SALISBURY — Swallows returning to the San Juan Capistrano mission in California every year have nothing on the majestic egrets who appear to have taken a liking to Salisbury real estate over the past four years.
The birds are back, roosting on the branches of dead trees in a wetlands along Bridge Road (Route 1), thrilling travelers and birders alike with their beauty.
"It's a night roost," said Steve Grinley, bird enthusiast and the author of The Daily News' "Words on Birds" column. "They're most likely non-nesting males who are either too young to mate or who haven't found a mate yet. They come together at night for safety reasons."
Grinley, owner of Bird Watchers Supply and Gifts of Newburyport, said the first time he noticed the egrets at the Bridge Road habitat was in 2007, the year the area flooded heavily due to the Patriots Day storm. There were scores and scores of egrets the first year, attracting attention, both good and bad.
The first year the birds arrived, dozens of cars at a time were parked in the narrow breakdown lanes along the busy Bridge Road section of two-lane-wide Route 1, while travelers stopped to gaze and take photos. The cars and people caused traffic and safety hazards, and many bird watchers ended up on private property. The phenomenon caused police to put up "no parking" signs along the roadway, and property owners blocked off their land.
According to the egrets' human neighbor, Tim Lamprey of Harbor Gardens, so far this year, drivers pulling over along the roadside to watch the birds haven't caused problems. But on days when traffic jams the road, bird watchers need to be both sensible and cautious.
Lamprey has watched the birds every year since they arrived. Although most people don't notice the egrets until dusk when they come together for the night, Lamprey can see them behind his building during the day as they feed.
"They're wading birds," Lamprey said. "They walk along in the marshland, usually at low to moderate tide, and every now and then, they'll disappear and come up with a fish."
That behavior is typical of waders, according to Joppa Flats education coordinator David Larson, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Right now, the feathered inhabitants flocking to Bridge Road are both great egrets and snowy egrets, Larson said. In the fall, after the egrets leave, he said the wetlands becomes a post-nesting site for other young waders — such as blue heron and glossy ibises — fresh from their nesting area on Kettle Island, located off Gloucester.
The number of egrets arriving in Salisbury has diminished since the first year, Larson said, probably because some of the waterlogged trees in the wetlands where they roost have toppled over, Larson said.
"There haven't seemed to be as many as there were the first year, probably because there aren't as many perches," Larson said. "We're not absolutely certain it's the same birds (returning each year). It could be that this is a key spot because it's safe and near a good feeding area, or that birds flying by see a lot of birds there and think it's an OK place to hang out."
Feeding in both salt and freshwater, the egrets would find good hunting in the nearby salt marsh for fish or crustaceans. In freshwater, it's frogs, small turtles or small rodents that need to beware. "They'll eat anything they can swallow," Larson said.
Birds roost together for security reasons, Larson said, and waders are pretty liberal about the company they keep, not minding if there are other species in their midst.
"They figure the more eyes to see potential predators, the better," Larson said.
In this area, natural predators are wildlife such as raccoons and foxes, even eagles, hawks and owls, when it comes to nestlings, he said. Cats and dogs can also prey on them.
Salisbury isn't the only roosting abode for the egrets, Grinley said. Other roosts have been spotted this year in the wetlands off Scotland Road in Newbury and in the marsh between Plum Island and the mainland, he said.
The egrets will stick around until fall, then "they'll bail out," pretty much all leaving to find warmer weather by September, Larson said. They'll spend the winter in places like Virginia or the Carolinas, with some flying farther south to Florida, he said.
The birds make a spectacular sight while they're here, but Larson and Grinley advise looking from a distance, perhaps with binoculars or long camera lenses, and not getting too close.
"Just leave them alone and appreciate the beauty of them," Grinley said. "It there's too much disturbance, they could abandon that roost and go elsewhere."