NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 23, 2013

Luck and timing helpful to birders

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Last Sunday, on Saint Patrick’s Day, the luck of the Irish was with us. Well, it was and then it wasn’t. We had to make some of our own luck. We decided to head south to the Cape and South Coast and try for a couple of “write-ins” - birds that, historically, do not show up in Massachusetts every year. Both had been reported for more than a week, so we were hoping that would increase our chances that they would still be around.

Margo and I headed first to Sider’s Pond in Falmouth where a female tufted duck was being reported the previous few days, after being originally found in Falmouth Harbor. The tufted duck was associating with hundreds of scaup in the pond, making it a challenge to pick it out among the female scaup ducks which look similar. It also didn’t help that the large raft of scaup were all the way across the pond, not in the best light, and it was freezing cold and windy that morning. It also didn’t help that most of the ducks were sleeping with their heads tucked.

The heat shimmer effect, created by the “warm” water and colder air, distorted the images through our scopes. Zooming my scope up to 60 power didn’t help much because of that distortion. So after more than an hour, we decided that we had to get a closer look.

We were standing on the north side of the pond behind the town hall, the only public access to the pond that I knew. The rest was surrounded by private homes. So we checked our Google maps and found a cemetery on the west side that would get us closer. We headed there, joined by two other birders who were also looking for the duck.

The backside of the cemetery sloped down to the pond with much bramble and vegetation in the way. The ducks were closer, but the angle was such that some of the flock was obscured around the corner of some land jutting out into the water. We struggled for more than an hour as ducks floated in and out of view.

After almost three hours of trying to find the tufted duck, Margo and our friend Linda decided to go to the harbor where the duck was originally found. Sure enough, twenty minutes later I got the call that they found the bird there. We headed there directly and had excellent close views of a very much awake, and actively feeding, tufted duck.

We then decided to head to Fairhaven to look for a white-fronted goose that had been feeding with Canada geese in fields on Shaw Road. It was already mid-afternoon by the time we arrived there. As we pulled up, we could see a large flock Canada geese grazing in the field, but about fifty geese took off immediately and we carefully scrutinized each flying goose to be sure it wasn’t the white-fronted. None were, so we were optimistic as we scanned the remainder of the flock still feeding. However, it didn’t take long before we realized that the white-fronted goose was not among them.

The geese that flew off were heading southwest, so once again we checked the maps to find areas that they may have put down. Little Bay and West Island were in that direction, so that is where we headed as well.

We first pulled into Little Bay. Once we walked to the water and set up our scopes, we could see that there were some Canada geese across the bay. The white-fronted goose is smaller and patterned very differently, and I spotted the bird almost immediately among its larger cousins. I was able to get Margo and Linda, who had joined us there, on the bird just before it swam behind an island of mud and grass.

We watched some bufflehead, red-breasted mergansers, goldeneye and a couple of common loons in the bay as we waited for the goose to reappear. A small flock of dunlin flew by and landed on a rock across the way. Finally the white-fronted goose reemerged from behind the island and provided us some longer looks. It took much more effort than we expected, but we finally saw both of the “write-ins” we sought.

Closer to home, woodcock are arriving and, despite the continued snow-cover, they are putting on their aerial courtship displays at dusk. I am leading a free bird walk this Saturday evening, March 23, to attempt to listen for, and hopefully see these interesting birds perform. We will meet at the store at 6 pm and drive to areas in the industrial park where the woodcock frequent. Dress warmly, bring binoculars if you have them. The walk is for all ages, will last about 1 ½ hours, and no pre-registration is necessary. Just come and enjoy. Hope to see you then.

Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift in Newburyport.