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.

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