On the Wing — Christmas Bird Count #3: Greater Massett

By Margo Hearne

The southeaster almost blew us off our feet and whipped up the water beside us. The tide was turning, so the water ran in and out at the same time, as it does in Masset Inlet. Pacific Loons landed, rode the tide out then flew back in again, working the tidal roller-coaster. Red-throated Loons joined them, paler grey, slighter overall but just as quick.

In the middle of the inlet, a flock of Pelagic Cormorants sat on the far navigation marker then plopped into the water. There were Red-necked Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and all three species of scoter — they all made the bird list.

It’s always interesting to see Pigeon Guillemots at this time of year. In breeding plumage when nesting under the wharf they are very black with a patch of white and bright red feet. In winter they still have bright red feet but are almost completely white underneath. Six of them rode the rough water, as did nine Marbled Murrelets, not always seen this time of year. We had to leave before we got blown away and on the way back three Common Mergansers flew by, another species for the day.

We had given the wildlife sanctuary a quick look earlier and had found a Eurasian Green-winged Teal with hundreds of other teal. A Eurasian Wigeon floated along with a group of American Wigeon. A Peregrine Falcon’s raucous “rehk, rehk, rehk” alerted us to the Red-tailed Hawk moving in over its aerial space and, in town, one lone White-fronted Goose fed on the now empty greens where the barracks used to be.

When we returned to the sanctuary after lunch the wind had died down and the rain began. It stayed for the rest of the day. Seven Snow Geese flew overhead like a bolt of sunshine and the Canada Geese kept pace as we searched the meadow. It was a day for Wilson’s Snipe. We had never seen so many in all the 37 years of counts. They kept startling off in threes and fours from under our feet and flying off in their darting, jinking way — always unexpectedly, never visible before they flew.

They landed behind us so it was clear that we were never seeing the same birds. Snipe are mostly solitary and not known to travel in flocks, but the heavy weather of the past week had brought them to this lucky location. There are few places like the sanctuary and the swamp grasses and small rainwater ponds are just the thing for the 96 we found.

While the snipe kept us alert, the seven Savanna Sparrows reminded us that there was life in the low spruce. Two birds flew from the grass into the trees, low and secretive and small. Warblers. What kind? It was almost impossible to tell in the flat light but when they finally landed on a bush there was that flash of yellow undertail that only Palm Warblers have. They should have been in Florida.

Total species: 81. Total birds: 6,664.

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