I received a midday phone call earlier this week from Doug Chickering. He called to report a handsome lark sparrow near the start of the Hellcat dike on Plum Island. I posted the sighting to the Plum Island and Massbird listservs so that others would know of Doug’s discovery.
Lark sparrows are not extreme rarities — one or more usually shows up somewhere in Massachusetts during the fall. Still, birders like to see it, especially if they keep a “year list” for the state. It is uncommon enough to see that one might go out of their way to view this bird, even if they didn’t keep a list. Lark sparrows are often found west of the Mississippi, preferring brushy habitat near shrubs and trees. I have seen flocks of them in Arizona and California. It is a boldly marked bird with clown-like facial markings, a clear breast with single “stickpin” dot in the middle, and white in the tail feathers that flash when it flies. It is a handsome bird indeed, and one that I like to see when it is around. But, as is often the case, the bird was on Plum Island and I was at work in the store for another five hours or more.
I decided that I would head down the island after work and hoped that the bird would still be visiting. In any case, it was a good excuse to get out and do a little midweek birding on what was a very pleasant autumn evening, before the humidity crept in this week. I arrived at the Hellcat parking lot, under cloudy skies, just before 6 p.m. and I was just a little bit surprised that there were only a couple of cars there. As I walked past the restrooms up to the dike, I saw that there was no one else there.
Not totally surprising — as I had said, this wasn’t a particularly rare bird. I didn’t see it immediately, but when I turned to look back down the main dike path toward the parking lot, I could see a sparrow feeding. With my binoculars, I could see the boldly patterned face of a lark sparrow! I had brought my scope with me, as I wanted to check out the shorebirds in the Bill Forward Pool while I was there. I turned the scope on this bird, even though it was only about 30 feet away and my view almost filled the frame. It was then that I realized that I had left my digiscoping adapter for my iPhone in the car. So I left my scope set up, and ran back to the car to retrieve the adapter. Once I returned, I was able to get a few very nice photos of the bird with my iPhone.
After watching the bird for 10 or 15 minutes, my attention turned to the croaking and grunting of herons and egrets from the pool. I walked a short distance onto the dike and saw a great blue heron on the near shore and about 20 or more egrets further out in the water.
There were a good number of shorebirds visible on the flats as well, so I hiked out past the tower and went out toward the “gate” the furthest point allowed to public access. I set up the scope and instinctively looked further down the dike road and saw a bird with my binoculars. We have seen buff-breasted sandpipers and whimbrels on top of the dike in the past, so I was hopeful. The bird appeared to be a hawk, so I put the scope on it and it turned out to be a harrier. The harrier looked as if it had some prey, but it had its back to me, so it was difficult to be sure. Still, it seemed content on the dike and the shorebirds were feeding without concern. As I panned the flats, I could see many semipalmated sandpipers and semipalmated plovers feeding on the mud. Numerous white-rumped sandpipers were feeding, as they most often do, while standing in the water, along side the dowitchers and yellowlegs.
Fifty to 60 black-bellied plovers were both feeding on the flats and standing in the water. So it was the “usual mix” of shorebirds that we have been seeing for the past week or more. I looked for a godwit — there had been one or two Hudsonian godwits in the past couple of weeks. A marbled godwit had been reported earlier in the day at Sandy Point. But I found none that evening. I did come across two red knots and a stilt sandpiper in the mix. I also found a young least tern roosting among the semipalmated sandpipers on one spit, along with a special surprise: two brightly colored, juvenile western sandpipers. Their rufous scapulars and caps, along with their slightly larger size, make them stand out.
Their long bills, broad at the base and slightly drooping at the end, were also evident. Each time that I spotted an interesting sandpiper and started fumbling for my adapter to take pictures, the shorebirds would all fly up and relocate. The harrier had been joined by a second, and though they are not much threat, the shorebirds flew up each time the harriers drew near, only to settle down again in a different part of the pool. As I was watching the shorebirds all this time, there had been a continuous influx of egrets into the pool. They were arriving in small groups of four to 10 birds at a time. I was resisting counting them because I wanted to concentrate on the shorebirds, but finally I gave in and took a count.
Even as I counted — and after I counted — more arrived that I had to factor in. By the time I left just after 7 p.m., I had counted 314 great egrets and 176 snowy egrets. I assumed that these birds were just “staging” there and that they would move out to the marsh after I left. (I have since found out that they have been roosting overnight right there in Bill Forward Pool.) The sun had peaked through the clouds just long enough to let me know that sunset was near. I needed to leave lest the refuge law enforcement be waiting to hand out their fines. Besides, the no-see-ums had become intolerable. As I was leaving the dike, I noticed that the lark sparrow was still feeding at the edge of the path. He was great incentive for drawing me out to a wonderful evening of shorebirds, egrets, and picture-taking for documenting his uncommon visit.
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.