Wednesday Morning Birding Report, August 14, 2019

On August 14, Dave Weaver and I led the Wednesday Morning Birders to Plum Island, where the high tide had pushed shorebirds to roosts where they could rest and forage. The first thing we noticed after passing through the gatehouse was a swarm of Tree Swallows that sashayed back and forth across the road from the Middens on the right to the patchy thickets on the left. The most impressive flocks we saw yesterday were there at the north end of the refuge road, but in all, with big numbers in the Phragmites stands of North Pool and in North Field, we estimated the hordes at somewhere near 10,000 swallows, now staging for the southward migration. Those numbers are likely to peak at some point above 100,000.

Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers – Tom Shreffler

Our first shorebird encounter was at the Main Panne, where we pulled off the road and enjoyed looking through scores of peeps. The many Semipalmated Sandpipers were joined by a couple of Least Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, and at least a few Semipalmated Plovers. A couple of Least Terns foraged where the water was open. The shorebirds were foraging on the mats of algae that are covered noticeably by large black fly-like insects. Managers at the Refuge have opened channels that let a more natural flow of tidal water enter and exit the Main Panne, and it appears that the water level has dropped. We certainly are enjoying the common sights and sounds of shorebirds close to the road.

White-rumped vs Semipalmated Sandpipers – Patti Wood

From there we went to see the many birds at Stage Island Pool, where the water level has been dropped to expose sizable mudflats. A couple of groups of five or more Greater Yellowlegs were scattered on the shoreline and in the shallows, and we got some short views of cooperative feeding. A small number of Great and Snowy Egrets and Double-crested Cormorants roosted in the middle distance, as they usually do when exposed mud is available. Shorebirds were scattered along the shoreline and in the distance, including one Pectoral Sandpiper and a Baird’s Sandpiper that unfortunately was only visible through a narrow window when it was close. Some Short-billed Dowitchers roosted near the road with yellowlegs, mostly Greaters.

Tree-Swallow over Sandpiper – John Linn
Short-billed Dowitcher – Mike Densmore

It had been a long time since we could go to the platform at parking lot #7, so we took a quick look up there. On the way up the ramp, one of us noticed below us a bright orange bird, which turned out to be an older adult female Baltimore Oriole. Female Baltimore Orioles attain brighter plumage with age, sometimes approaching that of males. Cedar Waxwing juveniles called from the shrubs, and both adult and young Eastern Kingbirds cavorted about. The ocean was fairly empty, as Emerson Rocks were covered by the tide, but some juvenile Common Eiders loafed right off the beach. They were so dark, we first thought they were scoters. These motley birds are now in juvenile plumage, which they will lose most of as winter approaches to become the “immatures” we recognize.

Baltimore Oriole tricky plumage – David Moon
Tree Swallows fill the air – John Linn

We saved Hellcat for last, as we often do, particularly in order to maximize the chances of seeing shorebirds that roost there at high tide. There were hundreds of Semipalmated Plovers sitting quietly in the short vegetation on the flat in Bill Forward Pool. Hundreds of Semipalmated Sandpipers did the same thing further south on the flats there. Plenty of these birds and other less abundant ones foraged around for us to pick through, giving the group good views of the set of small shorebirds we expect to see. Another Pectoral Sandpiper was easier to see, as were dowitchers, yellowlegs, and Cedar Waxwings, which forage in an odd but regular way on those flats. Scores of Tree Swallows flew over the dike and dipped for drinks in North Pool. Two families of Gadwalls charmed everybody with their fluffy young.

Barn Swallow – Tom Schreffler

A note about Wednesday Evening Birding: The tide was low during our late-day outing, but we enjoyed a nice variety of birds at Hellcat Dike, including a juvenile Sora, which poked out of the reeds in North Pool for a while. We had been drawn to look that way by a couple of dowitchers, and, sharp-eyed as ever, co-leader Linda Hunnewell spotted that surprise. We also enjoyed a spectacular display of a Northern Harrier’s acrobatic foraging flight over the reeds in Bill Forward Pool. That is the first Northern Harrier we’ve seen since they departed in spring.

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron – Mike Densmore

Our list:
Canada Goose (~ 17) – Bill Forward Pool (BFP).
Gadwall (10) – 2 broods of 3 & 5, 2 hens; BFP.
American Black Duck (2) – Main Panne.
Mallard (~ 10) – various.
Common Eider (~ 12) – seven ocean.
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 25) – mostly BFP.
Great Blue Heron (2) – 1, Stage Island Pool (SIP); 1, BFP.
Great Egret – common; various.
Snowy Egret (~ 10) – SIP & BFP.
Osprey (2) – Pines platform/pole.
Black-bellied Plover (~ 25) – BFP.
Semipalmated Plover – common; mostly BFP.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – SIP.
Greater Yellowlegs (~ 15) – SIP & BFP.
Lesser Yellowlegs (3) – SIP.
Semipalmated Sandpiper – common; various.
Least Sandpiper (6) – 2, Main Panne; 4, BFP.
White-rumped Sandpiper (5) – 1, Main Panne; 4, BFP.
Baird’s Sandpiper (1) – SIP.
Pectoral Sandpiper (2) – 1, SIP; 1, BFP.
Short-billed Dowitcher (~ 20) – ~ 10, SIP; ~ 10, BFP.
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (2) – seven beach.
Least Tern (4) – 2, Main Panne; 2, BFP.
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Kingbird (~ 5) – various.
Tree Swallow (10K +/-)
Black-capped Chickadee (3) – S-curves.
American Robin (1)
Gray Catbird (4)
Brown Thrasher (1) – lot #7 boardwalk.
European Starling – common.
Cedar Waxwing – many; various.
Common Yellowthroat (1) – Hellcat dike.
Yellow Warbler (3)
Song Sparrow (2)
Bobolink (3) – Hellcat dike.
Baltimore Oriole (1) – lot #7 boardwalk.
Purple Finch (1) – Hellcat.
[House Finch (1) – Joppa.]

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, August 7, 2019

It was exciting to restart Wednesday Morning Birding this week with Dave Weaver! This year’s Joppa Flats hiatus from birding felt especially long due to five July Wednesdays in the calendar. This first week in August, we had a low tide during WMB, so as expected, shorebirds were not numerous on the high tide roosts we visit on Parker River NWR.

Purple Martins at parking lot #1, Parker River NWR – David Moon

We enjoyed seeing many Purple Martins around the gourd array near parking lot #1 on the refuge, and as we parked in the pull-off at the Main Panne, we found a nice group of shorebirds to sift through. It was obvious, with not much more than a glance, that there was a Least Sandpiper out on the algae mats with a group of 25 or so Semipalmated Sandpipers. With more searching, we found a couple of White-rumped Sandpipers mixed in.

Starlings avoid Red-tailed Hawk – Mike Densmore
Least Sandpiper – Tom Schreffler

One of the birds stood out as browner, darker, and a bit smaller than we expect in Least Sandpipers, and it seemed to have darker legs. After staring at photos for a while, we now see that it was a Least Sandpiper, as the leg color was a bit off from the dark gray that Semi’s have; the legs just weren’t as yellow as most Leasts’ legs are. It was strange, though, how much more I seemed to be able to see in the bird’s “differences” while I tried to imagine it was a Little Stint! I’ll probably have to get to know some actual Little Stints more personally before making one up out of a poor little Least with dull legs.

Least Sandpiper with darkish legs – Mike Densmore

The big algae mats on the Main Panne and other pannes have been causing some concern over past years. The refuge staff’s efforts to restore a more natural tidal flow there may or may not change that situation. However, I have noticed a brief apparent benefit to the algae, which is the avid feeding, especially at high tide, that peeps engage in on those mats during migration. Even Least Sandpipers, which much prefer drier mud, are out there finding something to eat. If only we knew what it was. Who wants to spend hours watching them closely to see if those black fly-like things are the main menu item?

Common Tern – Barbara Merrill

After enjoying up-close observation of little shorebirds for some time, along with a healthy contingent of Least Terns and a couple of Common Terns, we moved on to have our first dose of “lots of Tree Swallows” for the season. Dave Weaver and I decided that the number we encountered on Plum Island, from the gate to Hellcat, was somewhere between 1000 and 5000. While standing at North Pool Overlook, we observed that the tops of the stands of Phragmites all around North Pool were laden with swallows. Quantities of the birds were gusting back and forth, occasionally taking drinks from the pool. Someone found an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron in the cedar on the little island in the pool. Jane Hucks identified a mother Gadwall and ducklings, so we had the opportunity to practice seeing that species without the male’s obvious field marks. The young Gadwalls looked small enough to make us wonder if they were a late second brood.

Tree Swallows staging for migration, and an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron for you to find! – Tom Schreffler
Eastern Kingbird juvenile – Barbara Merrill

At Hellcat, we found few shorebirds, as the tide was almost low. Later in the day, though, when the Wednesday Evening Shorebirding group returned at high tide, hundreds of Semipalmated Plovers were roosting on the vegetated flats in Bill Forward Pool, while a smattering of sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers foraged in the shallows at the edge of the pool. We’ll hope for such a show some upcoming Wednesday morning. This morning, we looked hard for a Least Bittern that had been reported recently, but it did not appear. A Bobolink in basic plumage came and went noisily, using an insistent, nasal call. Lots of Tree Swallows came and went over the pools and dike, but while the numbers are rising steadily, it certainly was pre-peak, which is what we expect this early in the season.

Killdeer – John Linn
Red-Eyed Vireo – John Linn

With time to spare, we took a walk along the main road at Hellcat, observing flattened snakes (watch your speed out there, and keep a lookout for creatures!), but few birds. Plenty of passerines called from the thickets. Most of us got a good look at a Red-eyed Vireo, and Barbara Merrill sent a shot of a very molty male American Redstart, but there is still a lot of behavior I would term “sneaking around feeding young in the cover,” which makes most passerines hard to detect visually. Thus ended our first shorebird foray of the season, with many more to come, and certainly more diversity and numbers to anticipate with the imminent surge in migration. More favorable tides on another day will also increase our chances of seeing these wonderful birds.

Tree Swallows staging for migration – Tom Schreffler

Our list:
Canada Goose (~ 35) – N. Pool Overlook (NPO) & Bill Forward Pool (BFP).
Gadwall (5) – hen + 4 young; NPO.
Mallard (~ 15) – various.
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 20) – mostly BFP.
Great Blue Heron (1) – BFP.
Great Egret (~ 15) – various.
Snowy Egret (1)
Black-crowned Night-Heron (1) – immature; island cedar, NPO.
Turkey Vulture (6) – kettling over lot #1.
Osprey (2)
Red-tailed Hawk (2) – 1 perched e. PI Bridge; 1 flying over BFP.
Semipalmated Plover (1) – BFP.
Killdeer (2) – BFP.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – North Pool from Hellcat dike.
Lesser Yellowlegs (2) – 1, Main Panne; 1, North Pool from Hellcat dike.
Semipalmated Sandpiper (~ 25) – algae mat, Main Panne .
Least Sandpiper (1) – algae mat, Main Panne .
White-rumped Sandpiper (2) – algae mat, Main Panne .
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (3)
Least Tern (5) – Main Panne & BFP.
Common Tern (2) – Main Panne .
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Kingbird (1)
Red-eyed Vireo (2) – roadside, Hellcat.
Blue Jay (3)
Purple Martin (~ 25) – lot #1 gourds.
Tree Swallow (~ 2,000) – flocking early.
Black-capped Chickadee (3) – roadside, Hellcat.
American Robin (6)
Gray Catbird (~ 6)
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (100s)
Cedar Waxwing (~ 10)
Eastern Towhee (1) – heard.
Song Sparrow (4) – heard.
Bobolink (2) – Hellcat dike.
Red-winged Blackbird (2)
Common Grackle (2)
American Goldfinch (1) – Hellcat.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, June 26 2019

Dave Larson and I led this edition of Wednesday Morning Birding on to Plum Island. The skies were overcast to partly cloudy; temps in the upper 60s; and winds light and variable. It was a lovely day for birding. With the tide falling from a 06:48 a.m. high and with the overcast conditions, we beat feet for Sandy Point, once again counting on parking spaces being available. We were not disappointed.

We didn’t have to go far on the beach to have a wonderful show presented by Piping Plovers and Least Terns. Least Tern parents in a couple of nests were busy ferrying in fish for their recently hatched chicks and at least one pair of plovers was busy shepherding its brood of four chicks. I have to say, Piping Plover chicks are “cute!” Down the path en route to the beach, a couple of Song Sparrows sang and an Eastern Towhee called for “teeeee” back in the shrubs.

Least Terns -- Bob Minton
Least Terns — Bob Minton
Least Terns -- Patti Wood
Least Terns — Patti Wood
Least Terns -- Tom Schreffler
Least Terns — Tom Schreffler
Piping Plovers -- Barbara Merrill
Piping Plovers — Barbara Merrill
Piping Plovers -- Tom Schreffler
Piping Plovers — Tom Schreffler

With parking available in the upper parking lot, we paid a visit to the beach at Bar Head. We found two lone sea ducks loafing on Emerson Rocks — a hen Common Eider and a late White-winged Scoter. A 2nd-year Common Loon was just offshore, fooling some of us with its narrower and slightly upturned bill — obviously not fully adult in appearance. About 30 Double-crested Cormorants and a small gathering of Great Black-backed Gulls all congregated on the beach beyond Emerson Rocks. A pair of Piping Plovers and its four chicks were not far away in the closed and protected area of the refuge beach under the watchful eye of the on-duty “Plover Warden.” With the somewhat tranquil weather of late, absent any nor’easters, this season’s plover production could be rather good. Time will tell. While on the beach, we had a Great Blue Heron fly-by and a single Killdeer made its presence known.

Double-crested Cormorants & Great Black-backed Gulls -- Tom Schreffler
Double-crested Cormorants & Great Black-backed Gulls — Tom Schreffler
Killdeer - Bob Minton
Killdeer – Bob Minton

As we made our way back up the island to Hellcat, a number of Snowy Egrets and a few Great Egrets could be seen in the marsh. Also, Cedar Waxwings were omnipresent — they seemed to be everywhere. The Pines Trail nesting platform Ospreys could be seen from the road and several Bobolinks were seen and heard in South Field. From the Hellcat dike, we could see the many drake Mallards on Bill Forward Pool continuing their eclipse molt. There were also two drake Green-winged Teal, a pair of Gadwalls, and two Common Terns. Pretty soon the hen Gadwall will be on a nest, being the latest of the waterfowl nesting on Plum Island. Some of us caught a glimpse of a Virginia Rail flying away over the North Pool cattails and Phragmites before diving down into the marsh. The resident Willow Flycatcher was heard and seen from the Hellcat dike, and, of course, Red-winged Blackbirds were commonly seen.

Cedar Waxwing -- Barbara Merrill
Cedar Waxwing — Barbara Merrill
Bobolink - John Linn
Bobolink – John Linn
Gadwall pair -- Tom Schreffler
Gadwall pair — Tom Schreffler
Willow Flycatcher -- Mike Densmore
Willow Flycatcher — Mike Densmore
Red-winged Blackbird female -- Mike Densmore
Red-winged Blackbird female — Mike Densmore

A walk up the refuge road from the Hellcat parking lot gave us bird song from several species, including Gray Catbird (lots!), Purple Finch, American Redstart (the nest we had been following just south of Goodno Crossing was now empty), Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, and Eastern Towhee. Some of our group picked up an Orchard Oriole along the way and back in the parking lot, there was a Baltimore Oriole, the bright one . . . .

Eastern Towhee -- John Linn
Eastern Towhee — John Linn

On our way north, at Doug Chickering’s suggestion, we stopped at “Lois’ Bench” at the north end of the Main Panne to look for Saltmarsh Sparrows. Some of us had success. In my van, Pam had great looks and chalked it up as a “Lifer” for her list. Way to go, Pam! Tom Schreffler returned after the program to get some great pics of this saltmarsh denizen, sometimes called “Johnnie Jump Up” for its habit of popping up from the marsh grass and then just as quickly disappearing back into the grass.

Saltmarsh Sparrow -- Tom Schreffler
Saltmarsh Sparrow — Tom Schreffler

Please be reminded that this week’s Wednesday Morning Birding was the last until August 7 as we take our usual July hiatus. I hope that your summer goes well. See you in August!
Best regards!
Dave Weaver
Our list:

Canada Goose (~ 11) – Bill Forward Pool (BFP).
Gadwall (2) – pr.; BFP.
Mallard (~ 65) – BFP.
Green-winged Teal (2) – drakes; BFP.
Common Eider (1) – hen; Emerson Rocks.
White-winged Scoter (1) – Emerson Rocks.
Common Loon (2) – 1, Sandy Point; 1, Bar Head.
Double-crested Cormorant (~ 30) – seven beach.
Great Blue Heron (1) – fly-over; Bar Head.
Great Egret (~ 7) – various.
Snowy Egret (~ 20) – various.
Osprey (5) – 2 on each of nesting platforms; 1, overhead Sandy Point.
Virginia Rail (1) – North Pool from Hellcat dike.
Piping Plover (15) – 9, Sandy Point, including pr. w/ 4 young; 6, Bar
Head – pr. w/ 4 young.
Killdeer (1) – fly-by, Bar Head.
Willet (~ 12) – various.
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (12) – 2, Sandy Point; 10, seven beach.
Least Tern (~ 30) – 4 on nests, at least one nest with 2 young; ~ 20,
loafing at water’s edge.
Common Tern (2) – BFP.
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Willow Flycatcher (1) – Hellcat.
Eastern Phoebe (1) – Hellcat.
Eastern Kingbird (~ 12) – various.
Blue Jay (2)
American Crow (1)
Purple Martin (4) – parking lot #1.
Tree Swallow (3)
Black-capped Chickadee (2) – Hellcat.
Marsh Wren (1) – North Pool from Hellcat dike.
American Robin – common.
Gray Catbird – common.
[Northern Mockingbird (1) – PI Airport.]
European Starling – common.
Cedar Waxwing – common.
Common Yellowthroat – common.
American Redstart (1) – Hellcat.
Yellow Warbler – common.
Eastern Towhee – common.
Saltmarsh Sparrow (2) – marsh near Lois’ bench at Main Panne (thanks,
Doug!).
Song Sparrow (~ 7) – various.
Northern Cardinal (2)
Bobolink (3) – South Field.
Red-winged Blackbird – common.
Common Grackle – common.
Orchard Oriole (1) – Hellcat.
Baltimore Oriole (2) – 1, Hellcat; 1, Goodno Crossing.
Purple Finch (2) – Hellcat.
American Goldfinch (3) – Hellcat.