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Plum Island Birdwatching Excursion

Recap from September 10th


By Chris Bensley & Peter Alden


A glorious September morning greeted us as we gathered at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center for our Plum Island birdwatching excursion. Peter Alden welcomed our group and introduced a special guest, Paul Miliotis, who joined our walk and provided extra expert commentary. Paul co-discovered the famous Ross’s Gull here in 1975 and is a top all around naturalist (birds, bugs, plants you name it).


We proceeded by cars to the most important site on the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge: the restrooms at the beach parking lot. A nice ranger at the entrance gate gave us a map and list of recent bird sightings!



The boardwalk up to the top of the dunes offered views up to Maine and south to Cape Ann. A recent rainstorm cleared the skies while giant rollers from Hurricane Larry attracted surfers. No sea ducks coming south yet. Fabulous views of a Turkey Vulture just above while a hundred Tree Swallows searched for the last salt marsh mosquitoes (pleasantly scarce).


At the ample roadside parking at the shorebird pools at the edge of the vast great marsh we took out the telescopes on tripods. Due to recent rains and tides the water levels had covered over the usual muddy shores for shorebirds.


. There were a number of white egrets. Standing and flying around we could see the smaller Snowy Egrets has a thin black bill and bright yellow feet and toes, while the larger Great Egret has a thicker yellow bill with legs and feet all black. One of the white “egrets” was different. It had a thick two-colored bill pale gray at base and black at tip. It was a typical white first year Little Blue Heron which will be purplish blue next summer.


We then worked on a half dozen species of “dabbling” ducks huddled against the far shore. Most were brownish, molting or in something called an eclipse plumage. Suddenly all the ducks flew up and circled around in a tight flock as two Peregrine Falcons flew over our head and harassed the ducks (but struck none). Quartering low over the salt marsh was an orange-breasted immature Northern Harrier showing its long narrow wings and tail with a white rump. An immature Cooper’s Hawk circled over us closely several times showing its short wings and long rounded tail.


Driving south one sees more “shorebird pools” over the marshes than past decades. The broadleaf trees almost make a tall canopy. That’s until a future nor’easter floods this sector and a regrowth begins anew. We walked the $4 million dollar boardwalk in and around Hellcat Swamp. Sad to see so much invasive alien Phragmites on the freshwater impoundments.


Very few migrant songbirds about. Fine views of an Eastern Kingbird chattering on a nearby tree and soon off to the Pantanal of Brazil. Nearby an Eastern Wood Pewee was perhaps contemplating its journey to Amazonia for the winter. Close views of a Gray Catbird fattening up on Arrow-wood Viburnum berries before heading down to Central America. A big-tooth Aspen’s smooth gray trunk had a hundred holes in rows drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.


The vast freshwater pool near the South End had some mudflats nearby. We were able to compare the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in a crowd nearby. Identical except in size. Remember the Lesser has a thin straight black bill about length of head. The Greater has a thicker upturned bill 1 ½ times head length. Like the Little Blue Heron the Greater Yellowlegs shows a pale gray basal half and black outer half. We finished up at a tower overlooking the “south pool” and a fabulous view of the sea, surf and a tall ship.


Thank you so much for joining us that morning. Hope you’ll join us again!

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Birds noted at Plum Island, Mass Fri September 10, 2021

Numbers are estimates or undercounted in gulls.


Mute Swan 4

Mallard 20

Gadwall 1

American Wigeon 2

Blue-winged Teal 4

Green-winged Teal 12

Northern Shoveler 1

Double-crested Cormorant 43

Great Blue Heron 1

Great Egret 10

Snowy Egret 30

Little Blue Heron (immature)1

Turkey Vulture 3

Osprey 2

Northern Harrier 3

Cooper’s Hawk 1

Peregrine Falcon 2

Greater Yellowlegs 20

Lesser Yellowlegs 6

Herring Gull 100’s

Great Black-backed Gull tens

Mourning Dove 4

Northern Flicker 2

Eastern Wood Pewee 1

Eastern Kingbird 1

Gray Catbird 1

Blue Jay 2

American Crow 1

Tree Swallow 250

Black-capped Chickadee 3

Carolina Wren 1

American Robin 2

Northern Mockingbird 1

Blackpoll Warbler 1


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