Though autumn is officially a month away, the fall migration of birds has been in full swing for a few weeks now. Shorebirds are congregating on the mud flats in Newburyport Harbor at low tide and, during high tide, they are feeding along the edges of the Salt Pannes, Bill Forward and Stage Island Pools on the Parker River Refuge, and in shallow pans throughout the Great Marsh.
This important bird area is a critical refueling stopover for many birds on their migration journey. Thousands of sandpipers and plovers utilize the marsh and mud flats, including greater and lesser yellowlegs, semipalmated, least, and white-rumped sandpipers as well as black-bellied and semipalmated plovers. One may also see short-billed dowitchers, willets, dunlin and sanderlings. Last weekend, we found six whimbrels, three red knots, two pectoral sandpipers and a ruddy turnstone among the regulars on Plum Island. All of these shorebirds will “stage” on the flats and pans, feeding for a day or for several days, to increase their body fat for the next leg of their journey south.
Birders constantly sort through the hundreds, or even thousands of shorebirds in the hope to find something out of the ordinary. A month ago, a red-necked stint was found in Bill Forward Pool on the refuge. In years past, avocets, black-necked stilts, ruff, common ringed plover, and curlew sandpipers have been found among the more common species.
In addition to the shorebirds, the long-legged waders – snowy and great egrets, great blue and black-crowned night herons – will also feed in the marshes and fresh water pools. Their numbers increase as they gather and feed to boost their energy in preparation for their flight south. As their numbers grow, so does the spectacle of seeing so many of these beautiful birds congregating in one area.
Many of the egrets are stopping to feed in Stage Island Pool and the surrounding marshes on Plum Island in the evenings, just before they head off to roost. Many will continue onto a night roost on Kettle Island off Magnolia. Other night roosts can be seen locally in a pond off Scotland Road in Newbury and in a marsh off I-95 in Georgetown. Occasionally you may see a green, little blue, tricolored, or yellow-crowned night heron mixed in with the egrets. Egrets will use these roosts until the time comes in the weeks ahead when they, too, will head south.
As I drive along Route 1 and Route 1A, each day more and more swallows can be seen flying back and forth. We can even see them fly over our house in Essex, and over the traffic circle from the store. More and more swallows are gathering and feeding all over the local area to prepare for their journey south.
With plenty of fruit and insects available on Plum Island, the Parker River Refuge is an important staging area for tens of thousands of swallows in mid August, and this birding spectacle is one worth seeing before the birds move on by the end of the month. Thousands of swallows are “staging” in the cattails of North Pool and the north field area, feeding on the evening insects. The swallows form large, swarming clouds as they feed, and you can watch others skim insects off the surface of the pools. Others are feeding on bayberry on the dunes side of the road, especially on the way down to Cross Farm Hill.
You can still see large congregations of swallows anytime during the day all along the refuge road, as these birds gather and move along the dunes and marsh. Be sure to drive slowly along the refuge road as these birds will also land right on the pavement. You might also join the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Wednesday evening birding programs during August. They take special care to help participants experience this local phenomenon, to get the most of the shorebird, egret and swallow show that happens in this special place.