Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter Finches and Ocean Birds Highlight Season
December 08, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     The winter finch invasion continues, as redpolls have shown up at feeders in Newbury and Merrimac. There have been scattered reports of evening grosbeaks at feeders as well. White-winged and red crossbills continue to be seen in good numbers feeding on pine cones on Plum Island and at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation.

     A fellow birder brought in photos he took from inside his car at Salisbury. The crossbills were all over his freshly washed black car, perched on the windshield wipers and on his sunroof, apparently pecking at something – maybe their reflections, or, perhaps, the reflections of nearby pines.

     Another birder told me about taking pictures of the crossbills that were feeding on the ground under the pine trees. He was on the ground taking pictures when one of the crossbills came right up to him. The bird put his bill under one of his fingers to get a seed and proceeded to walk under his other arm! These birds of the boreal forests have no fear of humans! I haven’t heard of any crossbills at feeders yet, but as the local natural food supply dwindles, they may start showing up in backyards as the winter season progresses.

     Other activity at the feeders includes the smaller red-breasted nuthatches that have had an invasion of their own. They are often seen feeding with the crossbills, chickadees and titmice in the pines, but they are also frequenting sunflower and suet feeders to supplement their diet. Up to twenty tree sparrows have appeared at the store feeders and juncos are also at area feeders.

     This is also the time of year when the ocean plays host to numerous waterfowl. The winter sea ducks are arriving with large numbers of common eiders and all three species of scoters rafting off the Salisbury and Plum Island. Long-tailed ducks and red-breasted mergansers are also present in good numbers. An occasional scaup or bufflehead may also be in the mix.

     Also evident are the large numbers of common and red-throated loons that are migrating down from the lakes of Canada and northern New England. In the last couple of weeks, the red-throated loons have far out-numbered the common loons, with as many as forty to fifty loons visible at one time. Many of these birds will stay the winter in the open salt water. It is always cool when we hear the eerie call of a common loon from off the ocean in the middle of winter!

     Fewer in numbers, but still well represented, are the grebes. Red-necked and the smaller horned grebes are often close to shore, riding the breakers off the Newbury town beach or south along the Parker River Wildlife Refuge coast. It is always fun to see a “feeding frenzy,” when a school of small fish is discovered by a few gulls. Soon, more gulls arrive and are joined by loons, grebes, cormorants, mergansers, and even some razorbills. It usually only lasts a few minutes, only to be repeated hundreds of yards away a while later.

     The latest excitement has been the appearance of rare western grebes off of Plum Island. About ten days ago, a report of 2 western grebes appeared on the e-bird data base. Not knowing the observers who reported them, I was skeptical of the report. One is rare in New England, but more than one, although possible, seemed improbable. But that, along with a report of a possible Arctic loon by a credible birder, prompted Margo and I to spend sometime watching the ocean.

     On that day, the temperature was chilling, the wind was brisk and the ocean swells were great. Watching birds on the ocean was a challenge, at best. Still, we enjoyed seeing rafts of razorbills, plus all the loons, grebes, and ducks that occasionally bobbed above the surface. Then I spotted a large grebe in my scope – a western grebe! We watched it off and on for a couple of hours. At times it would dive and we wouldn’t see it for up to twenty minutes, only to rediscover it hundreds of feet away. We had called others about the sighting and we waited in the cold long enough for others to come and see it.

     Since that day, one, two, and sometime four western grebes have been seen off the northern half of Plum Island. A pair has been seen regularly for the past week. These two seem to stay together. Who knows, maybe they are pioneers , looking to establish a wintering population of western grebes the east coast! If that happens, will we need to change their name?

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