Sunday, April 7, 2013

9 Great birds bring my New England birding big year total to 113 species

Plum Island and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge offer great birding throughout the seasons. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
For the past 4 or so years birding has been a fun, exciting and engaging way to interact with, and learn about, the natural world.  I would argue it's nearly impossible to really spend time learning about birds without also becoming curious as well about weather, plants and the ecosystems that the birds both depend on and help to shape. It's also great fun to visit different places as well as some of the same places in different seasons, so I was delighted to have a chance today to head north once again to visit Plum Island and the surrounding area, a part of Massachusetts I haven't birded since early January. Plum Island is a special place; with acres of sandy dunes, salt marsh, beach and surf it draws both human and avian visitors from across the country.

But before we would get to Plum Island there were some other interesting places to see and birds to chase, so we started out the day at Johnson's Pond in Groveland, Massachusetts where a Tufted Duck has been reported for at least a week now. With some expert guidance and a few minutes gazing through a spotting scope, I was able to add this striking new life bird to my list, bringing my year total to 105. One of the trip leaders pointed out that although the tuft on the duck was barely visible on this bird, that the clean white side below a black back was a good field mark to look for. During this outing with Drumlin Farm I was also reminded of the power of patience when it comes to taking in the many different elements that make up different habitats, and how birding slowly can return great rewards. Perhaps I felt this lesson most intensely when we stopped at a partially flooded field and began to scan the water and grass for birds. There were four Turkey Vultures tottering overhead, while in the wet sections of the field we spotted Green-winged Teal and Blue-winged Teal. In the field though was where I saw one of the funniest looking and most interesting birds I've come across lately - Wilson's Snipe. As I peered through a borrowed spotting scope I could see half a dozen of these long-billed shorebirds working their way around the clumps of vegetation as they searched for food. With the Blue-winged Teal and the snipe I was up to 107 species and feeling positive about the day.

Cherry Hill Reservoir in West Newbury is a popular stopping place for migratory waterfowl and is surrounded by rolling hills. Image Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Our next stop was in West Newbury at the Cherry Hill Reservoir , which is part of the Essex national Heritage Area, where we scanned the surface and found Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, a Red-Throated Loon and Common Mergansers. I was told that this is a great place to visit in the fall, when migrating waterfowl make frequent use of the reservoir as a place to stop along their journey. From Cherry Hill Reservoir we drove over to Salisbury Beach State Reservation, hoping to catch a glimpse of the crossbills which had been seen so frequently throughout the winter. While these normally northern finches were nowhere to be found I did see my first Great Egret of the year in a marsh near the entrance of the reservation and out along the beach itself I saw my very first Norther Gannet, an impressive sea-faring bird, all white except for the tips of its wings which are black. From the beach we watched it cut easily through the wind, it's long wings spread straight out. These two birds brought me up to 109 species

The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge was one of our last stops of the day and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sun. To my eye the landscape there always looks like it's been painted in varying hues of purple and blue, from the sand on the beach to the clouds above. we made a few stops along the road to look for ducks and I got excellent views of many American Black Ducks as well as Northern Pintail. We also spotted an Osprey hunting high above the marsh. At the very end of the road, where the beach turns back into state (as opposed to federal) land, we were able to get out and explore the beach a bit.

This sign on Plum Island warns visitors not to venture onto the beach beyond where Piping Plovers return each year to nest and raise their young. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As we were scanning the water for ducks and other birds I noticed two small brown birds fly in just in front of us and begin to forage in a section of dark pebbles. They turned out to be Savannah Sparrows of the Ipswich subspecies - at one time they were their own separate species, but have since been lumped in with the Savannah Sparrows. Personally I think they deserve to be a species of their own, and not just because it would give me another bird for my year list. Given that these birds all breed on the same small island in Canada, are paler than other Savannah Sparrows and much larger, my vote (not that it counts for anything) is for considering them a separate species.

As we stood around discussing the potential for the species to be split again, thus restoring the Ipswich Sparrow to full species-hood, I noticed a small group of four shorebirds circling in the distance and began to watch them. The rest of the group soon turned their attention to these little birds and our expert guide told us that they were in fact Piping Plovers, a state and federally listed threatened species of bird  I had heard about often but never actually seen. The plovers were enough to fly around some more, before one landed and began picking its way along the sand toward us, providing everyone in the group with a clear view of this diminutive species. We also got to hear their distinctive "piping"call as they flew by us, which was cool. With the Pipiing Plover my year total now stood at 111 species.

On our way out back to Drumlin Farm we made one more stop, returning to the flooded fields we had visited earlier in the day. Within a few minutes of getting out of the van I saw a large bird flying low over the field and through my binoculars I saw the distinctive white rump of a Northern Harrier as it lifted up over the field, then flew higher, moving out of sight in the distance. Not long after that I saw a smaller bird flying near the harrier which one of the trip leaders fixed his scope on and then invited us all to have a look at a bird I know well from birding in southern California, an American Kestrel. At this point I was pretty happy to have brought my year list for New England to 112, but just as we were about to leave the same trip leader found an unexpected bird in the distance, feeding in the field among the snipe and Killdeer: a Pectoral Sandpiper, at first barely visible among the tufts of grass and feeding snipe, but easy to see when it popped its head up occasionally to look around.

All in all a great day of birding with some fun and highly knowledgeable companions. My personal goal for April is to break the 125 species mark and then as migration really picks up in May to try and hit 200 by the end of that month. Maybe with some decent weather, a little perseverance and a lot of luck I'll get there.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

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