Margo and I spend most of last Sunday in the off and (mostly) on rain at Salisbury Beach State Reservation with not much to show for it. There was some movement of scoters over the ocean, a few gannets, and a loon or two. The grove near the campground was mostly quiet due to the presence of a Cooper’s hawk at one end.
Late in the afternoon, when the rain had subsided a bit, we headed for the north end of Plum Island, but we decided to check out a group of gulls in the recently mowed marsh on the left as we approached the island. We turned up Old Point Road and scanned the gulls and found some shorebirds among them.
There were 10 greater and two lesser yellowlegs, a few dunlin and semipalmated sandpipers, a black-bellied plover and an American golden plover. We also found an adult lesser black-backed gull, a less common gull here on the North Shore, among the herring gulls. An immature black-crowned night heron was lurking behind the gulls and it soon walked out of sight into some nearby phragmites.
We then proceeded to the north end of Plum Island. As soon as we arrived there, we saw a peregrine falcon pursuing a tern-like bird, closer to the area entering the basin. The small bird gracefully eluded the predator and flew more in front of us, into the middle of the harbor, with the peregrine in close pursuit. At first I thought it might be a Bonaparte’s gull, but the dark underwing linings were evident to both of us – it was an adult little gull!
The little gull is a Eurasian species, uncommon in this area. One or more show up in Newburyport Harbor or on Plum Island most years. There were as many as three in the harbor in late summer and early fall. It is a bird that is sought here by birders from other parts of the country, and it is always special when we “locals” see one.
We watched the peregrine make continuous passes at the small gull, which eluded it each time, usually by dropping onto the water. This went on for 10 or 15 minutes or more, and it was obvious that the gull was tiring from the pursuit.
Then, a second peregrine appeared and joined in the assault. The falcons made wide circles around the gull, then one would streak toward it, seemingly without effort. Both falcons relentlessly circled and dove on the gull as they all moved further and further into the harbor. The gull continued to elude them each time by dropping onto the water. Each time, the small gull stayed a bit longer on the water in order to muster enough strength to lift off again and still evade his attackers.
At one point, it almost looked like another gull, perhaps a herring gull, was going to save the day, but after only a couple of feeble attempts to distract the peregrines, it continued on its way. Not much help at all as the peregrines were relentless.
Soon after, when it was obvious to me that it was too exhausted to lift itself off the water, one of the peregrines plucked the little gull from the water.
The raptor carried it off to a rock on the Salisbury side of the river, initially tailed by the other peregrine which eventually turned away to find its own meal. The rock was too far away for us watch the details of the feast, and it was just as well. We had seen enough.
We returned to the area on Old Point Road where the gulls and shorebirds were earlier, and we found at least five golden plovers. The appearance of a peregrine falcon (perhaps the one that did not win the spoils of the earlier pursuit) put up all plovers. They were clearly all golden plover with the absence of any black axillaries under the wing. Thankfully, they were luckier than the little gull, and escaped the hunting falcon.
Just a reminder that the free Optics Fair is taking place today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. It is a great place to find binoculars or a scope so that you, too, can enjoy the drama all around us.
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.