As we near the end of August and head into September, many of the special "grasspipers" make an appearance on Plum Island on their way south.
These sandpipers are referred to as such since they seem to prefer the grassy areas around pools rather than mudflats, sand and water. These include Baird’s and buff-breasted sandpipers that even the more experienced birders don’t see often enough in New England.
It brings to mind a story that Doug Chickering first told some years ago about trying to find some of these specific shorebirds for his friends from California. I share his story with you again here:
“Anyone who has been in this situation knows the feeling. Sort of a mixture of responsibility and hope. A friend from the other coast; experienced, enthusiastic, with a list of birds he hasn’t seen for years, arrives in your territory, eager for a day out birding. He has seen the latest sightings, he has been to the area before, and although isn’t demanding, is hoping for some “good” birds.
“Thus it was for me when I met Terry Colburn and Xuan Li at the Newburyport railroad station this morning, coming in on the early train. Xuan is a new birder and was going to be excited by practically anything, for most things would be new to him. Terry has been doing birding intently for at least four decades, has a Life List as long as your arm, and had a few birds that he really wanted to see. He was experienced enough and had led enough trips himself to know that one can’t simply order up birds and that this business was a combination of perseverance, experience and luck. Still, he wanted very much to see Buff-breasted and Baird’s, and I very much wanted accommodate him. He had birded Plum Island before and assured me that Plum Island had a reputation even on the Pacific Coast.
“I kind of felt obliged. I hoped for a halfway decent day. I hoped to get one of the targets and maybe something more. What we got was one of those blazing memorable days as Plum Island came up saluting.
“We started the morning at Sandy Point and the three of us joined Angela Walsh and Scott Santino up on the favored sand bar, scanning the shorebirds and the gulls. I guess we should have known it was going to be a good day when we picked out the black-headed gull loafing near three laughing gulls.
“At one point, Terry and I spotted a strange shorebird flying away from us, due south toward Crane Beach. It was of medium size; larger than a peep and smaller than a black-bellied plover. The body seemed to be featureless with no clear markings on back or wings and gave the impression of being a soft brown or tan. We went through the list of what it was not, but could not decide what it was. Less than five minutes later, I spotted a small bird quite close, at the near edge of the sandbar and before I could put my binoculars on it announced that I may have found a Baird’s sandpiper.
“Putting it in the scope, I was delighted to find that I was in error and everyone was quite pleased. A beautifully marked buff-breasted sandpiper stood bright and perky about 30 yards away. It stayed out in the open eliciting the “oohs” and “aaahs” of the five appreciative observers before suddenly taking flight. It was then that Terry and I realized this was the bird we had seen flying away from us a few minutes before. With the black-headed gull and buff-breasted sandpiper setting the tone, the day progressed from triumph to triumph.
“We had a Baird’s sandpiper right in front of us at the new deck beneath the tower at Stage Island and an equally cooperative Baird’s sandpiper from the new blind at Bill Forward Pool. There was the sora at the edge of the north pool, the Western sandpiper in the Bill Forward Pool, the red knot that had us momentarily perplexed, and at least three, and probably four, peregrine falcons at different locations. They seemed to take delight in putting up the sandpipers.
“The peregrine’s activity created a rather odd effect. Many of the shorebirds were feeding among the recently exposed stubble and were half hidden so that when a peregrine came gliding through, suddenly they would rise up to appear in their tight, frantic flocks, demonstrating that there were a lot more shorebirds about than we imagined.
“The day itself was perfect; with a gentle, cool breeze and, along with birds to look at, there were friends to chat with. We didn’t get everything were searched for. Jim Berry had seen the previously reported prothonatary warbler at Hellcat, and had seen a Cape May (warbler) there to boot. Terry, Xuan and I could find neither. Still, considering everything, it seems petty and ungrateful to complain about a day that was, under all reasonable measures, perfect.”