Reflecting on Spring Birding Class 2020

By Scott Surner

July 5, 2020

Well, June is now in the rear-view mirror, spring migration is over, breeding season is in full swing and (wait for it) fall migration starts to show itself in a small way around July 4th. This is when a few southbound shorebirds from the arctic starting showing up along coastal beaches.

I thought today I would take a look back on the Hitchcock Center’s Spring Birding Class of 2020. But wait, didn’t everything get cancelled due to the pandemic? It did, the birding class was forced to shut down just like every other program, events, schools, and business across North America this spring. However, we were able to get in a couple of classes in February before the pandemic kicked in and we had to get a little creative at the end of May when things started opening up again.

As mentioned, the class begins in February and the first trip is usually a weekend trip to the north shore region of Massachusetts. This year we had decent weather for our trip and trust me that is not always the case with these winter classes. Our weekend began in the Salisbury, Newburyport area (Plum Island included) on Saturday and Cape Ann (Gloucester/Rockport) on Sunday.

Long-tail Duck PHOTO Scott Surner

The focus of this winter trip is to find a few of the winter specialties that make their way to the Massachusetts coast most years. During our travels in and around Salisbury and Newburyport we did well at finding the usual suspects of winter species, having nice looks at Surf, White-winged and Black Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Mergansers. We also had a rare encounter (for the class) at Salisbury State Park with two Savannah Sparrows of the Ipswich Race. This race of the Savannah Sparrow is found in Nova Scotia and is noticeably paler and a little bigger than our Savannah Sparrows found here in the valley. Each winter Ipswich Sparrows find their way down to the Massachusetts coast but can be difficult to obtain quality views.

We ended Saturday with stop at Plum Island, better known as Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. This ten-mile-long Refuge usually plays host to a Snowy Owl or two each winter, but this year there was a bonus! A group of Short-eared Owls had settled in for the winter at the south end of the refuge and we would have to wait until later in the afternoon to look for these birds.

On the way down the Island we stopped at the area referred to as the Wardens and were treated to nice looks at a light morph Rough-legged Hawk and a Northern Shrike. Both of these birds can show up here in the valley in winter, but in general your chances are better to see them at Plum Island. Both of these species hail from areas in the boreal forest and tundra, but can show up in decent numbers some years depending on breeding success.

Short-eared Owl PHOTO Scott Surner

Around three o’clock we found ourselves in position at the south end of the Island waiting for the Short-eared Owls to show up, and not long after that two of them did just that. We were not the only group looking to see these birds as there were dozens and dozens of birders and photographers also waiting. The two Owls put on a nice show for about twenty minutes while we were there. After watching them we made our way off the Island and headed to the hotel. As we were driving it was starting to get dark, and with the light we spotted a silhouette sitting on top of an Osprey nesting platform out in one of the marshes. It turned out to be a Snowy Owl! Certainly, a nice way to end the day.

The next day we headed south to the rocky shores of the Gloucester/Rockport region, a stark contrast to the barrier beaches of Plum Island from the day before. It turned out to be another nice day, but a bit colder, and we again found some of our winter target birds. Among these were many Common Eiders along the rocky shoreline, and we were fortunate to find two first year male King Eiders at Halibut State Park. Many Harlequin Ducks were also seen at various stops along the coast. If you have never seen a Harlequin Duck, you should put it on your list of things to see, the male Harlequin is nothing short of spectacular!

One of the other reasons we visit Cape Ann in the winter is for the increased chance of finding Auks, Murres and Puffins, collectively known as Alcids. These small to medium size black and white birds are the “The Penguins of the north” and can be found in varying numbers depending on the year. Black Guillemots are generally the easiest to find, then Razorbills, but Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Dovekie and Atlantic Puffin are much more elusive. On this day we managed to see a couple of Black Guillemots and a Dovekie. The Dovekie is the smallest (about 8 inches in size) and the northern most nester of the Alcids. Dovekies routinely winter off the coast of New England, but usually fairly far out to sea. However, during Nor’easters thousands can show up at the coast and at times a few will linger in coves and harbors giving birder’s a nice treat. Because of its size, roughly the size of a European Starling, it can be quite challenging to get a group of birders on this bird through a spotting scope. You hope for a flat calm ocean, but how often does that happen? Most of the time the ocean is rolling and then they dive. However, during this trip we were able to get everyone on this bird. We also managed to get on a flock of Purple Sandpipers (another visitor from the north) and a few Great Cormorants.

Blackburnian Warbler PHOTO Scott Surner

The next week we visited areas in Hadley (Honeypot) and the West Meadows (Northampton) and caught up with the more typical winter residents of the valley, Red-tailed Hawks, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, Horned Larks and a few not so typical winter birds. A White-crowned Sparrow and a couple of hardy Yellow-rumped Warblers were highlights of the morning. Who knew that this was to be our last trip for two plus months? I was in Belize on a birding trip in early March, and while we were there the pandemic really started to kick in, so much so by the time our trip was over we were wondering if we were going to be able to get back into the states. Well we did, but as we came off the plane in Charlestown, SC we went through customs and fully expected to be greeted by an army of temperature takers.

Once we got home and another week or so went by, the full scope of the situation really hit us. There was no more Spring Birding Class, at least not for a while. As time went on, we were able to get some field trips conducted. The guidelines for these trips included no carpooling, less than 10 people on a trip and of course everyone would have to have a mask and try and stay six feet apart to the best of their ability. So the class was split into two groups and I found locations where we could all meet, have a diversity of habitat, and stay six feet apart easily. The first trip was to the Rail Trail on Station Road in Amherst. Lots of parking and a good birding areas. I knew the bike trail can get busy, so we met at 6:30AM and were back to the cars by 10AM and we successfully avoided large groups of people. The birding was terrific, we came away with forty-five species, some of the highlights included a calling Least Bittern, Hooded Merganser, Warbling Vireo, Baltimore Orioles, Blue-winged Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

Eastern Towhee PHOTO Scott Surner

The next week we headed to Skinner State Park (Mt.Holyoke) in search of two nesting specialties, Cerulean and Worm-eating Warblers. Birders from all around the state come to Mt.Holyoke to try and see these two birds, but especially they want to see the Cerulean Warbler. The Cerulean is a rare nester in New England and the birds on Mt. Holyoke have been going strong for a number of years now. In fact, we had six Ceruleans on our walk, along with five Worm-eating Warblers, many Ovenbirds, American Redstarts, Red-eyed Vireo’s and a pretty cooperative Winter Wren.

In early June we were into the full breeding season for many species, and we made our way to Montague. In Montague there is an area known as the Montague Sandplains. This area is protected and managed for Eastern Whip-poor-will and because of this other species like Field Sparrows, Eastern Towhees and Prairie Warblers thrive in this area. Upon arrival we were greeted with numerous Field Sparrows, Prairie Warblers and Eastern Towhee’s singing and had nice prolonged looks at each of them. We also had Yellow-billed Cuckoo, six species of Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Black- and-White Warbler, Pine Warbler and two Scarlet Tanagers. After the sandplains, we headed to the Turners Falls Airport located nearby. This airport has a small breeding population of Grasshopper Sparrows, in fact most of the breeding Grasshopper Sparrows are found at airports nowadays. Turners Falls, Westover, perhaps Barnes Airport in Westfield. Grasshopper Sparrows occasionally set up territories outside of airports, but because they need large open areas, it is harder to find them elsewhere. We were able to get some nice looks through the scope at one Grasshopper Sparrow, plus Killdeer with young were running around the runways and parking lot. An Immature Bald Eagle flew overhead along with a possible Osprey. The only recent breeding activity for Osprey’s was identified to be the Big E parking lot in West Springfield, but that was several years ago. It would be nice if one set up shop around Hampshire or Franklin County.

The last of our classes impacted by the pandemic was to Williamsburg and Worthington. At the end of Nash Hill Rd in Williamsburg is a nice dirt road that runs through some swampy areas, beaver ponds, and mature forest with a mix of pines, hemlock, oak. Earlier in March there was a dozen or so Red Crossbills along this dirt road. Unfortunately, on our trip we did not come across any Red Crossbills during our walk, but observed an active Great Blue Heron nest, Wood Duck and Hooded Mergansers with young, and a calling Virginia Rail from the cattails. As we continued down the road, we saw Yellow-throated, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireo’s. We also had reasonable looks at Red-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Least Flycatcher, Great crested Flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Veery, Hermit Thrush, and thirteen species of warblers. The stand outs were Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush,
Black-and-White, American Redstart, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Blue and a Black- throated Green put on a fine show.

Our last stop was about twenty minutes away in Worthington. Worthington has played host to a breeding pair of Sandhill Cranes for the past several years. Now seeing these birds is not a guarantee by any stretch, in fact my average of successful sightings is pretty poor in the early spring. This trip we were rewarded on both Saturday and Sunday with distant, but satisfactory views of two adult Sandhill Cranes and their two young! This was an excellent way to end the Spring Bird Class, especially under very unusual and difficult circumstances.

Despite missing out on the majority of the spring migration we were still able to come away with 147 species of birds this spring! It is just amazing what you can see and witness when you’re able to get out and about for a little while each week.

Until next time……..

Scott Surner has been studying and observing birds for over 45 years throughout the Connecticut River Valley, (Massachusetts) New England and North America. His travels have taken him to New Jersey, Delaware, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska, Canada (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Churchill) Costa Rica, Belize and Veracruz, Mexico. He has been teaching bird ID classes at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, MA since 1980. He is a founding member and past president of the Hampshire Bird Club, (Established in 1984) and a past member of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee. 

Sunday Birding with Scott is published irregularly on Sundays.

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