Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Autumn Birding is Special on Plum Island
October 15, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     Autumn is a special time on Plum Island, especially on those crisp, sunny fall mornings. Such mornings remind me of a tale told by Doug Chickering of Groveland a few years back, when he paid a visit to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in autumn and shared with us the magical spirit that this natural place holds. I thought that this would be a good time to share it with you once again:

     “I drove onto the refuge a half hour before dawn and started the day with a walk out to the edge of the marsh from the Wardens – looking for Sparrows. It was a splendid way to start a perfectly cut gem of a mid autumn day. I stood in the shadows as the rising sun illuminated the broad sweep of the salt marshes and the hills of Newbury on the far side. In places the sun flashed off the windows of the distant houses. Heading north were small groups of Egrets laboring in low flight, almost yellow in the new sunlight, off to fishing pools somewhere out there. 

     “There was no wind and the morning was nearly soundless. Just the distant muted crash of the ocean behind me and, oddly enough, the low deep growl of “MR” groaner; the sea bouy marking the mouth of the Merrimac River; a good four miles away. There were no Sparrows yet so I went to check the Bill Forward Pool first and then head into hellcat for passerines.

     “It appears as if the height of the shore bird migration is pretty much over for in the Bill forward Pool, with the tide still half up, there were only a scattering of Dunlin and Yellowlegs. At Hellcat I was, once again, first one in the parking lot; the first one on the trail. Right away I came across two Black-and-white Warblers that I took to be a good omen. Then right after them I spotted a Scarlet Tanager directly overhead. It had gone over to basic almost completely with only a splash of scarlet on the belly and peeking out of the undertail coverts. The bright red set against a deep yellow that had a taste of orange was nearly as breath taking as if it were in full breeding colors. It was the start of an understated but special day. 

     “If I had the authority or possessed the alchemy to keep the refuge to myself for a few hours on a morning like this, I would do it. Even though it would be selfish and contrary to everything I believe in and all the generosity of spirit that I take pride in, I would do it. Later on I would bird for a while with a stranger, who I like to think was now a friend, and later with a pair of old friends. Yet this first hour of solitude in the stillness of a cool fall day; the sky a bright endless blue, in the rising sun, engrossed in the adventure of picking birds from the sudden movement in the trees; or trying to follow them as they darted into the underbrush is nothing short of magic.

     “The stranger was Kathy Dia who put me on the first Brown Creeper of the day which was enough to qualify her as a friend of mine. Most of the rest of the morning was spent birding with old friends Bob and Bonnie Buxton. We spent nearly the entire morning at hellcat. It wasn’t jumping and it wasn’t quiet and, as expected, the birds were difficult to get on. Although I am a sure it was our imagination the birds down low seemed to quickly vanish onto the deep corners of the underbrush and the ones up high seemed to be able to put themselves between us and the sun. It was a struggle, it was frustrating, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

     “The list for the day was interesting but not spectacular – eight species of Warbler, including my first Palm Warbler of the season, three species of Vireo, including a Philadelphia Vireo. This has been the best year for Philadelphia Vireo, for me anyway, for a very long time. I also found two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the S Curves and my first Junco of the season at Hellcat. The season marches on.”

     Doug’s book, “Reflections of a Golden-winged Warbler,” is a collection of Doug’s essays, including many that I have shared with you in this column through the years. Look for it in your favorite birding or bookstore.

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