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Clellie Lynch: Springtime on Plum Island

Lynch column photo CROP

A view of some of the marshes at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on Plum Island, a barrier island located off the northeast coast of Massachusetts.

Think spring. Woodlands smeared with tiny, pale green and maroon buds; patchworks of fields, some lumpy, brown and plowed, others bright green with crops of winter wheat. Here and there are farm ponds created by those rainy, rainy days. Coltsfoot springs up along roadsides. Warm days explode with clouds of insects. Massive numbers of migrating birds hurry across that Mason-Dixon line nightly to feast and feed in our backyards.

Around the house where daffodils, forsythia and goldfinches sprinkle the greening landscape with bits of yellow, the early morning bird chorus is expanding. Each species brings new and different sounds: swallows and sparrows, bluebirds and robins, kinglets mingle with chickadees and nuthatches. A constant concert, a bit cacophonous at times.

Migration is in full swing. Off to Plum Island we go, home of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a birding hotspot between the sandy beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and extensive marshes along the Parker River. Our Airbnb is situated between the sea and the marsh, close enough to walk along either at sunrise.

First stop: the purple martin complex near the main parking lot of the refuge. Nary a bird. It is very windy. The following day, the wind continues, but we were able to drive to areas where we could walk in more sheltered areas. Across the river in the Salisbury State Park, two martins, dark and slender, perch on their gourd house.

Few birds are on the ocean. Long-tailed ducks ride the waves in flocks of six or seven, while the shoreline only has a couple of black-backed and herring gulls near the water’s edge. Most of the beach is now closed to human beings, while the endangered piping plovers date, mate and nest in sandy footprints or at the edge of the dunes. One piping plover, so tiny and toy-like, is near the big warning sign, albeit on the human side, giving any and all birders magnificent views as it scurry-waddles along.

On the marsh side, the usual suspects — Canada geese, black duck, mallards, swans and cormorants — ply the waterways and dabble in the ponds and the salt panne where noisy greater yellowlegs dominate the flats. A twinkling flock of dunlin lands in front of us and, even without our using the telescope, those black bellies are quite noticeable. The ducks paddling and up tipping into the water are green winged-teal, small but rather dapper. Throughout the marsh, most white birds turn out to be great egrets, with a snowy egret and a couple of great blue herons thrown in.

Ospreys abound, a far cry from the 1960s when the osprey population along the eastern seaboard was nearly nil. Now these large, graceful, fish-eating hawks that have little fear of humans create stick-built nests often lined with seaweed — on poles, on buoys, in the triangles of the high tension poles, on abandoned boats washed up in the marsh.

The next morning, we are out early. The martin condo complex is awash with many, many sleek, beautiful, bluish-black birds swooping back and forth landing and disappearing into man-made, gourd-like houses. They must have arrived on the redeye. Tired as they may be, they fill the air with their wonderful rich, liquid, gurgling chatter!

At 7 a.m., we meet our friend, Barbara, newish to the sport. The rest of the day is spent birding, driving and walking. The wind has dropped so we are able to set up the telescope and scan the marshes and the ocean where we are allowed to walk on the seashore. Some seaducks have yet to head north: common eider, surf and white-winged scoter and the occasional common loon. Sanderlings run away from the breaking waves, only to immediately scurry back to the water’s edge.

Barbara is thrilled with the pairs of high color, red-breasted mergansers in the watery marsh, those related to the common and hooded mergansers we see around here. The dunlin and yellowlegs are joined by a single willet and a handful of killdeer.

Towhees are calling and calling with three different songs. A brown thrasher singing his couplets nonstop finally appears on a tree top after lurking behind a tangled curtain of shrubs. At Hellcat Swamp, ruby-crowned kinglets hang around the parking lot. A solitary coot swims near the reeds. A least bittern ooh-ooh-oohs from the same spot as last year. Alas, no actual sighting.

Pine, palm, yellow-rumped warblers work the not-so tall trees. The ground cover in the woods is a carpet of Canada mayflower, but the sandy paths are lined with “star-flowered lilies-of-the-valley” (ID’d by the app: SEEK), which isn’t a lily-of-the-valley at all. This small false Solomon seal presumably needs sandy soil. Quite delicate looking. Total bird species for this day: 58. Best sighting: Jonathan Pierce and Zac Adams from the Berkshires!

The next day at sunrise, I walk to the ocean and hear a wondrous chorus coming from over the dunes. Rings, trills and whistles, loud and continuous. Willets, hundreds of willets! What a pleasant racket!

As I bird along the road, a bunch of early birders are way ahead staring into a tangle of beach plum bushes. I focus on the marsh. A huge hawk grapples with something on the ground, lifts off, glides over the marsh, before landing near a piece of driftwood. A harrier? No. An osprey? No. This bird is bigger — an eagle! with a mottled brown and white plumage. As hard as I try to make it a golden eagle, it isn’t. A third-year bald eagle. I turn back to tell the others, but they are long gone off to the salt pannes.

Meanwhile, back at home, the red-headed woodpecker was reported as frolicking around in Hand Hollow Conservation Area down the road from us. Too bad I couldn’t be in two places at once like St. Martin de Porres.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.

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