Wednesday Morning Birding Report, June 13, 2018

In David Moon’s absence (coleading a birding trip with Bill Gette to Nome, Alaska—yeah, tough job, but somebody has to do it!), Susan Yurkus joined me for Wednesday Morning Birding. We decided on a change of pace and visited Amesbury’s Woodsom Farm for a leisurely stroll through its grasslands. It was a beautiful morning—clear to partly cloudy skies, temps in upper 70s, and winds 5-15 mph out of the southwest. Our focus, of course, was on grassland birds.

The first birds we saw were Barn Swallows swooping low over the tall grasses. Then, it wasn’t long until we had our first of many Bobolinks to come, its distinctive song bubbling as the male showed its typical fluttery flight behavior. The male’s alternate or breeding plumage is unique among North American songbirds, with its black underparts and lighter back. As the Birds of North America Online states, “The Bobolink is polygynous and was one of the first species in which multiple paternity (females laying a clutch of eggs sired by more than one male) was documented. In addition, this North American breeder is an extraordinary migrant, traveling to south of the equator each autumn and making a round-trip of approximately 20,000 kilometers. One male known to be at least 10 years old presumably made this trip annually, a total distance equal to traveling 5 times around the earth at the equator!” Come August, the male molts from its distinctive alternate plumage into its basic or nonbreeding plumage, looking much like the female. Soon thereafter, migration begins to its wintering grounds in northern Argentina, where Bobolinks are called “ricebirds” and oftentimes shot as agricultural pests.

Bobolink by Mike Densmore

Bobolink by Mike Densmore

Bobolink pair by Patti Wood

Off to our right, somewhere in the adjacent woodland, we heard a Black-billed Cuckoo vocalizing its recognizable “cu-cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu-cu.” Another target species at Woodsom was the Eastern Meadowlark. Susan’s sharp ears picked up a male’s song across the field to our left. By morning’s end, we accounted for four of this member of the blackbird family, Icteridae. A very accommodating male flew in front of us and perched in the grass affording us great views of this grassland species. Its bright yellow throat and underparts along with its distinctive black “V” on its breast were stunning! For many, this was a “life” bird—first time seen, ever. Meadowlarks, both Eastern and Western, and Bobolinks are all suffering population declines due to loss of habitat from development of various forms.

Eastern Meadowlark by Bob Minton

Eastern Meadowlark by Patti Wood

Again, Susan’s sharp ears picked up a “song” that many of us have difficulty hearing because of its low volume—the “fitz-bew” of a Willow Flycatcher. Of course, the wind from behind us did not help. She heard it and then saw it atop a shrub out in a marshy lowland. It was vocalizing and actively fly-catching, working its way closer to us for great looks. Recall, this is one of the Empidonax flycatchers that is impossible to identify unless the sighting comes with a vocalization. The other “Empid” flycatcher in the mix is the Alder Flycatcher—its vocalization can be characterized as, “free-beer,” on an upward inflection. Oftentimes, the habitat each species is occupying can give an ancillary assist to an ID. Eventually, we accounted for three Willows.

Willlow Flycatcher by Bob Minton

Just so you don’t think that the leaders know everything when it comes to knowledge about birds, since this visit to Woodsom Farm, I have learned something new about Red-winged Blackbird sexual dimorphism, and this because of a photo taken by Bob Minton. There were Red-wings everywhere on this lovely day for birding. As in the past, I thought that all the heavily streaked birds were females. At Woodsom, possibly not. Take a look at Bob’s photo below. At the bend in the wing, the lesser coverts are showing orangy-red and the throat is buffy in color. Checking a couple of go-to sources—Sibley and Birds of North America Online—I find that some 2nd-year males are also heavily streaked, like the females, and that they can show orangy-red lesser coverts, as in Bob’s photo. However, according to Birds of North America Online, “Second-year male is highly variable in plumage, from female-like brown with heavily streaked breast to black with brown flecks; epaulets are also variable, typically red-orange with brown or black spotting. Female also shows some delayed plumage maturation, but less than male. All females are mottled brown above and heavily streaked below with a prominent white eyebrow stripe. Third-year and older females are variable in throat (pink to buffy) and epaulet (dull orange to bright red-orange) color. Second-year females are less variable, throat and face light pink, epaulets brown to salmon.” So, when all is said and done, the bird in Bob’s photo could be either male or female. I’m thinking that the accompanying photo by Susan Balser is more typical of a female plumage, with older females having the rosy blush to the throat. I suppose the more definitive determination of male vs. female in the heavily streaked individuals is seeing a male chasing after a streaked individual—more than likely that bird is a female . . .

Female Red-winged Blackbird by Bob Minton

Female Red-winged Blackbird by Susan Balser

When thinking of grasslands, we think of sparrows. Before our little stroll was over, we heard and saw about five Song Sparrows and an equal number of Savannah Sparrows. One of the latter landed directly in front of us on the trail and snatched a grasshopper. Obviously, this bird was collecting food for hungry nestlings somewhere out there in the field.

Savannah Sparrow by Susan Balser

Of course, with most songbirds feeding young, much of the birdsong has abated. But, we heard and saw a couple of Yellow Warblers, and a Common Yellowthroat was singing its signature “witchity-witchity-witchity” deep in the shrubs adjacent to a wetland.

At morning’s end, I do believe that everyone enjoyed what was a new birding venue for most — yes, a nice change of pace. Next week, please join David Larson and me for “the Daves are us show” and another edition of Wednesday Morning Birding.

All the best!
Dave Weaver

Our list:
Double Crested Cormorant (2)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Black-billed Cuckoo (1) – heard.
Willow Flycatcher (3)
Eastern Kingbird (1)
Blue Jay (1)
American Crow (1)
Tree Swallow (~ 6)
Barn Swallow (~ 7)
Tufted Titmouse (1) – heard.
American Robin (~7) – 1 on nest.
Gray Catbird (1)
Northern Mockingbird (3)
European Starling (1!)
Common Yellowthroat (1) – heard.
Yellow Warbler (3)
Eastern Towhee (1) – heard.
Savannah Sparrow (5)
Song Sparrow (~ 5)
Northern Cardinal (2)
Bobolink – common.
Red-winged Blackbird – common.
Eastern Meadowlark (4)
Common Grackle (~ 12)
Brown-headed Cowbird (3)
Baltimore Oriole (1)
American Goldfinch (3)

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, June 6, 2018

Anticipating the first week of post-migration birding,for Wednesday Morning Birding this week, Dave Williams and I decided to take the group on a “swamp tour” inland of Joppa Flats. We left for Pikes Bridge Road, where we began hearing territorial songs the minute we opened the doors of the vans. Across Turkey Hill Road, a coulpe of Blue-winged Warblers begged for brew in buzzy tones, “Beeer, pleeeeeezz.” A couple of Willow Flycatchers stuck to the texbook “Fitz-bew.” Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called in the white oaks along the road. We don’t have much of a mnemonic for them, unless you are okay with “eeeeee, eee eeeeeee.” Sibley uses a lot more letters, so I will have to listen a bit more closely.

On Pike’s Bridge Road, we found a Black-and-white Warbler, a pair of Common Yellowthroats, more gnatcatchers, Black-capped Chickadees, and Gray Catbirds, all of which were reacting to a brief recording we played of chickadees mobbing a screech-owl. We discussed how this technique is used in citizen science programs that focus on declining species, and how important it is to not abuse the use of such materials. A Wood Thrush and an Ovenbird sang in the distance.

A “quiz bird” we had looked at in the lobby at Joppa Flats before we’d left appeared when we arrived at the bridge. First we saw her nest nearby; then her mate flew in. They both visited the nest, indicating that there are already young being fed. Rather than gulping his meal, the male held on to it for either his young or his mate, showing us how to be a good parent. See this handsome pair below.

Orchard Oriole female – John Lynn

Orchard Oriole with worm – John Lynn

We discovered an extravaganza of nests on that trail, and watched the breeding activity of Eastern Kingbirds, Warbling Vireos, and Baltimore Orioles.

Eastern Kingbird on nest – Mike Densmore

Warbling Vireo nest- John Lynn

A couple of Red-tailed Hawks were also out foraging, and dealing with the inevitable irritations of living near wetlands as they passed by. Mike Densmore has developed quite the penchant for action shots!

Red-winged Blackbird harasses Red-tailed Hawk – Mike Densmore

Our next swamp stop was on Ash Street, where we hoped to find one species in particular, and find it we did, as you see below. The swamp was rather quiet, with fewer Swamp Sparrows singing than are really there, we think. Since we didn’t see any Wood Ducks, we can assume that they’re sitting on eggs. We heard other species’ songs in the background, including an Eastern Phoebe, an Indigo Bunting, and a female Wild Turkey’s cluck or two.

Yellow-throated Vireo – Bob Minton

The lovely weather and pleasant pursuit of observing the activities of breeding birds had slowed us down a bit, so we didn’t have lots of time at swamp stop number three, Crane Neck Road. Along with birds already noted here, we enjoyed the early summer sound of an Eastern Wood Pewee, which puts one in a mood to lie in a hammock. That is true especially if you have ever taught in a classroom, when the beautiful sound of the pewee means that school is either out, or soon will be. It evokes a delicious sense of freedom and possibility, which fills you as the pewee’s song wends its way through a newly leafy wood, and lands deep in your heart.

Our List:
Canada Goose (2) – in a murky pond on Crane Neck Rd.
Wild Turkey (2) – Seen and heard various.
Great Blue Heron – Crane Neck Wildlife Management Area.
Glossy Ibis (~10) – seen at Common Pasture (Scotland Road)by the last car in the line, but not reported until later(!).
Red-tailed Hawk (2) – Ash Street Swamp.
Chimney Swift (3) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Downy Woodpecker (3) – various.
Northern Flicker (1) – Hanover Street, on the sidewalk foraging for worms.
Eastern Wood-Pewee(1) – Crane Neck Wildlife Management Area.
Willow Flycatcher (2) – Turkey Hill Rd.
Eastern Phoebe – Ash Street Swamp.
Great Crested Flycatcher (3) – various.
Eastern Kingbird (2) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Yellow-throated Vireo (1) – Ash Street Swamp.
Warbling Vireo (5) – various.
Red-eyed Vireo (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Blue Jay (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
American Crow (1) – roadside.
Fish Crow (1) -Pikes Bridge Rd.
Tree Swallow – common.
Black-capped Chickadee (2) – Pikes Bridge Rd
Tufted Titmouse (1) – Ash Street Swamp.
House Wren (1) – Brickett Rd.
Marsh Wren (1) – Ash Street Swamp.
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (4) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Wood Thrush (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
American Robin (2) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Gray Catbird – common.
Northern Mockingbird (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
European Starling – yes.
Cedar Waxwing (3) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
House Sparrow – yes.
American Goldfinch (2) – Ash Street Swamp.
Ovenbird (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Blue-winged Warbler (2) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Black-and-white Warbler (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Common Yellowthroat – common
American Redstart (2) – Crane Neck Rd.
Yellow Warbler – common.
Eastern Towhee (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Chipping Sparrow (1) Crane Neck Rd.
Song Sparrow (2) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Swamp Sparrow (3+) – Ash Street Swamp.
Scarlet Tanager (1) – Ash Street Swamp.
Northern Cardinal (1) – Pikes Bridge Rd.
Indigo Bunting (1) – Ash Street Swamp.
Red-winged Blackbird – common.
Common Grackle – common.
Brown-headed Cowbird (1) – Middle Rd.
Orchard Oriole (3) – 1, Joppa Flats parking lot; 2, Pikes Bridge Rd.
Baltimore Oriole (3) – 2, Pikes Bridge Rd; 1, Ash Street Swamp.

From the June 2018 Birding Community E-bulletin (adapted a bit, and edited for length):
TIP OF THE MONTH: BACK OFF
At this season, as many birds are nest-building, incubating, or feeding young, they are extremely vulnerable. And there are no good reasons why we should make their lives any more vulnerable or more difficult. Too close an approach to a nest can lead to severe consequences. And reoccurring visits in particular, can leave a path or a scent trail for potential predators to follow. If you find a nest, don’t simply go back the way you came, leaving a dead-end trail to the location; try to leave the area by another route.

Basically, if you come across a nest, and unless you’re doing real research, it’s time to move on. Don’t linger, don’t return, and don’t tell others how to find the nest. This season is a stressful time for birds, and usually they will let you know when you are getting too close. We should pay close attention, and let birds drive us away if they are of a mind to.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, May 30, 2018

By Wednesday of this week, the wonderful migration we enjoyed this month had indeed passed by, at least for warblers, although some shorebirds are still moving. After we left Joppa Flats and headed south on Plum Island, we only paused a few times on our way to Sandy Point. We slowed for a few Gadwalls and some peeps in the pannes, and we did enjoy seeing some Black-bellied Plovers that were foraging in the South Marsh. They were not on a flat of sand or mud, where we usually find them, but were foraging in salt hay. Most of them were in breeding plumage, looking striking poking out of the grass, like exotic creatures on a miniature savanna. At the parking lot on Sandy Point, we clustered together to quiet down and listen to the warblers and other birds singing around us. Mostly we heard Eastern Towhees, Yellow Warblers, and Common Yellowthroats. Last week was different!

Black-bellied Plovers and Rudy Turnstone foraging in salt marsh- Patti Wood

Walking out toward the Point, we briefly spotted a few Bank Swallows that may be nesting on a dune well to the west of the parking lot. They do not seem to have a colony at Bar Head this year as they have in the past, due perhaps to significant erosion of the headland there resulting from the March storms. We soon found Piping Plovers, especially because Jessica McClean, the plovers’ conservation staff member from the Mass Audubon Coastal Waterbird Program, was there counting nests. I use the possessive there, because the plovers benefit greatly from the actions of these dedicated summer staff. They keep track of the birds, educate the public, and encourage visitors to help the birds thrive by giving them space to roam – and keeping pets away. Jessica told us that there have been nine nests on the point this year, and that seven of them have not worked out… yet. They were lost to crows, coyotes, and unknown causes. We were happy to see plovers courting and renesting. One male attended a female at a nest she was excavating, and then followed her in a ritualistic crouch, with back feathers raised. Good luck, guy!

Piping Plovers vying for dominance – Patti Wood

Birds that nest just above the high tide line often have nest losses due to myriad disturbances, so they have evolved a high degree of persistence in making new nests, sometimes up to four attempts. As many as six Least Terns were hanging around and courting, indicating they may nest at Sandy Point this year, up from zero last year, when a spring storm wiped away most of the available wrack-strewn habitat the terns need. Jessica told us that she has found many more of them at the north end of the island, more than ever before. We enjoyed seeing them flying over, making their squeaky, insistent calls.

Least Tern – Mike Densmore

Osprey – Bob Minton

Bemused by all that plover love, we headed back to find what might be available at Hellcat. Seeing the Black-bellied Plovers flying and alighting repeatedly in the marsh, we pulled over for another look and found three Ruddy Turnstones in with them. At Hellcat, we hoped to find a Baltimore Oriole nesting near the restrooms, but none was about that morning, and we all felt a bit sad that there seemed to be no “Hellcat Johns Oriole” this year. We continued up to the dike, where Bobolinks were singing on the outer dike. They made display flights just as they would in any field, and appear to have colonized the strip of deep vegetation on the banks. An Osprey flew over, almost a sure thing on the Hellcat Dike for the next month or so. A flock of 200 or so Semiplamated Sandpipers made beautiful dashes over the newly exposed flats in Bill Forward Pool. John Linn aptly referred to his image of them as a “shorebird cloud,” and accepting that label, we now have one of the fastest clouds on earth. This is just a taste of the joys of shorebirding we will revel in later this summer, for when southward-bound shorebirds return in mid-July, their numbers will eventually grow into the thousands. Those are cloud-dances not to be missed!

Shorebird cloud – John Linn

Empidonax sp. – Bob Minton

We continued to poke around, looking for any birds that might present some diversity or a good show. Two Empidonax flycatchers made a nice little show at the east end of the dike, but neither ever uttered one phrase. So, we had to believe in our hearts that they were Willow Flycatchers, as we have heard their “Fitz-bew!” repeatedly at the spot on recent visits. Without a sound, then and there though, we will only name the genus.

Spotted Sandpiper – Mike Densmore

As you can see from our list below, we ran into many more species than I’ve mentioned, but it was a scattering of the breeders we always expect on Plum Island in summer. I will, however, mention the Northern Mockingbird that sat on a post at the exit from Hellcat. That bird sat staring at us, and evidently at everyone else who was departing behind us. Such a character!

Northern Mockingbird – John Linn

I will also note here that on our later walk for Wednesday Evening Birding, we found two gorgeously bright male Baltimore Orioles in an amazing dispute right in the forest behind the restrooms at Hellcat, so our fears that morning were unwarranted. Those two fellows hopped around from branch to branch within inches of each other at times, showing off the best plumage they could muster and singing at one another. That was an eyeful! Lastly, the Orchard Oriole nest we observed being constructed last week is still occupied in a pine to the north of Goodno crossing. We hope you find that pair!

Baltimore Orioles – David Moon

Our list:

Canada Goose (11) – including a pair. w/ 6 good-sized goslings; Bill Forward Pool.
Mute Swan (1) – adult, southern-most panne.
Gadwall (3) -lone drake, pannes; pair Bill Forward Pool.
Mallard – many including molting drakes, Stage Island Pool.
Red-breasted Merganser (1) – hen, Stage Island Pool.
Wild Turkey (1) – tom, South Field.
Double-crested Cormorant – common.
Great Egret (~ 5)
Snowy Egret (~ 7)
Osprey (1) – overhead, Bill Forward Pool.
Black-bellied Plover (~ 25) – 2, Sandy Point; balance, South Marsh.
Semipalmated Plover (5) – 3, Sandy Point; 2, Bill Forward Pool.
Piping Plover (~ 9) – Sandy Point.
Killdeer (2) – 1, pannes; 1, Sandy Point.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – Bill Forward Pool.
Willet – common.
Ruddy Turnstone (3) – w/ Black-bellies; South Marsh.
Semipalmated Sandpiper (~ 200) – Bill Forward Pool.
Herring Gull
Least Tern (5) – 1, main panne; 3, Sandy Point; 1, Bill Forward Pool.
Common Tern (1) – Sandy Point.
Mourning Dove
Empidonax sp. (2) – together in small trees and shrubs southeast corner North Pool, Hellcat dike; probable Willow Flycatchers.
Great Crested Flycatcher (1) – heard, north end S-curves.
Eastern Kingbird (3) – various.
American Crow (2)
Purple Martin (~ 7) – lot #1.
Tree Swallow – common.
Bank Swallow (1) – Sandy Point.
Barn Swallow (3)
Marsh Wren – common; North Pool.
American Robin (2)
Gray Catbird – common.
Northern Mockingbird (3) – 1, Sandy Point; 1, Hellcat; 1, lot #1.
Brown Thrasher (1) – roadside, south end S-curves.
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing (2) – Hellcat.
Black-and-white Warbler (1) – heard; Goodno crossing.
Common Yellowthroat – common.
American Redstart (3)
Yellow Warbler – common.
Eastern Towhee – common.
Song Sparrow – common.
Northern Cardinal (1)
Bobolink (6) – 1, North Field; 5, vicinity of Bill Forward Pool dike.
Red-winged Blackbird – common.
Common Grackle – common.
Brown-headed Cowbird (4)
Baltimore Oriole (2) – 1, Hellcat; 1, Goodno crossing.
Purple Finch (2)
American Goldfinch (2) – Sandy Point.