Wednesday Morning Birding, February 6, 2019

In my message about returning to Plum Island this week, I noted that it has been very interesting birding there lately. This week, Dave Weaver, our 30 companions, and I found that the excitement continues! Arriving at the north end of Plum Island on February 6, we found a good-sized gyre of sea ducks and loons very near the shore, in an eddy on the island side. Normally, we find rafts of sea birds either in the center of the river or over near the far side. It was rewarding to be so close to many Common Eiders and both Black and White-winged Scoters. The eiders were very noisy, with a constant chorus of grunt-clucks as they actively courted. Three Common Loons foraged nearby, and finally a Red-throated Loon made an appearance for Wednesday Morning Birding. We haven’t recorded one of those for a long time. Common Goldeneyes were scattered all over the tide covering Joppa Flats, all the way to the western shore of the north end. Notably absent this week were Long-tailed Ducks, which have lately been the big show.

Red-throated Loon – Bob Minton
Black Scoters – Stan Deutsch
Common Loon – John Linn
Common Eider females – Mike Densmore

After searching the river for rarities without luck, and enjoying close-up views of our typical winter species, we moved on to the platform at parking lot #1 on Parker River NWR. Birding was tough up there, with a strong onshore wind and heavy chop. Scoters could be spotted briefly, and one skilled member of the crew had a view of a Horned Grebe, but really only birds in flight could be seen enough to identify them well. The prize for our effort was a flying Razorbill, visible long enough for folks to try to discern why that bird looked different in flight than any duck out there. No owls could be seen from the dune top, so we moved on to the road.

White-winged Scoter in flight – Stan Deutsch

One of us had found Snowy Owls earlier, so we were happy, but not surprised, to find two in one binocular field near the Main Panne. One of them was the completely white bird we assume is the same individual we saw last week. Not a speck on him (her?). The S-curves were very quiet, with only a few individual birds appearing on either pass that day. We had more than enough time for Hellcat. But since Emerson Rocks would be covered by the tide, we made a “Hail Mary” trip south, with a stop at Stage Island Pool. Once again we found a Rough-legged Hawk perched in the copse of trees on the south side of Cross Farm Hill. It took off and disappeared, though we did find it later on an Osprey platform, and then watched it perform satisfying RLHA behaviors over the hill. This week we also found more Mute Swans than usual, with an entire family near Stage Island.

Snowy Owl – the white one – Mike Densmore

As we walked up the road toward Stage Island, participant Katherine Morrison touched my shoulder and said quietly that she thought she had found an alcid of some kind on the ice! Sure enough, out there in the glare, a Razorbill sat still in one spot, only moving its head, seeming alert. Of course we were both amazed and delighted, while simultaneously worried about its ability to take off from that strange and inhospitable spot. Some thought they saw it try to fly a bit, without making any progress. I texted an image of the bird to the refuge biologist, but we didn’t try to intervene in any way. The bird was on ice of unknown thickness, well behind the signs that keep us corralled and away from wildlife on the refuge. We watched the bird for some time, feeling a range of responses from bemused to worried. When I returned to check on it in the afternoon, the Razorbill was gone without a trace – fortunately for the Razorbill, not leaving an apparent “kill site.”

Razorbill on ice at Stage island pool – Stan Deutsch
Mute Swan – Bob Minton

After enjoying the family of swans flying over us, and the antics of the Rough-legged Hawk, we left for Hellcat, satisfied that sometimes a whim pays off. The dike at Hellcat was as desolate as we expected it to be. Tire tracks led us to discover a pile of sections of the old Marsh Loop boardwalk, which is now being replaced with a wider boardwalk. Perhaps the new boardwalk will be wide enough to accommodate a group the size of WMB, but it will certainly allow people in wheelchairs and those who use other walking assistance to enjoy strolling and birding in the forest and marsh.

Peregrine Falcon – Mike Densmore

Because it is what we do, we began marching out onto the dike and into the wind, at varying rates of speed, as not everybody relishes a blast of cold wind and few-to-no birds. But this week we were treated quickly to the sight of a young female Peregrine Falcon, sitting in the grass on the outer stretch of dike that contains North Pool. When I caught up with the folks standing near the tower, some who happen to have experience at rehabilitation centers said that the bird had made some moves as if it were injured. We walked out to the gate, pausing for better looks. After we observed the bird for a few moments from the gate, perhaps a bit closer than we normally would or should due to concern for the bird, she took off and landed nearby on the post of a staddle. No more fears about an injury. What a thrilling manner of flight, just powerful mastery, even on a little jaunt!

Common Loon wrassles a Green Crab – Stan Deutsch

That was pretty much it for WMB this week. In North Field, however, we again found an adult male Northern Harrier, who was magnificent, and we got glimpses of the two Snowy Owls again. I hesitate to report that one flew right over our van after we rounded a corner, so I was the only one who saw it, but so it goes. The list of species we saw is not very long, but the birds were spectacular this week. How completely precious is the rhythmic life of birds on Plum Island! It reminds us of how grateful we are that the folks at Mass Audubon had the vision and foresight to put Joppa Flats Education Center here. We are endlessly enriched with our regular immersion in the birds of the Great Marsh, and we welcome you to join us whenever you can.

Our list:
Canada Goose – common.
Mute Swan (11!) – 6, PI River, north of pannes; 5, marsh just north of Stage Island Pool, moving onto Stage Island Pool ice.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard – common.
Common Eider – common; north end.
White-winged Scoter (~ 16) – ~ 10, north end; ~ 6, parking lot #1 (one) ocean.
Black Scoter (~ 30) – ~ 25, north end; 5, one ocean.
Long-tailed Duck (2) – one ocean.
Common Goldeneye (~ 45) – ~ 35, north end; ~ 10, Plum Island River, north of pannes.
Red-breasted Merganser (2) – north end.
Red-throated Loon (1) – north end; showing color in head.
Common Loon (3) – north end.
Northern Harrier (2) – including 1 male.
Red-tailed Hawk (1) – The Old Pines.
Rough-legged Hawk (1) – light morph; Cross Farm Hill.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull (~ 10) – various.
Razorbill (2) – 1, one ocean; 1, on Stage Island Pool ice.
Rock Pigeon
Snowy Owl (2) – 1 very white individual near west shore of Main Panne; 1 in marsh further west of Main Panne.
Peregrine Falcon (1) – 1st-yr bird, probable female; North Pool dike just north of Hellcat dike.
American Crow (~ 9) – various.
American Robin (3) – S-curves.
Northern Mockingbird (2) – 1, parking lot #1; 1, Hellcat.
European Starling – large flock on wires n. refuge gate.
House Sparrow (1) – refuge gate.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, January 30, 2019

Bald Eagle – Patti Wood

At the very last minute, Susan Yurkus and I replaced Dave Weaver and Dave Larson as leaders, giving everyone quite a surprise for this week’s Wednesday Morning Birding. We took our group of about a dozen birders on the icy roads to the north end of Plum Island in sunny weather, at about 32 degrees with a rising wind from the northwest. Right as we arrived, a beautiful adult Bald Eagle flew over us, a good omen for the upcoming Merrimack River Eagle Festival. Today it was challenging to see birds across the river. A very large raft of Common Eiders flew and foraged over mussel beds under the river waters of the opposite bank. One of those eiders had a black body and light-colored head, but we couldn’t see the marks that would positively identify an adult drake King Eider, which was seen there last Saturday. Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, White-winged Scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks all joined in.

Long-tailed Duck – Mike Densmore
Common Goldeneye – Patti Wood

The neighborhoods were quiet, so our next birds of note came with three Northern Harriers busy in the marsh near the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge gatehouse.

Northern Harrier – Mike Densmore

From the parking lot #1 stairway, we found a smooth ocean with big, beautiful breakers. They produced a sparkling spume under a wind that was hurrying our relatively mild air out to sea in advance of the arrival of the polar vortex. The first thing to catch our eyes was a raft of Long-tailed Ducks not too far offshore. Eventually we found a pair of Horned Grebes with them, and then rafts of Black and White-winged Scoters here and there among kleptoparasitic Herring Gulls. As we prepared to leave the platform, I suggested that people scan the dunes to the south for a Snowy Owl, and David Godwin, a birder new to WMB, quickly spotted what looked like a Snowy out in the marsh. When we drove down along the road to be closer to this bird, everyone agreed that it was suspiciously the whitest Snowy Owl we had ever seen. Several of us had the same thought when we first looked at it: “Not another lump of snow…” But then the lump of snow turned its head. Nice work, David G.!

Snowy Owl – Patti Wood

As we drove further south, a dark raptor came into view, working its way north above the edge of the maritime forest. I pulled over to see it and hopped right out. The large size and dark color had me expecting a Rough-legged Hawk from a distance. Last Saturday, in a program I was leading near the same spot, we had seen two Rough-legged Hawks, one a light phase and the other a dark phase, so I was teaching people about color morphs, saying how Rough-legged Hawks always have light-colored secondaries and inner primaries. So when this very dark, large bird flew into view, I noticed and remarked that this was the darkest Rough-leg I had ever seen, which was so charming after having witnessed the whitest Snowy we’d ever seen. What a perfectly coincidental experience for everyone!

Golden Eagle – Patti Wood

However – as soon as I looked at our photos, I discovered that my brain was playing a trick on me. That large, dark bird actually wasn’t a hawk at all; all I had to do was look at the giant bill on that thing. It was a Golden Eagle! Tom Wetmore says “That’s a super rare bird on the refuge; I’ve never had a convincing sighting in my 37 years out there.” We should have been jumping up and down with glee, but we weren’t. For the first few hours after I realized my mistake, I was so mortified that I told all my buddies and my new wife that I was moving to Australia immediately. I’ve just passed the 3-year mark here at Joppa Flats, and I love it dearly, but I would have been very happy to be instantly transformed into a macroinvertebrate under some rock on the other side of the globe. As that beautiful bird disappeared, David Godwin was at it again! He spotted a tiny, white bird-speck high above the marsh that turned out to be the highest Snowy Owl we ever saw out there, but as you can see below, this bird has plenty of dark flecking to show its a different Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl high above North Marsh – David Moon

Every one of us was blissful in our ignorance of the eagle that day, so we merrily drove past the gate at Hellcat (which we thought would be closed) and arrived at parking lot #7, happy to be there for the first time in a while. The seascape there was impressive with the big waves breaking on the shoals at the mouth of Ipswich Bay. Emerson Rocks was exposed, surrounded by eiders, scoters, goldeneyes, and Buffleheads. At least three pairs of Horned Grebes were out there, but the King Eider spending this winter there didn’t come out until after we’d left; it was seen by another birder we heard from later. Safe from the wind, tucked behind dunes, we enjoyed the scene until it was time to try Hellcat.

Hellcat was a wonderful bust. It was one of those times you go up on the dike to be assaulted by the wind, but you struggle out to the tower anyway, and you endure, and then you turn back. The empty-handed hard work of that experience will be made up for by some evening in summer when the place will be mobbed with shorebirds, egrets, and a horde of Tree Swallows. Rolling back past North Field, we were treated to an uncommon sight — an adult male Northern Harrier, which lilted away toward The Wardens. Finally, at the Main Panne, there was a little crowd of birders, so we stopped to find our pure-white Snowy Owl again, this time doing a perfect imitation of marsh ice. What a day on Plum Island!

Snowy Owl impersonates marsh ice- David Moon

Our List:
Canada Goose – common; salt marsh.
American Black Duck – common; salt marsh.
Common Eider – common; north end and Emerson Rocks.
White-winged Scoter – common.
Black Scoter – common.
Long-tailed Duck – common.
Bufflehead (40) – Emerson Rocks.
Common Goldeneye – common; north end, Emerson Rocks, Bar Head.
Red-breasted Merganser (8) – various.
Horned Grebe (8) – 2 one ocean, 6 Emerson Rocks.
Rock Pigeon – common; developed areas.
Mourning Dove (1)
Ring-billed Gull (8) various.
Herring Gull – common
Great Black-backed Gull (4) various.
Common Loon (1) – Emerson Rocks.
Bald Eagle (1) – north end.
GOLDEN EAGLE (1) – near Main Panne.
Northern Harrier (~6) – various, including one adult male at North Field.
Red-tailed Hawk (2) – 1 imm. at North Field, 1 on PI Turnpike – off island.
Rough-legged Hawk (1) Cross Farm Hill.
Snowy Owl (2) – 1, on North Marsh and Maine Panne, 1 flying over North Marsh. One of these birds was pure white, the other noticeably flecked.
American Crow (1) – S-Curves.
Black-capped Chickadee (1) – roadside.
American Robin (1) – Pines Field.
Northern Mockingbird (1) – near seven.
European Starling – common; developed areas.
Song Sparrow (2) – Hellcat.

Superbowl of Birding by Lisa Hutchings

In Search of Snowy Owls, photo by Lisa Hutchings

Quick link to slideshow

Johnny and I started our day at 5 am with my son Danny to do some unofficial owling–something he and I had never done before, and we let Johnny take the lead. We visited Daniel Boone Park, Hamlin Reservation, and Cranes Beach in Ipswich, MA then off to Dow Brook Conservation Area and Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary in Rowley MA and then back to Joppa Flats. No owls, however, we did get very close to a small pack of coyote pups howling just before sunrise!

My co-captain and Johnny kept a perfect list of every bird or call we encountered throughout the event. We headed back to Joppa so we could meet our teammates and officially start counting birds.

We joined Johnathon Benson and his 4 teen birders and headed out to Cape Ann. We pulled over in Essex MA to spy a Green-winged Teal, a Hooded Merganser, and other waterfowl. Then it was off to Jodrey State Fish Pier in Gloucester where we were harassed by a large flock of Rock Doves, entertained by a large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers diving, and I got a long-distance glance at my first Surf Scoter. From there, we headed out to Rockport where we stopped at Folly Cove to add a Red-throated Loon to our list and then spent over an hour at Halibut Point State Reservation. This is where Johnny spotted a large flock of Black Scoter, and our team captain Johnathon with his scope and infinite amounts of patience and skills, pointed out a small flock of Harlequin Ducks and a Dovekie–a 5 point bird that we got to call in!

The teens all really wanted to be the first to complete one of the special bird checklists: The Seekers List. They all gave 110% and asked wonderful questions throughout the day. All the grebe species on the list eluded us but we almost found all 30 species so overall we were all very pleased with our efforts. Johnny and I really enjoyed birding with Johnathon and the Drumlin Farm teens and we hope we get the chance to bird with them again some day.

We couldn’t believe how quickly the time had passed so we didn’t get to Ipswich River until almost 2pm. It was there that we ran into a very animated and colorful group of birders known as the “Bird Ladies of Paradise” who had fashioned home-made hats with cups of birdseed on top! We had to take their photo and then we added more than 12 species to our list including a Carolina Wren, another life bird for me.

From there, we headed to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge with the hopes of finding a Snowy Owl and a few more species before the sun set. The wind really picked up, the temps plummeted, and the snow started to fly. Our last bird of the event was a lovely female Snowy Owl. We finished the day with 55 species and then we said goodbye to the Drumlin Farm team who had to get back to Lincoln, MA before the weather got worse.

Now, it was time to party! Johnny and I met up with Jonathan Brooks from the The Accidentals team, and he helped us fill out our report and told us what to expect in the judging room. Then it was time for pizza and raffles…lots and lots of great raffle prizes!

To make the event even better, our team was awarded the prize for nearly completing the Seekers List with gift certificates for all the teens!

By then, it was really snowing, and it was almost 7 pm. We had been up since 3:30 am, so it was time to go home. Johnny was the perfect co-pilot, and he and I spent a lot of time chatting about Bird-a-thon strategies, and how we definitely need to get our own team for Joppa next Superbowl in 2020!

Thanks for watching/listening and enjoy the show!