WORDS ON BIRDS
Plum Island Raptors Capture an Audience
By Steve Grinley
Last Saturday, Paul Roberts of Medford, one of the leading hawk
experts in Massachusetts and beyond, led his annual Bald Eagle and
Snowy Owl field trip for Mass Audubon's Habitat Sanctuary to the
Plum Island, Newburyport, and Salisbury area. Paul shares his trip
report with us:
“For the first time
in several decades, we didn't get off the island in over 7 hours,
with most of the raptors within 4 miles of each other on the PI
turnpike and north refuge road. Sunny to largely overcast at times,
30 to 54 degrees, SW winds increasing during midday to 20-30+ mph…
“Initially found 1 juvenile Bald Eagle
on osprey platform in marsh west of the refuge entrance, 1 basic
third year on Seal island, and 1 Basic second year on ice flow in
harbor. An adult Red-tailed hunted in the marsh grass on the east
side of Plumbush Creek, along with a subadult male Northern Harrier.
Glorious light, and then the juvenile harrier flew out of the sun
towards us on the road and wheeled next to us, enabling us to see
what an injured goose might see in its last minutes. (The bird had
clearly seen something good on the other side of the road.)
“Also saw two distant adult eagles "duetting," skydancing along the
north shore of the harbor, in apparent "courtship" flight. (Recently
heard interesting professional research suggesting that much, if not
all, of what has historically been considered courtship behavior,
including talon grasping and wheeling, is actually combative, with
competing adults of the same gender trying to intimidate or
otherwise hinder the competition.)
“Saw the bodacious juvenile Red-tailed Hawk at the refuge entrance
and later on down the road several hundred yards, oblivious to cars
and people but affording many photo ops. Heard that many people were
calling it a roughleg.
“Then we had
3 immature Bald Eagles land on the marsh just west of Plumbush
Creek, jumping up and down as though playing. Great views. We
assumed these were the same three immatures we had seen individually
about an hour earlier, but they could have been different. (There
have been at least 8 immature eagles on the river in recent weeks).
“Driving down the refuge road in early
morning light we had 6-7 individual Snowy Owls of highly various
markings, sitting out in the marsh a fair-to-considerable distance
from the road and many not obvious or not well appreciated without a
scope. Checked ice cakes and floes carefully with a good scope at
60X. One white object was almost dismissed as a chunk of ice until
it turned and coughed up a pellet. Not good photographic subjects
but great through the scope.
very distant owl then jumped up and flew towards us and sat down
several hundreds yards away, and then flew south twice again,
affording wonderful views of flight behavior, "roller coasting" high
in the sky and then swooping low mowing the grass, like the last
thing a meadow vole ever sees. [It was] the only flight by any owls
we saw in 7.5 hrs of looking. [There were]At least six different
owls, possibly 7 in less than four miles from refuge entrance to the
warden's. Also saw one lone owl in the marsh out from Stage Island
causeway, the most heavily marked owl of the day. (Was reminded that
four years earlier this field trip had seen 18 Snowy Owls, in the
first weekend of the big "invasion".)
“We had a sharpie dart quickly over us on the road, and farther down
had "to-die-for" views of an immature dark morph Rough-legged Hawk,
which soared low and wheeled on the dune side in incredible light.
For many, Snowy Owls were a life bird, but they will never forget
the spectacular views we had of this dark winter raptor.
“South of Hellcat I spotted a distant light morph Roughleg hunting
on the northern edge of Grape Island, where it then hovered and
perched briefly. Also had 2 distant Red-tailed Hawks and 2 similar
Northern Harriers soaring over the west edge of the marsh. We also
had a smallish full adult Bald Eagle soar up low over the dunes and
then fly close overhead, so we saw one adult "up close and
“We had a distant flock
of Horned Larks in the marsh about two hours after high tide, and
had a close flock of 25 Snow Buntings on the ice northwest of the
warden's, and then wheeling over us, affording great views to all.
For many these were life birds.
best day I've had for seeing raptors on the island all winter, and a
great group of people enjoying a spectacular day seeing winter
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Route 1 Traffic Circle
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