One of the very few drawbacks of my moving to the beautiful Upper Valley ten years ago was losing my proximity to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Newburyport, MA. From my then home just north of Boston, the refuge was a 45-minute drive. I could hop on I-95 around 7:00 A.M., get in a full morning’s birding and be home for a late lunch, something I did on a regular basis. Now, from my current residence in Lyme, a trip to Plum Island has become much more of an undertaking and more rare. It’s three hours each way making it an all day affair just to get in three hours of birding, but even that effort, and the all too brief sojourn it produces, is more than worth it. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in New England.
My deep affection for Parker River goes back to my first visit in 1976 when I was a graduate student in Cambridge. It was love at first sight. The broad expanse of empty beach, the towering dunes, the barrier beach scrub lands, the sweeping view across the great expanse of salt marsh made an immediate and indelible impression, and each visit there even 40 years later, never fails to lift the spirits regardless of the time of year. It is not just the broad gesture of the landscape’s grandeur that captivates either. The vegetation’s subtle coloration – shades of green ranging from the gray-hued green of bayberry to the golden green of the marsh and beach grasses – delights the eye with its texture and nuance. In the late days of August, the grasses take on a more golden aspect standing in sharp contrast to the deep blues of the marsh’s open waters or framed against the azure blue of a crisp autumn morning.
Thus, it was with a pilgrim’s longing to experience again this special piece of the creation, that birding friend Wayne and I set off early one morning last week to take in the early stirrings of fall migration.
It was a fine, late summer morning. Temperature started near 60 and ranged up into the low 70s. A gentle, steady northwest breeze brought dry air and pushed a steady progression of fluffy cumulus clouds across the sky above.
It was unclear how advanced migration would be. There were reports of shorebirds moving down the coast but not in a number or variety that would be coming through in the weeks ahead. One migratory spectacle we did see was a steady stream of tree swallows moving down the island. The number of these birds passing through can reach into the thousands, flocks that occasionally morph into swarms. This steadily flowing avian river likely is as close as one might get to experiencing what it must have been like to see flocks of the now extinct passenger pigeon fly over in numbers so great it was said they darkened the sky for hours at a time.
A visit to the refuge can easily fill up the better part of a day if one wants to fully explore all the nooks and crannies, but because of travel constraints, we had to limit ourselves to “highlights.” Moving down the island from the main parking area these included “The Salt Pannes,” a good spot for wading and shorebirds when the tied is out and the mud flats are exposed. For our visit, the tide was up at maximum, unfortunately, and there only was a smattering shorebirds. Farther down, the “North Pool Overlook” and “Bill Forward Pool” and its accompanying bird blind are good spots for waterfowl as well as wading and shorebirds. We found only small numbers of them at both locations and very limited species variety. Finally, near the island’s southern tip is the “Stage Island Pool Overlook,” a good spot for waterfowl. This day, our viewing only produced nine mute swans some Canada geese and mallards. In a few weeks the waterfowl variety and numbers will be much greater.
In the end Wayne and I managed 36 species. Not a bad number, but one that would certainly be higher if we went back in a week or two. Beach access might have helped increase counts too, but it remained closed with the piping plover nesting season not finished completely. After the above mentioned tree swallows, black ducks were the most numerous species with a count of 39, a number that will swell into the hundred by October. Great egrets seemed to be everywhere. Our tally was 24, but there likely were more out in the marsh’s far reaches. A flock of 24 black-bellied plovers was the highlight among the seven shorebird/wading species we identified.
Taking together the joy of being out in the refuge and the respectable number of species counted, it was a good day but one that left us regretting we hadn’t more time and that we were a little to early in the season for the variety and numbers of birds fall migration can produce at the refuge. Looks to me as if there’s another road trip in the offing.
Grasses and milkweed at Parker River NWR photo credit: Blake Allison/Lyme, NH