At 7:30 AM this past Wednesday, our group of birders gathered in the Hellcat parking lot in dense fog with Dave Weaver co-leading with me. We were joined by David O’Neill, Mass Audubon’s new president! He was giddy that he was able to escape the confinement of his temporary residence, off of Zoom meetings, and out to see the treasure that is Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. David’s leadership at Mass Audubon since his arrival in June has been truly impressive. We can now also view him as a fantastic lucky charm, since the first bird we found as we walked up onto the Hellcat dike was a Hudsonian Godwit!
The godwit performed very nicely and at not a great distance, which was good because the fog prevented us from seeing what we assumed were hundreds of shorebirds further down Bill Forward Pool. Tom Wetmore, who monitors birds on Plum Island almost every day of the year, was also watching what could be seen and heard from the dike with such poor visibility. When we heard a somewhat less-familiar plover cry, I thought it sounded kind of weird – then we heard Tom call out “American Golden-Plover!” Every time we go out there is something new to observe and learn.
We enjoyed the many egrets and a few shorebirds that were close enough to see through the slowly evaporating mists. The godwit stayed close, however, and we were able to see something special about godwits: you often see their food tweezered between those long mandibles before it disappears down the hatch.
As has become routine of late, we decided to move down to North Pool Overlook to add some diversity to the morning. While we “enjoyed” the many eclipse-plumage ducks, a smattering of passerines, and a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron tucked into the reeds, we were joined by Dave Larson, which delighted us even more than the birds. It was Daves in the fourth dimension.
Dave Larson and Dave Weaver stayed on to lead the 9:30 session, which had both better luck and better visibility as the fog burned off. Not one, not two, but three American Bitterns took flights in the marsh and over Hellcat dike. Tom Wetmore was still there, and true to form as the “Santa Claus” of Plum Island, identified a Clapper Rail in the salt marsh! Meanwhile, some of the birders from the early session went down to Sandy Point to chase reports of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Mike Densmore did not disappoint, with three of them and an American Golden-Plover!
The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent Sandy Point State Reservation are wicked hot birding right now. Let’s have some fun and give some magical credit for our birdy good fortune to our new president, David O’Neill. He has instantly gained solid hold of the reins at this challenging and pivotal moment, he’s moving forward with tremendous grace, and he should really be rewarded with something that just can’t be disapproved; that he was very good luck for our birdwatching on the North Shore this week.
Here’s something else to feel really good about: the new boardwalk at the Hellcat Wildlife Observation Area is very near completion. There will be a “soft opening” soon, which means that no announcement will be made when the fences come down. Stay tuned! We are very excited to share about the wonderful return to those beloved, upgraded paths through our favorite maritime forest, Black Gum swamp, marsh, and dunes.
Our List: (key: 7:30 session/9:30 session) Canada Goose 0/30 Gadwall 2/2 Mallard 20/20 American Black Duck 0/4 – North Pool Overlook (NPO). Green-winged Teal 1/8 Pied-billed Grebe 0/1 – with Mallards, apparently feeding on their scraps; Bill Forward Pool (BFP). Mourning Dove 1/2 Clapper Rail 0/1 Black-bellied Plover 15/30 – BFP. American Golden-Plover 1 (heard)/0 Killdeer 2/2 – all at NPO. Semipalmated Plover 35/100s Hudsonian Godwit 1/1 – BFP. Least Sandpiper 0/2,2,2 Semipalmated Sandpiper 25/100s Short-billed Dowitcher 6/25 Lesser Yellowlegs 0/2,2 Greater Yellowlegs 25/45 Ring-billed Gull 0/2 Herring Gull 5/6 Common Loon 0/1 – flyover BFP. Double-crested Cormorant 5/7 American Bittern 0/3 – flying over Hellcat marsh & dike. Great Blue Heron 1/2 Great Egret 20/35 Snowy Egret 2/7 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron 1/0 – NPO. Osprey 0/2 pines Belted Kingfisher 0/1 – NPO. Eastern Kingbird 0/4 – NPO. Tree Swallow 20/20 American Robin 4/4 Gray Catbird 2/2 European Starling 0/yes American Goldfinch 0/1 – flyover. Song Sparrow 3/4 Eastern Towhee 1/1 Red-winged Blackbird 0/1 – female. Common Grackle 0/1 – NPO. Common Yellowthroat 1/2
This week our group met at Hellcat Wildlife Observation Area on Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Our repeated visits there lately have fueled anticipation of the opening of the Hellcat boardwalk, which is very near completion. The construction crew worked right through the pandemic, and with the small groups we must limit ourselves to, we anticipate happy mornings exploring this new resource. A very important part of the revamped boardwalk will be the absence of stairs, so people who use wheels to aid mobility will suddenly have a big new place to see birds and explore a large swath of the beauty of maritime ecosystems.
When we arrived at Hellcat, the tide was entering the upper half of the daily cycle, so we watched the birds arriving on the flats. One photo here captures the beauty of a group of Black-bellied Plovers jetting in for their high-tide rest and foraging. Shorebirds fly in highly synchronized flocks at high speed, which makes hanging out on the dike waiting for such performances very rewarding. I know that now that I have been so fortunate to see these displays of evolutionary refinement and physical beauty week after week for the past five years, I am hooked for life.
This week, the “icing on the cake” was a satisfying number of Red Knots that Tom Wetmore was observing when we arrived. First four, then eight more knots, all in basic plumage, were well-down the pool, foraging in several inches of water. They were sometimes mixed in with the Black-bellied Plovers, but the larger group was distinct and separate in the pool. Even at a distance, you can see in John’s photo that the distinctive shape and smooth gray appearance of the birds stood out.
With a bit of time left, we decided to check out the North Pool Overlook. There still was a cabal of ducks in eclipse plumage there, so we did work a bit on the few marks remaining to identify them. That is made a bit trickier by the presence of late-season juveniles which are still not fully grown. That adds a wrinkle we don’t experience with identification of passerines. Once a tree-born bird (other than a duck) can fly, it is fully grown. Birds born on the ground that can run and/or swim immediately (precocial species) grow into their full size in our view, while birds that must fledge from a nest in a tree don’t leave until they are either fully grown or very nearly so. In the pool and on the mud, there were Gadwalls, Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Green-winged Teal. Reports of Blue-winged Teal did not help us. If they were around, we did not see any smaller ducks with bigger bills.
While we stood there, Tree Swallows arrived. Even though there are still some impressive flocks appearing on Plum Island and other barrier beaches, numbers have been declining as the migration passes by. That means that one can go a long way on Plum Island now without seeing any or many swallows, then run into a couple of thousand of them breezing in, swirling around, as we saw. Other nice things that happened at the overlook were a subadult male Northern Harrier coming by, and a great finale for the morning, the sudden arrival of a fully alternate-plumaged male Baltimore Oriole. Wow!
This week the first “special” sparrow of the fall showed up on Plum Island, a Lark Sparrow that was there for one day (not Wednesday). After our program, a cursory examination of the gravel areas at The Warden’s yielded zero sparrows of any kind, but we look forward, weirdly, to the sometimes maddeningly difficult task of finding Clay-colored Sparrows amidst many Chipping Sparrows, as the season progresses. Why do we subject ourselves to that? Why are we now going to be looking carefully at all the dowitchers, hoping to discern a Long-billed? Because no matter what level of birding you occupy, when that effort finally reveals the species that was theretofore invisible, it is a gift.
One more note – The fabulous egret show at Perkins Playground continued Wednesday evening, earlier than usual because of the deep-dark drizzle we went out in. But we did learn definitively that the Tree Swallow show that happens at sunset above the reeds in North Pool does not happen in such gloom. Nothing Happened! That of course leads to perhaps inappropriate speculation, that the remarkable “last flight of the day” that happens after the sun drops down, and that includes all the swallows that have been previously hiding in the reeds – the speculation that such behavior is an exultation of beauty and the joy of physical ability, fueled by zugunruhe. Yes, such speculation is totally unscientific, I know, but very difficult to avoid.
Our List: From Hellcat Dike Mallard 15 Black-bellied Plover 65 Semipalmated Plover 150 Red Knot (12) – Yay! Least Sandpiper 2 White-rumped Sandpiper 4 Semipalmated Sandpiper 300 Short-billed Dowitcher 25 Spotted Sandpiper 3 Greater Yellowlegs 35 Lesser Yellowlegs 12 Herring Gull 15 Double-crested Cormorant 15 Great Blue Heron 2 Great Egret 4 Snowy Egret 1 Osprey 1 Northern Harrier (2) – Cavorting together near the Pines. Common Raven (1) – Flying back and forth with classic vocalizations. Black-capped Chickadee 4 Tree Swallow 35
At North Pool Overlook Gadwall 12 Mallard 17 American Black Duck 7 Green-winged Teal 8 Mourning Dove 1 Killdeer 1 Least Sandpiper 3 Greater Yellowlegs 15 Great Egret 2 Northern Harrier (1) – Subadult male (See photo above.). Eastern Phoebe 1 Common Raven (2) – Could easily have included the same one we had observed earlier. Tree Swallow 2000 – “Blew in” all of a sudden. Gray Catbird 2 American Robin 5 Song Sparrow 1 Baltimore Oriole 1 – Nice male in alternate plumage, a great finale.
Last Wednesday, our birding outings were held in the morning and evening. Susan Yurkus co-led at 9:30 am, and Linda Hunnewell co-led at our evening session at 6:30 pm. We began at 9:30 with an awkward tide level, 3.7 feet and falling in Newburyport, which is the beginning of the lower third of the tide cycle. This meant that when we arrived on the dike at Hellcat, there was still a smattering of Semipalmated Sandpipers and others on the flats in Bill Forward Pool, but most had skedaddled for better foraging as the tide exposed previously inundated flats.
Shorebirds in Migration Shorebirds (and other migrants) make longer stops as they go south than they do on their northward migration. They linger at stopovers such as the Great Marsh as they build fat reserves for epically long flights to the Caribbean, tropical South America, and even the southern tip of Argentina, though only a few species go to the farthest extreme, species such as White-rumped Sandpipers and Red Knots. The “leisurely” notion of the southward migration is belied by the voracious foraging they engage in on these stopovers, and in the case of all the species that utilize tidal mudflats to find food, they are intimately tied to the tidal cycle. What drives the birds is the exposure or inundation of tidal flats that are rich in invertebrate prey. So predicting where tidal-flat-foraging species will be at any given time relates to the availability of the food resources in those tidal flats.
A Digression on Shorebirds and Tides For finding shorebirds, predicting where they will be using an amount of time relative to a high or low tide of the day is a blunt instrument. The height of a mudflat relative to sea level and the extremity of the tides on a given day determines when and how long the flat will be available for foraging. In Newburyport, the actual levels of high and low tides on any given day vary through the month by almost 3 feet! The water level gauge on the Rt. 1 bridge in Newburyport is useful for predicting the exposure of Joppa Flats, one of the few tidal flats in our region to have a widely recognized name. The ideal tide level and action on Joppa Flats is at 1.0 feet on a rising tide, though a falling tide is good too at that level, as we observed last Wednesday.
At a water level of 1.0′ on the gauge, much of Joppa Flats is covered by water, but a band of exposed mudflat is visible near shore, making the birds on the flats easy to observe as the birds forage mostly on that exposed area. Tide levels are measured from “zero” at the height of the mean low tide, which is regarded as “sea level.” All we can see on a tide chart, however, is the predicted level, which can be greatly altered by the flow rate of the river, by wind, by variation in ocean currents, and by barometric pressure. I nevertheless am finding that 1.0′ predicted tide level in Newburyport is useful for planning birding outings to Joppa Flats, but that is only because of smartphone apps such as “Tide Chart – Free,” which give you the time of day that the gauge in Newburyport is predicted to read 1.0′. Tides also affect the movement and foraging of gulls, so there are probably perfect gull moments that could be predicted by the tide height as well. The perfect gull observation tide height could be the next project, though it took a few years of observations to feel confident of what I have shared here…
Back to Birding We enjoyed the scene at Hellcat for a while, but the flats emptied about 30 minutes after we arrived, so after standing around watching the shorebirds leaving, and getting some looks at a Merlin, maybe a Peregrine Falcon, and some Ospreys, we moved on to North Pool Overlook.
The ducks in North Pool should have been categorized as “Large Grayish-brown Ducks,” and “Small Grayish-brown Ducks,” the only two types of ducks one finds at this time of year as they linger in their “eclipse plumage.” We did our best to distinguish them according to accepted taxonomy, however, and enjoyed seeing the first decent number of Green-winged Teal (“Small Grayish-brown Duck” adults – “Small Grayish-brown Duck” juveniles were young Gadwalls, distinguished by the color of the speculum, a section of secondary flight feathers). While this is a birding post, we love all earth’s critters, so were delighted when a coyote trotted by, totally unconcerned by our observation from a good distance.
With not much time left, I decided to offer everyone either an early lunch or some extended birding time at the Joppa Park boat ramp. When we arrived there, the flats were fixin’ to open, and the name of the game was dancing gulls. Bonaparte’s Gulls have a dancing way of flying above the water and dropping for prey at the edges of submerged flats, and we got a nice view of that action as the flats emerged. “Boneys” also are dainty in the way they sit on the water, but as we looked at them, one stood out as larger and with a different-looking “hood” – a Black-headed Gull!! The back of the bird’s hood ended even higher on the nape than it does on a Bonaparte’s, and the color was obviously brownish, not black, even though it was molting to the winter-white around the face. The bird’s bill color was also easy to see, not all dark like a Bonaparte’s Gull, but reddish-orange at the base. We spent a long time observing that bird, and enjoying the arrival of the shorebirds promised by the opening of the flats. Finally (!), our own rare bird for WMB that I had been writing about here in the absence thereof. What will be next?!
Our evening outing should be recorded here, as our “itinerary” is one that I can still recommend at this point in the season. Linda and I met birders at Perkins Playground in Newburyport, where a wonderful egret spectacle takes place every evening behind the ball field. About 400 Great and Snowy Egrets arrive there by dark, and the finale of the last third of the roost arriving in a concentrated period is a thrilling show. Night-Herons of both species cavort about as they get their engines revving for the nighttime feeding frenzy. As darkness arrives, they “bark” more and more, and as the egrets become ever more crowded, their prehistoric-sounding squawks and growls fill the air while they tussle for position, sounds that belie their usual elegance during the awkward period in which they find purchase on the branches of the trees.
But we didn’t stay for that finale, as we wanted to see the final flight of the day for Tree Swallows in the reeds of North Pool at Parker River NWR. We ran out there and had a very nice show of that odd final flight, when swallows roosting in the tops of the reeds inexplicably lift up in a swirling cloud, make dramatic dashes and rotating vortices, and then drop like stones back into the reeds for the night. This was happening as recently as last night, Sunday August 30, so I recommend you shut off your screen and get to one of those spots to see the best show on the North Shore. But which one you end the day with is up to you to decide, as you can’t be in both places at once!
Our List (9:30 am session only. Key: 100/150 = 100 on Plum Island, 150 at Joppa Flats): Canada Goose (10) – various on Plum Island (PI). Gadwall (8) – North Pool Overlook (NPO). Mallard (35/25) – various on PI. American Black Duck (2) – NPO. Green-winged Teal (12) – NPO. Wild Turkey (2) – roadside, PI. Rock Pigeon (9) – various. Black-bellied Plover (100) – Joppa Flats (JF). Killdeer (1) – Bill Forward Pool (BFP). Semipalmated Plover (200/150) Least Sandpiper (1) – BFP. Semipalmated Sandpiper (25/150) – BFP on PI. Short-billed Dowitcher (17/10) Lesser Yellowlegs (4/10) – BFP on PI. Greater Yellowlegs (35/15) – various on PI. Bonaparte’s Gull (60) – JF. Black-headed Gull (1) – JF. Ring-billed Gull (35) – various. Herring Gull (20/100) – various on PI. Great Black-backed Gull (5) – JF. Common Tern (1) – JF. Double-crested Cormorant (5/15) Great Blue Heron (2) – salt marsh from Hellcat dike. Great Egret (25) – various on PI. Snowy Egret (10) – various on PI. Osprey (4/1) – from Hellcat dike on PI. Bald Eagle (1) – JF. Merlin (1) – over the Bill Forward Pool dike. Peregrine Falcon (1) – same as above. Eastern Kingbird (1) – roadside on PI. Tree Swallow (20K+) – On Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, all spread out above thickets and dunes from parking lot #1 to the S-curves. Barn Swallow (4) – mixed with above. American Robin (5) – various on PI. Gray Catbird (2) – roadside on PI. European Starling (35) – roadside on PI. House Sparrow (5) – along Sunset Drive on PI. American Goldfinch (8) – various on PI. Song Sparrow (4) – various on PI.