New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Late September Shorebirding- Part 1

                        Heading to New Hampshire for Curlew Sandpipers 

   A pair of Curlew Sandpipers were reported in New Hampshire along the coast in a large gathering of other “peeps” including White-rumped, Westerns, Pectorals, Buff-breasted and possible Bairds Sandpipers. Included in the flocks were the usual Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Plovers, Sanderlings, and a few Golden Plovers have also been seen. A small beach park along the coast north of Hampton Harbor called "Plaice Cove" had attracted the Shorebirds, including the pair of Curlew Sandpipers.
Plaice Cove beach (in Hampton, NH) is where the blue stickpin is and just west (left) of that

   The weather outlook for this week was poor with rain every day starting last weekend. I checked the weather forecast for a few days prior to the weekend and it didn’t look like a break in the weather was possible. I was very anxious to photograph the Curlew Sandpipers, as well as hopefully getting better images of the Westerns and White-rumped than I already had. On Saturday, the weather reports looked promising changing from a 70% chance of rain diminishing to a 20% chance. Later in the day, the latest weather forecast had changed again to mostly cloudy with a chance of a light shower; it looked like a trip to N H was on!
   Jen and I decided to get an early start so we could be in the Hampton Harbor area just after sunrise. I called Tom and asked him if he was interested in going with us and he enthusiastically agreed.  We met Tom at our usual spot along 495 at 4:00 am and we were soon heading north. Although the sky was overcast, the night was clear (until) we reached our exit at the N H toll.  The thick curtain of fog closed off the developing skyline like an ocean squall, so we proceeded cautiously towards Rte. 1. We couldn’t believe it, after a three hour drive without even a hint of a mist, the only fog we encountered was exactly in the area where we wanted to be. When we reached the parking lot at Hampton Harbor the quickly vanishing small sandbars were barely discernable because of the heavy fog. We could barely make out the shapes of Shorebirds but the fog made identification through our scopes impossible. I knew that an American Avocet was hanging around the harbor and being seen daily behind the Yankee Fisherman’s Coop just south of the inlet below the Rte. 1 drawbridge. However with the thick fog, hopefully the bird would still be there later after the fog lifted (fingers crossed).
   We were all hopeful that the fog would soon clear and the day would be salvaged. Down the street from the harbor was a coffee shop, and a cup of hot coffee was welcomed. With “to-go” coffees and breakfasts in hand, we headed back north on Rte. 1, unfortunately the fog was getting thicker. I was really anxious to get to Plaice Cove, and along with the heavy fog delaying our start, our progress north was also slowed by the raised drawbridge. While we were having breakfast in my now parked truck on the bridge, we were entertained by the distorted almost surreal lights from the brigade of outgoing fishing boats heading out of the inlet to the open sea.  After a short time the drawbridge was lowered and we were heading north on Rte. 1. We hadn’t gone far, reaching the sea wall north of Hampton Beach area when we could see the clouds breaking to the north and the fog was obviously lifting. We stopped for a few minutes along the sea wall and immediately you could feel the cool and damp air, most welcomed by comparison to the warm temperatures being predicted for the day. We scoped as much beach as we could. Other than a few Sanderlings, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Plovers, the beach was empty of birds.
   By this time the fog had diminished to a soft haze, with visibility opened up to the distant islands of the Isle of Shoals. When we pulled into the parking lot at Plaice Cove, I began to imagine the large gathering of Shorebirds covering the beach just below the dunes in front of my truck. We walked down the sandy path leading to the beach, I anxiously walked out ahead just to take that first peek of the beach; no Shorebirds! We scoped the whole area, and I noticed a few birds sitting in the exposed rocky reef below the beach to the south. Because there was still a gentle haze in the air, I couldn’t identify the species. I walked down and out onto the slippery rocks of the reef and found three Spotted Sandpipers feeding in the tidal pools amongst the larger stones and boulders on the fringe of the reef.
                                   Spotted Sandpiper no.1 along the outer fringe of the rocky reef

                                                              Spotted Sandpiper no.2

While I was standing looking around the reef, I noticed three flocks of Shorebirds flying by the outer reef and heading south around the point just a hundred yards below where I was standing. I started walking back to the beach where I left Jen and Tom, and Tom was walking to meet me to tell me about those Shorebirds that Jen and he had also seen.

                                               Tom and I discussing our strategy!
   Because most of the area at Plaice Cove is private, access to the beach is limited.  There are a few public walking paths through the dunes leading to the beaches, but the only parking in the area is at the beach where we were already parked. We walked down the road and to the first path leading to the beach. As we approached the beach, we could see a large flock of Shorebirds flying nervously along the beach often disappearing on the other side of the point just below where we were standing.

They were circling continually coming from many directions, appearing to land on the beach, only to circle around again. I looked over to the southern side of the rocky reef and the reason for their frantic flight became clear as I noticed a “bust” of a raptor peering over the stones along the edge of the beach; it was an immature Coopers Hawk. Wanting to take a picture, I put my scope down and readied my camera.  Looking over to where the hawk was, I didn’t see it. Suddenly a brown blurr appeared from right to left and I managed a few quick shots.

                                                The”brown blurr” –Coopers Hawk

                                                                  Coopers Hawk
   Looking down the beach just around the point, a few birders with scopes were present. As we approached the point a large flock of Shorebirds swirled into the beach and began feeding along the wrack line on the beach. The tide was nearly high and the Shorebirds were close along this narrow beach. There were five friendly birders present and everyone was studying the birds very carefully with hopes of finding “rarities” most notably the Curlew Sandpipers! The other birders welcomed us to the beach and told us about the Coppers Hawk that just flew by. It had grabbed a Sandpiper, but the Sandpiper escaped and the Hawk left (flying by us in its departure).
   Let me describe the beach: The rocky reef extends seaward and along the edges of the beach (see Google map image) for hundreds of yards. Where the reef ends along its southern side larger boulders fill this area both close to shore and just offshore. In the area where the southern reef meets the beach and boulders a small cove is formed with a large wrack line along the high tide line in the “corner” of the beach cove.

                                                             The floating mat

The wrack forms a heavy and thick matt of trapped sea plants consisting of Irish moss, kelp and baldderwart both on the beach and floating on the sea like a large floating peat bog. The matt of sea plants projected a spectacular palette of color with a myriad of hues and values of greens, violets, yellows, oranges and browns painting a perfect background to contrast the monochromatically plumed Shorebirds.

                         The beautiful palette of color of the Irish Moss, Rockweed and Kelp

It became obvious why the Shorebirds were drawn to this location; a huge swarm of hatching mosquitoes, small flies and gnats. The matt was covered with swarming flies and the Shorebirds were gorging themselves on them and the emergent pupae in the tidal pools that were formed within the matt. On the outer rocks were Double-crested Cormorants, Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls and small groups of Common Eiders dotted the area. To the south the fog bank was still hanging in, while clearing skies with a touch of color painted the north to easterly skies.

                                                     Looking South into the fog

  Looking Northeasterly-Part of the flock with Cormorants and Common Eiders in the background, Gulls in the foreground

 As we were setting up our scopes, the nervous flocks of Shorebirds continually flew in circles around the area. They would land on the beach, and then take off again joining other flocks that were whirling around just off the beach. Finally after ten minutes, the birds settled on the beach a few yards in front of us, resuming their feeding activities on the matt. In front of us were five-hundred  Shorebirds consisting mostly of Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Sanderlings; it was amazing! One of the birders exclaimed that he had a Golden Plover out in front on the beach. 

                                                      First Golden Plover of the day

 Within a few minutes a second one appeared and then another. As I was looking through the birds (searching for the Curlew Sandpipers) a small bunch of five Pectoral Sandpipers landed in my view through my scope.

                                                              Two Golden Plovers

                                                        Three Golden Plovers

                                                   Handsome Pectoral Sandpiper

  Pectoral Sandpiper peeking out from behind a ribbon of Kelp. Notice the spectacular colors of the Irish Moss,   Kelp and Bladderwart of the “moss mat”

Close-up of the Pectoral Sandpiper, the swarming flies, gnats and mosquitoes are clearly visible in this image (digiscoped)

Still searching for those Curlew Sandpipers, I was also looking for Westerns and White-rumped, One of the birders said that he found a Buff-breasted and Tom almost immediately said that he had another one farther down the beach. The Buff-breasted Sandpipers eventually walked down the beach closer to where Jen and I were standing coming within two yards of us making it really easy to photograph them.

                                                        Buff-breasted Sandpiper
                                           Another view of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper
   I kept looking through the mass of Shorebirds for the Curlew Sandpipers, but no one at that point had spotted them. I was still interested in photographing Westerns and White-rumped, and I spotted a single White-rumped, I told everyone where it was located- “to the left of the Golden Plover near the pair of Ruddy Turnstones, behind the five Pectoral Sandpipers, to the right of the small group of Sanderlings in the center tidal pool, the White-rumped is on the top of the mound of Irish moss”.

                                 The first White-rumped Sandpiper of the day (digiscoped)

Within a few minutes I located three more in the middle of the large flock.  Jen located three more Spotted Sandpipers in the boulders in front of us with a small group of Semi-palmated Plovers.

                                  Three White-rumped Sandpipers in various plumages

                                                      Spotted Sandpiper no.6

  More Shorebirds flying in from both directions joined the Shorebirds on the beach which included another Golden Plover (the fourth), Pectoral Sandpipers, and the first Western Sandpiper of the day.

Western Sandpiper (bottom center) with a Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Sanderlings and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

By this time, the sun made an appearance and the temperatures (with humidity) began to rise as well.  Birders came and went as did the Shorebirds. Within a short period of time, Jen, Tom and I were the only ones of the beach except the Shorebirds which came and went. Their numbers continued to build, and suddenly there were over two hundred fifty Semi-palmated Sandpipers, three hundred Sanderlings, five Golden Plovers, seventeen Pectoral Sandpipers, seven Spotted Sandpipers, three Western Sandpipers, over two dozen White-rumped Sandpipers, a handful of Least Sandpipers, two dozen Semi-palmated Plovers, but (unfortunately) no Curlew Sandpipers.

                                    Part of the flock of Shorebirds before they settled

  Tom noticed a “new” arrival that had flown in unannounced: a Black-bellied Plover. We gave this bird a nickname which was not only obvious, but appropriate: “beach-master”! This late arriving Plover quickly established itself as the “ruler of the beach” and would assert its authority continually. It would chase the other Shorebirds away from its little established section of Irish moss matt “turf” and defended it sternly. The Plover seemed to be most threatened by the Golden Plovers and would posture to them constantly. The Golden Plovers gallantly defended their rights to the moss matt, but relenting from the larger and more aggressive Black-bellied Plover. These little dueling matches continued throughout our stay at the beach.

                                              The “Beach-Master” Black-bellied Plover

                       The “Beach-Master” Black-bellied Plover posturing to a Golden Plover
   With the rising temperatures came the increase in the amount of mosquitoes. Jen asked me if I had packed the bug repellent, and being late September I of course figured we didn’t need it so I left it behind. My gentle response of “no, but its back in the truck” didn’t help the increasing number of mosquito bites, so it was best that we said good-bye to the Shorebirds. By now it was 10:00 am and we had spent nearly three hours with these incredible birds at this great location, everything was perfect! Even though the Curlew Sandpipers didn’t make an appearance, I did realize one of my goals; to enjoy and acquire better images of White-rumped Sandpipers, which was highlighted by this beautiful location.
 Beautiful White-rumped Sandpiper (notice the gnats in the image)?

                                 White-rumped Sandpiper with Golden Plover in background

                    White-rumped Sandpiper (near top center to the right of the Black-bellied Plover)

                                                             White-rumped Sandpiper

   Heading south on Rte. 1 our second stop was only a short distance away. For the last two weeks a single American Avocet has been seen in Hampton Harbor with regularity. The bird was considered relatively tame, and has been photographed extensively. The Avocet has been hanging out behind the Yankee Fisherman’s Coop just south of the inlet on the Harbor side. When we reached the parking lot at the Coop it was obvious that finding the bird might be difficult. The tide was high covering all the sand bars and most of the shoreline beaches complicated by the higher tides of the new moon. As we left the parking lot, I had a hunch to look along the quiet beach area near the bath house parking lot (where the Glaucous Gull hangs out in the winter). Looking down the beach I immediately picked up on a single black and white bird resting on the beach near the docks on the south end of this little beach area. It was the Avocet. I parked in a spot where Jen and Tom could see the bird from the truck.
   I waked down the path to the beach about fifty yards from the bird, and my camera was ready! Suddenly the Avocet took off and started flying. I was puzzled by this; I was told the bird was almost tame, but here it was taking off at a normally very respectful distance. But in my surprise, the Avocet flew in my direction passing by me at fifteen yards and then landed on the beach just ahead of me. It almost appeared that this bird knew it was a celebrity and was “showing off” just a bit! When the Avocet flew its striking plumage was most impressive. Its unique silhouette from its long protruding legs to its long neck with a delicate upturned bill were complimented by the flashing black and white of its wings creating a very stunning dynamic. This species is spectacular! I enjoyed the bird for a few more minutes and then it was time to head south for our last destination of the day.

  Being that we only wanted to spend a half a day in the area, we had an hour and a half  before we had to head home and hopefully beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. By this time the clouds and fog had dissipated and the sun made an appearance again after many days of clouds! When we plan to bird the coast of N H, two locations in northeast Massachusetts must be included in your day of birding; Salisbury Reservation and Plum Island (Parker River NWP) which also includes Sandy Point SR. Generally, if you are going to bird these locations, a few days would be needed to cover them. These areas are large (especially Parker River) and the birding possibilities are endless. I wanted to walk to the point at Sandy Point for Shorebirds and any remaining Terns including the Caspian Terns that have been seen there (and of course) the Little Gulls that are just about always seen there (see our May post regarding Little Gulls).
   Driving down the several miles on the Refuge road to Sandy Point, birds were everywhere. Every pond, panne, creek and pothole held numbers of birds. Since our time was limited, we had to resort to quick stops and looks through the windows of my truck. We saw many Wigeon (didn’t stop to see the three Eurasians that have been there), Black Ducks, Gadwall, Teal, Herons, Egrets, and oh yes-Shorebirds! We saw many large groups of Yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, “Peeps” and many birds in the distant marsh that would need closer scrutiny. It was amazing that we were driving by hundreds of concentrated Shorebirds to get to Sandy Point to look for hundreds of concentrated Shorebirds! When we reached the Sandy Point parking lot, I was amazed that we were able to get a parking spot. There were still a good group of late summer “beach-goers” and a fair number of birders as well. We passed a few birders on the way out and may spoke of the Caspian Tens and the Shorebirds being harassed by two Peregrine Falcons, but unfortunately; no Little Gulls!
   We walked the half mile stretch of beach to the flats inside the point. Many photographers were set up in the Tern nesting areas having narrowed down the Buff-breasted Sandpiper and were intently trying to photograph the bird. Since we had already seen them that morning, I was setting my sights on the hundreds of Shorebirds and Terns spread out all over the sandy flats and at Sandy Point. I noticed several hundred Terns including large numbers of Forster’s and a handful of Bonaparte’s Gulls sitting on Sandy Point and I decided to walk the remaining half mile to get closer to the birds for photographs. I didn’t spot the Caspian Terns, but they could have been with the other groups of Gulls and Terns farther up the river. 
   Almost on cue, when I was halfway there, all the Shorebirds and Terns scattered in a frantic escape which could only mean one thing; Peregrine! Sure enough a hunting Peregrine stirred up all the birds causing a massive eruption of chaotic escape. The Peregrine made two passes at the Shorebirds and Terns but was unsuccessful.

                                                                    The Peregrine

                 Part of the flock of Shorebirds (mostly Black-bellied Plovers) also stirred up by the Peregrine

                  Part of the flock of Terns stirred up by the Peregrine. Can you count the Forster’s Terns?

                                                             Fourteen in this section
                                                         Seventeen in this image

                                                                 Ten in this image

  The Falcon then retreated to Essex which is across the river. The birds eventually settled back, but many had relocated farther out on the point. This made the walk that much longer in the soft sand from the retreating tide. When I reached the outer bar, the birds were close and I could see many Forster’s Terns mixed in with the Common Terns and Gulls, but no Caspian Terns.

Part of the Tern flock on Sandy Point. Three Forster’s Terns in this image

                                                   A handsome Forster’s Tern

  I began to photograph a Forster’s Tern that was only fifty feet from me, when the Peregrine decided to make another sweep of the sandbars at the point. All the birds took flight and eventually most of the Terns flew to the other shore of the river. The walk back was long (in soft sand) but worth it. It was hot, and after some much needed cold water, we drove out of Plum Island and reflected on the fantastic day. Although Shorebirding is the best in August, there is something to be said for Shorebirding in late September!
Keith and Jen Mueller   Killingworth, CT

Tom Robben   Glastonbury, CT

Additional Images and Species highlights:

White-rumped Sandpiper (top center-left) in a flock including a Ruddy Turnstone, Golden Plover, Sanderlings and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

 Four species: White-rumped Sandpiper (left) Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and Pectoral      Sandpiper (rear right)

Sleek White-rumped Sandpiper

                                                              Golden Plover

                                                     Two White-rumped Sandpipers

                                                       Another Golden Plover

                                       Stunning rear view of a Pectoral Sandpiper

                                                        Yet another Golden Plover

Six species: Golden Plover, Sanderling, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpiper

                                             Rear view of a stunning Golden Plover

                                                       Preening Pectoral Sandpiper

                                                      Classic Pectoral Sandpiper

                                          Handsome adult White-rumped Sandpiper  

Highlights from the day:

Sanderling, Spotted Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Semi-palmated Sandpiper. Semi-palmated Plover, Western Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Kildeer, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Common Loon, Gannet, Black Duck, Common Eider, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall, Double-crested Cormorant, Herring/Greater black-backed/Ring-billed/Bonapartes Gulls, Common Tern , Forster’s Terns, Great/Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Heron, Coopers Hawk, Osprey, and Peregrine Falcon