Plum Island Birding Adventure

Plum Island Birding Adventure

Peering through our binos we silently waved our optics over the mudflats that confronted us and on which stood 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.

By John Shamgochian 

Peering through our binos we silently waved our optics over the mudflats that confronted us and on which stood 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. 

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Dunlin, photo by John Shamgochian

It was April 21, 2012, and 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). 

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Killdeer, photo by John Shamgochian

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

Joppa Flats comprises 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, birders love the mudflats which rise up from the mouth of the Merrimac when low tide comes around. 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 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.

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Long-tailed Ducks, photo by John Shamgochian

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 ponds. 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 Sparrowswho, in their turn, were outnumbered by the grackles, who flew hither and thither in chaotic disorder. 

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Red-winged Blackbird, photo by John Shamgochian

We picked up the Snowy Owl at Hellcat Swamp, mere yards from where we had seen the same bird along with second individual 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 to see 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 appearance. 

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Snowy Owl, photo by John Shamgochian

We were awakened from our reverie of the feathered snow king by the cluck of a gobbler. As we watched the owl, a female Wild Turkey had 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. Where the grass had been worn away on the path, she took a dust bath, sending particles of loam free-wheeling into the air. 

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Wild Turkey, photos by John Shamgochian

Forty five minutes and one Hermit Thrush later, we reached Stage Island, arguably the highlight of this trip. Floating in the salty waters of the Stage Island Pool were four Northern Shovelers, always good birds in New England, 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.

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Green-winged Teal, photo by John Shamgochian

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 Piping Plovers, 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!


JohnAbout the author: John Shamgochian, 13, is from East Providence, Rhode Island. His  favorite birding spots include: "The Meadows" in Cape May, Plum Island in Ipswich Massachusetts, Monomoy in Chatham, Massachusetts , and Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island. John is one of The Eyrie's Student Blog Editors. Check out more of his writing on his blog:http://johnsbirdingblog.blogspot.com/.

See John's complete list of species here:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S10509176

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S10509129

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S10509147

 

2012-08-06T12:40:00+00:00