Sunday, January 06, 2008

Hawks, Shrikes, and Razorbills, Oh My!

These are pictures of a Rough-legged hawk and a razorbill. The hawk is one of three 'winter specialties' of Plum Island. The other two are the Northern Shrike and the Snowy Owl (I will discuss the razorbill later). All three of these are uncommon or rare winter visitors around here, but found dependably and regularly on Plum Island. By the way, I did not take these pictures, I wish I had. I did try to take a picture of a rough-legged this morning, with my phone camera through my spotting scope, but that was quite the exercise in futility.

I was lucky enough to catch all three winter specialties this morning, in droves. Three shrikes, two snowy owls - well, probably the same one in two different spots - and at least four Rough-legged hawks. I went out with a group outing sponsored by the Brookline Bird Club. As I've said before a lot of good eyes can make for some great birding.

Despite our luck with the shrike, owl and hawk, the highlight was certainly the seawatch at the north end of the refuge. It was calm this morning, with very little wind. The water was still, not as glass, but a gentle, even ripple that spread out to the horizon. Landward the sky was overcast but over the sea it was bright with warm, yellow highlights bordering the low clouds.

The must have been a lot, I mean a lot, of fish in the water. As we walked over the last dune we could see large, roiling masses of gulls and seabirds spread here and there, and other scattered individuals or small groups everywhere else. Best of all, for me, was the presence of probably one - one hundred and fifty razorbills, a stout black-and-white diving bird with a highly distinctive thick, curved wedge of a beak. I've only seen these before either on the far horizon (where I can barely make a reliable identification) or a very quick flyby. These were actively foraging in tight groups, pretty close to shore (one hundred yards?) where I could easily make out their markings and the shape of their bill. They swam and dove right amids big groups of gulls and red-breasted mergansers, usually moving in a thick line, steadily moving forward until they found an exceptionally rich spot. Neat birds. Also scattered around were Common Loons, Red-necked Loons, Horned Grebes, Red-necked Grebes, White-winged scoters, Black Scoters...I watched one Horned grebe just a few yards out from shore wrestling with a long, thin, silver fish.

Other highlights? Nothing in particular. Eventually, I got cold and hungry. Time marches on. Several others remained to continue prowling the marsh, thickets and beaches. I know I've said this before, but the range of devotion and fanaticism that people take to their hobbies always fascinates me. Many of my friends and family would consider me to be an unusually passionate, devoted and knowledgable birder. And to the average person, I am. But I often run into people who far surpass me, people who are out almost every day, or at least every weekend, virtually all day. Who obsessively follow what's being spotted around the state and will make sure to travel anywhere something unusual is being seen.

Anyway, it's fun.

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