Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Straight Outta Massachusetts

Few people know that I originated in the Berkshires, aka Berkshire County, aka The Shires of Berk, in western Massachusetts. That is where my dad's side of the family lived for many generations, and family still dwells there to this day. In October, I took my new family back to meet my old family, then drove out to the coast for something resembling an actual vacation...which, of course, means there was birding. Not hella, but enough to scratch the itch. I didn't really have any dedicated time to bird in the Berkshires (where I got a great many lifers when I was younger), but we did get to spend a lot of time outdoors around Cape Ann, Ipswich and Plum Island. While we didn't rack up a very high species list (we were too late for most Neotropical migrants, which had already gone south), we did see some east coast goodness and I got a handful of bird photos worth sharing. Oh yeah, I got a LIFE BIRD too.

This extremely confiding Downy Woodpecker voraciously attacked the stalk of a sunflower at Halibut Point State Park, which turned out to have some of the best birding of the trip. I think a lot of birders consider it primarily a seawatching site, but for a west coast birder starved for eastern passerines, it definitely hit the spot.

Not a whole lot was photographed, granted, but the birding was good! Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos, Gray Catbird, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp and Field Sparrows were nice migrants. Flocks of White-throated Sparrows were larger than I had seen anywhere else. It had been a few years since I was around eastern White-breasted Nuthatches, which a look a bit different and sound a lot different from California birds. Remember, this was almost a split a few years ago.

As I said, Halibut Point is known for its quality of seawatching...I didn't have high hopes and didn't really intend on doing a serious seawatch, but it did not disappoint! The number of sea ducks going by was really impressive, we rarely see numbers like that moving on the west coast. In fact, I think the only place I've seen so many scoters on the move was in the Sea of Cortez.

White-winged Scoters were the most abundant migrant. Gannets went by in pleasing numbers, and Razorbills (something I did not expect) and Cory's Shearwaters (my first ever from land) were very nice to pick out. I could definitely see myself spending a whole lot of time here if I was in the area more often.

I really only had one target bird in mind for this trip though...Great Cormorant. I had never seen a Great Cormorant, but found them easily enough. Life bird! Not the juiciest life bird I've ever had, but hey a [native] life bird is a life bird. These two were at Bass Rocks, a traditional site for them, but I had them at a couple other locations as well. As advertised, they were both large and quite cormoranty.

Great Black-backed Gull is a novel bird to me. I really want to find one in California sometime. This one was at Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary in Gloucester, where there were great multitudes of sparrows and the only Indigo Bunting of the trip. It was a bit confusing to get there, but if you just ignore all the private property signs, everything is fine!

Chipping Sparrows are much more abundant on this part of the continent than what I am used to. Usually I look through flocks of sparrows to find a Chipping. In the east, you look through flocks of Chipping Sparrows to find something else. I got into a thick swarm of them at Eastern Point.

Eastern Point, and coastal Massachusetts in general, is SWAMP SPARROW COUNTRY. The locals here have no need to demand MAKE OUR COUNTRY SWAMP SPARROW AGAIN because the COUNTRY is already SWAMP SPARROW. This photo is proof.

Andrew's Point is another famed seawatching spot, just east of Halibut Point. I did a more dedicated seawatch here, and I'm glad I did. This GBBG (pronounced "guh-buh-buh-guh") has a moon nestled in the crook of its wing.

This dude pulled in a huge striped bass while I was there. He braved some serious surf, slippery rocks and terrible weather to land it...impressive. Most impressive. How come California fishermen don't go to such lengths? What have you got to say for yourselves?

The seawatching was very good here as well - I got my first Atlantic Northern Fulmar ever, a nice bird to bank in case of a split. Common Eiders (above) went by frequently, as did all the scoter species and a sizable number of Red-breasted Mergansers. Razorbills and Cory's Shearwaters made more appearances, and I saw my first eastern Red-throated Loon.

I was surprised to see a very distant Peregrine Falcon darting after something in between troughs. It caught something a few moments later, then headed back toward land to consume it. I was shocked to see it was a Leach's Storm-Petrel! I hadn't seen any at all, and would certainly not have seen this one (it was too windy and choppy) if the Peregrine had not caught it and showed it to me. Per eBird, another birder photographed a Peregrine doing the same thing to the same species a few years ago from the same spot.

After we left the Cape we headed west where we got another Airbnb at Great Neck, technically in Ipswich though it is not exactly close to town. Though the birding here was disappointing (it can be quite good apparently), it was a beautiful spot with access to a private beach. We were up on a hill overlooking Clark Pond and the mouth of Plum Island Sound...the southern end of Plum Island was just a few hundred yards away! Considering it takes almost an hour to get there by car, it's a pretty funny situation. For anyone who has not birded in the area, Plum Island/Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is a legendary birding spot in the state. Generally speaking, everything that shows up in Massachusetts seems to show up at Plum Island at some point, or within a few miles. Of course, we birded it, though the birds and the weather did not cooperate enough for much photography. This Song Sparrow (very different from the locals here in the bay area) took pity on me at least.

Parker River has lots of American Black Ducks throughout the year. In fact, probably the vast majority that I have seen in my life have been at this refuge over the years...but apparently I haven't seen enough to really provide meaningful commentary on them. What does it mean to be an American Black Duck? How is the soul of an American Black Duck different from that of a Mallard, a Mottled Duck, a Mexican Mallard? These are the things that keep me up at night.

This is the view of where we stayed, looking south from Plum Island.

Huh...guess I didn't do much crushing on that trip! Good thing I don't claim to be a photographer. The birding really was better than what the pictures indicate, seriously. Other avian highlights from Parker River include Long-tailed Duck, American Golden-Plover, Stilt and White-rumped Sandpipers, Fish Crow, Lapland Longspurs, a plethora of sparrows (Field, Swamp, Clay-colored, White-crowned, etc) and Purple Finches.

Maybe next time I'll get out to Cape Cod again. Did you see that footage from last year of shearwater flocks practically feeding on the beach (there's some good video *here* - skip to about 35 seconds in)? I want to be a part of that.

Oh yeah, Annie turns one today! I think she enjoyed the trip. She was particularly enthused about the apple orchard and a mudflat...she is a child of many habitats. I wonder if that ridiculous pink suit still fits, we need to get some more mileage out of it. Billy had a birthday this week too...much love to my girls, looking forward to our next trip together!


  1. The soul of an American Black Duck is that of any other duck, except more evil.

    1. I always though Mallards were the closest thing to pure evil, since they take many mysterious forms and apparently can corrupt the gene pool of anything with feathers.

  2. I never knew that GBBGs had enough gravity to keep a moon in orbit. Neat!

    1. They are massive. They are the reason the earth has tides. Look it

  3. As transplant kid from the Berkshires myself I enjoyed the nostalgia.

    1. Wish I had more photos from that side of the state. Weird (in a good way) to be back in places like West Stockbridge and Great Barrington again after being absent for so many years.

  4. Nice to hear from another former resident of the Berkshires...I knew the level of sarcasm was strong with you and now I know why...