Island Airshow

Posted by Jane N on

This past Saturday was forecast to be one of the last warm & sunny days we would see here in New England for a while. A strong cold front was moving in bringing frigid Arctic winds & temperatures. So I thought it would be a good day to head to Plum Island to do some last birding before winter really took hold.

We stopped at the first beach access area and I scanned the ocean waters for seabirds. The wind was picking up and my eyes were watering but I managed to spot a White-winged Scooter, a Common Loon in winter plumage & a Horned Greab. Something alarmed the Greab and it began to “run” across the surface of the water flapping its wings trying to take off like a large heavy plane. This dance across the water is what the Greab is known for and I was excited to get to witness the display. Not a bad start to the day.

At the next stop, the Overlook Pool I saw a pair of Northern Pintails, dozens of Black Ducks & Mallards. They were all butts in the air as they bobbed for food below the surface. As I was watching the antics of the ducks a large flock of Canada Geese came from behind me and landed on the water. It was a strange sensation to suddenly have a flock of Geese flies low over my head, they surprised me, I could hear the wind across their feathers as they flew over my head. They stretched out their webbed feet like landing gear and glided across the water to a stop.

Next, we stopped at the Wardens Shed, I could see that there was a large flock of some kind of small birds flying low across the salt marsh. I lost sight of the flock by the time I got out of the car and started to walk behind the buildings. There was a man standing in the field with a camera aimed at the ground. I walked very slowly towards the man, not wanting to disturb whatever he was taking a picture of, I scanned the field with my binoculars trying to see what he was looking at. He motioned to me to stop, which I did, then he pointed to his right. I could see the grasses moving but still couldn't see what was making the grasses move. The man motioned for me to move towards him, I slowly began to walk thru the tall grass.

Then suddenly in an explosion of feathers and tweeting a large flock of Snow Bunting burst out of the tall grass and surrounded me! It was fantastic! I felt like a was in a Disney movie, all these small tweeting birds surrounding me. I was certain I could reach out and touch one, but I was too transfixed to try. The flock made a tight circle around me then in unison, they zigged & zagged over the marsh. Natures aerial acrobats they could make any stunt flier jalousie. Then they swooped back low over the marsh and settled into the tall grasses again, completely hidden.

The sunny weather was starting to change, the winds were picking up and the sky was clouding over. It was getting cold fast. We stopped at Hellcat Trails as we drove along the refuge dirt road. On top of the ridge at Hellcat dike, there was a mature Bald Eagle. He was on the ground, he had something he had just killed in his claws and was tearing it apart to eat. Interesting to watch but I decided to move on and let him enjoy his lunch in peace. Also, there was the strange sight of one lone White Egret standing in the beaver pool at Hellcat, fellow birders there were all speculating why this one bird was here and not heading south to Florida where it belongs.

Next stop on the island was the Bird Blind. The pool at the blind was void of any birds but I was finally able to find the Great Horned Owl nest. Yeah, I had to kinda sort of break the rules and I went off the trail into the scrub pine grove to find the nest tree. But I tried all summer to see the Owl and never did, at least I found his nest so I'll be a step ahead of him next season. We had been on the island for an hour by now, the wind was blowing the dirt from the refuge road into little dust tornadoes, my fingers were frozen even in my gloves, my cheeks hurt from the cold. I guess it was time to head home.

As we head back along the dirt road to exit the refuge there was a group of cars stopped along the side of the road near Hellcat dike. There was a man standing in front of us holding up his hands for us to stop as well. I got out and went to see why all these people were standing in the road with cameras and binoculars. A sure sign that something really interesting was going on! The elderly man tells me of the incredible sight that just took place.

He tells me the Bald Eagle I had seen earlier was joined by a second adult on the dike and a fight began over the food. Then even more exciting, a pair of immature Bald Eagles swooped in to try and claim the kill. He explains that then all four Eagles took to the sky and were fighting and dive bombing each other. He said the birds flew so low across the road that one car was nearly hit, that was why he had stopped traffic. He says it was an airshow like he had never seen before.

I missed the airshow put on by the Eagles but I enjoyed my own private airshow put on by the Snow Buntings and the surprise airshow put on by the flock of Geese and the comical air show performed by the Horned Greab. I was glad I had decided to make the trip to the island. As the holiday season progresses, the pressures mount and time moves too fast everyone should try and take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures nature can provide us. I know that I sure enjoyed my island airshow. I think of those Snow Buntings swirling around me and I smile. (Snow Buntings live in the Arctic, they only come south to New England for a short time in the winter. So it is a real treat to see them)

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