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Monday, August 20, 2012

Plum Island, Newbury, MA _ June 13, 2012 _ 11:48-4:50pm _ Raining

The sun shone down lovingly on the gray clouds above but its brilliance did not warm us. It was raining that cool soft drizzle, that beastly destroyer of expensive optical devices. It was in no way a pleasant rain but nor was it unpleasant. It was there and nothing anyone could do would change it.

It was the type of day that fell into line with Charles Dickens opening lines to Bleak House "London. [...] Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." After that the two wet days slid out of sync, Dickens describing a murky, creeping fog, while we were at that present moment experiencing damp that fell into the category of rain. Oh well, at least quoting Dickens sounds cool.

The depressing drizzle did not deter the hardy avifauna of Plum Island, and in mere minutes we had picked up our lifer Wilson's Phalarope. It was a stunning bird - long, black, dainty bill, gray body and rusty neck giving it a fashionable appearance. It was small, barely larger then a White-rumped Sandpiper, dwarfed by its feathered alarm system, a pair of Greater Yellowlegs. Both were double its size, and although both were handsomer then the phalarope they were no competition to the regal appearance of this long-legged wader. After pleasing our eyes on this rain-soaked lifer we continued our slow and extremely enjoyable drive down the road which would take us the length of the island. 

In a blur of black-and-white along with a little gray the Willets trapped the eye, the ear and the imagination. Their wild yodeled whistles resounded throughout the refuge's long, birder-covered, road. 

Hellcat held its usual wonders today, a few Short-billed Dowitchers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Green-winged Teal etc. The highlight here was unquestionably the pair of Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 2/3s of this species that have been recently reported at this most admirable location. Other pleasantries seen included my year bird Bank Swallow, numerous Marsh Wrens and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. I was surprised to see the nests of those dainty creatures, Marsh Wrens, lined the sides of the boardwalk that wound through Hellcats phragmites marsh. They were at the current peak of avian architecture in the western hemisphere, creating a strongly woven ball, hollow in the center, one passageway leading into the warm, dry, interior of the nest, the same portal leading out - back doors seem not yet to have crossed the mind of the wren.

Our next stop was Stage Island Pool Overlook where we scored a few Mallards, Gadwalls, American Black-Ducks and Green-winged Teal.

A day is never capped of better then with a few endangered species. We were able to find Piping Plovers, Least Tern, which abounds on the island, and a lifer Roseate Tern, mixed in with a few Common Tern. All three of these awesome species were lazing on the beach at Sandy Point.
What an awesome way to end a day. Three threatened birds all on the same beach. Sadly with the storm which blew through recently, came the destruction of many of these birds nests, which were unmercifully swept away by the crashing waves. Luckily the birds have started building their nests again. Apparently, before the storm it was the biggest year for Piping Plovers on the island yet recorded - I believe that 32 nesting pairs were counted. I am unsure what the number is at now, after the storm, I can only pray that the figure has not fallen.

Thanks is in order to my grandmother who was kind enough to take us to this most beautiful of places, despite the possibility of coming face to face with a Megalosaurus!  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Parker River NWR, Newburyport, MA - April, 21, 2012

Here's another belated post for anyone interested. Hopefully this blog will pick up some steam as the deadline for the 2013 Young Birder of the Year Contest chugs ever closer and I become increasingly worried with how little work I've done. By request of Jennie Duberstien (editor of the ABA Young Birders Blog) I need to tell you that this post is currently posted on the aforementioned blog (aka "The Eyrie").

Peering through our binos we silently waved our optics over the mudflats that confronted us and on which sat hundreds upon hundreds of birds. We were standing on the side of Water Street in Newburyport Massachusetts, five miles from the New Hampshire border. Before us was the mouth of the Merrimac River, currently experiencing that well known happening caused by the moon: low tide. 

Screaming gulls wheeled pellmell over the mud. Below them paced dainty tarsused Greater Yellowlegs which dwarfed the Dunlin that scuttled shyly below them. Behind them in the open water floated Gadwalls and at least 500 Long-tailed Ducks decked out in their summer plumages, the males in a black and brown which made for a sharp contrast next to the white cheeks and belly, while the females were plain and unadorned. It was 7:30am and in the 19 minutes we spent scanning the water we scored 19 species. 

I had been waiting for this day for weeks, our grandparents, the Goodchilds, had kindly volunteered to take us to that famed marsh Plum Island, and now we were only five minutes from its main entrance. But we had one more quick stop to make before passing over the golden bridge (which is not literally golden). 

The birds called and we had to obey. Pulling up into the parking lot of Joppa Flats Audubon Sanctuary the aforementioned calling birds were clearly visible on the preserves namesake mudflats.

Joppa Flats is comprised of a parking lot, an Osprey nesting platform (currently unoccupied and up for rent), 40 or so square feet of land and a whale sized visitor center. It is a well known attraction for birders, drawing them in like hummingbirds to a blossoming grove of scarlet blooms. Like the birds the birders love the mudflats which rise up from the mouth of the Merrimac when low tide comes around again. Of course the water is the substance rising and falling - the mud just gives the appearance of doing so.

The aerial gulls floated overhead dwarfing the Tree Swallows that flitted here and there. The Long-tailed Ducks, which I will hitherto refer to them as Oldsquaw as I prefer this older, not politically correct name because it sounds cooler, were still clearly visible in the open water further out. Closer at hand the Dunlin and Greater Yellowlegs scuttled. Seeing that the view from here was pretty much the same view our eyes received while scanning from Water Street, we started the car’s engine up and as the rubber tires whirred over the tarmac we passed over the salt marsh that cuts Plum off from the mainland by way of a bridge and entered Newbury, the town which contains most of Plum Island and almost all the birds staying or living on it.

The next few hours passed in a blur of feathers and binoculars. Singing Savannah Sparrows and a flock of Dunlin at the main entrance were quickly followed by a pair of Brown Thrashers by the salt pannes, next a pair of Fish Crows and a flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers whizzed passed our creeping car.

Towhees sang from the side of the road, outnumbered by the jousting Song Sparrows, who, in their turn, were outnumbered by the Grackles, who flew hither and thither in chaotic disorder. 

We picked up the Snowy Owl at Hellcat Swamp mere yards from where we had seen the same bird along with another of these omnipotent aves last December. It was quite amusing, considering the birds namesake, to look at this beautiful creature, resting proudly on a pole in the marsh, then looking past its brilliantly white feathers we saw heat waves writhing and twisting in the distance, giving the far side of the marsh and the few dilapidated shacks that rested there, a watery and opaque semblance. 

We were awakened from our reverie of the feathered snow king by the cluck of a gobbler. A female Turkey had, as we watched the owl, snuck up behind us and was now peacefully feeding in the grass on the dike’s eastern side. She was a beautiful creature and although she didn’t get the wild-eyed audience of the birders full attention that the owl claimed, it was with a fascinated gaze that we watched as the big tame bird in her wanderings along the dike, and, where the grass had been worn away, take a dust bath, sending particles of loam free-wheeling into the air. 

Forty five minutes and 1 Hermit Thrush later, we reached Stage Island, arguably the highlight of this trip. Floating in the salty waters of the Stage Island Pool were 4 Northern Shovelers, always good birds in New England, and a knob of Green-winged Teal, a flush of Gadwall, a team of American Black-Ducks and a daggle of Mallards. We couldn’t find the Redheads reported that day in the mass of waterfowl.

We reached Sandy Point all to soon for my liking but here we took a short walk down to investigate the beach. We didn’t see the nesting Pipers, but we did have some more Oldsquaw and a few Common Eider.

Returning back down the road we picked up a brace of Ruddy Duck hiding in the reeds of Stage Island Pool and only visible from Cross Farm Hill. 

It was a memorable trip and one that in many years will still be fresh in my mind.
To cap off the wonderful day we stopped by the Parker River Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. After looking at the displays and watching a long, boring video on the ecosystem of Plum Island (during which not one but both of my grandparents fell asleep), we regarded the checklist of birds occurring on the NWR and were shocked to learn that such birds as Wild Turkey, Ruddy Duck and Tufted Titmouse, all species we had seen that day, were as supposedly as rare as Gyrfalcon on the island. How mind-bogglingly peculiar!

The days lists: