Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Pursuit of Unusual Birds Delight Birders
October 15, 2011

By Steve Grinley

     Last weekend’s record warmth, created by prolonged west and southwest winds, brought many unusual southern and western birds to eastern Massachusetts. Summer tanagers, the southern cousin of our scarlet tanager, were seen at Plum Island, Salisbury, and Rockport. We saw 2 ash-throated flycatchers (common in the Southwest) on Plum Island last Saturday, including one that was banded at the banding station there and later released at the Warden’s by Bill Gette. Other ash-throated flycatchers have appeared near Boston. Hooded warblers were cooperative at Salisbury and Plum Island and a rare lark bunting spent many days at the parking lot of Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester.

     Pursuing such rare birds can be part of the fun of watching birds. Doug Chickering was in such a pursuit this past week and he tells of his quest:

     “In May I had missed the American Oystercatcher on Plum Island… once again. I also whiffed on the Elegant Tern and arrived too late by minutes to score the Long-tailed Jaeger. Lois and I saw the White Ibis, but not when it was on Plum Island. 2011 has been a good year by almost any measure. In fact I had seen a lot of first rate birds on Plum this year. Ash-throated Flycatcher, Gull-billed Tern, Yellow-throated Warbler, Tricolored Heron, Clapper Rail and Golden-winged warbler; how could I complain? Yet… well I hadn’t been able to add to my most cherished list, my Plum Island Life list. In fact I began to become reconciled to the fact that I wasn’t going to get a new lifer for Plum this year. After all, new additions have become progressively more and more difficult. The days were dwindling down into mid fall. Then Tom Wetmore began reporting Parasitic Jaeger off bar head at the south end of Plum Island.

     “So when I set out this morning the Jaeger was my target. Even though I suspected that this would be just another Lucy-and-the-football moment, I was determined to give it try. I casually birded the usual patches of the island before heading for Emerson rocks, reaching there about 11 am. The tide was high, and the cloud cover was sufficient to negate the glare that would ordinarily cover Ipswich bay. Even before setting up my scope I could see activity in the water south of me. Although I had a fairly good viewing point from the Emerson Rocks platform I could see that it significantly improved if I went down to bar head.

     “Parking my car in the state lot I trudged through the sands and soon joined a pair of other birders looking out over the water. A quick scan revealed an unusual amount of activity. Upon setting up my scope I witnessed an amazing sight. The whole of Ipswich bay seemed covered by hundreds of feeding birds. At first I thought they were terns but closer inspection revealed they were mostly Bonaparte’s gulls. [There were] hundreds of Bonaparte’s gulls with a fair representation of the other gulls along with small gathered flocks of Cormorants, a good number of terns and, far out, some Gannets.

     “There were clusters of gulls near and far, concentrated over parts of the bay while scattered gulls flew restlessly over the rest of the water. The clusters moved up and down, back and forth, breaking up them reforming in the characteristic way when pounding down small fish. Then my scope picked up a dark bird chasing one of the smaller gulls; it was… damn a young Herring gull.

     “I kept scanning and then I caught another dark bird, fairly close chasing a Bonaparte’s and this bird was different; very different. Dark and sleek, persistent and acrobatic; it swooped and held tenaciously to the trail of the smaller frantic bird as it tried to break off contact. This was a Jaeger, no doubt. I don’t have that much experience with Jaegers and when I first set up I wondered if I would be able to tell them from some persistent gull, but once seeing it; the difference was obvious.

     “Sometimes they swooped close to the water in hot pursuit and at other times they rose up just above the Cape Ann horizon as if looking for the next likely prey. By their size and sleek look I was convinced they were Parasitic. One of them helped my identification by conveniently landing in the water and giving me a prolonged look at its head. I could see at least three Jaegers and there was likely more than that. One was a juvenile dark morph, as black as a crow with very conspicuous white patches on the outer wings; one an adult dark morph, that tended to be slightly browner and with white wing patches that were less conspicuous and one a light morph adult with white on the belly and head. They moved with an alacrity and quick grace that made a Peregrine Falcon appear sluggish and clumsy in comparison. There were a few juvenile Herring Gulls who attempted to chase the smaller gulls and terns around as well, but their efforts were clearly amateurish while the Jaegers were quick and sure; these were the pros.

     “It was a riveting and spectacular scene; taking place across the entire breadth of Ipswich bay. We were joined by two more birders who had seen the action through their binoculars and amazingly enough had no trouble picking out the Jaegers even without a scope. Needless to say the five of us were suitably impressed. This fall seems an endless succession of rare and memorable events. Plum Island Lifer number 327. And the music never stops.”

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