A birding trip with a friend this past weekend to look for migrating shorebirds didn’t turn out quite as planned. It would have, had I paid closer attention to the tide schedule (and my own). A receding tide, which exposes mud and sand flats to the probing beaks of hungry birds eager to fuel up for their long-distance migrations, was not to be had by the time we reached Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth.
However, the day was far from a bust.
First, we scoped the frog pond in hopes of spotting a heron. No luck there, but as we stood looking out at the surface, green frogs seemed to suddenly materialize out of thin air as our eyes picked up their outline and color. Most of the lily pads near the small dock sported a frog.
A heron would have eaten a full breakfast here.
Song sparrows darted furtively from the knee-high meadow grass bordering the mowed walking paths. We were lucky to get a definite identification of one as it alighted in a shrub. Otherwise, I am by no means an expert enough birder to identify a sparrow as it zips past, and it would have just remained a “LBJ,” or a “LBB” — a “little brown job,” or a “little brown bird.”
As we approached a small cove within the tidal inlet that borders much of the property, I heard a very familiar call note. It was coming from the tall wetland vegetation that borders the transition zone between the tide and the land. We got a good look at the bird as it clung to the topmost blade of a cattail. We both concluded that it had just the barest hint of a black mask, making it juvenile common yellowthroat warbler. Or, what the Peterson’s Field Guide whimsically refers to such a bird as a “confusing fall warbler.”
As we headed to drier upland habitat, we noted the pliant marsh grass that lay in great swaths, holding the shape of the water that had moved it at high tide. The green waves of grass seemed to shimmer under the warm sun, adding to the illusion of movement.
Once we’d reached the top of a small bluff overlooking the inlet, a bird called repeatedly from within a tangle of shrubs and vines. The loud, sharp call note rang a bell, but only enough for me to realize I hadn’t heard it in quite some time. I’d need more clues before coming to a positive identification.
Luckily, the bird showed itself clearly by perching on a branch right in the middle of an open spot in the shrub. It was brown above and white below, with a hint of a pale yellow wash, overlaid with fine streaking on its throat, chest and flanks. Its beak was slender and pointed. It had a conspicuous, pale golden “eyebrow,” or supercilium. As it called, it continually bobbed its tail up and down, which helped clinch the identification: it was a northern waterthrush.
The name notwithstanding, this bird isn’t actually a thrush. It is a warbler that breeds in northern climes and migrates to Central and South America for the winter. During the breeding season, it nests on the ground either in or near a wetland. According to the “Birds of North America,” species account, nests can be within root systems of windblown trees, besides fern clumps, or under some form of cover along the banks of lakes and rivers. It is never far from water, even during migration or on its wintering grounds.
At least the “water,” part of its name is appropriate.
As we continued on that day, we were graced with querulous-sounding terns — most likely begging young — ospreys galore, and the rare prize of a peregrine falcon.
Sometimes, it’s great when things don’t go as planned.