The winter finch forecast that I reported on a few weeks ago is starting to become reality. Pine siskins have invaded Eastern Massachusetts in large numbers. Many customers are reporting flocks of 20 and 30 birds or more at their thistle and sunflower feeders. I have put a few more feeders out at the store in the hope of entertaining some of these finches. There have been many reports of purple finches at area feeders as well, so keep watching your feeders! It could be an exciting winter!
The birds afield have been exciting as well. Last week, Doug Chickering of Groveland described his encounter with a barred owl. Another encounter with the same owl on Plum Island was just one of the highlights of his visit to the island at the end of last week:
“When I reached Plum Island this morning shortly before dawn, it was enshrouded in a dreary damp October day. The sky was a thick blanket of clouds and there was a fine mist and fog in the air. It was difficult to trace the progress from night to twilight to daylight. Seemed dark and colorless. Windless and gray, it was in fact a nearly perfect birding day. Perfect not because of the dim light or the damp air but because the birds were literally everywhere. I birded the area around Parking Lot #1, which was alive with sparrows and myrtle warblers and after a half hour or so I convinced myself to go right to Hellcat.
“It was not as straight forward or easy to get to Hellcat for as I drove down the road I was constantly waylaid by the legions of sparrows and juncos and the occasional warblers and kinglets that jumped up from the side of the road or forages in the underbrush — I tentatively hoped that the Hellcat trails would prove as active. Hellcat was, if anything, more active. As far as I can recollect, it has been a few years since I have seen Hellcat as dense with passerines as today! There must have been an unimaginable amount of avian biomass on the island this morning.
“Of the ones I could see, the overwhelming percentage, perhaps 80 to 90 percent, were yellow-rumped warblers. Yet I had other notable birds. Nashville warbler, three back-throated blue warblers, black throated green warblers, quite a few palm warblers, blackpoll warbler, two common yellowthroats, four black-and-white warblers, a parula and an ovenbird. Of the non-warblers there were two Swainson’s thrushes, two hermit thrushes and three yellow-bellied sapsuckers. At the Old Blind I had a terrific look at a Lincoln’s sparrow.
“It had been an exhilarating and satisfying morning by any standard. I was so pleased with the outcome of the day that on my way down the boardwalk, back from the Old Blind, I wasn’t ready for the great surprise of the day. I was heading back to the Hellcat parking lot, my attention still caught up in the movement in the trees. As I approached the southern junction of the marsh loop, a large bird burst down the trail, heading right for me at about eye level. It created a little shiver of fear and the hair on the back of my neck stood up as this large gray-brown bird headed right for me. Instantly I knew that it was the barred owl.
“Three days ago I had seen this bird nearby, and now it seemed to be heading right for my head. In the last second it swooped away and up into a birch tree on my left. I watched for a few minutes, until it flew back into the woods out of sight and into a chorus of scolding blue jays. A close encounter of a most spectacular nature. About a half hour later I had the same bird, this time perched in a tree about 7 feet up and directly over the boardwalk that runs between the Hellcat parking lot and the Ralph Goodno Woods.
“I was convinced that this was the highlight of the day. That is until my cellphone rang and I had a call from Steve Grinley at the Bird Watchers Gift & Supply. He informed me that Eric Lobato called him to report he had found a Say’s phoebe at the Wardens, less than a half mile from where I was. At the Wardens, I joined Eric, who showed me a picture of the phoebe and informed me that the bird had flown. He also assured me that the bird had flown away twice before and had returned. The fog began to close in heavily and Eric decided to go to Hellcat.
“He had no sooner left when I noticed a small gray bird out on a pole at the edge of the marshes. Immediately I knew it was the phoebe. It then took flight, passed directly overhead and to a nearby perch on the garage at the north side of the Wardens area. It was a handsome specimen of Say’s phoebe, light gray with darkness around the eye, a dark tail and a pale peach color on the belly.
“I eventually left to fetch Lois. We returned in the afternoon but had no luck. We waited around chatting with friends and staring at every small bird that flew up on from grass — all to no avail. Later, I saw in Massbird that Kirk Elwell had seen it again later on. Let’s hope it stays for a few days. Just another remarkable day on Plum Island.”
I am happy to report that Doug and Lois did see the Say’s phoebe the next day; however, they were luckier than most. The bird was only seen those two days and those birders who had to wait until Saturday (the third day) to get to Plum Island, came up empty.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.