Wednesday Morning Birding Report, August 5, 2020

We held two sessions of Wednesday Morning Birding this week, co-led by Dave Weaver at 7:30 AM and Dave Williams at 9:30 AM. The path of the tropical system that we knew would bring amazing rarities inland this week did not promise the same for the coast. So, we kept to an original plan to meet at Perkins Park in Newburyport, where there is a large post-breeding roost of both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons. We were not disappointed by the show. Between 7:30 and about 8:15 AM, mostly juvenile night-herons milled about, squawking occasionally, trying out various roosts, sunning themselves, or doing good imitations of vampires. A few adult Black-crowned Night-Herons sat out in full view, one in particular in glorious sunshine for excellent viewing. Although there was a good number of juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, we did not spot any adults.

Black-crowned Night-Heron – Mike Densmore
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Mike Densmore

The pond (not visible to us) and the surrounding marsh and sheltering trees were a magnet for other birds, so it was an active place for observation. One Snowy Egret merely thought about coming in during our early session, but many actually arrived during the later session, some making the dramatic twists and turns that help them lose altitude quickly when landing at a roost. The night-herons had settled down considerably by the time our second session began. Hence our advice: should you wish to observe this neat spot, make sure you come early in the day to enjoy it fully. We have also heard some say that the evening exodus is a great thing to watch as well, but in previous years we have found ball games in progress in the evening, and have decided not to fill the outfield with birders as targets for home-run hitters!

Black-crowned (L) and Yellow-crowned (R) Night-Heron comparison – Tom Schreffler

After the earlier group had its fill of the action at the park, we moved down to view the flats off Water Street. There were hundreds or even thousands of peeps and other shorebirds way out on the flats. It was fun to try to find outliers of form or behavior among them and to see the Bald Eagles, an Osprey, and a large contingent of Bonaparte’s Gulls, most of them in alternate plumage. They stand out strikingly from a distance and act so little like Laughing Gulls that it is not hard to distinguish one from the other.

The tide was pushing birds toward shore as our first program ended, so as people arrived for the second one, we sent them straight to the water. By the time the program time arrived, only early arrivers had seen the “magic moment” of the birds being pushed really close. If you’re interested in planning ahead, the water reaches closer to shore and birds become concentrated closer in on an incoming tide when the tide is at about one foot above mean low in Newburyport. Mean low is the height that is considered zero. Other factors can change when it happens, but it works on most days with no significant wind, a low river, and nothing else that could change the timing. It works on the outgoing tide too, but is perhaps less dramatic, as the birds are only arriving, not being concentrated from a “full house” of thousands of birds already on the flats. There are some low tides that never go low enough for the flats to even become exposed, so predicting this from a time relative to the time of low tide is much less precise.

Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers over bill Forward Pool – Tom Schreffler

In the second group we took a quick look at the night-heron viewing spot, then headed out to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, to the dike at Hellcat Observation Area. The flats at Bill Forward Pool were well-populated by shorebirds. We did not find any uncommon ones, other than one White-rumped Sandpiper. It was still fun watching them occasionally make a spectacularly synchronized flight around the impoundment, for no reason we could discern. We also ran into some birder friends who happened to be there too, and great happiness ensued after months of separation and endured challenges. It was such a wonderful sound to hear, these voices of reunited old friends, almost as wonderful as the “chucklehead” calls of the Semipalmated Plovers running around out on the flats.

Tree Swallows – Tom Schreffler

Our List: (numbers: 7:30 am – Perkins Park + Joppa Flats , 9:30 am – Joppa Flats, Perkins Park, Hellcat Dike)
Mallard (0, 9)
Wild Turkey (0, 2)
Mourning Dove (2, 3)
Chimney Swift (4, 5)
Black-bellied Plover (~30, ~45)
Killdeer (0, 3)
Semipalmated Plover (prob 100s, ~250)
White-rumped Sandpiper (0, 1)
Semipalmated Sandpiper P (~1500, ~700) – 7:30 on Joppa Flats at distance; 9:30, Bill Forward Pool.
Short-billed Dowitcher (13, 50)
Lesser Yellowlegs (1, 4)
Greater Yellowlegs (5, 20)
Bonaparte’s Gull (48, ~15)
Ring-billed Gull (~15, 5)
Herring Gull (~25, ~30)
Great Black-backed Gull (3, 5)
Least Tern (0, 5)
Common Tern (~15, 5)
Double-crested Cormorant (7, ~15)
Great Blue Heron (1, 3)
Great Egret (0, 10) – Various.
Snowy Egret (4, ~20) – Later session, all flying into wetland at Perkins Park.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (9, 5) – All at Perkins Park.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (5, 3) – All at Perkins Park.
Turkey Vulture (1, 5)
Osprey (1, 2)
Bald Eagle (2, 1) – Joppa Flats/Merrimack River.
Downy Woodpecker (1, 0)
Eastern Kingbird (0, 3)
Blue Jay (2, 0)
Tree Swallow (~10, ~700) – Latter numbers roosting in and foraging over North Pool reeds, and dunes.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (2, 4) – Foraging over Joppa Marsh.
Purple Martin (0, 12) – Driving by parking lot #1 on PRNWR.
Black-capped Chickadee (2, 0)
Marsh Wren (0, 2)
American Robin (0, 5)
Gray Catbird (0, 3) – 1, Perkins; 2, refuge road.
Northern Mockingbird (0, 3)
European Starling (20, 200)
Cedar Waxwing (1, 4)
House Sparrow (7, 15)
House Finch (4, 1) – By water at Joppa Flats.
American Goldfinch (5, 9)
Chipping Sparrow (2, 0)
Song Sparrow (2, 1)
Red-winged Blackbird (0, 5)
Common Grackle (2, 0)
Northern Cardinal (2, 1)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1, 0) – Short song at Perkins Park.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, July 29, 2020

This Wednesday Susan Yurkus and I met birders at the Hellcat Observation Area parking lot on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. We barely fit all our vehicles there, because many spaces are taken up by the very busy construction of the new boardwalk.

Eastern Kingbird – Tom Schreffler

While I have been keeping track of the increasing numbers of migrating shorebirds, I was surprised by the large number we found on the flats at Bill Forward Pool. At the south end, the flats were covered with peeps, plovers, and dowitchers. Although we did not see them, we were aware that two Whimbrels had been spotted there too.

Greater Yellowlegs – Tom Schreffler
Green Heron – John Linn
Green Heron – Tom Schreffler

At Bill Forward Pool’s north end, we were happy to see a Least Bittern hiding in the reeds. Later another one flew down North Pool to the dike where we stood, and then disappeared into the reeds. We spent a great deal of our time peering at the distant shorebirds, enjoying occasional flyovers by Least Terns and assorted passerines. A few Bobolinks foraged in the grasses and forbs on the side of the dike.

Least Bittern – Tom Schreffler
Least Bittern – John Linn

After enough standing about on Hellcat dike, we decided to investigate Stage Island Pool and see if it was as lively there. Well, the tide was certainly lower by the time we got there, which meant we could expect a lower concentration of shorebirds due to the availability of newly exposed flats, but we were a bit shocked at how few birds were actually using those flats. For due diligence, we even walked through the mosquito ambush awaiting us at the top of the rise on the Stage Island trail to peer down at the void of the flats below. What happened? Not much food in that substrate, it seems.

Least Tern – Tom Schreffler

Wednesday Morning Birding will continue with registration, groups of a dozen or fewer, with no carpooling, and with all the other expected protocols to reduce risk of disease transmission. We understand that, even so, the program is not a good choice for everyone, and we miss you. Please know that we will be happy to see you when that is possible. While it is really great to see birds together, it will be even better after we – hopefully – get a vaccine and can return to our normal practices. Stay well and please keep in touch!

Our List:
Canada Goose (6) – Bill Forward Pool (BFP).
Mallard (~35) – BFP, 25; Stage Island Pool (SIP), 10.
American Black Duck (8) – SIP.
Wild Turkey (2) – roadside.
Mourning Dove (3) – various.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (2) – BFP and SIP.
Black-bellied Plover (40) – BFP.
Semipalmated Plover – common at BFP.
Semipalmated Sandpiper – common at BFP, few at SIP.
Short-billed Dowitcher (52) – BFP.
Spotted Sandpiper (1) – SIP.
Lesser Yellowlegs (2) – BFP.
Greater Yellowlegs (20) – BFP, 17; SIP, 3.
Herring Gull – common.
Least Tern (6) – BFP, 3; SIP, 3.
Double-crested Cormorant (35) – North Pool, 10; BFP 15; SIP, 10.
Least Bittern (2) – BFP, 1; North Pool, 1.
Great Blue Heron (3) – North Pool, BFP flyover, 1.
Great Egret (12) – various.
Snowy Egret (8) – various.
Green Heron (1) – BFP.
Turkey Vulture (4) – from BFP, 1; from SIP, 3.
Osprey (2) – Pines platform.
Eastern Kingbird (10) – various.
American Crow (2) – BFP.
Tree Swallow (~200) – various, but heaviest at BFP.
Marsh Wren (2) – North Pool.
American Robin (5) – various.
Gray Catbird (13) – various.
Northern Mockingbird (5) – various.
European Starling – common.
Cedar Waxwing (6) – various.
American Goldfinch (5) – various.
Song Sparrow (5) – various.
Eastern Towhee (2) – Hellcat parking lot.
Bobolink (5) – Hellcat dike, 3; Stage Island trail, 2.
Baltimore Oriole (1) – Hellcat parking lot.
Red-winged Blackbird (15) – various.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report July 22, 2020

For WMB this week, I met birders and co-leaders Dave Williams and Susan Yurkus at Woodsom Farm in Amesbury. We have tried to make at least one trip there in recent years to see the big population of Bobolinks that breed there, and the small, but significant number of Eastern Meadowlarks that breed there as well. We have worked with the City of Amesbury to offer management practices that would enhance the breeding success of grassland birds, and the big field where dog-walkers roam is a truly impressive site for those species.

Bobolink adult female – Tom Schreffler

The part of the breeding season when males display has passed, and fledglings of almost all the birds we encountered were everywhere. At first it seemed that the Bobolinks were gone, but they began to appear in little groups, mostly staying in the grass. We had two sessions this week to accommodate demand, and in the second “shift” more Bobolinks made appearances, taking long, low flights to disappear back into the tall “substrate” of chest-high grasses. Juvenile birds could be seen with adults, often when they were perched high on grass stems feeding on the ripe seed. It is possible that all the Bobolinks that bred or were raised are still there, and that they are particularly cryptic now as they fatten up for migration.

Brown-headed Cowbird juvenile – John Linn

We never saw or heard any Eastern Meadowlarks, so they either have already begun migration, or are even more cryptic than the Bobolinks. There was plenty of action from the birds that don’t hide, however. The fence line with the large posts that extends into the fields was the site of at least one family of Northern Mockingbirds, which were catting about and flashing their wing patches prolifically. Gray Catbirds stayed more hidden in the young trees along the road through the fields, until they didn’t, as one family group spilled out onto the road in a ruckus. American Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings flitted about in the fields to the right of the trail studded with forbs and small shrubs. Red-winged Blackbirds and Barn Swallows were ubiquitous.

Northern Mockingbird Shenanigans – John Linn

The mostly loose flocks of swallows were full of juvenile birds, and they sometimes coalesced into more organized and synchronous groups in which we could see apparent skirmishes between conspecifics. In their breeding colonies they are known for rather nasty territorial squabbles. During the second session, the fields filled with migrating swallows of four species, including Barn, Tree, Northern Rough-winged, and Banks Swallows. Tree Swallows are beginning to gather on coastal islands and any sites that host maritime shrub habitats containing their almost unique migratory fuel, bayberries. They are beginning to roost in the tops of Phragmites east of North Pool on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, an annual spectacle that will reach its crescendo later in the season with hundreds of thousands of birds covering perches like blankets. Right now they are in the high hundreds and low thousands according to reports on Tom Wetmore’s page, with a high a few days ago of 4000+ reported by the great man himself.

Barn Swallows skirmish – Tom Schreffler

Birding at sites like the Great Marsh, the Atlantic Ocean, and large grasslands rewards patience. When you stand and watch for a good long time, patterns appear, such as the stealthy way the Bobolinks were using their habitat, the prolific and seemingly unconcerned way Red-winged Blackbirds acted just as they did earlier in the season, with even juvenile birds taking occasional slow showy flights. One wonders if those were males born this year who already wanted to try to act like “Dad.” The adult males were done with all that, but it was clear that RWBl’s were less concerned about concealment than Bobolinks. The swallows throw a net of aerial insectivory over the entire habitat, but it is really the migratory birds that cover the area in a way that appears to intentionally “fill in the cracks.”

Gray Catbird fledgling – Tom Schreffler

Our species list is short, but the things we watched the birds doing made up for a lack of species diversity. The questions of “Why this and why that?”, of “Is that what we are really seeing?” flow with the spectacle of so many kinds of former reptiles exhibiting feats of perfect skill, almost whimsical grace, and never-ending surprise. One of the layers of the complex scientific concept of biodiversity is how organisms behave in a given environment, and we observed enough “hows” to imagine launching several PhD dissertations. Thankfully, we may simply muse on such questions as we absorb the beauty.

Willow Flycatcher – Tom Schreffler

Our lists: numbers = 7:30 am, 9:30 am
Mourning Dove 5, 12
Chimney Swift 0, 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 0, 1
Great Blue Heron 0, 1-2
Cooper’s Hawk 1, 0
Downy Woodpecker 1, 0
Northern Flicker 1, 1
Willow Flycatcher 1, 1
Eastern Phoebe 1, 2
Blue Jay 1, 4
American Crow 0, 5
Bank Swallow 0, 1
Tree Swallow 3, 15
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 0, 2
Barn Swallow 25, 40
White-breasted Nuthatch 1, 0
House Wren 1, 0
Carolina Wren 1, 1
Eastern Bluebird 5, 5
American Robin 5, 8
Gray Catbird 3, 5
Northern Mockingbird 12, 13
European Starling 10, 30
Cedar Waxwing 2, 2
House Sparrow 1, 1
House Finch 2, 0
American Goldfinch 5, 10
Chipping Sparrow 1, 0
Savannah Sparrow 1, 1
Song Sparrow 9, 10
Bobolink 12, 20
Red-winged Blackbird 35, 30
Brown-headed Cowbird 1
Common Yellowthroat 1
Scarlet Tanager 1
Northern Cardinal 1, 2