Author Archives: David M.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, January 9, 2019

The head-count of birders heading for Wednesday Morning Birding this week may have been a bit depressed by the overwhelming gloom of the early morning, but by the time Dave Weaver and I met the group in Gloucester, skies cleared. We enjoyed a sunny, fairly mild, and breezy winter day on Cape Ann. At the Jodrey State Fish Pier, we immediately saw what would be a theme for this week on Cape Ann: many Red-breasted Mergansers, including rafts of fully alternate-plumaged drakes who are getting frisky to display for the females. We found scattered Common Eiders in the harbor, but the tight raft of eiders that we usually see there was around the corner in the channel where the fishing boats dock. It was way too busy for us to go into that area as a group, even though that raft of eiders is fun to watch with all the courtship behavior going on right now. We are always cautious about walking into the working area, because the fish pier is an industrial site where casual visitors are not welcome. If there is no boat there, we sometimes will observe birds part way down the stretch, but not for long, and we try not to be a nuisance.

Red-breasted Merganser – Stan Deutsch

Red-breasted Merganser female – Mike Densmore

There was not a lot of bird diversity this week near the pier, but hanging around, we did spot Common Loons, and four Surf Scoters in the distant parts of the inner harbor. A very large-looking Gray Seal made an appearance. As we moved on to Eastern Point, more species began to show up. There were six Gadwalls and some American Black Ducks where we usually see them in the protected cove by the parking lot. A beautiful drake Common Goldeneye cavorted just off shore, and farther out, we saw many more mergansers, Buffleheads, and eiders. Black Scoters were mixed in with the eiders along the “Dog Bar” breakwater, and at the very end of the breakwater, we saw little gray bumps on the stones: Purple Sandpipers. We couldn’t see the orange legs and straight bills to be absolutely sure they were not Dunlins, but chances are good way out there that they were Purple Sandpipers. A single young Great Cormorant stood out there as well, turning out to be the only one for the day. A Long-tailed Duck and another Surf Scoter were also spotted near the mouth of the harbor, and out of the mouth zoomed some big flocks of Black Scoters.

Common Goldeneye – Stan Deutsch

Gadwall – Stan Deutsch

At Niles Pond, there were waterfowl everywhere: many more mergansers, Mallards, and an unusually good number of both Greater and Lesser Scaup. It was fine to see the two scaup species side by side, as the differences appeared quite obvious. That was a gratifying experience, as opposed to the somewhat tortured tutorials we give using images in pocket-sized field guides, when only one of the two comparables is on display. Far out on the pond, the regularly occurring raft of gulls bobbed, among which we found two adult Iceland Gulls. We are seeing a slightly higher number of them than usual this year, and now Niles Pond is a regular place for that species.

Greater Scaup female and Lesser Scaup male – Mike Densmore

At the other end of the pond, the raft of mergansers hosted a pair of Ring-necked Ducks. Of course, after having looked at a bunch of gulls, it was easy to call them “Ring-billed Ducks.” Who doesn’t want to call them “Ring-billed Ducks”? Unfortunately, this slip went viral throughout the group, and we had to practice the correct name a few times to snap out of it. I will now refrain from delivering one of many repetitive rants about bird names, which I am usually unable to avoid when provoked. You’re welcome.

Ring-necked Duck – Stan Deutsch

Another fine bird at the pond was a Great Blue Heron, which is notable for the time of year. The way some of them linger or even seem to return briefly during thaws is charming indeed, but one wonders what makes such an individual so hardy and willing to flirt with the closure of its foraging habitat. Why not Georgia, or even New Jersey?

White-winged Scoter – Stan Deutsch

At the beginning of Atlantic Road, Cormorant rock was devoid of its namesakes. While there were eiders and some scoters along the rocks, the wintering population of larger mollusk-feeders seems low this year in our area. From the rocks in front of the Elks Club, we did have a fair number of Black Scoters and some White-winged Scoters, but many of the latter species seem to have gone someplace else so far this year. Buffleheads still seem to love the area from there to the point that forms the cove at Bass Rocks. Next, things got exciting when a very pretty Black Guillemot appeared reasonably close to shore. This very gray individual was foraging heavily, and barely on the surface, putting plenty of sport into our birding. Another Iceland Gull, a very light individual, flew by, well out to sea.

Black Guillemot – Mike Densmore

Buffleheads – Mike Densmore

On the way to Rockport Harbor, near the parking lot for Good Harbor Beach, we saw a Red-tailed Hawk, as we almost always do. But this time another raptor appeared: a Turkey Vulture, continuing the theme of lingering vultures this particular winter. For us it has been a big year for winter vultures of both species in New England. Rockport Harbor was quiet, but we were happy anyway, just to have a female Northern Pintail and a warm restroom.

Having spent a lot of time at Niles Pond and then visually chasing that guillemot, we could only make a brief stop at Cathedral Ledge. It was of course lovely to see Harlequin Ducks up close, and as the dramatically rising wind had shifted to the west, this was a much more comfortable site than Andrews Point would have been. Not everyone is as keen as others for the physical challenge and excitement of the point on a blustery day. The adventurous among us might even like to see for ourselves how the sea throws bread loaf-sized rocks at the homes out there on a bad day. Others are content with stories. But we are all amazed by the unimaginably robust nature of the birds that cavort in the tempestuous waves, as apparently at ease as if it were a sweet May day. Everyone agrees that they inspire our awe.

Harlequin Ducks – Mike Densmore

Our list:
Canada Goose (~ 20) – various.
Gadwall (6) – Eastern Point cove.
American Black Duck (~ 12)
Mallard (~ 60) – ~ 40, Niles Pond; ~ 20, Rockport Harbor.
Northern Pintail (1) – hen, Rockport Harbor.
Ring-necked Duck (2) – pr., Niles Pond.
Greater Scaup (~ 12) – Niles Pond.
Lesser Scaup (4) – Niles Pond.
Common Eider – common.
Harlequin Duck (~ 40) – Cathedral Ledge.
Surf Scoter (5) – 4, Jodrey Fish Pier; 1, Eastern Point.
White-winged Scoter (~ 6)
Black Scoter (~ 100) – major share, Eastern Point.
Long-tailed Duck (1) – Eastern Point.
Bufflehead – common.
Common Goldeneye (3) – 1 drake, Eastern Point; 2, Bass Rocks.
Red-breasted Merganser – common.
Common Loon (2) – 2, Jodrey Fish Pier; 1, Cathedral Ledge.
Great Cormorant (1) – Eastern Point.
Great Blue Heron (1) – Niles Pond.
Turkey Vulture (1) – over Good Harbor Beach.
Cooper’s Hawk (1) – Jodrey Fish Pier.
Red-tailed Hawk (1) – over Good Harbor Beach.
Purple Sandpiper (~ 12) – end of Dog Bar breakwater.
Ring-billed Gull (1)
Herring Gull – common
Iceland (“Kumlien’s”) Gull (3) – 2, Niles Pond; 1, flyby, Bass Rocks.
Great Black-backed Gull – common.
Black Guillemot (1) – Bass Rocks.
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove (3)
American Crow (6)
American Robin (~ 8) – Rockport.
European Starling
Dark-eyed Junco (1)

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, January 2, 2019

This Wednesday, the weather was very fair for a winter day. The gales of the New Year that buffeted us marvelously at Andrews Point on January 1 had died completely. Dave Weaver and I led the group to Salisbury Beach State Reservation for a start. From the boat ramp it was nice to see a greater number of American Goldeneyes and Long-tailed Ducks than there had been in previous weeks, but we still do not have the usual numbers of the wintering population on the river. There were some White-winged Scoters on the river, as well, and a few Common Loons out there too.

After enjoying a forest of yellow-green legs of the Ring-billed Gulls in the jetty parking lot, we scanned more birds on the almost glassy river. Then Dave Weaver said something I love to hear. He very quietly asked me to take a look at a bird in his scope. That means it might be a very interesting bird. Yes. There was a loon with a shorter, pointier bill than a Common Loon, and with what we thought looked like the “chin strap” of a Pacific Loon. It appeared smaller than an obvious Common Loon nearby. But this is a genuinely rare and difficult to identify species. I have since learned that I was not clear on how tricky it can be. Fortunately for us, our skilled photographers sent data, and we sent images to the top experts. The E-bird reviewer said no. Dave Larson leaned toward PALO with one image, but not with additional ones. I sent images to someone who knows someone, and got this response from David Sibley:

“It’s not a Pacific Loon, sorry. It does look small-billed, and some other things like dark face suggest Pacific, but that may be just the lighting. It’s a common trap that catches a lot of experienced birders, even more in the spring and summer when the immature birds are worn. I look for details of neck pattern to confirm.
Points for Common Loon:
– the white triangle extending toward the back of the neck just below the head
– the dark triangle extending toward the front of the neck just below that
– the lower mandible has a distinct upward angle
– the flapping photo shows pale around the eye
– the small “knob” on the forehead making the head sort of square-topped”

Common Loon with a suggestion of “chin strap” – Patti Wood

How kind of our preeminent friend to share his expertise! So this week I/we discovered a new birding frontier: “seeing” Pacific Loon. I remember the one that was off Cathedral Ledge last year or the year before, tossed in waves and bitter wind, subtle marks, not appearing very definite… So pick your species to learn, and learn it without worrying how long it takes. The loon we found on Wednesday definitely warranted attention, but presumably has all the DNA of the Common Loon, not its “cousin.” Photos taken by skilled people with excellent equipment show things that may not easily appear in binoculars or even spotting scopes. The wonderful thing about this process of learning is that the more we discover, the more infinite birds become, and any struggle is rewarded a thousand fold, just by the joy of looking.

Horned Grebes – Patti Wood

The next place we wanted to get to was Emerson Rocks, which is about as long a drive as one might make on WMB. We stopped along the road in Parker River NWR for a perched Red-tailed Hawk , and to enjoy acrobatic hovering of a light-phase Rough Legged Hawk at Cross Farm Hill. Then it was on up to the beach platform to look for either of two King Eiders that have been seen there among the other seabirds. Emerson Rocks is a tiny scrap of “rocky coast” habitat for Plum Island, not bedrock, but a pile of big stones left by the scouring of a glacial drumlin by ocean waves, great and small. Its a good spot for diversity on Plum Island, and there he was, a drake King Eider, out with many Common Eiders. There were horned grebes aplenty, scant White-winged Scoters, and many more Black Scoters than we usually see at Plum Island, as has been the case all this fall and winter. Still an absence of Red-throated Loons, though. So we did have at least one rarity for the day, and enjoyed thinking for a time we had found two.

King Eider – Patti Wood

Passing Cross Farm Hill, the Rough-legged Hawk that performed earlier was perched in the trees on the south side. Check that spot! Sparrows indiscernible to occupants of a passing vehicle skittered in the thickets in front of us, but we pushed on toward home, enjoying glimpses of Northern Harriers that can be expected but that always are thrilling in their acrobatic energy. 2019 is off to a great start, and we look forward to many more Wednesdays.

Our list:
Salisbury —
Canada Goose – common [with several hundred along the river’s edge
between the education center and beyond the clam shack].
Gadwall (1) – Salisbury boat ramp.
American Black Duck – common.
Common Eider – common.
White-winged Scoter (~ 8)
Black Scoter – common.
Long-tailed Duck – common.
Bufflehead (2)
Common Goldeneye (~ 12)
Red-breasted Merganser (5)
Common Loon (~ 5)
Horned Grebe (3)
Red-tailed Hawk (1)
Ring-billed Gull (~ 50) – mostly in jetty parking lot.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull (~ 6)
Rock Pigeon
Blue Jay (4)
American Crow (4)
Northern Mockingbird (~ 6)
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow (4)
Northern Cardinal (2)

Plum Island —
Canada Goose – common.
American Black Duck – common.
KING EIDER (1) – seven ocean; male – subadult or full adult in process
of molting into definitive breeding plumage?
Common Eider – common.
White-winged Scoter (4) – seven ocean.
Black Scoter – common; seven ocean.
Long-tailed Duck – common; seven ocean.
Bufflehead (7) – 5, seven ocean; 2, Stage Island Pool.
Red-breasted Merganser (1) – Emerson Rocks.
Common Loon (1) – seven ocean.
Horned Grebe (6) – seven ocean.
Northern Harrier (2)
Red-tailed Hawk (2)
Rough-legged Hawk (1) – light morph; Cross Farm Hill.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull (2) – seven beach.
Rock Pigeon (~ 40) – on utility wires n. refuge entrance.
American Robin (5)
Northern Mockingbird (4)
European Starling
Snow Bunting (~ 40) – seven beach.
American Tree Sparrow (2) – roadside between lots 1 & 2.

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, December 26, 2018

This Wednesday, Dave Weaver and I were favored by Poseidon, as it was a nice winter day for birding. We went all the way to parking lot #7 on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge road as fast as sightings along the way would allow, to get to Emerson Rocks before the tide covered them. There were some interesting raptors along the way, however. We were snagged by a other birders looking at a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a cedar near the Middens, and an immature Bald Eagle had us looking carefully as it flew north over the marsh. There were some Common Goldeneyes in the Plum Island River near the boat ramp, of note only because that species has yet to show up in the Merrimack River in the usual numbers. As we slowly drove south, it seemed all the American Black Ducks and Canada Geese of the Great Marsh took to the sky. Some thought they saw a falcon out there, but we know that the Bald Eagle we had seen may have been the instigator. The caboose van people spotted a Rough-legged Hawk in the trees on the west end of Cross Farm Hill. That bird gave us a nice show of its light-phase plumage, and a nice flock of Hooded Mergansers included displaying males on Stage Island Pool.

Immature Bald Eagle – Stan Deutsch

Rough-legged Hawk – Stan Deutsch
Hooded Mergansers – Patti Wood

At parking lot #7, the birds we expect at Emerson Rocks were on display. There were Common Eiders and a few Black Scoters and White-winged Scoters, though not in the numbers we saw a week ago. Two pairs of Horned Grebes, only one Common Loon, some Long-tailed Ducks, and a strange Northern Gannet had us searching all the divers for some time. The gannet was a motley young bird sitting on the water and paddling around, but never taking flight. We worried for its health. We also wondered where all the loons are feeding. Early in the season there had been lots of Red-throated Loons, and many Common Loons, but there must be a special on herring in some other patch of water. One little flock of shorebirds flew from the rocks to the beach and back, a Sanderling and three Dunlins.

Common Goldeneye – Stan Deutsch

Shorebirds on Emerson Rocks – John Linn

As always, the pools, dikes, and marsh at Hellcat are variable at this time of year. I took my family out there this week to find a Short-eared Owl at dusk. Sure enough, one was perched on the dike near Bill Forward Pool, and took off over the dike as we arrived. You should try this! In my case, my young adult daughter couldn’t help make a snide remark about the lack of splendor of our fleeting view. On Wednesday, we hoped for ground birds, but only experienced the chilling wind passing over dead grasses. Our one American Robin of the day departed the trees on the edge of the marsh. We laughed at our discomfort and continued on, buoyed in my case by the knowledge that there have to be moments of nothing to have others of rarities and bounty. Imagining that metaphysical reality can help get one through the dearth.

Winterberry Holly – Patti Wood

On our way to the north end of the Island, we found another Rough-legged Hawk over the marsh, an adult Bald Eagle out on the Osprey platform across from the boat ramp, and a snazzy Red-tailed Hawk in the neighborhoods. There certainly were birds in the windy last stretch of the Merrimack River, mostly the same varieties we had found at Emerson Rocks, with the addition of Red-breasted Mergansers.

Bald Eagle on Pine Island Osprey platform – Patti Wood

Thus ended a year of Wednesday Morning Birding, with 203 species for this program in 2018. It is amazing how many stunningly beautiful displays of avian life enriched us this year, as they do every year. The lovely mix of birders – loyal regulars, travelers from distant places, people who come when they can over the years, experienced experts, and complete beginners – they bring a spirit to Joppa Flats programs, a spirit of fun, of deep caring for each other and for the birds of our beautiful earth. It is a great joy to be with you and with the birds. Happy New year to you all!

Herring Gull displays impeccable taste – John Linn

Our list:
Canada Goose – common.
Mute Swan (2) – adults loafing on ice of Main Panne.
American Black Duck – common (many in air at once due to passing immature Bald Eagle).
Mallard (~ 25) – various.
Common Eider – common; parking lot #7 (seven) ocean & north end.
White-winged Scoter (3) – seven ocean.
Black Scoter (6) – 2, seven ocean; 4, north end.
Long-tailed Duck (6) – 5, seven ocean; 1, north end.
Bufflehead (5) – Stage Island Pool.
Common Goldeneye (9) – 5, Plum Island River; 4, seven ocean.
Hooded Merganser (7) – Stage Island Pool.
Red-breasted Merganser (2) – north end.
Common Loon (1) – seven ocean.
Horned Grebe (4) – seven ocean.
Northern Gannet (1) – seven ocean.
Bald Eagle (2) – 1 immature, flying north over marsh west of pannes; 1 adult, perched on nesting platform west of the boat ramp.
Northern Harrier (3)
Red-tailed Hawk (2) – 1, perched in cedar between parking lot #s 1 & 2, west of refuge road; 1, overhead north end.
Rough-legged Hawk (2) – 1, perched in, then flying out of, tree west end Cross Farm Hill; 1, flying south over marsh west of pannes — both light morphs.
Sanderling (1) – Emerson Rocks.
Dunlin (3) – Emerson Rocks.
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (1) – north end.
Rock Pigeon – several flocks, north of refuge gate.
Blue Jay (2)
American Robin (1) – Hellcat parking lot.
Northern Mockingbird (1) – between new blind & Hellcat parking lot.