Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Wintering Raptors Thrill Audubon Class
November 28, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Hawk expert Paul Roberts of Medford, led a Wintering Hawks class for the Ipswich River Audubon Sanctuary last weekend. The field trip covered Plum Island, Newburyport, and Salisbury. Paul shares his trip report with us here:

     “The morning began with a quick pre-class trip down Plum Island Turnpike, which yielded a perched immature Cooper’s Hawk close by on the wire, before it dove into the hedgerows, and a stunning adult western-type Red-tailed Hawk. The bird had a very rusty breast and a very heavy belly band consisting of thick horizontal barring and a few thick … streaks. The head was rich dark chocolate brown with a dark throat that looked like a solid dark brown denim patch adhered over the throat. The back was also semi-sweet chocolate brown, surrounded by rusty marshmallows on the scapulars. The tail was orangish red. One of the most striking Redtails I have ever seen in Massachusetts. 

     “Janet Kovner and I then returned to the Parker River Visitors Center where we met the class. A large Sharp-shinned Hawk, perched surreptitiously in a vine-draped, but leafless deciduous tree, went noticed by the class until an immature Cooper’s Hawk flew right in front of us behind a line of nearby trees. The movement drew everyone’s attention, including the Sharpie’s, who then flew off after the Cooper’s.

     “Heading towards the island, we saw the dark Redtail perched along the roadway, got looks in better light, and then watched the bird fly to a house on the north end of Plumbush. Great looks were had by all, as I advised them this was likely to be the rarest bid we would see this day, far less common than Roughlegs or Snowy Owls.

     “Mary Margaret Halsey advised us of a Snowy, which we found perched fairly closely to the road behind the north Salt Panne. Everyone had great views of this relatively small, lightly barred Snowy, a life bird for several. An immature Northern Harrier revealed its youthful enthusiasm and naïveté by giving the Snowy Owl a buzz haircut, trying to drive it from its perch. The wise white owl ignored the whippersnapper. 

     “Janet meanwhile spied a Merlin lifting off a swallow box, exploding over the road and towards the ocean. It returned in a few seconds coursing low over the bushes in the dunes, following the contours of the vegetation like a blanket of fog, and then executing a sharp, short turn, dropping to a few inches off the apron of the road and firing up the road looking for any inattentive sparrow with an unspoken death wish. Watching this bird fly with awesome agility and speed, it looked like some exotic oriental throwing star. The speed, dash, and sharp angles of this Merlin made it look like the most impressive predator of the day.

     “We had an immature harrier on the way down the island twice, one swooping once from the dunes across the road into the marsh. We moved quickly down the island to take advantage of the tide and gain advantage with the sunlight. At Stage Island we saw a nervous flock of >200 Snow Buntings visiting numerous patches of dry land to relax and dine for 10-30 seconds before anxiously lifting off once again. We had a distant harrier coursing back and forth in the back of the marsh, offering decent views. 

     “Then I spied a roughleg moving along the distant tree line bordering Sandy Point State Reservation. It stopped to hover time and again, giving everyone a chance to see its distinctive behavior in improving light. Meanwhile, Black Ducks and Mallards browsed leisurely as if at a brunch, but we noticed a flock of Green-winged Teal launching into the air time and again as though they had heard a bill collector at the door. Suddenly we saw why they were nervous, as a large bluish throwing star exploded into view. Small enough that some observers at first thought it a Merlin, it was a smallish, full adult Peregrine Falcon, roaring across the flats. It eventually perched on the radio antenna on Stage Island, affording great views. 

     “Meanwhile, the roughleg continued to hover over the southern end of the marsh, apparently aggravating another immature Northern Harrier who came in and harassed the larger buteo, who literally rose above the conflict. But the falcon was not so laid back and exploded into the airspace around the larger, slower hawks, like a knife slicing whipped margarine. The falcon then calmly returned to its perch. Eventually the roughleg moved over to Cross Farm Hill offering more good views.

     “A stop at Hellcat revealed a second light morph roughleg, with better views of the tail and under wing pattern as it hovered over the north pool marsh in great light, and in the distance we could see the earlier roughleg still hovering over Cross Farm Hill. 

     “As we left the island, we heard two other Snowy Owls had been seen at some distance, while the owl we had seen was still on exactly the same perch as we had seen it four hours earlier (and it was still there two hours later). The benefits of perching away from where people with cameras can easily go.

     “A large immature female Cooper’s Hawk was seen on Ferry Road in Salisbury, and an immature female harrier on the state reservation.

     “The richly colored, unusually dark Redtail was a highlight for me, but the roughlegs were gorgeous life birds for many in the group, who appreciated how such large birds could remain stationary while hovering over potential prey. The Snowy was a joy to see relatively close in good light, but there was something special about seeing the quintessential Merlin on the hunt. A Merlin perched – small, compact, innocent looking and cute – is an entirely different species from the supersonic sickle of doom we saw “booking it” up the road. We saw the magical essence of Merlin. And the Peregrine in flight, slicing the sky in a series of 180-degree turns as it harassed other raptors and the teal, looked a lot like a Merlin on steroids.

     “Half the class had great views of multiple life raptors on a beautiful day. The other half had “life views” of multiple raptors. A great day for winter hawking.”

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