smaller size, darker coloration, white eyebrow contrasting with a dark cap, were all field marks that were easily studied by all. It was a life bird for several of the participants and a great way to end the trip.

     If you haven’t tried Wednesday Morning Birding with the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Center, you should treat yourself to a great time. For more information, call the Center at 978-462-9998.

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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