Wednesday Morning Birding Report, March 7, 2018

With a nor’easter bearing down, the second in a week, only seven of us ventured out on Wednesday to seek birds. No significant snow fell, as forecast, but the wind was rising throughout the morning. We decided to first see if birds were sheltering more than usual at Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Not much was stirring on the way over, but we did note the large flock of icterids – Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles – that has been hanging around the Refuge Headquarters across the street. Otherwise we saw mostly nothing until we arrived at the boat ramp overlooking Black Creek, where the assortment of waterfowl was fairly standard. Common Eiders, White-winged Scoters, a couple of Black Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, and a few Red-breasted Mergansers were all scattered over the part of the river, creek, and marsh that we could see. A pair of Gadwall dabbled close in the marsh and American Black Ducks also were in the marsh as expected. What was different was the effort it took to hold binoculars steady, or see anything through a wind-buffeted spotting scope. Happily, my new pair of goggles, originally marketed as protection from cut-onion fumes, successfully cut the wind and still allowed optic use!

WMB at Salisbury 3-7-18 – David Moon

We stopped along the road that skirts the campground to look out at that stretch of river, where we found a wonderful cedar most of us could hide behind to view birds comfortably. The mix of birds stayed the same, with a Common Loon thrown in. It was fun to be so sheltered while watching them act as if it were a sunny, calm day, as they foraged, and rested, and – well, maybe didn’t engage in much courtship display. On the big lot at the base of the jetty, the crowds of gulls that normally stand there stood there, mostly of the Herring and Ring-billed variety. Out towards the wildly tossed mouth of the river, along the jetty, and across the beach, there were no birds to be seen. We stared at the tumult for a good while, before returning to birding.

As we slowly rolled along the access road, there was a bit of discussion about having missed Snowy Owl at Salisbury during WMB this year, a lapse in a year with so many of them. So we combed the place along the way, circling back and stopping for yet another owl-impersonating object. A few cars were pulled over where a Red-tailed Hawk has perched often this year, so we pulled in as well to see how that bird was doing. Quickly, though, Dianne Luby spotted the very light Snowy Owl below, and the empty place in our hearts filled in the most satisfying way.

Snowy Owl at Salisbury – David Moon

Next, we thought it would be best to move inland to Scotland Road where some very interesting dabbling ducks have been reported of late. As you can see, visibility was impaired, but we enjoyed the Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, and American Wigeons among the abundant Mallards and plenty of American Black Ducks. The storm had increased in intensity. It was time to go home.

While we ended a bit early with a small list of species, the outing felt very full. Birding with others in such conditions helped us see the power of wind and precipitation in a celebratory light, making the comfort of shelter that much sweeter as we returned.

Our list:

Salisbury Beach —
Gadwall (2) – pr.
American Black Duck (~ 35)
Common Eider (~ 20)
White-winged Scoter (~ 30)
Black Scoter (2)
Common Goldeneye (~ 15)
Red-breasted Merganser (5)
Common Loon (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Ring-billed Gull – common.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull
Snowy Owl (1) – marsh, left side of entry road.
American Crow (2)
European Starling
Song Sparrow (2)

Common Pasture & en route —
Canada Goose (~ 150) – sod farms, Scotland Rd.
American Wigeon (~ 20)
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard (~ 100)
Northern Pintail (~ 24)
Green-winged Teal (~ 12)
Ring-billed Gull (~ 25)
American Robin (5)

[Red-winged Blackbird (~ 25) – Parker River Refuge HQ.] [Common Grackle (~ 8) – Parker River Refuge HQ.]

With all of Newburyport eerily dark all day yesterday, it was hard to do much in town. But the Black Cow Restaurant had a big generator going, and one could get clear, up-close looks at Common Goldeneyes and Long-tailed Ducks from a comfortable table. A Red-necked Grebe appeared briefly, and a Great Cormorant stayed sheltered from the violence further out on the coast. A tip for future outages!

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, February 28, 2018

This Wednesday, Dave Weaver and I met a group of birders excited by the first birds of spring and hoping for a few more of the birds of winter. They were not disappointed. Before we left to find birds, however, I felt it was important to let people know that it is time to take a moment to write to our federal government. The Department of the Interior is taking comments until March 9 at this website regarding a new plan to open the rest of our coasts (excepting Florida) to oil and gas extraction. Two sites are proposed off of New England. Please compose a message to them to oppose this terrible idea. Mass Audubon’s Advocacy Department is working hard on this one, and you can learn more about it here.

Red-breasted Mergansers – Mike Densmore

With that sobering issue addressed, we headed to the north end of Plum Island. The neighborhoods of Plum Island were bustling with Common Grackles this week, where last week we saw one. The waterbirds were a bit distant this time, with Common Eiders, White-winged Scoters, a few Red-breasted Mergansers, and a small number of Long-tailed Ducks mostly hugging the far shore. We found more mergansers, a Bufflehead, and a couple of Common Goldneyes near the mouth of the basin. A Red-tailed Hawk soared above Salisbury, as did two Turkey Vultures. Small groups of Long-tailed Ducks occasionally raced up and down the river, so we did have a chance for a brief instant of a spectacular bird in flight.

Long-tailed Duck – Mike Densmore

At parking lot #1, we found a very smooth sea. Someday I would like to understand why the Gulf of Maine is so often devoid of waves. This week, it meant that we thought at first there were very few birds at hand. All that was near shore were three female Black Scoters near the first groin to the north, a few White-winged Scoters, two Long-tailed Ducks, and two Horned Grebes. Then when one searched further out with a spotting scope, many more Black Scoters could be seen in tight rafts, most likely engaged in courtship displays. There were more Long-tailed Ducks out there and lots of dark avian objects that were not readily discernible. At one point, I was pretty sure I had a brief look at an alcid, but it dove before I could find field marks. Today, looking at the photos some of our birders sent , we find new birds! We think that the bird below is likely a Thick-billed Murre, but can’t be sure it’s not a Common. It’s possible to find birds in photos that one couldn’t see well enough to identify “by eye” with whatever non-electronic optical equipment you might have. Do what you want with your list, but I like to have an experience of perceiving the diagnostic marks or sounds in the field!

White-winged Scoters – Susan Balser

Murre sp. from a great distance – Susan Balser

We had a pretty big group this week, and got completely spread out along the pull-out at the Main Salt Panne. At the south end, we enjoyed watching 38 Gadwalls and one American Wigeon. In the middle of our group, a Snowy Owl was spotted to the northwest on a staddle. At the north end of the group, a FOY Killdeer poked around at the edge of the panne. One gets exercise making sure all the sightings are known and enjoyed up and down the line. What a great way to get the heart rate up!

Killdeer – FOY at the Main Panne – Bob Minton

As we continued south through the S-curves, a phenomenon that would be a feature of the day became clear. Groups of three to perhaps eight Song Sparrows were dotted all along the road from the pannes to parking lot #7. The lead van always flushed them, so that none of the other vehicles were able to witness that Wednesday, February 28, 2018, was clearly a big day of migration for Song Sparrows. A couple of Dark-eyed Juncos joined them, but no other sparrow species that we could find. Happily, Tom Wetmore reported the same thing on his website, while other observers saw only a handful the day before.

When you clearly see a particular species migrating, it is a joyful experience. Each and every species has a rhythm that is theirs alone, of all the behaviors that mark their yearly cycle. The rhythm of one might coincide with others on some occasions, and often do. But when we see a species distinctly moving together, we feel a sense of their identity. It elicits a profound wish for their success, for their wellbeing as one of our co-inhabitants. We may dismiss Song Sparrows when “listing” on a Big Day, but this Wednesday, though all we really saw were tiny flocks eating seeds by the road, Song Sparrow was really up to something.

WMB at parking lot #1 platform – Mike Densmore

We hoped for more ducks, especially more wigeons, at Stage Island Pool, which turned out to host only one American Black Duck, so we shoe-horned ourselves into the few spots left at parking lot #7. The fallling tide had exposed a bit of Emerson Rocks, and eiders, grebes, scoters, and a couple of loons all performed their remarkable ability to live happily on frigid waters. With not much time to spare, we headed back north to the dike at Hellcat, to see that Bill Forward Pool is still the favorite spot on the refuge of the Northern Pintail. Perhaps a bird it is notable to mention for its absence this week is Northern Harrier, which we missed last week as well. Rough-legged Hawks have evidently vamoosed, but Snowy Owls continue to delight us. Every week of WMB is different, and it is a fantastic thing to have this practice of camaraderie in pursuit of birds.


Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls performing agonistic behavior – Bob Minton

Our list:
Canada Goose – common.
Gadwall (38) – Main Panne.
American Wigeon (1) – Main Panne.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard (~ 6)
Northern Pintail (~ 12) – Bill Forward Pool.
Common Eider (~ 65) – ~40, north end; ~25, parking lot #7 ocean.
White-winged Scoter – common.
Black Scoter – common (mostly parking lot #1 ocean).
Long-tailed Duck (15) – 7, north end; 3, parking lot #1 ocean; 5, parking lot #7 ocean.
Bufflehead (3) – 2, north end; 1, parking lot #7 ocean.
Common Goldeneye (~ 18) – 2, north end; ~14, Plum Island River, w. lot #1; 2, parking lot #7 ocean.
Red-breasted Merganser (~ 19) – north end.
Common Loon (5) – 3, north end; 1, parking lot #1 ocean; 1, parking lot #7 ocean.
Horned Grebe (5) – 3, parking lot #1 ocean; 2, parking lot #7 ocean.
Turkey Vulture (2) – over Salisbury from north end.
Red-tailed Hawk (1) [+ 1, Joppa.]
Killdeer (1) – FOY; north end Main Panne.
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Snowy Owl (1) – on staddle northwest of Main Panne.
Downy Woodpecker (1) – S-curves.
American Crow – common.
[Tufted Titmouse (2) – Joppa.]
[Eastern Bluebird (3) – e. Joppa.]
Northern Mockingbird (1) – s. end S-curves.
European Starling
Song Sparrow (~ 100+) – roadside up & down refuge road.
Dark-eyed Junco (2) – S-curves.
[Red-winged Blackbird (~ 12) – PRNWR HQ.]
Common Grackle (~ 17) – north end.
House Finch (1) – north end.
House Sparrow

Joppa is weathering the storm well, though there is some leaking that drives us a bit nuts. At high tide we were nowhere near being flooded, while it is pretty wild out there:

JFEC at high tide with storm surge, 3/2/18 – David Moon

Wednesday Morning Birding Report 2/21/18

Anticipating unusually warm weather and Snowy Owls as we were this past Wednesday, Dave Weaver and I were unsurprised when a large group of birders showed up at Joppa Flats. With routine sightings of three or more owls each week this winter, I’m happy to report that this week was no exception.

We heard no Red-winged Blackbirds or Carolina Wrens singing from the Joppa parking lot this week, although we have been hearing them quite regularly. At the north end of Plum Island, we stared at the beach, where at this time of year there are almost always one or two beautiful drake Common Goldeneyes foraging very near the sandy riverbank. This week we did see them, but they moved off when our group walked over. To get that perfect photo you have to be quick! A male Red-breasted Merganser hung around the entire time we were there, however, and must have had such good foraging earlier that he stayed on the surface for us to gawk at. The river/inlet was covered with scattered Common Eiders, goldeneyes, Long-tailed Ducks, and White-winged Scoters. We spotted only one Common Loon, as the months-long dearth of loons continues this winter. A Bald Eagle soared far off above the tree line that forms the horizon in Salisbury.

Red-breasted Merganser at North End – Bob Minton

Just as we returned to the vans, two Red-tailed Hawks flew up the beach and off over the river in a very un-buteo-like manner, beating their wings hard in the strong southwest breeze. They looked like they meant business to be moving north, possibly as a couple of early migrants. Driving south, we found the neighborhoods full of Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves, along with a few LBJs, we didn’t even try to identify. As we arrived at parking lot #1 on the refuge, we encountered other birders peering intently west, a good sign for us. Way out there was our first Snowy Owl, at a distance that allowed us to see a shoulder, but not quite any eyes. Still, it was a small relief to have that taken care of. The ocean was beautiful, with clean waves slowing and rising high into the off-shore wind. It was rather empty of birds, although we did find the Black Scoters we expected off of the rock groins north of the refuge. One Surf Scoter foraged in the breakers to the south, and a few White-winged Scoters dotted the sea. On our way back to the vans our FOY Common Grackle sat hunched in the top of a tree near the gate.

Riding along the road to the south, we opened the window to see if we would hear any sounds of passerines. It was very quiet, but we did find a few bunches of Red-winged Blackbirds, which have arrived in strong numbers on the North Shore in the past week. As we pulled in to look at the few ducks that fit into the little openings in the ice in the Main Salt Panne, a big flock of much smaller things landed on the ice at the south end of the panne — Snow Buntings! The flock took off, wheeled around and returned to the spot a few times while we were there, and then was there again, pecking around on the ice after we returned from the rest of our outing. What were they finding out there?! Seeds blown onto the ice by the wind? Seeds from the guano of some roosting flock? Bits of algae stuck in the ice? We appreciated the opportunity for a new puzzle on which to conjecture. In between bouts of crushing on the buntings, we did find a brave drake Gadwall in fine plumage among the scattered American Black Ducks, staple of wintering Anseriformes in the Great Marsh.

Snow Buntings on the Main Panne – Mike Densmore

Another fine distraction while waiting for more buntings was scanning the expanse of marsh for another Snowy Owl, which we did find at not too great a distance. Somebody said that this one was some particular age or sex because of its color, very light, and I refrained from saying that you can’t do that. You can do whatever you want, really, but Mass Audubon’s Snowy Owl expert Norm Smith’s rule is “no aging or sexing Snowy Owls by the amount of pigment in the plumage!” Plumage pigmentation is not a reliable indicator, even if it is fun to see a lot of color and say, “That must be a young one – or maybe it’s a female!”

WMB at Hellcat 2-21-18 – Patti Wood

After maneuvering around all the beachgoers at parking lot #1, we should have been prepared for the crazy scene at Hellcat. There was enough movement in the parking lot to find spots for our big caravan, but barely. Then refuge personnel opened the gate to the south end, so we scooted up to the dike for a quick look at a lovely group of Northern Pintails, turned around, and high-tailed it for Emerson Rocks. Good thing! Waiting among the rocks like a sea ghost was a very maritime-looking Snowy Owl, peering at us while the tide advanced to cover its perch. Soon we discovered why the bird stayed out at sea so late in the tidal cycle, as we watched it fly in to the dunes clutching a half-eaten first-year Ring-billed Gull (best guess?), the only one of those we can say we saw that day. Add to list below – Ring-billed Gull .5? The owl disappeared into the dunes, but soon took off for a nearby grove of pines, where it sat with its mouth open for a time. While we enjoyed searching for grebes and others, the owl rested and then flew across Stage Island Pool. That was a real show! Around Emerson Rocks, we did find a pair of Horned Grebes out near many Common Eiders, Common Goldeneyes, Long-tailed Ducks, and White-winged Scoters. One Common Loon kept that tune about the loonless winter playing.

Snowy Owl peeking from among Emerson Rocks – Mike Densmore

Snowy Owl with prey from Emerson Rocks – Patti Wood

Snowy Owl in pines – John Linn

This week a lot of people came on our birding outing, many of them new. We welcome everybody, and we let them know that going birding with us, joining Mass Audubon, participating in programs, and just being out in nature makes a difference, not just for you, but for the places and creatures you love. Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our tribe of nature people.

Our List:
Canada Goose – common.
Gadwall (3) – pannes.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard – a few.
Northern Pintail (11) – 8 drakes, 3 hens; Bill Forward Pool.
Common Eider – common; north end & parking lot #7 ocean.
Surf Scoter (1) – parking lot #1 ocean.
White-winged Scoter – common.
Black Scoter (7) – parking lot #1 ocean.
Long-tailed Duck (~ 25) – 13, north end; ~ 12, parking lot #7 ocean.
Common Goldeneye (~ 19) – 7, north end; ~ 12 parking lot #7 ocean.
Red-breasted Merganser (1) – north end.
Common Loon (2) – 1, north end; 1, parking lot #7 ocean.
Horned Grebe (2) – Emerson Rocks, parking lot #7 ocean.
Bald Eagle (1) – over Salisbury, from north end.
Red-tailed Hawk (5) – 2, north end; 2, vicinity parking lot #1; [1, Plum Island Tpk].
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Snowy Owl (3) – 1, distant in marsh w. refuge gate; 1, not as distant in marsh sw main panne; 1, in & on Emerson Rocks (!) – eventually flew with prey as tide rose.
American Crow – several.
European Starling
Snow Bunting (~ 60) – feeding on ice (!) at south end main panne.
Red-winged Blackbird (~ 12) – treetops, S-curves.
Common Grackle (1) – parking lot #1.