Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Discover Birding Hotspots on Quiet Days
October 9, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     The birding was slow on Plum Island this past weekend. Very few migrants had made their way to the refuge. Walks through the Hellcat Trail on Saturday and, again, Sunday morning turned up a only black-throated green and yellow-rumped warblers, a few golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers and little else. Oh there were still lots of robin feeding on the berries, towhees were calling from everywhere on Sunday, and a few catbirds were still “mewing” here and there. White-throated sparrows and a couple of field sparrows were all we could muster up in that department.

     So on Sunday afternoon, we decided to try some different places. We first went to the Spencer-Peirce Little Farm off High Road in Newbury. The agricultural fields there are often good in the fall for attracting seed-eating passerines including sparrows, buntings, and bobolinks and an occasional blue grosbeak or dickcissel. If there are any recently plowed fields, pipits, golden plover or buff-breasted sandpipers sometimes make an appearance.

     As we headed through the fields, all seemed very quiet. The wind was fairly brisk, which was probably keeping birds down. But we saw very little activity except for a couple of darting sparrows and a lone double-crested cormorant swimming in the irrigation pond.

     We decided to head to the northeast corner of the field where we have had luck in the past. It was a little more sheltered from the days northeast breeze and there were a few puddles along the edge there to attract some birds. Sure enough, as we approached, we could see plenty of bird activity flying from the that end of the fields to the shrubbery along the edge.

     We set up our scopes and began to examine every bird as it flew up to a bush and perched momentarily. The majority of birds were Savannah sparrows. These finely streaked birds with a dash of yellow in the face looked as crisp as the autumn air around us. We watched several bathe in the puddle along the edge and then perch in a nearby shrub and preen themselves.

     As we watched the sparrows go back and forth we were slowly able to pick out some different species. There were several song sparrows, about half a dozen white-throated sparrows and we did manage to see one white-crowned. My scope got on a Lincoln’s sparrow, which proved to be too quick for Margo to see. She, in turn, saw a field sparrow that I missed. She also spotted an indigo bunting which, as it turned out, had a couple of friends with him, all in their soft-tan winter/female type plumage. One was a first year bird with slight streaks on its creamy breast.

     Also in the mix were several swamp sparrows and an orange-crowned warbler. While we watched these birds, mostly through the scopes, we were entertained by other sights and sound around us. Several flickers were frequenting the taller trees in the back and we could hear both a red-bellied and a downy woodpecker calling from the woods. At one point we heard the “chink” call note of a rose-breasted grosbeak, but we never saw it. A lone female red-winged blackbird visited some nearby phragmites for a brief while and then took off. A red-tailed hawk was being harassed by some crows and sixteen American pipits flew overhead.

     After spending about three hours there, we headed off the fields. En route we encountered a rusty blackbird that flew out of the field and perched in a tree for good scope looks. Then two fall bobolinks flew out from the fields and afforded us only binocular flight views as they made their distinctive flight calls.

     We then decided to walk the Salisbury’s Eastern Marsh Rail Trail, which I haven’t been on since it was still gravel. Now it is nicely paved and a pleasant walk through varying habitats including oak woods and marsh estuaries. As we entered the trail from the southern end off Friedenfels Street, we saw, and heard, three night herons fly up from some trees around a small pond. They may have been roosting there for the day and decided to get an early start to their evening hunt for food.

     Along the trail we encountered another white-crowned sparrow, some chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets, and one ruby-crowned kinglet. A kingfisher was calling form the marsh beyond and we later saw him perched in a tree not far off the trail.

     We heard yellowlegs overhead, and when we got to the bridge over the estuary, we saw lots of them feeding on the disappearing mud flats along the edge of the marsh. The tide was rushing in and it wasn’t long before the congregation of shorebirds was forced to leave. Before they did, I was able to count 67 yellowlegs, of which about 15 were lesser yellowlegs, the rest were greater. Among them were nine short-billed dowitchers and two dunlin.

     As we made our way back down the trail, the sun was lowering in the western sky producing some spectacular colors through the scattered clouds. It was a fitting end to a colorful afternoon of birding.

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