Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Loons and Gannets Highlight Local Sea Watch
November 8, 2008
Steve Grinley

     With Eastern Standard Time beginning this week, the sunrise comes a little earlier now. Since my body was still on Daylight Savings Time, it was a good opportunity for me to make some early morning trips to Plum Island before work to check the ocean for migrating birds. A lot of the water birds are moving through this time of year and each morning that I was there, it was a bit different.

     The gannet show continued off the coast all week. You can watch these large seabirds from the shores of Salisbury or Plum Island, as they plunge into the water like rockets. Depending on the wind direction, many may be flying very close to land. Their long pointed wings and their long neck and bill give them a very “pointed” appearance. The adults sport a bright white plumage with jet black wing tips. The immature birds are darker overall. I saw fifty to a hundred of these birds flying by in an hour or two.

     Another spectacular sight is the high numbers of loons that are offshore. Tens, and often hundreds, of loons can be seen sitting on the water and flying south, low over the water. One morning, I saw small “flotillas” of ten to fifteen common loons not far offshore from the platform at Lot 1 on the Parker River Refuge. Other loons were not far from the surf breaking on the beach. A few of the loons still have their breeding plumage, though many are transitioning into their basic winter plumage. Occasionally I would see a loon that looked like it had an all white body. Upon closer examination in the scope I could see that the bird had actually turn onto its back, with legs in the air, and it would be preening its breast feathers. Throughout the week I would also hear one or two loons give their mournful call.

     Some mornings, there were many more red-throated loons than common loons. The red-throated loon is a bit smaller and thinner than the common loon. It has a thinner, slightly upturned bill compared to the heavy stout bill of the common loon. One morning I counted more than a hundred and fifty red-throated, compared to about sixty common loons. Some of these loons will winter off our coast but many of them will travel further south.

     Other birds have been present on these sea watches. A few red-necked grebes and a couple of honed grebes were not far from shore. The numbers of these will increase in the next few weeks. Last weeks Wednesday morning birding program out of MAS Joppa Flats discovered three common murres offshore. These are some of the first alcids seen this season form Plum island and their numbers should also increase as winter draws near.

     Most of the ducks I saw were flying by, but a few could be seen further out on the water with my spotting scope. All three species of scoters, along with common eider, were migrating by. Small flocks of long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers were also streaming by. Greater scaup and a few bufflehead were moving through as well.

     I saw four to five brant fly by on several mornings. There continues to be strings of cormorants moving over the water, as well as over the land. A few Bonaparte’s gulls fly by now and then, but I didn’t see any kittiwakes off Plum Island, which were reported off Cape Ann. Of course I’m always hoping for shearwaters or jaegers, but most of those reports come from Provincetown on cape cod.

     While sea watching from the platforms at Plum Island or from the lots at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, small flocks of passerines sometimes pass overhead. Small flocks of snow buntings have been common sights, as well as many migrating goldfinch. Smaller numbers of horned larks, Lapland longspurs, and pine siskins have been calling overhead. One lucky individual even saw a snowy owl migrating over the water this past week. Two snowy owls are now present on Sandy Point and one has been seen at the north end of Plum island from the Salisbury side of the river.

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