Category Archives: Birding

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, October 28, 2020

Two sessions of Wednesday Morning Birding ventured into the chilly, intermittent rain on October 28 to discover a wonderful world of ducks, both on the ocean and in the impoundment at Stage Island on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. This fall has seen a very robust migration of seabirds off Plum Island. While we always expect the scoters, eiders, and other seabirds to appear now, we have delighted in the unusual abundance this year. This Wednesday was no exception.

White-winged Scoter – John Linn

When you’re on the refuge, and you walk up one of the boardwalks that crosses the dunes to the beach, the first view of the sea is often a small revelation, particularly if the sea is either unusually calm or unusually rough. Last week it was the former, and that feeling of awe was enhanced by the sight of the sea ducks covering the calm surface. Flocks of over 100 birds moved across the sky above a sea dotted with individuals and small groupings. Perhaps most notable this time was the repeated performance of flocks of loons flying south. These were nothing like the size of the flocks of scoters, but they still inspired observers to call out, “There goes eight more!” and then, “Here’s another three!”  When we first walked up to the beach in the 7:30session, a Red-throated Loon was foraging right off shore. While Common Loons and Red-throated Loons can be distinguished in flight, many of the flocks and individuals were so far out that identifying them was pretty difficult. All of the loons had one thing in common, however: they were moving south at a good clip.

Black Scoters – Bob Minton

There was so much movement to observe from our spot on the beach, and so many field marks to work on, that while we were no longer noting new species, it was hard to walk away from the spectacle. In our second session, we witnessed from afar a raft of approximately 1,000 birds formed at the mouth of Plum Island Sound. If this had been a pre-pandemic program, we would’ve hopped into our three vans and sped south to view them off of Bar Head or Sandy Point State Reservation. But, because carpooling is forbidden these days, we think twice before we mobilize the many vehicles we arrive in.

Green-winged-Teal- – John Linn

Stage Island proved very fruitful, however. Chickadees, sparrows, siskins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and others kept us looking into the thicket on our way over to Stage Island Pool. In our 7:30 session, a couple of hours before high tide (if that makes any difference), the pool was awash in dabbling ducks. The back of the pool and the far side were covered in Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and some that were too far to identify for sure, as most of us were not using spotting scopes. Respecting pandemic safeties, we are practicing a stricter adherence to not sharing equipment. We birding leaders on the North Shore decided recently that until we can share views through scopes with our participants again (somehow or someday), we will stick to binoculars. You miss some things, but it forces you to look more carefully, and think. Of course, when regular participant Mike Densmore comes along, with his penchant for taking photographs of birds in flight, we can add birds to the list that we never even knew were flying by. This week those additions include Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, and Hooded Mergansers.

Hooded Mergansers – Mike Densmore
Buffleheads – John Linn
Black-bellied Plovers – John Linn

Here’s to hoping that the beautiful abundance we are now seeing in the waterfowl migration will continue on through the winter, on both the sea and ponds while they’re still open. The abundance of seabirds off of Plum Island varies from year to year in the wintering months. Last year when we walked up to the beach, we often found only a few individuals, and there was a long period with almost no loons at all. Other years there have been a great many more. Sometimes patterns appear as the winter months wear on, such as a couple of years ago, when a giant raft of sea ducks would appear, during the outgoing tide, in a gyre that formed in front of Crane Beach.

Greater Scaup – Mike Densmore

This year, winter birding will be spiced up at least by the presence of a lot of Pine Siskins; of course, for all we know, other boreal species might also irrupt into New England. I’ve been seeing reports of Evening Grosbeaks, and I heard one in town in Amesbury last weekend. We hope all the exciting birds that are in our area now bring you a great measure of the potentially inexhaustible hope that springs from nature. Goodness knows we need it.

Pine Siskins – John Linn

Our Lists 
Key: 25/31 = 7:30 am session/9:30 am session
Canada Goose  7/11
Mallard  35/12
American Black Duck  350/20
Northern Pintail  25/15
Green-winged Teal  25/0
Common Eider  30/0 – There most certainly were many, probably hundreds of Common Eiders out there, but our count of definite observations is suppressed due to the position we had at parking lot #6, and without using spotting scopes. 
White-winged Scoter  300/150  – Many flocks of 50 – 150 flying by or rafting and scattered everywhere close enough to recognize.
Black Scoter  400/125 – See note above.
scoter sp.  1500/2000
Bufflehead  5/3
Common Goldeneye 1/0
Hooded Merganser 3/0
Red-breasted Merganser  15/2
Black-bellied Plover  40//60
Sanderling  10/0
Dunlin  20/7
Short-billed/Long-billed Dowitcher  8/0
Greater Yellowlegs  25/25
Ring-billed Gull  1/0
Herring Gull  25/25
Great Black-backed Gull  2/4
Red-throated Loon  1/0 – Probably more
Common Loon  3/25 – Definitely more but out at sea flying south.
loon sp.  30/15
Northern Gannet  3/2
Double-crested Cormorant  35/1
Great Blue Heron  1/0
Northern Harrier  1/1
Downy Woodpecker  1/0
Hairy Woodpecker  1/0
Northern Flicker  1/0
Black-capped Chickadee  4/2
Carolina Wren  2/0
European Starling  30/0
Northern Mockingbird  4/0
American Robin  55/3
House Finch  1/0
Pine Siskin  3/15
American Goldfinch  7/0
White-throated Sparrow  5/3
Song Sparrow 3/2
Red-winged Blackbird  4/2
Yellow-rumped Warbler  4/2
Northern Cardinal  2/3

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, September 9, 2020

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!

Hudsonian Godwit and Short-billed Dowitchers – David Moon

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.

Short-billed Dowitcher – Mike Densmore

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.

Hudsonian Godwit – Patti Wood
Great Blue Heron – Patti Wood

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.

American Black Duck with Mallards – John Linn
Four Daves – Barbara Merrill

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!

American Bittern – Tom Schreffler
Clapper Rail – Tom Schreffler
Buff-breasted SandpiperS – Mike Densmore
American Golden Plover – Mike Densmore

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.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – Patti Wood

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.

Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs – Tom Schreffler

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

Wednesday Morning Birding Report, September 2, 2020

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.

Black-bellied Plovers – John Linn
Great Egret with mummichog – Patti Wood

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.

Least Sandpipers – Bob Minton

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.

Red Knots – John Linn
Common Raven flyby – Patti Wood

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.

Mallard, Green-winged Teal, yellowlegs, peeps – Patti Wood
Northern Harrier – John Linn

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!

Fall Baltimore Oriole in spring plumage, why “alternate” – Bob Minton

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.

Great Blue Heron and Great Egret – Bob Minton

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.