Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fall birding has its surprises
October 27, 2007
By Steve Grinley

     The air is crisp, the foliage is peaking, and bird life around us is changing. Many of the summer birds have left. Strings of cormorants can be seen migrating in the skies overhead as are formations of Canada geese. A few flocks of snow geese have also been seen heading south high overhead.

     A few of the winter birds have already begun to arrive including juncos, pine siskins and even a few scattered reports of evening grosbeaks. The latter used to be more regular winter visitors in the 1960s and ’70s but have been almost absent from southern New England in recent history. There was even a short-eared owl sighted on Plum Island this past week.

     The weather, for the most part, has given us reason to be outdoors this fall season. Plum Island continues to be a favorite in this season, as more species of ducks continue to arrive as do many of the other fall migrants and winter arrivals. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares with us his visit to Plum Island last weekend.

     “Occasionally events arise in our non-birding life that intrude upon our weekends and clutter our usual birding schedule. Therefore, on this alternating fine and gloomy October day, Lois Cooper and I only had time for a morning visit to Plum Island and could not participate in the wild goose chase that is the rage these last few weeks. We weren’t expecting much. Except for the various interesting geese and the possibility of a rare gull, things seemed very quiet. Yet I am fully aware that the last few weeks of October and first few weeks of November can spring the most extraordinary surprises.

     “Besides, the foliage was near its peak, which is reason to be out and about all on its own. Almost by instinct and almost by default we headed for Plum Island. In the changing light of clouds and breaks in clouds the turning foliage ranged from the first traces of color along the fringes of summer green, all the way up to tall trees ablaze in varied reds and yellows and golds, some in spectacular combinations too breathtaking and too subtle to lend to any description. This fall’s color got off to an unpromising start around here, but with some heavy rains it quickly turned to a burnished, fresh brilliance exceeding anything that sits in my memory.

     “At Plum Island things started slowly. There was nothing at the boat ramp, the usual mixture of black ducks, wigeon and yellowlegs in the Pannes, and a few startled sparrows and junco jumping up from the grass at the side of the road. We did stop by the double oaks in the S curves where there was a small flurry of activity, but even that turned out to be a pair of downy woodpeckers and a smattering of the ubiquitous myrtle (yellow-rumped) warblers.

     “Our fortunes changed markedly when we joined Ann and Gary Gurka and TomWetmore at the North Pool overlook. Along with ducks and geese and a hunting Harrier, there was a pair of long-billed dowitchers and a pair of pipits in the greenery between the cattails and the water, and two lively American golden plover in the field. We also had an eastern meadowlark in the Town Marker field. He alternated between feeding in the low grass and perching on a weed, displaying his bright yellow breast and filling the air with a song that was slightly muted but with its unmistakable, crystal-clear keening tone. For me the call seemed slightly out of place – a lovely haunting echo from a distant spring. Unexpected but welcome. There are few birds that I find as wistfully evocative as a singing meadowlark.

     “While watching the meadowlark through my scope I had one of those strange quick moments in birding when something flew through the field of view. Something that immediately snatches one’s attention. Of course, I wasn’t looking at it, but I did almost see it. It was dark and about the size of a catbird, maybe a little smaller. I couldn’t identify it, but it immediately struck me as something different. Tom Wetmore caught sight of the bird as well, and it struck him the same way, but he had the presence of mind to follow it in flight while I returned to my meadowlark.

     “I’ve got a shrike,” Tom announced as he followed his bird to the top of one of the trees at the edge of the dike.

     “In a few minutes we all had our scopes focused on a nice immature northern shrike. The first shrike of the season. So there it was. From a final lament of a call from last spring to one of the first birds of the approaching winter. October for sure. I wonder what the November surprise will be this year.”

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