Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Western Grebe highlights Plum Island excursion
December 01, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Last Sunday started off promising enough. It was a bright, but crisp day, with temperatures that forewarned us that winter was on the way. On our way to Plum Island, Margo and I were crossing the Chain Bridge over the Merrimack River when Margo called out: “Bald eagle!”

     I looked over my right shoulder and saw an adult bald eagle perched on a snag on the Amesbury side of the river. I checked the rear-view mirror and no cars were coming, so I slowed to a stop to see the majestic bird as it perched in the morning light. This was likely one of the resident birds that had nested successfully up river this year. It hasn’t been quite cold enough for freezing lakes and bays up north to drive the wintering population here. Still, it was quite a sight to see this bird perched in its “traditional” spot.

     We thought that the eagle would be a good omen for the day, but the Island was not exactly “hopping.” As we turned the corner to head for the refuge, we looked for the American bittern that we had seen there yesterday, standing amidst the tall grass will bill pointed skyward. He hoped that no one would notice. Yesterday, we did. That next day, he remained undetected to our eyes, though others claimed to have seen the bird there that morning. 

     The drive down the island revealed a few tree sparrows feeding along the road, but little else. We searched the tree and shrub tops for a northern shrike to no avail. We scanned every birch along the way, hoping for a flock of redpolls. But we saw none. 

     We did spy a large buteo that was hovering in the breeze ahead of us, but we were unable to get good looks at it before it disappeared behind the trees. We later saw a light-morph rough-legged hawk, hovering over the marsh close to the road, providing us great looks at this beautiful hawk. 

     A stop at the Maintenance Area yielded three snow buntings flying between the buildings. The flash of white in their wings as they flit around to avoid other birders in the area, reminded us that white snow flakes would soon be flitting I their place. A few tree sparrows, juncos and a Savannah sparrow were also in the area as we approached the dike. Along the gravel dike road was a late golden plover, running here and there, probing the grassy edges for food.

     We proceeded down to the Old Pines and parked at Lot 5. We walked the new Lot 5 trail and then the road, hoping for a crossbill. We had great looks at several red crossbills at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation on the previous day, but we were hoping for white-winged crossbills and came up empty. We did hear a chorus of red-breasted nuthatches calling from the pines along the road.

     We stopped at the Hellcat Parking Lot on the way back, and we did see 3 common redpolls land in the birches surrounding the parking lot. We walked the Marsh trail hoping for more, but we saw only ten chickadees and a robin along the boardwalk. We had checked the dike for short-eared owl, but only, later, saw pictures of one that had been hunting the dike and North Field area.

     We then got a call from our friend, Linda Ferraresso, who told us of a Western grebe reported off the ocean at Lot 1 earlier that morning. It had been posted on Massbird, the local list serve, but it seemed that none of the birders on the Island had been aware of the sighting. (Gotta get one of those Internet capable iPhones!) Linda also called our friend Phil Brown who was also on the island and we all headed for Lot 1. Margo and I decided to stop at Lot 3 in case the bird had drifted south, since it was last reported before noon. We saw lots of red-throated and a few common loons off shore. My count of red-throated loons was up to sixty-eight over half of the visible area when I received a cell phone call from Phil saying that he had the Western grebe at Lot 1. 

     We arrived at Lot 1 and Phil was already down off the platform and at the edge of the beach, as the tide was quite low. Margo put up her scope on the platform and immediately found the grebe. After taking short looks, we joined Phil at the edge of the water. We got great looks at the grebe as it swam with a small group of red-necked grebes. A few horned grebes caught the waves closer to the shore.

     A while later, as the sun hung low in the western sky, Linda came charging down the stairs to the beach. She had driven with friends from Nahant to see this bird. As she peered into our scopes, the bird had its head tucked under its wing, hampering identification. With patience, the bird finally lifted its head a few times for the late arrivers to get better, though more distant, views than we had when we first saw the bird. The setting sun cast great light on the bird, and the other grebes in the vicinity provided great comparisons. All were satisfied with this new “year bird” as the grebe drifted further out and the sun faded further in western sky.

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