NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 12, 2013

Feeding frenzies draw interesting birds and interested birders

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Since I have been a bit under the weather this week, perhaps a touch of the flu, I will defer once again to Doug Chickering of Groveland, who has been healthy and birding the area, to describe a phenomenon that all of us birders enjoy:

“The western grebe can still be found right off the ocean observation platform at parking lot 1 on Plum Island. Lois Cooper and I had it one day this week and it was there again the next day. Tom Wetmore found it and I along with a few others saw it. We observed it at a distance of less than 100 yards and in the company of three red-necked grebes, which afforded a nice contrast.

“When I arrived around dawn, the wind had just started to sweep in from the northwest and slowly built in velocity. Over the years, the winds and storms have built the dunes up around the (lot 1) platform, forming a natural shelter against westerly and northwesterly winds. The morning sweep of winds that was so punishing in the parking lot was largely ineffectual up on the platform. The morning otherwise was clear and bright and the seas moderate. The air and water temperatures apparently were so similar that there was virtually no atmospheric distortion and even at the horizon, the visibility was clear and sharp.

“Soon after I arrived, the feeding frenzies began to form. Although not common, these frenzies do occur fairly regularly and any observer who visits the lot 1 platform often in the winter is bound to witness this rather spectacular event. It starts with the gulls. Almost unnoticed, all the gulls in the area take flight and move to congregate at one spot. These hungry birds stream in from all directions — usually close to the surface of the water, their flight profile direct and serious. Like weather fronts, these streams of birds collide into a flurry of activity when they arrive at the magic spot.

“They gather in furious activity. They circle and flutter, then dive into the water’s surface in a dense pack. Sometimes they float in the water and sometimes they rise up against into tight chaotic flocks, only to dive back into the unseen (by us) fish shoal. The gulls immediately draw in more interested parties; ducks and razorbills and grebes come in to crowd the water.

“This morning, these feeding frenzies were short in duration and very fluid as the ravenous birds would form and then break up and move to another location in a very unpredictable manner. Sometimes an observer is torn between just watching the spectacle and trying to pick through the turmoil in hopes of finding something new, unexpected; perhaps hot-line worthy. Tom and I saw a Bonaparte’s gull and at least two kittiwakes show up. When the frenzy moved to the horizon, we saw that several gannets joined in the fun.

“To me, just the large number of razorbills, arriving in long, fast lines, skimming in from the far ocean and either diving directly into the melee or skidding over the water before coming to a stop and diving, was a highlight of the event. When I took the time to scan the area and count the razorbills, I counted 67, which was a dramatic undercount. I am not sure why, but I find seeing a razorbill to be gratifying and to see many razorbills to be a big treat.

“Every time I set up my spotting scope in the cold early morning upon that sand-strewn platform — just as the sun is coming up out of the sea — I nurture the hope that somewhere in the depths, large fish are driving small fish and that soon the gulls and their associates will notice this drama unfolding and will come to feed. It is always an unforgettable and notable sight. Just another great moment in birding.”

---

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.