, Newburyport, MA

August 31, 2013

Shorebirds continue stopovers during migration

Steve Grinley

---- — The weather over the past several weeks has been very comfortable for birding. The cooler mornings quickly warm up into the 70s, and sometimes low 80s, without oppressive humidity. If you are anywhere near the coast, there has been just enough of a breeze to keep you cool and to keep the insects at bay.

Standing in one place with a spotting scope and scanning for shorebirds, one can focus on the task of identifying what you are seeing without battling the elements, the mosquitoes or the no-see-ums. We took advantage of these conditions by spending a couple of days last weekend on Plum Island. Most of the shorebirds were gathering at Bill Forward Pool during the higher tides, so we spent a lot of time at the Bill Forward Blind in the morning and on the Hellcat dike in the afternoon, in order to keep the sun behind us as much as possible.

Of course, many other birders had the same idea, so parking at the blind was limited with such a small parking area. The Hellcat Trail parking lot was never half-full any day that we were there. The majority of the shorebirds were semipalmated plovers, semipalmated and least sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers and black-bellied plovers.

There were also respectful numbers of white-rumped sandpipers, lesser and greater yellowlegs, and an occasional killdeer and spotted sandpiper. Highlights were the two golden plovers that were among the black-bellied plovers on one morning.

One or two Hudsonian godwits, large shorebirds with long, upturned bills, that tower over all the others, were present both days. We were told that stilt sandpipers made appearances, but we weren’t there at those times. A single piping plover, so light in color, looked out of place on the mudflats of this fresh water pool. We usually see them on the outer beach or at Sandy Point. A pectoral sandpiper was more at home on the muddy flats, and we had seen another pecking at the mud at the edge of North Pool when we had stopped at the North Pool Overlook.

Another delight was the western sandpiper that we picked out of all the similar semipalmated sandpipers congregated on the small island formed in the middle of the Bill Forward Pool. The red scapulars of the western sandpiper shone in the afternoon sun as we scanned from the dike. The least terns would fly into the pool and dive to catch small fish. We also had a brief visit from a Forster’s tern that was also looking to fish the pool. The local ospreys would also be flying overhead, occasionally diving for larger fish, and sometimes putting up the flocks of shorebirds with their shadow. Also hunting nearby was a harrier patrolling the dike for voles and other small mammals. The harrier was not much of a threat to the shorebirds, but it made them nervous every time it came by.

The only other disturbances around Bill Forward Pool were the small planes overhead. For whatever reason, they seem to choose the wildlife refuge airspace to perform their acrobatics. The drone of their engines drowned out the calls of the shorebirds and other songbirds around us, making the experience much less enjoyable when they were overhead.

We did try to venture down to Stage Island and Sandy Point on one of the days. We looked at Stage Island from the road and we were lucky enough to see a Baird’s sandpiper not too far out. We also looked from the tower at Lot 7, but the water level was so low that all the birds were too far out to identify, even with a scope. Overall, there were far fewer shorebirds at Stage, perhaps because the water level was too low. We did see two Forster’s terns fishing the narrow channels that were left. The swallow numbers were still high this past week, but they will certainly move out in the weeks ahead. Many of the egrets have already left as the numbers of great and snowy egrets were far fewer last week.

We did manage to find a space at Sandy Point late one afternoon and we were able to show a visitor from France a piping plover on the beach. Unfortunately, it was only one of three shorebirds on the entire beach. Even though the tide was ebbing, no shorebirds were arriving to partake of the exposed flats. The boatloads of people, the dogs running on the beach, and even the bonfire were not enough to attract the birds. Funny how that works. You are welcome to join me for a free morning bird walk next Saturday, Sept. 7, when we will likely venture down Plum Island to view some of the migration shorebirds, ducks, egrets and songbirds. We will meet at the Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle at 9 a.m. Dress for the weather and bring binoculars if you have them. Registration is not necessary.

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.