Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Migrant Birds Signal Winter’s Approach
October 27, 2018
By Steve Grinley
In case you had any doubts that winter was coming to New England, you will be pleased to hear that the first snowy owl of the season was seen on Plum Island this week. Perhaps a tad early, this bird was seen out on the marsh from Lot 1 on the Refuge, and again the next day out beyond the Salt Pannes.
Juncos, also known as “snowbirds,” have been arriving the past couple of weeks along with many other sparrows. This week, it was hard to drive down the road on the Parker River Refuge without coming upon a flock of sparrows feeding along the grassy edge of the road. Juncos are the dominant species, with scores of white-crowned, white-throated and song sparrows. These birds continually flushed with each vehicle racing up and down the island. Where these cars and trucks are going in such a hurry I do not know – with most returning, in equal haste, back up island.
Last weekend, Bob and Bonnie Buxton in Merrimac were surprised to see a small flock of about six Evening Grosbeaks visiting their feeders and water feature in their yard. These nomadic birds visited twice that morning, but were not seen after that. If you remember the Winter Finch forecast that I told you about last month, these grosbeaks are one of the species that were expected to move down into New England this winter. I’m hoping that their influx will be like decades ago when large flocks of these handsome birds would descend upon our sunflower feeders and clean them out in no time!
Evening grosbeaks have been visiting feeders in southern New Hampshire and western Massachusetts and they have been reported as far south as Cape Cod so far this season. One was even reported from Plum Island, as was another winter finch, pine siskins. Many siskins have already been reported all over Essex county, many just heard in flight overhead, while some were found in flocks of goldfinch feeding on birches. Soon they should join the finches at your thistle feeders, so keep an eye out!
Getting back to juncos and sparrows, a few more unusual sparrows have been seen lately. Along with the previously mentioned white-crowned and white-throated sparrows that normally migrate through our area, vesper, Lincoln’s, fox and clay-colored sparrows have also been seen. Most of the resident chipping sparrows have left foe warmer climates but a few late chippys are moving through. I haven’t heard any reports of our wintering tree sparrows making their way here yet.
A grasshopper sparrow has made a rare Plum Island appearance this past week. An uncommon local breeder in fields and even airports in some parts of the state, grasshopper sparrows are special on Plum Island. This skulky, secretive bird was discovered at the Maintenance Area on the refuge and it took a combination of luck and patience for others to get a look at this bird.
One such birder was our friend Doug Chickering of Groveland who share with us his experince with this bird:
“There is no accurate way to calculate how much of our field experience is taken up with waiting. I think we don’t pay much attention to it. If you want to see the bird, then occasionally you must wait. Perhaps the wait has little impact because at the end of most waits there is a glorious event. Well, today I waited. I’ve done it before but to wait, at one location, after one bird, for five hours can seem to be a little.… well, crazy.
“However, it was a glorious, clean, bright cool October day and there really was no better place to be other than the Wardens on Plum Island waiting. Waiting for the wily maddeningly shy Grasshopper Sparrow. And even though the wait seemed excessive I hardly noticed. For this day had all the mitigating characteristics that could break the boredom of the wait. It was a beautiful day. Upper fifties. Nearly no wind. The sky an empty perfect blue reaching up into the cosmos. A crowd that waxed and waned and was convivial and friendly. I was able to chat with old friends and catch up on the latest news and triumphs.
“But most of all what made the wait bearable, even pleasant, were the birds. There were lots of birds. It was one of those ideal Sparrow days at the Wardens in October. Song Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow. White-crowned sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Junco, Vesper Sparrow (seen by others but not me) and all crowned by the Grasshopper Sparrow.
“True to its nature; the Grasshopper Sparrow skulked, and lurked and peeked at us from leafy semi-hidden perches, then occasionally vanished into a sparse bush or clump of dried grass. And because there were so many Sparrows around us we were kept busy focusing on every little sudden movement, and every little quick flight of a small bird. Filled with varying mixtures of hope and skepticism we waited.
“At one point my patience and optimism broke and I had to walk back to my car at lot#2. Just as I got to my car I received a text; drawing me back to the wardens. The bird was being seen. So, I returned. Returned to wait. Close to four-thirty in the afternoon, with the afternoon giving signals that it was closing down, I saw the little varlet. A quick but great look in the deep goldenrod, then another, longer and a little better view. Enough to identify it, then it flew out on a branch of a leafless tree and afforded long – a half minute anyway—look.
“So, having seen the bird well, as did everyone still on site, I headed home. Five hours for a little inconsiderate sparrow. It seems like a nice exchange.”
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