Tom’s Birding Page

A Birder's Guide to Plum Island

© Tom Wetmore, 2006

I am writing and editing this document now, maybe even while you are reading it. Sections are missing. Consistency between sections is poor to nonexistent. Lots of work remains. This document will become the new Plum Island site guide to be published in an upcoming issue of Bird Observer.

I am making the document available in this HTML form on the web to get the information available now regardless of its state of finish and polish, and to solicit information from experienced Plum Island birders where I may be inaccurate or have missed important information. If you have any feedback or comments please send them to me at


Plum Island is one of the most popular birding destinations in Massachusetts. The island is nine miles long and oriented generally north to south. The northern three miles are residential, and the southern six miles are not developed. The east side of the island is a barrier beach that faces the Atlantic Ocean, and the west side borders the Great Marsh, an extensive salt marsh habitat. The island is wide enough to hold a variety of habitats that include dune, low scrub, maritime forest, grassy fields, and fresh water impoundments. Its location on the coast can have a great concentratng effect on birds. Plum Island is an excellent location for waterfowl, herons, raptors, shorebirds, and migrant passerines.

The destination for most birders coming to Plum Island is the undeveloped southern portion of the island. Most of this area is part of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (PRNWR), though the southern tip of the island is the Sandy Point State Reservation (SPSR). The important distiction affecting birders between the federal and state areas is that the federal beaches are closed during the beach nesting season while the state beaches are not.

The northern end of Plum Island is also an excellent location for birding. (need to write a section for this)

In many peoples' minds Plum Island and the PRWNR are synonomous. However not all of Plum Island is within the PRNWR, and the PRNWR also encompasses large tracts of the Great Marsh that are not on Plum Island. Plum Island is located in Essex County, and is divided fairly equally, north to south, among the municipalities of Newburyport, Newbury, Rowley, and Ipswich.

This document is divided into sections. The first set of sections describe locations on Plum Island and the birds you should look for at those locations. Most of these sections are arranged along an itenerary that takes you from the entrance to the PRNWR, down the island to Sandy Point, with stops along the way. Note that many times, especially when the sun is low in the southern sky, you will find it more pleasant to first hustle down to Sandy Point, trying to ignore the birds you see along the way (something I find impossible to do), until you reach the south end of the island, and then do your slow and careful birding as you go north back up the island.

The second set of sections describes various groups of birds that birders are often interested in. Comments about locations and times of years are included.

Getting There

To reach Plum Island take the Plum Island Turnpike east from Newburyport. The turnpike passes a small airport and then crosses the Wilkinson Bridge over the Plum Island River, a tidal estuary, to the island. If you are heading for the PRNWR take the first right after the bridge, Sunset Drive, and drive a half mile to the refuge entrance gatehouse. If you are heading for the north end of the island continue past Sunset Drive until the road (now Plum Island Blvd.) comes to an end. The PRNWR is a fee area. Most local birders purchase an annual pass for the refuge, which can be either the federal duck stamp for $15.00 or the PRNWR entrance pass for $12.00. The duck stamp provides access to many other national fee areas, while the PRNWR pass is good only for the PRNWR. The one-time drive-on fee is $5.00.

To avoid dissappointment plan to be on the island before the fair weather beach goers arrive. This advice is especially important on summer weekends, and on any warm, sunny weekends in spring and fall. The refuge parking lots fill rapidly on these days. On some days if you do arrive by 11:00 am or so the only parking left on the island may be at lot one.

Lot One Area

After entering the refuge the first stop for many birders is the lot one area. Pass the gatehouse and park in the large parking lot on your left. There is a visitor center here with the only flush toilets on the refuge. The center and toilets are open during the busy summer season. Don't despair, there are are rustic toilets open year round located at parking areas further down the island.

Parking Lot
From late May to early Sep there is an active Purple Martin colony at lot one. Lot one is also an excellent location to watch the spring raptor migration on the island. The peak of this migation occurs in late Apr and early May. When the weather fronts cooperate there can be a steady flow of American Kestrels passing by along with smaller numbers of Merlins, Sharp-shinned Hawks and other species. The birds often pass nearly overhead.

Beach and Ocean

From the parking lot walk the boardwalk to the overlook that provides a vista over the beach and ocean. The beach is closed south of this point from Apr through the end of Piping Plover and Least Tern breeding season. The overlook is an excellent spot to look for these two endangered species. One or two pairs of plovers are somethimes visible from here, and a Least Tern colony may be visible as well. Also check the beach and ocean. The birds present vary during the year, and by tide and weather condition, but it is rare that you won't find something interesting. Depending on season you may find scoters, loons, grebes, Wilson's Storm-Petrels, Sanderlings, gulls, terns, Razorbills, Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows (including the Ipswich subspecies). Specially sought after birds include Northern Gannets (possible almost any time), Black-legged Kittiwakes (Nov to Feb) and Razorbills (late Nov to Mar).

As you return to the parking lot, just after leaving the overlook, you have a good view of the salt marsh west of the island. This is an excellent spot to stop and scan the marsh. There are a number of pans visible to the west from this spot that are otherwise invisible from any other point on the refuge. These pans are often occupied by numbers of waterfowl, herons and shorebirds.

Boat Ramp

Return to the parking lot, cross the road and walk the dirt track to the boat ramp on the Plum Island River. Scan the marsh grasses on both sides of the estuary. Clapper Rails, Willets, Marsh Wrens, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows and Seaside Sparrows all breed in this area. During fall migration Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows also occur here. At low tide there are mudflats exposed along the sides and in the middle of the estuary. Check them for shorebirds, herons, bitterns, or whatever else may be there. At low tide Seaside Sparrows sometimes dart and forage along the vegetated edge of the muddy bank of the estuary.

Road South of Lot One

Return to the main road. If you have time walk south along the road for a short while. You pass small dunes on the west side of the road, and the road makes a close approach to the Plum Island River. The small dunes and the scrubby habitat on the other side of the road are passerine migrant traps during spring and fall migration. A little pishing might pop up almost anything in the way of warblers, sparrows and other songbirds. Check the estuary for the same birds found at the boat ramp. From May through Jul you can often hear Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed and Seaside Sparrows singing from here. Their songs are very quiet, especially those of the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, but both are distinctive.

Lot Two Area

Driving south from lot one you soon reach parking lot two, a small lot on the east side of the road that provides access to a boardwalk that crosses the scrub and dune habitat to the beach and ocean. The boardwalk and lot are closed during the beach nesting season.

The first section of boardwalk climbs steeply to cross a vegetated dune just east of the lot. When you reach the top of this dune, turn back to the west for an expansive vista over the Great Marsh. Take a few moments to scan the marsh. You can see into some of the distant pans and estuaries that are invisible from ground level, and you can often find raptors perched on the many staddles and other hight points in the marsh. In winter this is a good spot to look for find Snowy Owls. During spring and fall this boardwalk is another great spot to observe the phenomonum of migration.

The Pans

No matter what anyone tells you the proper spelling is “pans,” not “pannes.”

Continue your drive south from lot two. You pass scrubby dune habitat on the east, and extensive salt marsh on the west. Depending on season and weather, the scrubby habitat may hold passerines, and the salt marsh may hold waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, or others. Be prepared to pull over (advice that can be taken at any point along the refuge road) if something interesting comes up. You soon reach the first and largest of the salt pans where the road widens to provide parking. There is almost always good reason to stop and scan the pans and surrounding marsh. Depending on season the pans can hold large flocks of waterfowl or shorebirds, herons and egrets, gulls and terns, and scanning the marshes around the pans may reveal raptors sitting on staddles or soaring in the air. The scrubby habitat on the opposite side of the pans is sometimes alive with migrant passerines during spring and fall.

South of the large pan are a series of smaller pans, one just opposite the lot three parking area. Park here to scan more of the pans and the salt marsh. Time permitting walk the lot three boardwalk to get another look at the beach and ocean.

S-Curves, Wardens, and North Field

South of lot three you enter an area known as the s-curves where the road winds back and forth through scrubby dunes, dense thicket and maritime forest. This stretch of road is an excellent place to look for spring and fall migrants. You may be richly rewarded by wandering along the road here. Depending on season this area can be rife with woodpeckers, flycatchers, vireos, kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, catbirds, thrashers, warblers and sparrows.


At the south end of the s-curves you reach the area called the Wardens, also known as the subheadquarters or the maintenance sheds. In pre-refuge times the warden for the Annie Brown Sanctuary lived here in a cabin. This is a good spot to explore so if you have the time turn into the lot and park. Check the thickets around the parking lot and the field south of the buildings. The field hosts a number of interesting birds over the course of a year, including American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Wilson's Snipe and Eastern Meadowlark. You can also walk north through the s-curves.

You can also explore the Wardens area itself by walking between the buildings to the grove of pine trees that borders the salt marshes. The bare ground near the buildings attracts open field birds such as Horned Larks, American Pipits, Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. The grove is known for the variety of migrants that occur there. In fall the area can abound with Savannah Sparrows, other species of sparrows, and other migrant songbirds. The body of water to the west of the Wardens is the Plum Island Sound, and this is the best place on the refuge to scan the sound. If you look carefully a little to the northwest you will see where the Parker River empties into the sound. Always makes stop and ponder why in the world the refuge was named the Parker River NWR. In winter you will find Common Goldeneyes and Bufflehead in good numbers as well as other species of water birds. At low tide extensive mudflats are exposed in the sound. During shorebird migration the flats can hold numbers of shorebirds including Black-bellied Plover, yellowlegs, Dunlin and peep.

Starting at the Wardens, a man-made dike extends about two miles down the island, separating the salt-marsh to the west, from fields and fresh-water impoundments to the east. From the pine grove at the Wardens you are standing on the northern end of that dike. Just south of the Wardens is a small pond along the dike and a small grassy field that often has wet areas.

Continue south from the Wardens, passing the Wardens field on the right and more the maritime forest on the east. After a short distance you pass a gated dirt road on the left. This leads to the banding station run by Joppa Flats (Mass Audubon) during spring and fall migration. The area is closed to the public, but you can sign up for programs run by the Joppa Flats center that visit the banding station during active banding.

.... say something about scanning for Snowy Owls and other raptors from the Pine Grove ....

North Pool Overlook

You shortly come to a small parking area on the west. This is the North Pool overlook, and the parking area is upon part of the impoundment dike system. The North Pool overlook is an excellent vantage point for checking the north end of North Pool and the wide expanse of North Field to the south. Carefully scan the open water of North Pool and its edges for waterfowl, herons, rails and shorebirds. Pied-billed Grebes, American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, Soras, Whimbrels, Solitary Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Wilson's Snipes and Eastern Meadowlarks are some more unusual species found here. North Field is often used as a winter roosting site for Northern Harriers, and in recent years North Field has been the only breeding location for harriers in Essex County. If North Field has any one special bird that bird might be the Bobolink. During the breeding season North Field can abound with these birds.

After scanning the area from the overlook continue your trip down the island. For the next little while you will be passing North Field on your west and forested areas to your east. North Field often has flooded areas and these often contain nice surprises. Look especially for Northern Shovelers, Glossy Ibises and Wilson's Snipes, and listen for Soras and Virginia Rails. Also take a careful look at the “tree islands” that are scattered down the field. These are migrant traps during migration, and are often used as perching areas for falcons, other raptors, and Northern Shrikes. Don't ignore the forested area along the east side of the road. The forest here has groves of evergreens and nice thickets. If you have the time it can be productive to walk the road here with North Field on one side and the forest on the other. During migration you may encounter active pockets of warblers and other passerines that are great fun to pick through.

Hellcat Nature Area

Continue down the road and turn into the large parking lot at the Hellcat Nature Area. There are primitive outhouses here for those birders who have consumed too much coffee.

The Hellcat area is one of the most heavily birded areas on Plum Island for good reason. Hellcat provides access to two of the island's fresh water impoundments and to the dense maritime forest that exists here at the widest part of the island. Trails leading from the parking lot traverse a variety of habitat that can be both alive with migrant birds at times, and deathly silent at other times.

There are many birding possibilities at Hellcat, so let's start down the list.

Bill Forward and North Pools

If you walk past the outhouses you reach the central dike that separates North Pool to your right/north and Bill Forward Pool to your left/south. As you pass by the outhouses be on the lookout for any migrants in season – these outhouses have beem described as the most ornithologically active johns in Massachusetts!

Carefully scan both North Pool and Bill Forward Pool. Forward Pool can be especially good for waterfowl, shorebirds, and herons. The common puddle ducks show up regularly on the pool, and many diving ducks (e.g., scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks) put in appearances. The refuge manages the water level of the Forward Pool to provide foraging and roosting areas for shorebirds during their fall migration. This occurs from mid July to mid October (which is mostly in the summer!). During high tides hundreds of shorebirds can be found roosting at Forward Pool as they await the low tides that expose the mudflats where they prefer to feed.

... something about lighting conditions ...

North Pool is a combination of open water and phragmites and cattail marsh that serves as a puddle duck factory during the breeding season, and when the water levels are left high during spring and summer, also serves as an excellent breeding area for elusive marsh birds. Significant numbers of Gadwall and Mallards nest in North Pool, as do small numbers of American Black Ducks. Wood Ducks, both species of teal and Northern Shovelers are seen frequently enough at North Pool during summer to suspect these species sometimes breed in the pool also. In recent years North Pool has supported good populations of Soras and Virginia Rails, and one or more pairs of Pied-billed Grebes, Least and American Bitterns, King Rails, Common Moorhens and possibly American Coots. These marsh birds are notoriously hard to see, but they do call on occasion and patient scanning of the reed edges will sometimes reveal any of these species. North Pool is one of the best spots in Massachusetts to hear and sometimes glimpse these elusive species.

The Marsh Loop

A network of boardwalks begin at the Hellcat parking lot. The network is divided into the Marsh Loop and Dune Loop. After you leave the Hellcat lot following the boardwalk you soon come to an intersection with a boardwalk heading to the left down some steps. A sign at the intersection labels that as the Marsh Loop. Let's go in that direction first.

The main Marsh Loop boardwalk follows fairly closely to the eastern edge of North Pool and ends at a spot that provides an excellent overview of the North Pool marshes and part of North Field. As you walk the main boardwalk you pass two intersections to a separate loop travels out through a part of the marsh itself. We'll cover that next. During migration there are often pockets of birds along the main boardwalk. Late April through early June is the best time for spring migrants with numbers peaking in the second half of May. Fall migration is more drawn out and less frenetic and lasts from August through October. You may find a wide assortment of warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes and other songbirds as you wander the boardwalk. This spot is an excellent spot to listen for the elusive marsh birds that populate the North Pool marshes. Most of these birds, including bitterns and rails have been heard and sometimes seen from this vantage point. From this spot in the fall you can witness the incredible flocks of Tree Swallows that roost for the night within the relative protection of the North Pool phragmites.

As you follow the Marsh Loop you pass an intersection where another boardwalk heads off to the left; it later rejoins the main boardwalk. This boardwalk is the loop of the Marsh Loop, as it wanders well out into the North Pool marshes, passing through dense marsh vegetation. This boardwalk is the best place on the island to come face-to-face with Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds and if you're lucky, a bittern or a rail. Depending on the shifting water levels, there can be spots along this boardwalk where you can sit quietly and sometimes have the exquisite pleasure of watching a Sora walk past your dangling feet, or see a Northern Waterthrush foraging around the bases of reed stalks.

The Dune Loop

If you don't turn left onto the Marsh Loop, you continue straight onto the Dune Loop. This boardwalk passes through thickets and a low, wet swale and then comes to the Goodno Woods just before it crosses the refuge road. This section of the trail can be an excellent during spring migration. Look and listen for Eastern Wood-Pewees, flycatchers (Least, Yellow-bellied, Alder, Willow), vireos (Red-eyed, Philadelphia, Blue-headed, Warbling), thrushes (Veery, Hermit, Swainson's), and warblers (many species). The Goodno Woods area is often rings with the songs of Northern Waterthrushes and Swamp Sparrows. The tall mature trees of the Goodno Woods often hold an excellent of passerines during migration. Look for Blackburnian, Bay-breasted and Cap May Warblers high in the canopy. Once you come to the road, and before you continue on to the Dune Loop on the other side, it can often be profitable to wander north and south along the road. The Goodno road crossing area is often worth careful attention. After crossing the refuge road the boardwalk forks into a loop that you can walk in either direction. If you take the left fork, the boardwalk first crosses a low swampy thicket and eventually ascends the coastal dunes until it reaches its highest elevation where there is a open panaramic view in all directions. This is a beautiful to pause for awhile and let the birds come to you.

Forward Pool Blind

From the Hellcat lot resume your drive south. The road is gravel from this point on. You soon come to a small parking area on the west side of the road for an observation blind overlooking Bill Forward Pool. The blind itself is located in a stand of mature pines that often contains interesting passerines. The blind gives another excellent vantage point for scanning Forward Pool, especially in the mornings when the sun is behind you. The blind can be one of the best spots on the island for seeing shorebirds. The best times are high tides during August to October.

Pines Area and Lot Five

When you've had your fill of Bill, resume your drive down the island. You pass the entrance to the former Camp Seahaven on the east (no public access) and the scrubby field known as South Field on the west. As you pass the Camp Seahaven entrance you also pass from Rowley into Ipswich. Turn off the refuge road onto the access road to the Pines Trail parking area on the west side of the road. You are now at the south end of the dike that started at the Wardens. Before walking the Pines Trail take some time to scan the south end of Bill Forward Pool and the southern, open portion of South Field, sometimes called Pines Field. The south end of Bill Forward Pool is frequented by many species of waterfowl during migration and can be especially attractive to diving ducks such as scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, and Ruddy Ducks. The field is a nesting area for Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks. During migration this field is a great spot to check for grassland shorebirds. An Upland Sandpiper or two is seen on the field during migration most years. Other shorebirds that show up on this field include American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Ruff, and Barid's and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

When you have finished scanning Bill Forward Pool, its dike, and the Pines Field, walk the Pines Trail. The trail is a short loop that winds through salt-marsh edge habitat, a mature grove of pines, and nice thicket habitat. The pine grove is the most refreshing and best-smelling spot on the island. The loop includes a platform that overlooks a few pans, and provides an extensive overview to salt marsh and the Plum Island Sound to the south and west. The overlook provides the best vantage point to the Osprey platform that is active every year. Depending upon season, the pine grove and thickets along the loop can host an assortment of birds. During migration the pines and thickets can be alive with warblers and other migrants.

After you continue south from the Pines Trail the refuge road passes through the same pine grove the trail passed through as it reaches the lot five parking area. Park here and take the lot five boardwalk to the ocean. The boardwalk first passes through more of the pine grove before opening out on dune habitat to the ocean.

South Marsh

Continue south. Beyond lot five you enter a long, straight stretch dominated by scrubby dune and thicket habitat to the east and salt marsh to the west. A scan of the salt marsh can turn up birds at any time of year. Check the staddles for raptors. Depending on season you may find Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Snowy Owls and Short-eared Owls. Even Gyrfalcons have been found here. The thickets on the east side of the road are also worth attention. During the breeding season Brown Thrashers can seem to be everywhere in the thickets. The taller trees are used as perches by Merlins and Northern Shrikes. As you continue south Pine Creek widens out to your west. At low tide this creek is a tidal mudflat; the small parking pulloffs along the road here are for local clammers. Pine Creek empties into Plum Island Sound. A scan of Pine Creek and Plum Island Sound can turn up interesting ducks, herons, and raptors. During winter Pine Creek is a favored site for Buffleheads and American Black Ducks.

Cross Farm

After the straight stretch beside the south marsh you come to a grassy hill on the west named Cross Farm Hill. Just north of the hill are some pans that can hold large numbers of egrets and ducks. These pans as well as those on the south side of the hill are among the better locations to find Little Blue Herons on the refuge. The hill supports breeding Savannah Sparrows and Bobolinks. It is used as a roosting and feeding area for Canada Geese. Late in fall small numbers of Snow Geese are sometimes mixed in. The hill is also a hunting area for raptors such as Northern Harriers, Rough-legged Hawks and Short-eared Owls. With the dense thickets on the east and the grassy hill on the west this is also good habitat for Long-eared Owls and they have been seen in this area. The large trees far out on the hill are used by raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks as morning sunning sites in winter. Also note the tripod Osprey platform to the west of the hill visible from both the north and south of the hill. On the side of the road opposite the hill the thickets become dense from here to the end of the island. These thickets may hold plenty of migrant songbirds, and can support good numbers of American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and American Tree Sparrows through the winter. These thickets from here through lot seven are prime hunting habitat for Northern Shrikes.

Stage Island Pool

After passing Cross Farm Hill the road twists and turns a bit until you come to parking lot six. You will see Stage Island Pool, the third and final fresh water impoundment, stretching away ahead of you. This whole area is a good birding location. Park in the lot and cross the road and walk along the dike that separates the impoundment from the salt marshes. Check in all directions as you walk along. The dike is a good location for Savannah Sparrows. During fall the Savannahs may be joined by a Vesper Sparrow or two and Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows nest in the salt marsh here. American Bitterns are often seen in this salt marsh. If you didn't do so from the road check the pans between the dike and Cross Farm Hill. These pans are good locations for ducks, herons and shorebirds when in season.

Stage Island Pool is the main attraction though. Waterfowl use the the pool throughout the year. Even when frozen over in the depth of winter you may find a forlorn Canada Goose or American Black Duck roosting on its surface. Puddle ducks are found at many locations throughout the refuge, but Stage Island Pool is one of the better places to check for diving ducks such as scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks and Hooded Mergansers; these species are all found here in small numbers during spring and fall migration. Wood Ducks are sometimes found along the edges of the pool, often half hidden among the reeds.

Stage Island Pool is probably best known for its shorebirds. During fall migration the refuge lowers the water level in the pool to expose flats that appear out in the pool and along the south and western edges of the pool.

Lot Seven Area

The beach overlook at lot seven is a popular birding destination. Except at high tide more or less of Emerson Rocks are exposed to the north east, and more of less of the Bar Head rocks are exposed to the south east. This stop can yield good birds the year around, with overwintering ducks from fall to spring, migrant shorebird and terns s in the fall, and gulls the year round.

Sandy Point

Resume your drive to the south. You soon come to the first parking lot for Sandy Point State Reservation. As you enter the lot you leave the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and enter the Sandy Point Stage Reservation. You can park in this lot and then walk a sandy trail to the ocean to the east, or you can continue to the west until you reach the final parking area on the island. The second parking area gives easy access to Bar Head (the large bluffy hill at the end of the island) and to the inner beaches of Plum Island. There is a trail that goes partway up Bar Head at the east end of the parking lot. The birding destination for most birders coming to Sandy Point, however, is the inner beach of Plum Island. Because this beach is protected from the ocean, it is called Mothers' Beach by local residents. And because the beach is protected from the ocean, the same reasons that mothers bring their you children here, birds use the beach to get out of the wind and the weather for awhile. The inner beach is often used by piping plovers as nesting areas, and because the state does not close its beaches, you can often get excellent views of the plovers here. The state places exclusion cages over the nests and then ropes off a large area around the nests. But it sure ain't hard to find the birds! Later in the summer when the young have hatched, a visit to the beach may result in an intense cuteness attack. You are warned! The inner beach is an excellent place to explore. During high tides during shorebird migration, you may find hundreds and even thousands of shorebirds roosting on the beaches. During and just after strong northeasterly storms and winds interesting birds (e.g, terns, phalaropes, jaegers) may have been pushed into the harbor or may be struggling just outside. Birding for storm-tossed seabirds may be a somewhat advanced birding practice, but it can be among the most rewarding. For example, during an after an especially strong and long storm in xxx, xxx, a walk along Sandy Point turned up 100's of red and red-necked phalaropes and 100's of arctic terns.

It has two parking areas, one at the end of the refuge road where there is a flag pole and restrooms. From this parking area, a dirt road leads southwest to the second parking area. From the first area there is access to the ocean side of the island south of lot seven. From the second area there is access to the protected inner beach of Plum Island where the Plum Island Sound and Ipswich Bay join the Atlantic Ocean. The local name for this area is Motherıs Beach because of it is safety for small children. From the second area two paths lead to the beach. Most birders take the more westerly path since that leads futher up the inner coast of the island and is generally closer to any interesting birds that might be around. In the spring and summer there are usually two or three pairs of Piping Plovers nesting on the inner Sandy Point beach. The areas around the nests are roped off, but the beach is not closed, so this is an excellent place to get good looks at this endangered species. After hatching you will see small, downy plovers darting around the Sandy Point beaches. Warning though, downy Piping Plovers are about the cutest things on the planet, and if you are not careful you will suffer acute cuteness overload. In late summer Sandy Point is a great place to check for roosting migrating shorebirds and terns. If you plan your trip to Sandy Point to occur within an hour or two of high tide you will likely see more birds. In September there can be thousands of shorebirds roosting on the beach, the vast majority being Semipalmated Plovers and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but many other species can be mixed in, including Ruddy Turnstones, White-rumped Sandpipers, Sanderlings, yellowlegs, Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knots, and even Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

- provides staging and wintering habitat for many species, and is along the Atlantic migration flyby. Northern Harriers, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons ... Shorebirds - the fall migration of shorebirds (though almost none of it occurs in the fall) is a highpoint of the Plum Island birding year. Bill Forward Pool and Stage Island Pool are managed for shorebird habitat in late summer, and the numbers and variety of shorebird species found during this period can be dramatic. Fall shorebird specialties of annual occurrence on the island include American Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Western Sandpiper, Bairdıs Sandpiper, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Gulls and Terns - the Newburyport area is justly famous for its variety of gulls. Saltmarsh Birds ­ Plum Island is a barrier island that protects a large portion of the Great Salt Marsh to its west. The saltmarsh habitat is a stopover area for many groups of birds during migration, and the breeding grounds for a group of specialty birds. The saltmarsh breeders often encountered on Plum Island are Clapper Rail, Willet, Wilsonıs Phalarope, Common Tern, Marsh Wren, Saltmarsh Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow. The breeding territory of Nelsonıs Sparrow begins less than twenty miles to the north, and in fall Plum Island gets an influx of these birds that join the loose flocks of other feeding saltmarsh sparrows. The most popular spot on the island for these sparrows and other marsh birds is the boat ramp just south of the entrance gatehouse, but the saltmarsh area from the boatramp to just north of lot two can be even more productive. On a windless morning in May or June you may be able to hear numerous Marsh Wrens, Saltmarsh Sparrows, and Seaside Sparrows singing. Marsh Wrens are loud and obvious, Seaside Sparrows are quiet, sounding like distant Red-winged Blackbirds, while Saltmarsh Sparrows songs are quiet gaspy hisses followed by pops that require a little experience. But once you have it, youıll be surprised how often you will pick it up anywhere there is nearby saltmarsh, from the pans to Stage Island. Winter Specialties ­ Plum Island hosts winter specialties that draw birders to the island during the coldest and bleakest days of the year. The most sought after of these birds include Barrowıs Goldeneye, Rough-legged Hawk, Razorbill, Snowy Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Northern Shrike. Plum Island is not prone to hosting the winter irruptive species. However, Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins are reasonably frequent visitors. Plum Island also hosts the three ³winter field passerines,² Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting, though the latter two become scarce during the coldest spells of a long winter. Because of the rich abundance of fruiting trees and shrubs on Plum Island a number of birds not normally thought of as winter birds in Massachusetts may attempt to overwinter on the island. This category includes Hermit Thrush, American Robin, and Yellow-rumped Warbler.


If you want to find pelagic birds in the local area you should head for Cape Ann or take a whale-watching cruise. But if you insist on looking for pelagics birds from Plum Island you are not too far off your head if you do your searching at the right time of year and during or just after the right (what most would call wrong) weather conditions. The easiest location to look for these birds on the island are the lot one and lot seven beach overlook platforms. That being said there are three pelagic species that are often seen from the shores of Plum Island ­ Wilsonıs Storm-Petrel (throughout the summer), Northern Gannet (fall through spring), and Black-legged Kittiwake (fall through spring). The best time to look for the other pelagic birds is during or after strong north-easterly winds (associated with storms) during the fall. The birds in this category include shearwaters (Manx, Greater, and Sooty in that order of most liklyhood), jaegers (Parasitic much more likely than Pomarine) and phalaropes (Red and Red-necked). Other pelagics are remotely possible but very much less likely.

From spring through fall the boat ramp is an excellent spot to look for breeding saltmarsh birds, especially Marsh Wrens and Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows. The water at the boat ramp is the Plum Island River, an estuary that connects Plum Island Sound with the Merrimack River. When the tide is low mudflats on the the shores and in the middle of the estuary are exposed. These are good spots to look for gulls, shorebirds, herons, and egrets. Both Saltmarsh Sparrows and Seaside Sparrows nest nearby in the saltmarsh. The Seasides nest in the more salt tolerent grasses along the edges of the estuary, while the Saltmarshes nest in the softer grasses back from the banks. Seaside Sparrows can sometimes be seen in the coarser grasses along the edges, which is also an excellent spot to look for Saltmarshes. At low tide the Seaside Sparrows will sometimes pick invertebrates or other small food items from the back edges of the mud flats, in among the bases of the grasses. The boat ramp is also one of the best spots on the island for Clapper Rail, though this bird is much more often heard than seen. Beach Overlook ­ Ocean birds, grebes, pelagics, Piping Plovers, Least Terns, gulls Road to Lot Two ­ Between the boat ramp and lot two the refuge road closely parallels the Plum Island River. Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, and Clapper Rails can be found (much more likely heard than seen) at any point along here. Even after the estuary bends away from the road just north of lot two the chances of finding the sparrows remains high. This is because the saltmarsh opposite lot two is crossed by a number of old drainage ditches that provide the right grass habitat for Seaside Sparrows, and the extensive flats are excellent for Saltmarsh Sparrows. When these two species are singing, this is a great place to learn the songs of the two species and to catch an occasional glimpse of each. Pans ­ Pans are shallow bodies of water that hold standing water, or are salty deposits where standing water has evaporated. There are many pans scattered throughout the saltmarsh, but the the large pans between lots two and three are the only one close to the road. The refuge road widens along the largest pan so people can pull over and watch for wildlife. Lot Three ­ pleasant walk to the beach Scurves ­ South of lot three and north of the Wardens the refuge road enters a forested area where the road sweeps back and forth a number of times. This feature gives this area one of its popular names, the S-curves. one of higher canopy forests on the island ­ park at the wardens and walk back Wardens ­ South of the S-curves the road reaches the Wardens, with an ample parking area on the west side of the road. This area has two maintenance buildings and is sometimes called the Sub-headquarters, the the area has not been staffed in recent memory. The name Wardens stems from the time before the refuge existed and this area of the island was part of the XXX sanctuary, whose warden lived in a cabin in this area. The Wardens area is worth a check anytime you visit the island. Park in the lot and then walk between the buildings and out to the isolated trees at the edge of the salt marsh. The sandy, gravelly ground, with scattered weedy vegetation is attractive to sparrows in the fall, and Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings in late fall and early winter. The isolated trees and the vegetation around them often hold interesting species. This is a good area to look for the more unusual sparrows on the refuge, for example, Vesper and Clay-colored Sparrows. Also from the isolated trees you have a good vantage point overlooking Plum Island Sound and the saltmarshes to the north and south. Because of the broad expanse in view from this point, this is a good stop when searching for Snowy Owls in the winter. One or more Snowies are often visible from this point. North Pool Overlook ­ Just south of the Wardens is North Pool Overlook, a parking and observing area on the west side of the refuge road. The overlook is atop the North Pool dike, an earthen berm that encloses the North Pool fresh water impoundment. The dike heads west from the overlook then turns south and continues to the Hellcat area where the North Pool dike connects to the central Hellcat dike, and then continues southward as the Bill Forward Pool dike, enclosing the Bill Forward Pool, until the berm reaches its end at the South Field and the Pines Nature Trail. The North Pool Overlook provides an excellent vantage point that overlooks the Wardens field to the north, and the North Field and parts of North Pool to the south. , the Plum Island Sound to the west, and some scrubby vegetated areas to the east. Bobolinks breed abundantly in North Field; Canada Geese, Killdeer, and Savannah Sparrows also breed in the fields; the only recent breeding locations for Northern Harriers in Essex County are in the back of North Field. See the secion on North Pool for information about its breeding birds. North Field and Forest Opposite ­ Bobolink, Northern Harrier Hellcat Forest ­ Flycatchers, Warlblers Hellcat Dikes Bill Forward Pool ­ Bill Forward Pool is the second fresh water impoundment on the island. It is separated from North Pool by the central dike at Hellcat. Forward Pool is worth a check at any time. On sunny mornings it is best to check the pool from the blind in the pine stand on the east side of the pool. On sunny afternoons it is best to check the pool from the Bill Forward dike. To reach the blind drive past the Hellcat parking lot and onto the dirt part of the refuge road. The small parking lot for the blind is a short distance down the road. As you walk the path pay attention to the birds you hear along the way. Field Sparrows nest in the field you walk through. To reach the Bill Forward dike, park in the Hellcat lot, walk out the central Hellcat dike to the tower, turn south and walk down to the public access limit. Carefully scan the entire pool. In spring the pool can be loaded with ducks and other water related birds. In late summer there can also be hundreds and often thousands of shorebirds. South Marsh Cross Farm Hill Stage Island Pool Area Lot

February 26, 2006, Tom Wetmore