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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dec/27/11 Parker River NWR aka. Plum Island: the greatest birding hotspot in New England

This year my family's annual "Solstice Bird Count" was delayed due to numerous factors and instead our walk was conducted on the 27th at Plum Island, the #1 birding hotspot of New England.

We (me, my brother and my grandfather) arrived at the Audubon, the clock reading 12:40pm giving us about 4 hours to see loads of life birds here at Joppa Flats and at Plum Island. Joppa Flats is a tiny speck of land located on the Southern side of Newburyport Harbor. Despite its size many an awesomely amazing bird has been sighted here by some overjoyed birder like Pomarine Jaeger and Black Skimmer.

Many Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks and Buffleheads littered the water in front of the visitor center all divided into small flocks. As we were losing hope of seeing anything in the least bit interesting here I noticed a medium sized dabbling duck whizzing by overhead with fast shallow wing beats. What gave the bird's identity away was its overly large and ungainly bill. It was a female Northern Shoveler, a nice bird for the area and a great start for the day.

Although the Shoveler had seemed a good omen at the time we quickly realized that the birding wasn't half what we had hoped for. The quantity of American Black Ducks, Canada Geese and American Robins was vastly bloated while not much else stirred with the exception of a few Mallards and gulls.

Birding began picking up when we spotted a female Northern Pintail accompanying sixty or so Black Ducks in their wild endeavor to devour the marsh. It was a large slender duck with a long elegant neck and a dark blue black bill. Along with being a very handsome dabbler it was also a year bird. Way on the other side of the marsh we spotted a few small sandpipers wheeling about, their identity remains unknown but I suspect that they were Dunlins. We were surprised to see a posse of five Wild Turkeys making their way across the road and sweetly posing for the cameras.

A posse of turkeys - that is actually the official group title for turkeys.

Although we didn't check Hellcat Swamp's famed boardwalk we did go up the observation tower; a great place for viewing Snowy Owls and other fascinating birds, mostly in the duck department. Hellcat Swamp is a marshy section of the refuge, most of the Swamp is taken up by a wet deciduous forest, but also affords great looks at the salt marsh, which is best viewed from the previously mentioned observation tower. From the tower I could see a few Mute Swans, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser and scaup of both species in the pond which had been dammed off by a dike on which the tower stands. In the marsh were a few American Black Ducks and Mallards.

A male Lesser Scaup

We learned from one of the many birders we discovered traipsing the refuge that the Snowy Owls where being seen at parking lot #7, aka Stage Island, at the very Southernly tip of the refuge. Lot number seven also had access to an observation tower along with an observation deck on the sand dunes which gives great looks at the ocean. On our way to lot seven I spotted a distant raptor perched precariously on the top of a bare tree which overlooked the marsh. Scoping it out from the car I was able to see that the bird had a dark back with a few splotches of white, a head (which most birds have) patterned like that of the Marsh Harrier of Eurasia, and when it took flight I was able to see the whitish tail with a black tip. All these field marks suggested a Rough-legged Hawk. As we continued down the road that leads a straight path through the refuge, I re-spotted the raptor. This time perched on an Osprey nesting platform. A tall sturdy wooden poll stuck into the marsh with a wooden rostrum placed on top, always the favored nesting site of any reasonable Osprey. This time the raptor was too far to ID but probably the same hawk as before. Talking to some other birders who had seen the hawk on the tree, we learned that their ID was completely different from ours. Though not certain, our group all leaned towards Rough-legged Hawk, they however, swore that the bird had been a juvenile Bald Eagle; a species I had instantly ruled out when I saw the size of the birds bill. Silently I categorized them as "dumbasses" and then we continued on our way.

We continued on to lot number seven. Scanning from the top of Stage Islands observation tower I picked out a few pintails and a mockingbird. Then turning our backs on the marsh we went to scan the dunes and beach. There wasn't a Snowy to be found.

The ocean was littered with eiders, scoters and mergansers, most of the birds gathered about a group of rocks which projected from the water in a set of gray humps. The large majority of the ducks were Common Eiders but many were White-winged and Black Scoters while others showed the distinctive field marks of Red-breasted Mergansers. Also on the water were a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, loons of both species and some Horned Grebes. We were unable pick up a Red-necked Grebe, a bird which leaves a horrible blank spot on my life list.

We were informed by some other birders that the bird which we had seen on the Osprey platform WAS a "young, light morph, Rough-legged Hawk". We trusted the birder that had told us it was a Rough-leg but we decided to wait for a better look before marking it on our life lists.

By now the sun was sinking slowly below the horizon and our birding time was running short. We still hadn't seen a Snowy.

We started back down the refuge road heading towards parking lot #3 where we planned to wait for the owl to show. American Robins where everywhere gathering in large flocks which, come nightfall would descend upon the trees of the refuge blanketing them in a layer of sleeping birds. Two raptors soared low over a field by the side of the road, one clearly was a harrier, the other we weren't sure on having only caught a glimpse. This unidentified bird landed in a tree 20 ft away from one of the many parking lots on the side of the road. Pulling our car to a squeeling stop we hopped out only to see the hawk fly to a more distant tree. Watching the hawk in flight I was able to make out the distinctive wing pattern of a Rough-legged Hawk. I set my scope on the bird, my grandfather doing the same with his scope. Although the light was now fading fast we were able to make out many of the field marks which identify a Rough-leg. Due to the light and distance I wasn't able to get any good photos of the bird but amazingly my brother, who I have also classified in the order of Dumbass, took some much more reasonable photos with his Ipod through my grandfathers scope. The birders who had identified the last Rough-legged Hawk we had seen where there and for a second time that day they confirmed our suspisions that this was a "young, light morph, Rough-legged hawk". This time we had no doubt of its identity, a Rough-legged most certainly was.

We kept the car moving onward to parking lot 3 passing one of the two (very late) Great Egrets still hanging around the refuge. They are amazingly late for the season. This time it wasn't a hawk which waylaid us but the ranger, spreading the news of a report of a Snowy Owl which had been seen perched on the dike some 20 minutes earlier from the parking lot which we had just vacated. So we turned the car around and headed back up the road. We were unable to see the owl from the parking lot where we had seen the Rough-leg so we decided to check out the tower at Hellcat again from where we would have a great view of the dike.

Walking up the path which leads the observation tower, I spotted a small sparrow fly up from the side of the path and land in a bush. The bird was probably an American Tree Sparrow - but I didn't have time to identify it, for at that very moment I heard an angelic hoarse croak like no other. Looking up I saw the shape I had been dreaming to see for years - it was a Snowy Owl! It flew past me only 20 feet from where my feet were positioned, headed North West. This bird was a fairly dark individual with many a black spot showing on the more obvious white feathers. Its flight style is best described as a mix between a large herons and a moth and not as fast as most owls.

The Snowy Owl is one North Americas largest and heaviest owls and is by far the most amazing being dressed in white from head to toe. This was my fifth and favorite owl species that I have laid delighted eyes upon. I have never seen an owl yet which hasn't left me shaking from the thrill of the encounter.

The bird was headed towards the dike. Just as it passed over the top of the dike another white form which had been on the far side of the dike flew up to meet it. For a brief moment they seemed to tackle in the air before separating and flying in opposite directions. Then when they where about 50 yards apart they both turned and landed side by side on the banks of the canal where they stayed. Now the light had faded almost entirely, making these pure white giants fade away into the gray water behind them. Taking photos was wildly unsuccessful and we had run out of time. So we all took one more squint at these amazing birds before turning our backs and walking away.

Here's our (late) Solstice Bird Count list seen at Plum Island:
Canada Goose 500+
Mute Swan 2
American Black Duck 175
Mallard 24
Northern Pintail 3
Greater Scaup 3
Lesser Scaup 3
Common Eider 50+
White-winged Scoter 10
Black Scoter 9
Bufflehead 11
Common Goldeneye 7
Hooded Merganser 3
Red-breasted Merganser 10
Wild Turkey 5
Red-throated Loon 1
Common Loon 5
Horned Grebe 5
Great Egret 1
Northern Harrier 3
Rough-legged hawk 2
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Ring-billed Gull 8
Herring Gull 35
Great Black-backed Gull 3
Snowy Owl 2 (!!!)
american Crow 13
American Robin 100+
Northern Mockingbird 1

Good job to anybody who ID'd the male Wood Duck in the last photo quiz.
Here's your next quiz.
This photo was taken at Chace Farm in Lincoln Rhode Island sometime in December. Hint: not all the rules of nature are set in stone. Aren't hints always cooler when you say them in a slightly riddle-ish way? Good Luck and Happy New Year!

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