Every year when winter makes its chilly debut in New England the pristine coast is abandoned until the following summer. Plum Island is one of many communities that, contrary to popular assumption, remain a cornucopia of attractions year round with plenty of winter activities that are too often overlooked. Plum Island is home to the Joppa Flats and Parker River Wildlife Refuge, two prime destinations for any outdoors enthusiast and centers for the island’s animal visitors. During the winter months seals can be spotted along the beach in the Refuge, deer frequent the island when foraging, but the animals most eagerly sought after are those with wings.
Birds are what make Plum Island wildlife stand out, and in the winter as thousands of birds migrate south thousands of watchers migrate to the island as well. The Refuge and Joppa Flats are common stopovers for birds heading south and some birds from northern New England and Canada make it their seasonal home. Among the common waterfowl, some winter residents are the red-breasted merganser, the common eider, white winged scoter, and the grebe. These birds add to the local waterfowl of ducks, teals and loons who reside on the island and in the wetlands surrounding it. There are also a number of finch and ‘bird-feeder’ species that can be spotted on Plum Island during the colder months, such as the pine siskin, crossbills and red polls.
Large birds of prey can be found on the island as food becomes scarce during the winter. Owls are among the most common, with sightings of Snowy owls, short-eared owls, and more rare barred owls and long-eared owls reported each season. Another predatory bird is the rough-legged hawk (also called the rough-legged buzzard) which frequently winters around marshes, making Plum Island ideal. However the most celebrated bird of prey is the bald eagle, a rare and beautiful sight for avian lovers. Sightings have frequently made visitors pull over on the Plum Island Turnpike while they exit their cars to get a better view.
Bird watching culture is so prevalent on Plum Island that it has even inspired yearly events. The Mass Audubon Society at Joppa Flats has created the Superbowl of Birding, a competition between teams to find the most avian species on and around the island at the end of January. The following month is the Merrimac River Eagle Festival, celebrating the eagles returning to the region and filled with bird watching tours and learning activities. This time of year may not be beach weather, but for those who appreciate the beauty of nature and bird watching this is perfect island weather. For those of you who can brave the cold, visit Plum Island for a slice of the New England outdoors.