Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Feeding Frenzy Creates Bird Show Offshore
November 14, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     Last Sunday’s bird walk took us down Plum Island, where we concentrated on waterfowl. Our first stop was at the Lot 1 platform overlooking the ocean. There we found red-throated and common loons, red-necked and horned grebes, white winged scoters and common eiders, long-tailed ducks, and many gannets plunging into the water for a meal.

     A stop at the Salt Pannes revealed pintails, American widgeon and 2 hooded mergansers among the mallards and black ducks. A few greater yellowlegs were standing on the edges and a harrier cruised the marsh beyond.

     At the North Pool Overlook, another harrier was harassing a red-tailed hawk in the top of a cedar. A late osprey flew by and perched in a pine tree for everyone to get good looks at through the scope. A few green-winged teal were in the pool along with one leucistic form teal, cream-colored all over.

     Our final stop was at Stage Island where we found shovelers, more pintails, ruddy ducks and a scaup. Male and female buffleheads were diving constantly. One pair of sharp eyes spotted a pied-billed grebe on the river side of the island.

     Sunday’s walk was enjoyable, but Doug Chickering of Groveland tells about his experience on Plum Island the next day:

     “Today, November 9, Lois Cooper and I decided to spend another perfect fall morning seeing what we could find out in the ocean from the Parking Lot #1 ocean platform on Plum Island. Actually we had originally intended to look out to the ocean at all three of the major Plum Island ocean venues. We never got past Parking Lot #1. From the moment we arrived out at the platform and surveyed the sparkling clear vista of the sea before us; even before we could set up the scope or sweep with the binoculars, we could see that it was going to be a special day. The low rolling sea was alive with the white flecks of birds in the water and the movement of birds in the air.

     “As I started to scan I noticed a dense pack of activity north, a few hundred yards up the island just offshore. Gulls were flying and splashing on the surface of the water, and from all around others were flying in to join the party. Clearly a feeding frenzy. It lasted only a few minutes and then the crowd dispersed. They didn’t go very far. When I turned my attention to the rest of the ocean before us, I saw that although there were many gulls, the majority of the swimmers in front of me were Red-throated Loons and the majority of flying birds, Gannets.

     “Then the birds began to cluster up again, and this time right in front of us. It was a little eerie for there seemed to be an unhurried, almost orderly quality to it. The birds flew in with the gulls settling on the surface; the heads of the Loons, gray and serpentine, popping up through out the crowd. The Gulls, uncharacteristically, barely disturbed the water with little splashing, and were silent and deliberate in their actions as they actually pulled up little fish, then took to the air. I searched among the flying Gulls in hopes of finding an opportunistic Jaeger brought in by the promise of a meal, but couldn’t find one. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised when a Greater Shearwater glided gracefully by; swung around the periphery of the group and then serenely beat its wings a few times and headed back out to sea.

     “Then the throb of activity slipped away as quickly and mysteriously as it began. The birds once again dispersed and began to roam around, seemingly aimlessly but with an air of anticipation. It was then that I took on the laborious task of counting the Red-throated Loons reaching 595 before the glare of the sun on the waves to the south ended any accurate counting. There were clearly more than that.

     “There was also a healthy smattering of maybe 30 to 50 Common Loons, and probably over 100 Gannets. It was odd that the Gannets didn’t really participate in the frenzy but continued to hunt singly, splashing down in ones or two’s and then loafing on the surface of water. Lois and I have witnessed great numbers of Red-throated Loons passing by Andrews Point and Halibut Point in the fall, and in numbers that exceed what we counted today; but this is the most I have ever seen down in the water and feeding.”

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