Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Raptor Show Thrills Hawk Watchers
November 19, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     November is a great time to get excellent views of the many raptors in the Newburyport area. Hawk expert Paul Roberts of Medford leads perennial trips for Mass Audubon to share his enthusiasm for raptors. He shares with us his latest adventure from last week:

     “I led a Wintering Hawks class for Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Sanctuary to Plum Island/NBPT/Salisbury. It was sunny and clear most of the day, temps in the 40s, with moderate W/SW winds. It was one of the most extraordinary days of hawk watching I’ve ever experienced on Plum Island in 45 years of birding there. It was so exhilarating for 6 hours that I, and many others, was simply exhausted at the end of the class…

     “As we left the PRNWR Visitor Center at 8:00, the tone was set for the day when a gorgeous adult male Peregrine Falcon soared and hung roughly 30 feet over our cars, and then over our heads as everyone exited their cars to admire this bird hanging low over us. It then slowly flew north to show us its incredible blue back, after giving us naked-eyed views of the fine vermiculation on its breast and belly. I doubt that few of us had ever been so close to a wild Peregrine.

     “As we pulled into the parking lot just before the bridge onto the island, four Snow Buntings landed on the asphalt immediately in front of the lead car, closely followed by a juvenile Sharp-shinned [hawk], who missed the buntings, looked momentarily perplexed, and then flew up to a utility pole along the road for all to admire it. We got out to scan the marsh north of the turnpike, when we spotted an adult Bald Eagle flying and landing on Woodbridge Island. Then someone spotted a juvenile Northern Harrier flying east along the marsh, and then a second adult Bald Eagle landing reasonably close on the marsh south of the road. (The class was less than a half hour old.) We then had five juvenile harriers in the Plum Bush marsh, including one repeatedly harassing a second, while near annually high tides flooded the marsh.

     “As we got onto the island we had a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, rather lightly marked, perch hunting on the dunes side, where it was being repeatedly dive-bombed by a juvenile harrier. We quickly drove down the island so we could drive north with the sun at our backs. We spotted two adult Red-tailed Hawks hunting close to one another in a tree on Cross Farm Hill, and we had a juvenile harrier, with Redtail and harrier kiting/hovering low over the same patch at the same time, offering excellent comparison in size, shape, and style. I think about this time we had a good view of a white-breasted adult female Northern Harrier. 

     “Suzanne Sullivan had spotted a raptor on a pole in the south marsh. (Thanks, Suzanne.) I had scanned the marsh from the car but had not seen anything; the bird was so dark it looked like part of the pole. Its “hulking-shoulders, narrow-waist” look at first suggested possible Peregrine, but as it moved around its light underbelly revealed it to be an adult Red-tailed Hawk hunching into the stiff breeze. 

     “But then we noticed an adult Peregrine on the Osprey platform south of the Old Pines, large and bulky, almost certainly a large female. It took off, soaring and in powered flight, then sailed south, where it hit the air brakes and headed north; a second Peregrine was soaring to its south, likely the large, dark falcon we had seen briefly flying north from Cross Farm. …It was here that we had a Gray Ghost [aka: adult male harrier] flying right past us, heading into the dunes just a little above eye level. We also had an immature Bald Eagle

     “We… proceeded to the Warden’s where… I spotted what appeared to be a Roughleg [Hawk] over the dunes and road. We hurried down the road and on the southern half of the Town Marker marsh had a juvenile intermediate dark morph Roughleg hovering, advancing, and hovering again, legs dangling beneath its light body. It dropped into the scrub and came up, perching with a meadow vole in its little talons. It took its meal east into the dunes, out of sight of most other predators.

     “We had a Redtail again, on the dunes side, and then the Roughleg re-appeared, but it had morphed into the more familiar juvenile light morph – TWO different Roughlegs, affording excellent views. This bird began hovering actively, and was quickly joined by another Roughleg…. oops, a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk that kited just above the light morph Roughleg. They then began soaring together in tandem, like they were just having fun. What an opportunity for photography and comparisons. It was a long-winged, long-tailed juvenile Redtail, but looked much thicker-winged and bulkier than the longer-winged, longer-tailed, more buoyant Roughleg. The Roughleg’s body looked like it was cantilevered beneath its arched wings, while the bulkier Redtail looked like its heavier body was resting on the top of its wings. 

     “The [Red]Tail melted away, but then we had the Roughleg back, this time with an adult Bald Eagle soaring directly over it, so both of these raptors were in the same binocular frame, hanging into the westerly wind. Everyone in the class was becoming giddy, as we were seeing so much, so well, for so long. Whenever we stopped and go out of our mobile cans, we spotted one raptor, and then another, and another, and another, often interacting. We also had a small, presumably male juvenile Peregrine come up the road just behind us, in excellent early afternoon light, giving everyone views comparable to the adult at our start.

     “We saw several flocks of Starlings balling up and swooping and swerving. I sagely advised the class to look for a Merlin strafing the starlings, trying to pick one off, or look for an accipiter in the midst of the sturnus ball, as starlings often mob soaring accipiters, especially Sharpies. Wrong, as almost immediately a juvenile Cooper’s Hawks blasted out of the woods behind us and cleaved the Starling ball. 

     “The sparkling black bird ball exploded as the Cooper’s picked out a specific Starling and followed it beak on tail perhaps 30-40 yards in hot pursuit before giving up. A little later we saw the Cooper’s exploding north through the vegetation on the dunes in pursuit of other prey. We then elected to finish up with a quick trip to Salisbury to look for a reported Short-eared Owl. We failed, and did not spot a Snowy Owl, Golden Eagle, Northern Goshawk, or mythical Gyrfalcon en route, but we did see another juvenile harrier and then had an adult Bald Eagle flying high over the river southwest of the park’s boat ramp.

     “As we pulled back into the Visitor’s Center to end the trip, a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk executed a raid on birds at the center’s feeder, a fitting end to a spectacular day. One of the most intense days of spectacular views of raptors I’ve ever had with a class… or without.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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