Wednesday Morning Birding Report, August 15, 2018

This Wednesday, with the tide low, Dave Weaver and I took our big group down the street toward town to get a closer view of the flats. There were hundreds or perhaps thousands of birds, mostly the semipalmated ones, strewn far out on the mud. As is often the case, a group of Black-bellied Plovers stayed together near the edge of the water, while a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Common Terns foraged and rested on the water near them. They were mostly still handsome in alternate plumage. While we spent a short time practicing what identifications one can do with binoculars from such a distance, the inevitable Osprey with a large fish flew across the flats and toward hungry young on the salt marsh.

Osprey with fish – Bob Minton

Knowing that a special bird awaited us at the airport, we quickly moved on to find the American Golden-Plover that had been there all day on Tuesday. This bird is still molting out of a majority of its alternate plumage, so was easy to confirm. The runway is again full of Killdeer: 61 were there on Tuesday evening, running around in little clumps or singly, and settling down to roost next to the grass that grows from the cracks in the runway. We accounted for 12 Wednesday morning.

American Golden-Plover – John Linn

We found Parker River Refuge quite different than last week, when lots of shorebirds were found around the tufts of salt marsh grass in the pannes area. This Wednesday, the pannes were flooded, so no margins of mud offered any refuge or foraging opportunities. North Pool, from the overlook, was similarly devoid of shorebirds–not as active as it had been the previous week. While numbers of Tree Swallows had been rising before Wednesday, we did not see very many.

Lesser Yellowlegs – John Linn

At Hellcat, however, our fortunes picked up. We tried splitting up our group to get views from the Bill Forward Blind, but found the pool largely covered with water from heavy rains. One White-rumped Sandpiper foraged in the belly-deep water out with yellowlegs, its posture very erect, more like a Red Knot than a “peep.” Here and there other species showed up. Several roosting Least Terns sat on an island in the pool, and more White-rumped Sandpipers appeared. Two Black-bellied Plovers near the dike spent the entire time we were there marching back and forth right next to each other, one following the other, in a remarkable parade constituting behavior we could not decipher. After a while, the tide rose to a point that birds began leaving the big flats on the Merrimack River. Groups of shorebirds came in — plovers, sandpipers, and dowitchers gradually arrived, so that by the time we left, there was a lively and growing crowd.

Black-bellied Plovers in synchronous marching behavior – Bob-Minton

On Wednesday, birds started arriving noticeably at Bill Forward Pool when the water level was predicted to be at 0.6 feet in Newburyport, based on the graphs in a tide app that shows the curve of the predicted water level, gives the current predicted level, and allows one to find out what the level is predicted to be at any time in the future. We hope this is leading us toward a rough schedule of the best times to see shorebirds from the boat ramp at Joppa Park or along Water Street. More on that when we have a chance to refine our current predictions, but it looks like the flats are open when the water level predicted at Newburyport is near or just over 1 foot.

American Golden-Plover – David Moon

Our list:

Joppa Flats
Double-crested Cormorant (5)
Great Blue Heron (2)
Turkey Vulture (3) – from Plum Island Airport.
Osprey (1)
Black-bellied Plover (~ 25)
American Golden-Plover (1) – molting adult; PI Airport (thanks, Sue McGrath & Marj Rines!).
Semipalmated Plover (100’s)
Killdeer (12) – PI Airport.
Greater Yellowlegs – common.
Lesser Yellowlegs – common.
Semipalmated Sandpiper – many.
Bonaparte’s Gull (~ 15)
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern – common.
Northern Mockingbird (2) – on Plum Island Turnpike wires.

Plum Island (Parker River NWR)
Canada Goose (~ 12) – Bill Forward Pool.
Gadwall (12) – including hen w/ 7 young at Bill Forward Pool.
Mallard (8)
Wild Turkey (6) – 2 hens, 4 poults; n. refuge entrance.
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 15) – Plum Island Bridge.
Great Egret (~ 8)
Snowy Egret (~ 15) – mostly Bill Forward Pool.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (1) – juv; Bill Forward Pool.
Osprey (2) – Pines platform.
Northern Harrier (1) – female; Bill Forward Pool dike.
Black-bellied Plover (~ 25) – Bill Forward Pool.
Semipalmated Plover (~ 150) – Bill Forward Pool.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – Bill Forward Pool.
Greater Yellowlegs (8) – Bill Forward Pool& N. Pool from Hellcat dike.
Lesser Yellowlegs (~ 25) – Bill Forward Pool.
Semipalmated Sandpiper (~ 30) – Bill Forward Pool.
Least Sandpiper (1) – small pannes.
White-rumped Sandpiper (4) – Bill Forward Pool.
Short-billed Dowitcher (9) – Bill Forward Pool.
Ring-billed Gull (1) – Bill Forward Pool.
Great Black-backed Gull (1)
Least Tern (8) – Bill Forward Pool.
Common Tern (2)
Mourning Dove (3)
Eastern Kingbird (~ 6)
American Crow (2)
Purple Martin (~ 12) – vicinity of refuge entrance.
Tree Swallow – many.
American Robin (1)
European Starling – many.
Cedar Waxwing (6)
Song Sparrow (1)
Baltimore Oriole (1) – Goodno Woods crossing.
American Goldfinch (1)
House Sparrow

Note – On further review, we decided that it was much more likely that last week’s potential Long-billed Dowitcher was a Hendersoni subspecies of Short-billed Dowitcher, a population that breeds and migrates (more often) in the center of the continent. In photos we could see details like the particularly thick base of the bill, and other subtleties that make SBDO a more likely identification. Dowitchers are hard to discern, unless you hear them!

Note number two – Wednesday Evening, we found the usual species, but in addition, a Stilt Sandpiper, and thanks to Steve Grinley, a Wilson’s Phalarope in Bill Forward Pool!

Wednesday Morning Birding Report August 8, 2018

Shorebirds continued to be the dominant feature of our outing this week, as Dave Weaver and I led a group of 18 or so birding on Plum Island. We made a quick first stop at parking lot #1 to see the Purple Martin colony, which was bursting with young martins. They were hanging around on the power lines near the gatehouse and flying around the area in the loosest of flocks, more like a disorganized gang. Sue McGrath, who has been studying the colony all season, will have results to share soon, but things are looking pretty good.

Purple Martin fledglings in late July – Dave Adrien

As we began our drive down the refuge road, the first thing I noticed was that Tree Swallow numbers had declined from the numbers that were there over the previous week. Migration does not run like a machine. Weather systems push migrants into clumps, either because of encouraging conditions or fronts that present obstacles. If there is a particularly good crop of some forage or prey item, a population on the move can pause to build fat, or if there is a dearth, the birds may need to linger until they are sufficiently fueled to keep moving. The bayberries appear to be just ripening, at least in some spots. We certainly expect lots more swallows as August continues. We saw Least Terns all along the waterways, pannes, and pools this week, and Mike D captured one beautifully below.

Least Tern – Mike Densmore

Wild Turkey hen with young chicks – Mike Densmore

Our first real stop was at the small pannes south of the Main Salt Panne, where we found a collection of shorebirds and a showy Snowy Egret. Least Sandpipers were close and easy to photograph in the morning light, and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers were scattered on the little islands of salt marsh grass. One Spotted Sandpiper snuck around, while a Killdeer loitered. After enjoying these shorebirds and a few nice waders, a parade of very late Wild Turkey poults came by, led by Mom. They were so much smaller than the other immature turkeys we see about now, that we wondered if their chances are lower by starting so late in the season.

Snowy Egret in the Salt Pannes – Dave Salt

Least Sandpiper – Mike Densmore

Next was North Pool Overlook, a spot that we don’t always check for shorebirds, but that can offer surprises. On Wednesday, it was where our best birding happened. There were dowitchers foraging nearby across the pool, and we quickly noticed a White-rumped Sandpiper among them, one of the species we brushed up on in the lobby before we departed. One of the dowitchers stood out in its definitively more intense coloration and the general impression that it had a heavier fore-body, leading at least some of us, myself foremost, to think it was a Long-billed Dowitcher, among many Short-billed Dowitchers. We saw a strong wash of rufous from chest through belly, and were able to compare this bird with its worn alternate plumage to others in a similar state of plumage around it. The charm or challenge of shorebirding now, is the mix of adults who are in varying stages of molting. Some are in “breeding,” “winter,” and in-between plumage. There is also a changing mix of birds in juvenile plumage, and then all of the above display differences from one regional population to another! Dowitchers are notoriously difficult/impossible to differentiate. Experts disagree about the utility of the image below, but we called the one in back a Long-billed Dowitcher, though others think it is a Short-billed Dowitcher from central North America, the hendersoni subspecies.

Dowitchers – David Moon

An adult Black-crowned Night-Heron lurked in a cedar among the Phragmites, and more White-rumped Sandpipers appeared on a far spit of mudflat. They seem to be using that island as a place to hide before emerging after dusk to forage, as our evening group discovered several more there.

Semipalmated Plover – Dave Salt

Our next spot was the beach platform at parking lot #7, which is now open and is many more feet above the sand than it was before a March storm took away the dune it rested on and the stairs to the beach. From our perch, we found many Sanderlings, a handful of Piping Plovers, and some Ruddy Turnstones far out on Emerson Rocks. The Piping Plovers were foraging on the exposed sand flats, using their technique of shuffling a foot in front of them to push prey to the surface.

Piping Plover fledgling shuffling for prey – Mike Densmore

Our list:
Canada Goose (~ 30) – Bill Forward Pool.
American Black Duck (2) – small pannes.
Mallard (3) – Bill Forward Pool.
Wild Turkey (~ 13) – 1 hen & ~ 12 poults, crossing road, small pannes.
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 12)
Great Blue Heron (2) – 1, Bill Forward Pool; 1, small pannes.
Great Egret (~ 7)
Snowy Egret (~ 20)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (1) – in cedar on North Pool Overlook island. (Thanks Dave Adrien!) Osprey (2) – 1, Bill Forward Pool; 1, small pannes.
Black-bellied Plover (~ 50) – Bill Forward Pool.
Semipalmated Plover – many, Bill Forward Pool.
Piping Plover (4) – Parking lot # 7 beach.
Killdeer (1) – small pannes.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – small pannes.
Greater Yellowlegs (~ 8) – 2, North Pool Overlook; ~ 6, Bill Forward Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs (~ 15) – 6, North Pool Overlook; ~ 9, Bill Forward Pool.
Ruddy Turnstone (4) – Emerson Rocks.
Sanderling (~ 25) – Parking lot # 7 beach.
Semipalmated Sandpiper – many, Bill Forward Pool.
Least Sandpiper (4) – 3, small pannes; 1, Bill Forward Pool.
White-rumped Sandpiper (6) – North Pool Overlook.
Short-billed Dowitcher (~ 43) – 18, North Pool Overlook; ~ 25, Bill Forward Pool.
Long-billed Dowitcher (1) – North Pool Overlook; with SBDOs; photos.
Ring-billed Gull (1)
Herring Gull (1)
Least Tern (~ 12) – various.
Mourning Dove (3)
Peregrine Falcon (1-2) – 1, perched in dead tree North Field (thnks, Dave Adrien!); 1, Bill Forward Pool(same as dead tree bird?).
Eastern Kingbird (~ 10) – various.
Purple Martin (~ 15) – parking lot #1.
Tree Swallow – many.
Black-capped Chickadee (1) – Hellcat.
Gray Catbird (2)
European Starling – many.
Cedar Waxwing (~ 6)
Yellow Warbler (1)
Eastern Towhee (4)
Song Sparrow (3)
American Goldfinch (5)
House Sparrow (1)

Wednesday Morning Birding Report August 1, 2018

August birding outings with Joppa Flats began with a bang last week. Bird life during breeding season in June appears a bit more staid than during the spring migration that precedes it, even though breeding birds are working as hard as they can to hold territories and produce young. The shorebirds mostly disappear, and life on Plum Island slows down. Now we find hundreds or thousands of birds in an excited state once again as the shorebirds kick off the fall migration season. The shorebird migration began building in earnest in the middle of July, so when we resume our weekly outings in August, we are at least two weeks into the shorebirds’ show. On Wednesday, we observed  thousands of migrants on Joppa Flats.

Semipalmated Plover – Mike Densmore

We began, as Dave Weaver had suggested, at the Joppa Park boat ramp on Water Street soon after low tide. Not far out in front of us were opportunities to practice distinguishing Greater from Lesser Yellowlegs, with little groups of the birds moving here and there, foraging in the remaining water. We had a great view of one of a pair of Ospreys catching a fish and then being harassed by a Great Black-backed Gull. The Ospreys were foraging very actively, and one flew over with a rather bloody catch.

Osprey harassed by Great Black-backed Gull – Mike Densmore

An Osprey safely bringing home the “bacon” – Patti Wood

The “bar” that becomes exposed at low tide, extending from in front of the boat ramp east to the area off the “clam shack,” did not host very many birds, but at the water’s edge, there is often a site of concentrated bird activity. This week we watched some Bonaparte’s Gulls bobbing high in the water as they do, but sporting sharp black heads still in their breeding plumage. The majority of the birds you see in the list below were far out on the flats, much more to the east toward Plum Island. You could see the Black-bellied Plovers’ field marks in the scope and discern the foraging motion of dowitchers, which we assume to be all or almost-all Short-billed at this early stage of migration. Oftentimes, if you look carefully, you can find a larger godwit out there with its long slightly upturned bill, but not this week. Then there were the thousands of small shorebirds, Semipalmated Plovers and Semipalmated Sandpipers, that were strewn everywhere on the far flats. At that distance, it is simply a pleasure to watch them when they jump up and dash around together in synchronous flight.

Slowing briefly to rejoin our little caravan, we rolled past the Purple Martin colony that Sue McGrath and her volunteers operate at parking lot #1 on Parker River Refuge. Other birds we noticed as we arrived on the island, already moving south, were the first of thousands of Tree Swallows we would find as we drove along the refuge road. We stopped and took photographs at one concentrated roost.

Tree Swallows roosting in Phragmites – Patti Wood

On Wednesday, we found most of the swallows roosting in the Phragmites near North Pool Overlook, but everywhere we went on the island there were swallows, almost all Tree Swallows, moving steadily south. They are one of the few passerines that migrate during the day as they forage for food. Soon, spectacular clouds and even swirling vortices of Tree Swallows will inexplicably form from the hundreds of thousands of them that will eventually gather on Plum Island. Don’t miss that show! Along with the swallows at the overlook, one Least Sandpiper and a group of Gadwalls were using the flats on the far side.

Least Sandpiper – Patti Wood

After peeking at the pools and pannes north of Hellcat, we went straight to Stage Island Pool to see if there would be any shorebirds there. We did see the usual groups of Greater Yellowlegs foraging together there, and hundreds of Tree Swallows sitting on the far flats, but not too much else besides some lovely Snowy and Great Egrets.

With a bit of time to spare, we went to Sandy Point, where the sand has been moving around in large quantities since spring. Sanderlings, many still in alternate or “breeding” plumage, ran on the sand flats. We eventually found a couple of Piping Plovers, but we didn’t walk all the way to their main breeding site up the inlet to Plum Island Sound, where there may be more. We could see lots of Least Terns coming and going from the colony in the same area, carrying food presumably to feed young.

Sanderling – John Linn

Lastly, we went to the dike overlooking Bill Forward Pool at Hellcat, where we saw scores of shorebirds. The same mix we had seen from Joppa Park, with a higher proportion of plovers and dowitchers, foraged in the water and on the flats in front of the blind. We found one White-rumped Sandpiper, and thought we had a few Stilt Sandpipers, before all the birds were suddenly flushed by something, leaving the latter birds off the list.

Short-Billed-Dowitcher – John Linn

This was a nice start to the shorebird season, with our Wednesday evening outing added to the mix. That evening we greatly enjoyed an extended show of the “bouncy walk” of an American Woodcock along the refuge road, and the light on the birds in Bill Forward Pool was fantastic. As we left at 7:15 pm, many egrets were coming in to roost, something we look forward to in the post-breeding dispersal.

Our list:
Joppa Park boat ramp —
American Black Duck (2)
Mallard (~30)
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 12)
Great Egret (1)
Turkey Vulture (2)
Osprey (2)
Black-bellied Plover (~30)
Semipalmated Plover – common.
Greater Yellowlegs (~15)
Lesser Yellowlegs (~30)
Ruddy Turnstone (1)
Semipalmated Sandpiper (~ 1,000+)
Short-billed Dowitcher (~15)
Bonaparte’s Gull (~ 30)
Ring-billed Gull – common.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull (~5)
Least Tern (2)
Common Tern (~ 12)
Common Grackle
House Sparrow

Plum Island —
Gadwall (7) – adults + juveniles; North Pool Overlook.
American Black Duck (2) – North Pool Overlook.
Mallard – common.
Double-crested Cormorant (5)
Great Egret (~8) – various.
Snowy Egret (1) – small pannes.
Osprey (3) – 1, tripod s. side Cross Farm Hill; 2, vicinity Pines Trail
Red-tailed Hawk (1) – ad. perched town marker North Pool dike.
Black-bellied Plover (~30) – Bill Forward Pool.
Semipalmated Plover – a few Sandy Point; many, Bill Forward Pool.
Piping Plover (2) – Sandy Point.
Killdeer (1) – Stage Island Pool.
Greater Yellowlegs (~40) – Bill Forward Pool.
Lesser Yellowlegs (~10) – Bill Forward Pool.
Sanderling (~ 15) – Sandy Point.
Semipalmated Sandpiper – a few Sandy Point; many, Bill Forward Pool.
Least Sandpiper (1) – small pannes.
White-rumped Sandpiper (1) – Bill Forward Pool.
Short-billed Dowitcher (~ 47) – 7, North Pool Overlook; ~ 40, Bill Forward Pool.
Least Tern (~30) – Sandy Point.
Common Tern (1) – main panne.
Eastern Kingbird – common.
Purple Martin (~ 12) – vicinity parking lot #1.
Tree Swallow – common
Cliff Swallow (1)
Barn Swallow(~5)
Marsh Wren (1) – Hellcat dike.
American Robin (3)
Gray Catbird (~7)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
Brown Thrasher (1)
European Starling – common.
Cedar Waxwing – common.
Yellow Warbler (3)
Eastern Towhee (2)
Song Sparrow (2)
Common Grackle (~10)
American Goldfinch (4)