Weather and Surf Highlight January Bird Walks

purple sandpipers with sanderling; click to enlarge

The Lloyd Center kicked off its 2017 outings season with both the traditional New Year’s Day walk at Gooseberry Island on January 1, then on the following Saturday, January 7, a newer venture, birding in the south end of New Bedford, which features Fort Tabor park and the Palmers Island area which surround New Bedford Harbor.  During both trips, which focused upon wintering waterbirds, attendees braved rather rugged conditions.  Surfers made use of crashing waves near the Gooseberry causeway (which was closed to vehicles!) on an otherwise seasonable day. Another crew faced blustery, cold conditions only hours before the arrival of the first major snowstorm in New Bedford.  
Both trips offered nice glimpses of waterbirds which flock to our estuaries during winter. On Gooseberry, attendees first endured some salt spray as they crossed the causeway upon which waves were crashing, and saw large flocks of seagulls along the shore. From the island, waterfowl numbers were relatively low, but Common Goldeneye, Common Eider and a distant Red-throated Loon were seen. Although shorebird numbers were low, viewers enjoyed close looks at Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover in winter plumages on the way to the south tip. At the tip, the highlight was a stellar view of a flock of Purple Sandpipers, known for their large feet adapted for climbing over wet rocks in rocky intertidal areas characteristic of the Gooseberry shoreline. Nestled within this flock was a lone Sanderling, the white shorebird often seen chasing the tide for invertebrates in large flocks, while Dunlin foraged in the intertidal cobble in the foreground. Waterbirds out in the bay, sandpipers on rocks, and other shorebirds roaming the sand and cobble shore depict the respective “niches” occupied by birds along the diverse shoreline of Gooseberry Island. 

common goldeneye; click to enlarge

On the New Bedford walk, the biting cold that preceded the storm didn’t prevent us from catching glimpses of the main waterfowl species to be seen at Fort Tabor and the Hurricane Barrier near Palmers Island. Three familiar species of the harbor including Common Goldeneye (including the females with the trademark maroon head and golden eye-ring), Common Eider, and Red-breasted Merganser were all seen along with a distant loon.  A tight flock of scaup was seen swimming on the Clark’s Cove side of Fort Tabor, and close views were offered of Brant, the close relatives of Canada Goose which winter along the shoreline and feed primarily upon eelgrass. Although deteriorating conditions including choppy waters prevented us from walking along the hurricane barrier near Palmers Island, nice looks at frolicking Buffleheads and more scaup were seen on the bay side of the hurricane barrier.  

Land birds were scarce on both walks, the Snowy Owl of Gooseberry probably avoiding the rather large numbers of people walking the island, and at Fort Tabor the Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were absent, perhaps due to a coating of snow present from the initial small storm a day ago that prevented them from feeding in the grasses. The owls, buntings and larks will surely return, as a backdrop to the bustling winter waterways teaming with life.