Sunday, January 6, 2013

A delightful day of birding at Plum Island

Although much of the landscape was covered beneath snow and ice, Plum Island and the Parker River National Widlife Refuge were full of avian life during a recent outing. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Yesterday was one of the best days of birding I can recall, both in terms of adding new species to my year and life lists, and also just for experiencing the beauty of the natural world. I spent most of the day on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where I added bird #200 to my life list, and brought my year to date total to 41 species. Including bird #200, I added 6 new life birds. Also, I was quite proud of myself for getting up when my alarm went off, so I would say it was a banner day all around.

I started off the morning outside the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, waiting for the doors to open. Since I was a little early I decided to look around and added an American Tree Sparrow to my year list. After the center I opened I went inside and signed up for the Saturday morning birding trip, a weekly program run by the staff at the center. Readers of this blog may be aware that my past attempts to join Mass Audubon outings have been repeatedly foiled by horrible weather, bad luck and my ability to sleep through any known alarm clock. This time, things turned out just fine and I had a great time exploring the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge with an excellent naturalist guide and some very knowledgeable fellow birders.

Even before we left the center, though, I managed to add two more species to my year list, an American goldfinch and a Bald Eagle. The eagle was a life bird and truly amazing - I saw it through both my binoculars and through a scope set up by the window. Through my binoculars it appeared as a very large brown bird with a white head sitting at the edge of the ice. Through the scope I could see it in much greater detail and it was an impressive sight.

With clear skies and relatively light wind, yesterday was an excellent day to explore the beaches of Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, with a variety of loons, grebes and wintering ducks visible just off shore.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Our first stop inside the refuge was at Parking Lot 1, where we all piled out of the vans and took an ice and sand covered boardwalk up to the beach. When we got there the water spread out in all directions, brilliant blue under a clear, cold sky. The wind was tolerable, but I was glad to be wearing 5 layers of warm winter clothing. One of the fun things about birding with other people is that you have more pairs of eyes looking in different directions, so the group tends to spot more birds.

I also really liked how the people from Mass Audubon made sure everyone had a chance to see the different species we encountered and took the time to offer ID tips and some basic information. Standing on the wooden platform I scanned the water with my binoculars and those in the group who had scopes were kind enough to let everyone have a look as new species popped up. In addition to Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls we also saw a Red-throated Grebe, two Common Loons, about 20 Red-breasted Mergansers, many Sanderlings and White-winged Scoter.

Soon after we got back into the car a Northern Harrier was spotted and during out next stop at the hellcat Wildlife Observation area  I was very excited to see my very first Snow Bunting. I first saw Harriers a few years ago on the South Shore of Massachusetts when I was out birding at Mass Audubon's Daniel Webster sanctuary, these skilled areal hunters made quite an impression then as we watched them swoop low over frozen wetlands in fading winter light, and they were just as beautiful to watch today.

Not my best bird photo, but it does document an exciting new life bird that I have wanted to see for quite some time. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Driving back to the nature center we made one final stop by the side of the road to see a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk. It was sitting serenely on top of a post along a raised area beside the water. Because of the way the bird was sitting there was some speculation at first about what species it might be, but as it took flight and hovered, lingering above the same spot where it had just perched, it was identified as a Rough-legged Hawk. We also got very close to a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree right next to the road.

A Red-tailed Hawk sits perched in a tree inside the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, seemingly unbothered by its many human admirers. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

The Red-tailed Hawk takes flight, Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013

After the program I ended I went back to the reserve and added Horned Grebe to my list. I also took some time to walk out to a quieter part of the property where I only saw one or two other people in the distance. It was a gorgeous section of beach, reached by a long boardwalk that took me over frozen dunes and marsh. Along the way another Northern Harrier appeared, an adult female, and I watched it surf an invisible current of air just above the sand, following the contours of the frozen dunes.

I ended the day with a quick stop at Newton City Hall where I added species #42 to my year list - a Great Blue Heron. All in all a terrific day of birding and outdoor exploration, I can't wait to visit Plum Island again.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

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