Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Season’s First Snowy Owl Appears On Plum Island
October 25, 2008
The first snowy owl of the season appeared at Sandy Point on Plum Island this Thursday. This was one of the earliest records for this winter owl on the island. There have also been sightings of snow buntings, Lapland longspurs and horned larks on Plum Island and coastal New Hampshire during the past week. It is beginning to feel like we are being pushed into the next season, whether we are ready or not. Daily reports of pine siskins, an early report of a white-winged crossbill on the island, couple with the accelerated loss of leaves on trees in recent wind storms, only further emphasize the inevitable.
The offshore storm that went by this past week brought in a show of northern gannets feeding close off the beaches. These large birds with pointed wings, adults white with black wing tips, ride the winds and continually plunge into the ocean for fish, making for a spectacular display.
There are still some fall migrants moving through. A yellow-billed cuckoo appeared at the Warden’s last weekend. White-throated, white-crowned, clay-colored sparrows and dickcissels are still moving through our area along with ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, and hermit thrushes. A number of warblers have been trickling through. We saw orange-crowned, parula, magnolia, palm, black-throated green, black-throated blue, blackpoll and lots of yellow-rumped warblers last weekend.
Doug Chickering of Groveland had a good fall migration day at Salisbury on Thursday, with a close encounter with one particular uncommon warbler:
“It is why we go out. It is why we return to our favorite birding places day in and day out, searching carefully armed with nothing but memories and hope. Lois Cooper and I went to the Salisbury Grove today (October 23) expecting little more than a score of Myrtles and maybe a few White-throated Sparrows scratching in the leaves. But it is October and wondrous things habitually happen in October. And what else is there on a fine crisp, cold fall morning but bushwhacking through the remainder of the migration waves.
“We walked through the Grove. Finding the things one expected or half expected to find. Myrtles, a Kinglet, a Hermit Thrush, a very vocal Hairy Woodpecker and a few Juncos. Always nice, but no surprises.
“After we had finished our usual route we exited the grove by the picnic area that is lined with Spruces. The same place where we entered. This is where the bulk of the activity was. There were at least a dozen birds leaping in and out of spruces, or dipping down to the sandy ground, all furiously chasing after bits of food invisible to us.
I stopped and took one last look at the Yellow-rumps when I came upon a bird that was not a Yellow-rump. It moved among the branches, occasionally dipping out of sight, but spending most of it’s time in the open, clearly illuminated by the bright sunshine. It was a Warbler, a dull fall bird with light streaking down the breast under a faded yellowish wash. The head and upper back were gray with some lightness around the eyes and thin dull wing bars. It was when I got a good look at the side of head and saw the yellow behind the ear patch that I had that delicious epiphany, that moment when you realize you are gazing at something special. Cape May Warbler.
“Although not identical to the field guides it was a classic fall Cape May Warbler. Yellow rump, bright yellow streaks on the primaries and occasionally when it flew the small white patches at the corners of the tail flashed. It turned into one of those perfect birding moments that will be the subject of our conversation whenever Lois and I discuss the year past. All Cape May Warbler sightings are to be cherished but this one was something more. The bird was out in the sun and only a few feet away, often at eye level. It would stop and fluff itself and sit still for a few moments, it would fly down to the ground a few feet from us and it stayed and stayed. One time it actually flew right at us and perched briefly on Lois’ shoulder, tipping its head quizzically at her before flying off.
“This wasn’t a rarity for the records but it put on a show that was rare and special. I suppose we could have taken a few steps closer, but the moment was so magical that we dared not blink or move for fear that Someone would get wise and snatch the magic moment away. We’ve all seen Chickadees and Kinglets like this and those are breathtaking exciting moments in our birding days. But this was a Cape May Warbler. Enough said.”
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