WORDS ON BIRDS
Pleasant Summer Afternoon Birding on Plum Island
August 12, 2017
By Steve Grinley
On Thursday afternoon of this week, Margo and I met up with Matt
Palm and his thirteen-year-old son, Jonathan, from Germany. They
contacted us the night before saying that they had arrived in Boston
and were staying in Newburyport for a day before heading to the
Audubon Camp on Hog Island in Maine for a week.
After enjoying some Haley’s Ice Cream and Duncan Donuts coffee, we
headed to Plum Island to do some birding. They had been on the
refuge earlier in the day and saw lots of shorebirds at Bill Forward
Pool and Jonathan did some swimming on the Plum Island beach. They
didn’t have a scope to see the shorebirds well, so we brought one
This was my first visit to
the refuge this summer, and it felt good to get out and enjoy the
birds. High tide had passed, so we headed directly toward the
Hellcat Parking Lot. The late afternoon sun made viewing the marsh
and the salt pans difficult on the way down the island. What few
shore birds we saw were mere silhouettes.
We did stop to see a large congregation of egrets in the North Pool,
best viewed from the North Pool overlook. There were easily sixty or
seventy egrets staging here, with the great egrets outnumbering the
smaller snowy egrets. It was still early, so more would likely be
I expected a larger
congregation of egrets in Bill Forward Pool, but as we found out
later, that wasn’t the case - the water level was likely too low.
And we didn’t make it down to Stage Island Pool, a favorite staging
area for the snowy egrets. These birds in the North Pool might later
head down to Kettle Island in Magnolia or just move into the marsh
west of Plum Island to roost for the night.
We continued on to Hellcat and walked up onto the dike. The water
level in Bill Forward Pool was very low and we could see a large
number of shorebirds further down neared the southern end. Wwe
decided to walk to the southern most access on the dike for a bit
As we headed toward
the tower, Margo and Matt spotted a larger bird flying across the
pool to the nearby reeds. “Least Bittern” called Margo.
I was able to get view of the small, heron-like bird with the scope
by angling it from a little further along the dike. We all had
excellent views of the colorful adult bittern with rusty wing
patches as it stalked the fish along the edge. It soon walked out of
sight, deeper into the reeds.
continued to the southern side of the dike and scoured the
shorebirds on the flats in Bill Forward Pool. Though Matt said there
were more birds earlier in the day, there were still lots of
semiplamated plovers and semipalmated sandpipers, black-bellied
plovers and least sandpipers. We found a few white-rumped sandpipers
among them and a spotted sandpiper worked the edge of the pool. A
couple of least terns were flying around and an osprey dove for fish
to feed the young on the nearby nest behind the Pines Trail,
viewable in the scope.
swallow, mostly tree swallows and a few barn, were feeding along the
tops of the water. Their numbers will certainly climb in the weeks
ahead, a spectacle that we will certainly return to see.
On our way off dike, I scanned the edge of the North Pool once more
and thought I spotted the least bittern again. But this bird was
much larger with a heavier bill and striped front. It was a green
Margo thought she saw the
least bittern again with her binoculars across on a mud flat. I
scoured with the scope and found it was a Virginia rail! Though it
was in and out of the reeds, Margo and Matt also got good looks at
it through the scope.
We ended the
day with a stop at Lot 1 so that Jonathan could enjoy more swimming
in the chilly Atlantic. The purple martins were twittering above the
parking lot we headed to the beach. Jonathan enjoyed the water, as
we used binoculars and the scope on the platform to view passing
terns and gannets, and a common loon on the water.
Highlights from the platform included two Manx shearwaters flying
south through the scope, and watching the great black-backed,
ringed-billed, and herring gulls stealing, and enjoying, an
unattended bag of pretzels on the beach!
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