Wednesday Morning Birding Report, February 27, 2019

It was bitter cold, but sunny, for our outing this week, and a small but hardy group showed up to join me and Dave Weaver for Wednesday Morning Birding. The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge road is closed beyond Hellcat, so we started our excursion at Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Even though the marsh was empty and frozen, we found plenty of ducks near the boat ramp, perhaps in greater numbers due to the flats being covered by ice. American Black Ducks and a few Mallards huddled at the edge of the frozen marsh. White-winged Scoters, Greater Scaup, and a Red-breasted Merganser or two lounged in the creek, while more scoters and some Common Goldeneyes rested on the river. Stopping to look at the rocks along the river bank, we found several little groups of Gadwalls dabbling and exploring around the rocks, along with a big raft of Common Eiders and more scoters foraging along the eddy lines in the river. A few Long-tailed Ducks and Black Scoters flew by as well, and a Red-throated Loon, which have been scarce this year, floated out with the tide.

White-winged Scoter with crab – Stan Deutsch

Greater Scaup – Stan Deutsch
Resting Harp Seal – Stan Deutsch

At Salisbury Beach, we found an ocean that looked quite empty, until we saw another Red-throated Loon and the usual raft of sea ducks off the end of the north jetty. Gulls sat rather than stood in the parking lot, conserving heat carefully. This unremarkable result sent us back to Plum Island. We bypassed the many Canada Geese and American Black Ducks in the river along its south bank at Joppa Flats. From the Plum Island bridge, we noticed a young Bald Eagle soaring over the Plum Island River, then found three more sitting on a large tree that had washed up on the marsh. When one of the eagles took off to tussle with another in the air, another young eagle joined the group, making a total of four subadult birds and one adult all at once!

Bald Eagles on a log – Stan Deutsch

After that record-breaking mini Eagle Festival, we walked away from the wind, up the parking lot #1 boardwalk, and down a few steps from the dune platform to get out of the breeze. As often happens, the sea looked empty, but birds appeared with closer inspection. There were lots of scoters far out, and now and then we would see the white on the wings of one, or a big orange knob on the face to identify the bird as a Black Scoter. A Horned Grebe eventually came into view, then a Common Loon. We turned our faces to the frigid wind and squinted our way back to the wonderfully sheltering vans.

Hoping for an owl or even a hawk to look at, we made our way to The Warden’s as that was all the time we had left. We were delighted, therefore, to find a flock of Snow Buntings vigorously feeding on grist and maybe little seeds along the side of the road near the S-Curves. The sight of winter seed eaters gathering on the roadsides is a striking feature of the season, and you never know if such a flock will contain something uncommon or even rare. These were purely beautiful SNBUs.

Snow Buntings – Stan Deutcsh

At The Warden’s, we faced another short march into the wind, but it was the last one, so off we went. There was little avian activity, but another small flock of Snow Buntings was skittishly alighting on the roof of one of the sheds, dropping onto the ground, flying off in a panic, and repeating the whole process. And that was it for a bitter cold day, where we confirmed our ability to withstand the elements for a little while, and were rewarded with a few brilliant moments with birds.

Our list:
Salisbury Beach —
Canada Goose – common.
Gadwall (~ 15)
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard (2)
Northern Pintail (1) – drake with black ducks.
Greater Scaup (3) – 2 drakes, 1 hen; boat ramp.
Common Eider – common.
White-winged Scoter – common.
Black Scoter (2)
Long-tailed Duck (5)
Common Goldeneye – common.
Red-breasted Merganser (5)
Red-throated Loon (2)
Common Loon (1)
Red-tailed Hawk (1) – cedar grove.
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull Blue Jay (1)
American Crow (4)
Black-capped Chickadee (1)
Northern Cardinal (1)

Plum Island —
Canada Goose – common.
American Black Duck – common.
Common Eider – common; one ocean.
White-winged Scoter – common; one ocean.
Black Scoter (4) – one ocean.
Scoter spp. – many; one ocean.
Long-tailed Duck (2) – pr; one ocean.
Common Loon (1) – one ocean.
Horned Grebe (1) – one ocean.
Bald Eagle (5) – 1 ad, 4 imm; hay marsh, n refuge gate; latter interacting.
Northern Harrier (2) – 1 at distance over North Marsh; 1 ad female over marsh w pannes.
[Red-tailed Hawk (1) – PI Tpk.]
Herring Gull – many.
American Crow (3) – hay marsh.
Black-capped Chickadee (1) – S-curves.
Snow Bunting (~ 33) – ~ 25 roadside, n S-curves; 8, The Warden’s.

Wednesday Morning Birding, February 20, 2019

Susan Yurkus and I sallied forth from Joppa Flats Education Center with 20 or so game Wednesday Morning Birders.  Skies were overcast with a hint of sun here and there; temps were in the mid to upper 20s; and, most importantly, winds were light and variable.  How many times of late have we had such benign conditions?  Pretty nice!

Our first stop was Salisbury Beach State Reservation.  Along the entry road out in the marsh, sharp-eyed (dare I say, eagle-eyed?) Kim spotted a large juvenile Bald Eagle perched on an upright of some sort.  By its size, this was probably a female (remember, female Bald Eagles are about 25 percent larger than males) and the white triangle on its back made it a 2- to 3-year old.  Then, lo and behold, a binocular field’s width to the right, a pair of adult Bald Eagles were perched side by side on a nesting platform.  That was a nice start to the morning!

Juvenile Bald Eagle, by Stan Deutsch

From the boat ramp, we had excellent views of many sea ducks.  There were a number of White-winged Scoters with great comparisons between adult and juvenile drakes.  The juvs were evolving into their colorful adult bills, but had not yet attained the white commas through and behind their eyes.  Several groups of 10 to 20 Common Goldeneyes could be seen along with small groups of Long-tailed Ducks.  Many of our group commented on how these looks were the best that they had ever had, especially of the Long-tails.  With the somewhat windless conditions, we spent a long time watching these duckies, enjoying the views and courtship behavior going on among a major share of them.  And, commonly seen in and along the edges of the marsh were many American Black Ducks and Canada Geese.  We were unable to pick up Brant that had been seen earlier by a fellow birder.  A few Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads were also seen along with a lone hen Black Scoter.

White-winged Scoters, by Bob Minton
Common Goldeneyes, by Bob Minton
Courting Common Goldeneyes, by Stan Deutsch

From parking lot #1, in the river channel were more White-winged Scoters and several rafts of Common Eiders.  Three Common Loons were fishing there, too, and a few more Common Goldeneyes and Red-breasted Mergansers were seen.  Another Harp Seal was on the beach, being protected by a warden.  Several Turkey Vultures were lilting above us as we departed the parking lot.  On the way out of the reservation, we had another look at the juvenile Bald Eagle and picked up two Red-tailed Hawks perched in trees looking into the marsh as these “perch hunters” do with their phenomenal eyesight.  We spied another Red-tail en route to Plum Island, this one on a nesting platform along Ferry Road.

Red-tailed Hawk, by Bob Minton

While on the Plum Island Turnpike heading for PI, yet another Red-tailed Hawk was seen perched on the chimney of “the pink house.”  Approaching Plum Island Bridge, the astronomical high tide generated by the “super snow moon” was at its peak and seemingly about to lap over the roadway — it was really high!  Surely there would be many marsh rodents going to higher ground and readily available for predators like Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, and Snowy Owls.  As we searched for the owls in the marsh, there was a critter with ears out in mid-marsh.  One of our group was thinking owls like the rest of us, and thought “Great Horned Owl”??  Those ears were resolved into a furry kind of animal and not a feathered animal — a rather large Coyote!  And just to the right of it, there was another smaller Coyote.  They were just sitting there, getting their feet wet, I am sure, watching us from afar. They, too, were no doubt taking advantage of scurrying voles and other rodents.  It’s been a while since Wednesday Morning Birding has had a Coyote to add to the list …

Approaching The Warden’s, I saw a flock of small birds fly overhead and toward The Warden’s.  Turning into the parking lot, we found 17 Snow Buntings perched on the roof ridge of one of the maintenance buildings.  They afforded us outstanding looks before flying down to the ground to feed on seeds near the pines.  The photographers among us were able to approach reasonably close for some photos.  While there, a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk was spotted by one of us sitting atop the “lollipop” cedar on the North Pool dike.  Through a spotting scope, its relatively small head and bill could be readily seen.  In the same direction, “eagle-eyed” Kim came up with a harrier that had perched low down in the shrubs just this side of the dike.  This beautiful adult female Northern Harrier soon took flight and gave us a showy flyby at eye level through and behind the pines.  What a gorgeous bird!

Snow Buntings, by Stan Deutsch
Snow Buntings, by Bob Minton
Snow Buntings, by Bob Minton
Northern Harrier, by Stan Deutsch
Rough-legged Hawk, by Stan Deutsch

Getting into overtime, we headed back to Joppa.  Our list was not overwhelming, but the quality of the birds and mammals (!) seen was satisfying . . . .

David Moon and I hope to see you next week back at Joppa Flats Education Center ready for another edition of Wednesday Morning Birding.  Y’all come!!

Cheers and warmest regards!

Dave Weaver

Our list:

Salisbury —
Canada Goose – common.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard (4) – boat ramp.
Common Eider – common.
White-winged Scoter (~ 40)
Black Scoter (1) – hen.
Long-tailed Duck (~ 25)
Bufflehead (4)
Common Goldeneye (~ 35)
Red-breasted Merganser (~ 10)
Common Loon (3)
Turkey Vulture (3)
Bald Eagle (3) – 2 ads, 1 2-3-yr old.
Red-tailed Hawk (2)
[Red-tailed Hawk (1) – perched on nesting platform, Ferry Rd.]
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
American Crow (1)

Plum Island —
Canada Goose – common.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard (~ 6) – hay marsh.
Bufflehead (4) – from The Warden’s (PI River).
Common Goldeneye (1) – from The Warden’s (PI River).
Northern Harrier (1) – ad female; The Warden’s.
[Red-tailed Hawk (1) – atop chimney, Pink House, PI Tpk.]
Rough-legged Hawk (1) – dark morph atop N. Pool dike “lollipop” cedar.
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (1) – hay marsh.
Rock Pigeon (~ 25) – on lines n. refuge gate.
American Robin (3) – S-curves.
Northern Mockingbird (2)
European Starling (1)
Snow Bunting (17) – The Warden’s.
Coyote (2) – in astronomical high tide, mid-marsh, sw Main Panne.

Wednesday Morning Birding, February 6, 2019

In my message about returning to Plum Island this week, I noted that it has been very interesting birding there lately. This week, Dave Weaver, our 30 companions, and I found that the excitement continues! Arriving at the north end of Plum Island on February 6, we found a good-sized gyre of sea ducks and loons very near the shore, in an eddy on the island side. Normally, we find rafts of sea birds either in the center of the river or over near the far side. It was rewarding to be so close to many Common Eiders and both Black and White-winged Scoters. The eiders were very noisy, with a constant chorus of grunt-clucks as they actively courted. Three Common Loons foraged nearby, and finally a Red-throated Loon made an appearance for Wednesday Morning Birding. We haven’t recorded one of those for a long time. Common Goldeneyes were scattered all over the tide covering Joppa Flats, all the way to the western shore of the north end. Notably absent this week were Long-tailed Ducks, which have lately been the big show.

Red-throated Loon – Bob Minton
Black Scoters – Stan Deutsch
Common Loon – John Linn
Common Eider females – Mike Densmore

After searching the river for rarities without luck, and enjoying close-up views of our typical winter species, we moved on to the platform at parking lot #1 on Parker River NWR. Birding was tough up there, with a strong onshore wind and heavy chop. Scoters could be spotted briefly, and one skilled member of the crew had a view of a Horned Grebe, but really only birds in flight could be seen enough to identify them well. The prize for our effort was a flying Razorbill, visible long enough for folks to try to discern why that bird looked different in flight than any duck out there. No owls could be seen from the dune top, so we moved on to the road.

White-winged Scoter in flight – Stan Deutsch

One of us had found Snowy Owls earlier, so we were happy, but not surprised, to find two in one binocular field near the Main Panne. One of them was the completely white bird we assume is the same individual we saw last week. Not a speck on him (her?). The S-curves were very quiet, with only a few individual birds appearing on either pass that day. We had more than enough time for Hellcat. But since Emerson Rocks would be covered by the tide, we made a “Hail Mary” trip south, with a stop at Stage Island Pool. Once again we found a Rough-legged Hawk perched in the copse of trees on the south side of Cross Farm Hill. It took off and disappeared, though we did find it later on an Osprey platform, and then watched it perform satisfying RLHA behaviors over the hill. This week we also found more Mute Swans than usual, with an entire family near Stage Island.

Snowy Owl – the white one – Mike Densmore

As we walked up the road toward Stage Island, participant Katherine Morrison touched my shoulder and said quietly that she thought she had found an alcid of some kind on the ice! Sure enough, out there in the glare, a Razorbill sat still in one spot, only moving its head, seeming alert. Of course we were both amazed and delighted, while simultaneously worried about its ability to take off from that strange and inhospitable spot. Some thought they saw it try to fly a bit, without making any progress. I texted an image of the bird to the refuge biologist, but we didn’t try to intervene in any way. The bird was on ice of unknown thickness, well behind the signs that keep us corralled and away from wildlife on the refuge. We watched the bird for some time, feeling a range of responses from bemused to worried. When I returned to check on it in the afternoon, the Razorbill was gone without a trace – fortunately for the Razorbill, not leaving an apparent “kill site.”

Razorbill on ice at Stage island pool – Stan Deutsch
Mute Swan – Bob Minton

After enjoying the family of swans flying over us, and the antics of the Rough-legged Hawk, we left for Hellcat, satisfied that sometimes a whim pays off. The dike at Hellcat was as desolate as we expected it to be. Tire tracks led us to discover a pile of sections of the old Marsh Loop boardwalk, which is now being replaced with a wider boardwalk. Perhaps the new boardwalk will be wide enough to accommodate a group the size of WMB, but it will certainly allow people in wheelchairs and those who use other walking assistance to enjoy strolling and birding in the forest and marsh.

Peregrine Falcon – Mike Densmore

Because it is what we do, we began marching out onto the dike and into the wind, at varying rates of speed, as not everybody relishes a blast of cold wind and few-to-no birds. But this week we were treated quickly to the sight of a young female Peregrine Falcon, sitting in the grass on the outer stretch of dike that contains North Pool. When I caught up with the folks standing near the tower, some who happen to have experience at rehabilitation centers said that the bird had made some moves as if it were injured. We walked out to the gate, pausing for better looks. After we observed the bird for a few moments from the gate, perhaps a bit closer than we normally would or should due to concern for the bird, she took off and landed nearby on the post of a staddle. No more fears about an injury. What a thrilling manner of flight, just powerful mastery, even on a little jaunt!

Common Loon wrassles a Green Crab – Stan Deutsch

That was pretty much it for WMB this week. In North Field, however, we again found an adult male Northern Harrier, who was magnificent, and we got glimpses of the two Snowy Owls again. I hesitate to report that one flew right over our van after we rounded a corner, so I was the only one who saw it, but so it goes. The list of species we saw is not very long, but the birds were spectacular this week. How completely precious is the rhythmic life of birds on Plum Island! It reminds us of how grateful we are that the folks at Mass Audubon had the vision and foresight to put Joppa Flats Education Center here. We are endlessly enriched with our regular immersion in the birds of the Great Marsh, and we welcome you to join us whenever you can.

Our list:
Canada Goose – common.
Mute Swan (11!) – 6, PI River, north of pannes; 5, marsh just north of Stage Island Pool, moving onto Stage Island Pool ice.
American Black Duck – common.
Mallard – common.
Common Eider – common; north end.
White-winged Scoter (~ 16) – ~ 10, north end; ~ 6, parking lot #1 (one) ocean.
Black Scoter (~ 30) – ~ 25, north end; 5, one ocean.
Long-tailed Duck (2) – one ocean.
Common Goldeneye (~ 45) – ~ 35, north end; ~ 10, Plum Island River, north of pannes.
Red-breasted Merganser (2) – north end.
Red-throated Loon (1) – north end; showing color in head.
Common Loon (3) – north end.
Northern Harrier (2) – including 1 male.
Red-tailed Hawk (1) – The Old Pines.
Rough-legged Hawk (1) – light morph; Cross Farm Hill.
Herring Gull – common.
Great Black-backed Gull (~ 10) – various.
Razorbill (2) – 1, one ocean; 1, on Stage Island Pool ice.
Rock Pigeon
Snowy Owl (2) – 1 very white individual near west shore of Main Panne; 1 in marsh further west of Main Panne.
Peregrine Falcon (1) – 1st-yr bird, probable female; North Pool dike just north of Hellcat dike.
American Crow (~ 9) – various.
American Robin (3) – S-curves.
Northern Mockingbird (2) – 1, parking lot #1; 1, Hellcat.
European Starling – large flock on wires n. refuge gate.
House Sparrow (1) – refuge gate.