Sunday, 30 March 2014

Newburyport - Plum Island - southern Maine.

Newburyport, Massachusetts is 40 miles north of Boston. it is a picturesque New England port town just across the Merimack River. You have probably never heard of it, but if a you are a birder you might have & if you are an American birder it will be an ornithological shrine to you! Winter is coming to an end in this part of the world at the moment (one of the longest, hardest winters in living memory). Signs of thaw are everywhere & flooded landscapes caused by snow melt abound. But in the depths of winter, when all about freezes over, the Merimack river (with its strong current) doesn't freeze  & the shallow, slightly more sheltered offshore seas of Plum Island become a winter haven for sea ducks, grebes & loons.
However, American birders don't remember this locale for these wonders. They remember it for the bird of the century, Ross's Gull! In March 1975 the American ornithological world was turned on its head,  by the discovery of a Ross's Gull by the seawall. It was the first time in the states that this arctic dwelling gull had been recorded within reach of the masses. In American, that means you can get to it by car! And by car they came in their thousands! One of the most spectacular twitches on Earth, took place over the unfolding weeks & ensured that the name of Newburyport will be long remembered by birders all over the lower 48. What has this to do with me? Well, I just had to go there. I felt its pulling power. How could I visit new England & not visit Newburyport?
 So early on 29th March Barbara & I set out from Boston. I was excited! No I didn't expect to see the bird of the century, but this was birding on hallowed ground. Where many of the famous had been there before. The problem was, it was a dull, grey day, with promise of heavy rain later on. Barbara was driving but I mentally urged the car on, so the miles sped by. Barbara is not a birder, but is a lover of the great outdoors & this was her backyard, a place she had been to many times before. And she was determined to show it to me!

 Rough Meadows is just one section of this large
 coastal conservation area.
Barbara getting ready to show me around. 
 A wintery landscape greeted us.
 Signs of spring, but only just!

When it is this cold, a girl needs her energy!

We pulled down a rutted, muddy track on to the Parker River Reserve, just opposite Plum Island & just south of the hallowed turf. We had the place to ourselves, it was deserted (apart from the birds of course). We walked & talked & walked again, gradually species gave themselves up & appeared in our binoculars. The first really good bird was a Rough legged Hawk, sat in a distant bush. Good views through the telescope, but hopeless for photography. And then I spotted it -  a Snowy Owl! She was sat on a small stick (yes it was a she) just above the frozen marsh. At the noise & the excitement she turned her head & glared at us with those eyes! And what eyes they were - fierce, burning yellow eyes, that stare through you. We both enjoyed good views through the scope. I think my excitement must have transferred to Barbara, because she was quite animated as well! There was only one problem, the same problem as we experienced on Cape Cod last weekend, the distance was too great for my camera! I tried digi- scoping with my pocket camera, through the eyepiece of the scope. I have never got the hang of this technique, but needs must & here below is my masterpiece!
 An immature female, in all its glory!
Just in case you wanted a closer look!
Birds in the woodland & closed marshes:
Red-tailed Hawk; 1 Mourning Dove; 3 Downy Woodpecker; 1 Hairy Woodpecker; 1 Eastern Wood-Pewee (an early migrant); 7 Black-capped Chickadee; 2 Tufted Titmouse; 2 White-breasted Nuthatch; 11 American Robin; 1 Northern Mockingbird; 5 European Starling; 1 Yellow-rumped Warbler (an early migrant); 3 Northern Cardinal; 5 Song Sparrow; 7 Red-winged Blackbird; 13 Common Grackle; 1 American Goldfinch.
We drove around to Plum Island. It is not really an island at all, being a peninsula, but it is a mecca for birds & of course birders! It bears a striking similarity to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, an area I know really well. The sea was dotted with flocks & groups of loons; grebes & assorted sea duck. A seal swam by, which may have been an Harbour Seal, but am not too sure.
Birds on the sea:
18 Common Loon; 65+ Horned Grebe; 21 Red-necked Grebe; 180+ Common Eider; 50+ Long-tailed Duck; 45+ White-winged Scoter; 1 Surf Scoter; 2 Black Scoter; 120+ Common Goldeneye; 90+ Bufflehead; 35+ Red-breasted Merganser; 1 Razorbill.
We stopped at most get out points & slowly made our way down to the end at Sandy Point. We scanned over half frozen marshes, reed beds & climbed the observation towers for a better look around.
Birds on the marshes:
4 Mute Swan; 80+ Canada Goose; 2 Brant; 8 Mallard; 140+ American Black Duck; 65+ Gadwall; 18 Northern Pintail; 8 Green-winged Teal; 2 Lesser Scaup; 2 Northern Harrier; 2 Red-tailed Hawk; 1 Rough-legged Hawk; 4 Wild Turkey; 2 Greater Yellowlegs; 2 Killdeer; 6 Ring-billed Gull; 55 + American Herring Gull; 10 Great Black-backed Gull; 12 American Crow.

 Plenty of boardwalks to explore, but not many birds
in this habitat, a month too early!
 Great observation towers, give a panoramic view
of the surrounding landscape.
Barbara, getting an eyeful!
Views of the habitat from the top of the tower.

A flock of American Black Duck.

A Northern Harrier gave wonderful flyby views,
 from the tower.

One of the major reasons for visiting Plum Island was the chance to see Piping Plover - a localised & endangered species here in NE United States. The problem is, this species has the temerity to like the same habitat as humans! That is sandy beaches. Holiday makers, dog walkers & general disturbance of all kinds, leads to breeding failure, therefore the authorities close the beaches for the plovers breeding season. This is a real popular move here in these parts! Barbara says they taste like chicken!
We had been informed that parking lot 7 was the place to see them. I scanned the beaches carefully, nothing at all, just people enjoying the seaside. We met Jane (Scottish) & Ulrich (German) couple on the observation deck & had a great time chatting about all kinds of things! Then 7 Piping Plovers swept into view, accompanied by 3 Sanderling & I smiled down my telescope! We managed to get excellent views & I managed a few shots, although I had to push the ISO to a 1000 because of the bad light. A world tick for me!

 Piping Plover habitat - as seen from parking lot 7.
 The rare & localised Piping Plover.
 These birds had just returned to
their breeding beaches.
 The shots are very grainy,
because of the terrible light.

Best eaten with a butter-caper sauce!
So says Barbara, who doesn't like
the beaches closed in summer!
 Barbara walking along Sandy Point.

Me, trying to get close & personal with....
Photo courtesy of Barbara.
 A fine adult, American Herring Gull.

It was now late afternoon & the weather situation was getting worse. Darkening skies & a smattering of rain amid the increasing gale force wind meant for a poor outdoor experience. We had amassed 52 species for the day, so decided to drive slowly north towards Kittery & on to the scenic town of York in southern Maine. The weather slowly got worse confirming that this was the correct decision to make. We found the Tangle wood Inn, (our home for the night) & then went out in the town for an evening meal.
Dusk, at the olde New England Tanglewood Inn.
Once I spied this, I just had to have it!
My well deserved, Yorkshire Lobster dinner!
Thanks for chopping the top of my head off Barbara!
The Tanglewood Inn on our return.
 A very nice four poster bed,
 in a very comfortable room.
Torrential rain greeted the dawn on 30th March. Time to go back to bed for an hour or two. After a leisurely breakfast, we hit the road going north, along scenic back roads skirting the coast. The weather just kept getting worse: not only heavy rain, but also a full blown gale accompanied us. Our plan of action was to hopscotch up the coast, using the car as cover & view landscapes & if possible, birds from the car. It turned out to be a master stroke!  
Our first stop was Cape Neddick did I mention that it was blowing a gale?
Tough conditions for a sea duck!
 Barbara now knows it is windy!
Nubble Lighthouse in the background,
with a crazy girl in the front!
Learning to fly, girl?
The so called more sheltered bay here, was littered with sea duck, being pushed into the coastal rocks.
Totals for the bay:
5 Common Loon; 3 Horned Grebe; 1 Red-necked Grebe; 70+ Common Eider; 54 Harlequin Duck; 12 Long-tailed Duck; 9 White-winged Scoter; 5 Black Scoter; 35 Common Goldeneye; 75+ Bufflehead & 8 Red-breasted Merganser. The car made a pretty good hide & I took quite a few photos.
Long-tailed Duck
 Harlequin Ducks

 Always difficult to photograph at sea.

Pleased to photograph some males after
 my failure at Rockport last week.


 Horned Grebe - it is not often you can get
close enough for a shot.
We then drove further north. Gradually, the weather became a little easier & when we pulled into Laudholm Farm the rain had ceased. This is a conservation farm area that Barbara had visited previously & wanted to show it to me. It is a showpiece farm with seven major habits. Unfortunately we picked a bad day to visit! I felt a little sorry for Barbara, because she really wanted the place to put on a good show, but the elements were against this happening. We walked around the melting, icy trails. They were rock hard in some places & mushy in others. Excellent conditions for a fall!
 Large areas were still frozen solid.

We staggered around, not seeing very much, but it was nice to be exploring. I think we glimpsed an American Woodcock, flushed from the depths of the wood, but good views eluded us. You have to hand it to the Yanks, they really know how to organise things, right down to every little detail. The photo below was taken outside the women's restroom at Laudholm Farm. They have a magazine rack for you to choose from, before you enter. The attention to detail is quite astonishing!
Read carefully!
Happy bellies are here again!

 We retired to a Maine institution - The Maine Diner! It is an old fashioned family run diner, exactly how a Brit like me, imagines a diner should look. It reminded me a bit of Happy Days - remember the Fonze?

 Found in one of the shops - how appropriate!
On a full stomach, we drove a little south crossing the state boundary into  New Hampshire & the coastal town of Portsmouth. It is a quaint olde worlde kinda place, with interesting shops & an important maritime history. But, it was dull, dank & miserable while we explored the area, & very cold, the wind chill was excessive! The harbour was probably quite good for birds, but apart from 2 Common Loons & a handful of Red-breasted Mergansers & lots of American Herring & Great Black-backed Gulls (yes, I did check for the more rare ones)! That was it! We jumped in the car & headed home. Another weekend has passed! 





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