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Spend a Saturday letting nature happen at Joppa Flats

All is quiet for some birders at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, across the Merrimack from Joppa Flats. (David Lyon for The Boston Globe) All is quiet for some birders at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, across the Merrimack from Joppa Flats.
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / February 21, 2010

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NEWBURYPORT - No matter how bright the winter sunshine, when the mercury crouches toward the bottom of the thermometer, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for an outdoor foray. So we look for motivation, and we couldn’t resist the Saturday Birding program (“What’s That Bird?’’) at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center here at the mouth of the Merrimack River.

We had visions of picking our way over pack ice on the beach and tromping through frozen salt marshes for the two-hour program. But once our small group was assembled and outfitted with loaner binoculars, naturalist Alison O’Hare pointed us to a Mass Audubon van in the parking lot.

“When I began birding about 12 years ago,’’ she explained, “I thought it was odd to be sitting in a van. But birds don’t come to you. We drive to the spots where it’s productive to find birds.’’ She outlined our itinerary: We would head upriver to look for ducks and perhaps some pelagic birds, swing around through the edge of Amesbury, and end up at Salisbury Beach State Reservation, across the Merrimack from Joppa Flats.

Our first stop was Cashman Park, nearly downtown. We used our binoculars to scan the trees on the opposite shore, looking primarily for perching raptors. When we came up empty, O’Hare directed our attention to the open waters of the Merrimack. Great black-backed gulls (“the largest species of gull in North America,’’ O’Hare said) picked at the water’s edge for tidbits.

O’Hare set up her spotting scope and focused on small, dark specks in the river. “We’re seeing a lot of winter ducks,’’ she said, encouraging us to look quickly, since these diving ducks literally “duck’’ out of sight every minute or so as they seek food below the surface. Within a few minutes we had located clusters of common goldeneyes, buffleheads (with their bright red feet), a lone hooded merganser, and both male and female red-breasted mergansers, the last easily identified by what O’Hare called “their punk hairdos.’’

It was Saturday morning, but the male goldeneyes were acting like it was Saturday night. “Ducks choose their mates in the fall,’’ O’Hare explained, “and in the fall and winter you can see the male birds performing mating displays.’’ Right on cue, one male goldeneye extended his neck and arched his head over his back, almost reaching his rump. “They carry on shamelessly in an effort to impress the females.’’

Many more birds are wintering over at the mouth of the Merrimack, O’Hare noted. “The river is much cleaner than it used to be,’’ she said, “so it’s bringing back bald eagles.’’

Back in the van, we crossed the Chain Bridge into Amesbury and turned up a residential street that paralleled the river. As she drove slowly up the road, O’Hare instructed us to scan the trees on the river islands where bald eagles often roost at night. But in these parts, the best way to find birds is to look for birders. Within minutes we came upon four birders at the edge of the road toting tripods, spotting scopes, and immense telephoto lenses. They were all focused on a single immature bald eagle perched high in a roadside tree.

A homeowner standing in his yard observed the scene with amusement. “We see the eagles every day around 4 o’clock out fishing,’’ he said.

But O’Hare was not daunted. “It’s a lot of fun to be with people the first time they see a bald eagle,’’ she said. “They are so majestic. They never lose their spectacular-ness.’’

Mass Audubon started the Saturday program in September as a supplement to its popular Wednesday program. Turnout tends to be small, but O’Hare hopes to get repeat visitors “because the bird populations out here change every six weeks or so,’’ she said. While the focus is ostensibly on an introduction to birding, the programs attract both novices and more seasoned birders.

We encountered many more independent birders when we reached Salisbury Beach State Reservation. Perched on the wooden boat ramps that had been pulled up for the winter, they trained their spotting scopes on rafts of ducks feeding on the barely submerged banks just offshore. “On this salt marsh side,’’ O’Hare explained, “there’s a huge mussel bed that attracts ducks and gulls.’’

We had hoped to spot some of the songbirds that winter over on the flats, like the horned lark or the snow bunting, or perhaps spot a short-eared owl (which tends to be more active at dawn and dusk) or, best of all, see a snowy owl perched on its day roost. No such luck. But as we watched the birds feeding in the water we identified a red-throated loon and occasionally spotted a mature male common eider when he came up for air.

We began to understand that O’Hare was introducing us as much to habitats as to species, and that she had strategically arranged our outing to progress from easy spotting to more challenging opportunities. We drove to the ocean side of the reservation and carted our gear down the beach behind some horses out for winter exercise.

With a small storm offshore, surf broke steadily on the beach and the seas were running at about 4 feet. If we were ducks, we would have opted for the gentler waters of the marsh side of the peninsula, but no one had told that to the scoters. We had to watch carefully between wave crests to see them bobbing on the surface. O’Hare identified one raft as white-winged scoters, another as surf scoters. We would have missed them entirely.

Long-distance identification of winter ducks takes some experience, O’Hare admitted. “You have to know what’s likely to be out there, and then you have to know what it looks like. You look for key markings, like the ‘skunk head’ of the male surf scoter.’’

We were surprised by the number and variety of birds we had seen in two hours. More to the point, we had simply enjoyed the outing. O’Hare is not one to keep a life list or tick off the numbers of birds she has seen. We asked if she found that birding required patience. “Not so much patience,’’ she said, “as a desire to de-stress, to be relaxed. It works best if you’re not going for instant gratification. You have to go with the flow and let nature happen while you’re looking at it.’’

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

Joppa Flats Education Center

1 Plum Island Turnpike

Newburyport

978-462-9998

www.massaudubon.org

Saturday Birding: What’s That Bird? at 9:30 a.m., $5 members, $7 nonmembers. Advance registration required.