NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 17, 2012

Birding can be both exhilarating and calming

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — It is has been an exciting few weeks in the bird world with exotic birds like lapwings, mountain bluebirds and pelicans being driven in by storms. Doug Chickering of Groveland shares with us a day of discovering some rare birds and more:

“I started my walk north from the Wardens on a cold, breathlessly clear autumn morning. I particularly like walking the S Curves on Plum Island in the early morning, when the sun has just started breaking through the leafless trees and before the automobile traffic begins to annoy the birds foraging along the edge of the road. I had started at parking lot #3 and planned to walk the S Curves south to the Wardens, try to get lucky by finding a lapland longspur there and then walk back. Today the walk up was quite sedate, with only a few robins and chickadees along the road and a mockingbird and song sparrow at the Wardens. On my way back I had only gone about 50 yards when I saw some movement on the trunk of a tree on the marsh side. Woodpecker, no doubt. Those were my first instincts. I brought my binoculars to bear and was surprised to see a bird, pecking at the tree like a woodpecker but without the markings of any woodpecker that came to mind.

“It appeared generally gray. Dark gray on the body a lighter brownish gray on the head. Certainly neither a downy nor a hairy. Maybe a sapsucker? I didn’t think so. I took a step to my right to get a better look when it flew across the road, ending my speculation. There were large square white patches on the wings. Red-headed woodpecker!! I hadn’t seen a red-headed woodpecker on Plum Island since 2006.

“Certain that Tom Wetmore would want to know about this bird, I tried to call him on my cellphone but could only leave a message. No sooner had I put my phone away when it rang. It was Tom, not answering my call, but informing me that he was on a pair of cave swallows in the field by the new blind.

“In a few minutes I had joined him and we relocated the birds flying high over the Hellcat dike. After a quick trip to the North Pool overlook, we picked the pair up again, flying against the wind sometimes high in the sky, sometimes swooping low, slowly making their determined way north. The birds got close enough to convince me that Tom’s identification was correct. They clearly weren’t barn or tree or any of the small brown swallows.

“At the pans we joined Steve Grinley and all three of us found the two swallows and managed to place them in our scopes. Here the identification became diagnostic, as they flew low over the far back of the pans and showed us rump and head and underwing. The red-headed woodpecker was real nice and later I was able to pick out a red crossbill among the white-wings at the Old Blind. But the cave swallows would be the exhilarating highlight of the day.

“Later that morning after Tom and Steve had left on their various appointments, I was alone when I pulled into the Hellcat parking lot. There was no other car there. I had the trail to myself. I selfishly like it when I am the only one on the trails at Hellcat. There weren’t many birds seen on my walk. Chickadees here and there, a pair of downy woodpeckers, two white-throated sparrows, a cardinal and a cooperative hermit thrush.

“Unlike the excitement of the recent birds this walk was one of quiet, seductive contemplation. There are no distractions; near silence and the solitude is a perfect companion to the possibility of a discovery in the whispering stirrings deep in the underbrush. On days like this, when a slight chuck reveals a curious hermit thrush, and the sun pours down from the cloudless sky and I can hear the low groan of the Whistle buoy at the mouth of the Merrimack, I almost don’t care if some hot-line surprise doesn’t pop up before me. On this day I had experienced both the storm and the calm of birding.”

Doug appreciates the excitement of birding, and its therapeutic power as well. Birding often gets the adrenalin flowing, but it can also soothe the soul. Whether it is the loss of a loved one or the stress of the holidays, there is a healing effect of a walk in the woods or along the shore in the company of birds. It is one of the reasons that I am a birder.

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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.