2013-10-17 / Nature

Surprises from Nature

By Jack Kelly

Great Egrets forage in the Gooseneck Cove wetlands. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Great Egrets forage in the Gooseneck Cove wetlands. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The fall migration cycle is beginning to wane across the Rhode Island portion of the Atlantic Flyway. Locally-nesting wading bird species such as the Great Egret and the Snowy Egret have been staging (gathering for migration) in local wetlands for the past two weeks. During recent morning observations in the Gooseneck Cove area, 38 Great Egrets and 14 Snowy Egrets were sighted gorging themselves on fish in preparation for their long flights south. Similar reports have been made from other wetland habitats across Aquidneck Island. Egrets have historic departure dates of Oct. 12-18, depending on wind direction, temperature, and weather conditions. A few juveniles may linger in our area longer, but even they will soon flee the colder temperatures.

Both of these species arrived in Newport County in early April. The egrets courted, mated, nested in colonies, and raised their young on the islands of Narragansett Bay including Rose Island, Gould Island, Dyer Island and Prudence Island.

Wilson’s warbler calls from a perch in undergrowth. Wilson’s warbler calls from a perch in undergrowth. Local bird watchers and nature enthusiasts have delighted in observing the behaviors of these diverse species for the past six months. During breeding season egrets use stylized postures, specialized calls, and wispy, breeding, or nuptial plumes, called “aigrettes,” to attract mates. (The French word for these feathers gave rise to the English name, “egret.”)

Great Egrets nest in wetland habitats across most of the United States and in a few locations in Canada. They winter along the Pacific Coast, southern Atlantic Coast, and the Gulf Coast of the United States as well as Mexico, Central America and points further south. The average adult is 38 inches long and has a wingspan of 51 inches. It is over a foot taller than the Snowy Egret. The Great Egret has all white plumage, black legs and feet, and a long yellow bill. It forages slowly and deliberately, using its strong neck muscles in lightning-quick jabs to capture fish, eels, amphibians and other prey. It gives very loud, jarring calls of “raaak” or “raaannk” when disturbed or flushed. Breeding birds are heard to use a ducklike gabbling.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. The Snowy Egret is a more delicate bird than the Great Egret. The average adult is 24 inches long with a wingspan of 40 inches. It has snow white plumage, black legs and yellow feet, a black bill and yellow lores (the area between base of bill and eyes). It nests and breeds in wetland habitats across the United States and winters in the same general regions as the Great Egret. The Snowy Egret forages by rapidly chasing fish and other prey through shallow waters or on mudflats. It also uses its feet to stir up prey from muddy or siltlined marsh bottoms. Its common call is a grating “rrrow” and it also emits braying and guttural sounds.

The Gooseneck Cove wetlands have also been hosting two juvenile Ospreys for the past five weeks. These birds are believed to be the offspring of a locally-nesting adult pair. The marshes give the young birds an opportunity to improve their fishing and flying skills as they prepare for their long migrations to South America.

This past weekend I witnessed the foraging behavior of one of these birds of prey as it circled and hovered over the waters of the wetlands. Its body was about two feet long and it had a wingspan of about five feet. Its brown plumage above showed juvenile white markings, while its white plumage below and mottled brown and white underwings made for spectacular viewing as it hovered overhead. The young Osprey suddenly plunged down into the water and quickly emerged with a fish in its talons. It flew across the marsh and landed in a leafless tree where it enjoyed its breakfast. Ospreys eat live fish exclusively, which is unique among raptor species.

While locally-nesting birds are preparing for their journeys south, other species are still passing through the varied habitats of our region from starting points far to our north. These avian voyagers are resting and foraging as they take breaks from long migrations.

One such tired bird was a Wilson’s Warbler, sighted in Brenton Point State Park this past week. This petite songbird has yellow plumage overall, with light brown wings and a tiny light-colored bill. During breeding season it has a neat, black cap of feathers on its head that fades in the late summer. The average adult is less than five inches long with a wingspan of seven inches. It forages by flying through brush or trees and capturing insects on the wing. It also hover gleans (feeding while hovering in the air, taking larvae and insects from leaves) while flicking its tail and wings.

This species nests and breeds in wet, well-vegetated areas with low undergrowth and shrubs. It favors bogs and muskeg that contain willow and alder trees, and it frequents forest breaks. Its nesting range includes mountainous regions of the western United States, Alaska, and all of Canada below the tundra line. It winters on the Gulf Coasts of Texas and Louisiana, as well as in Mexico, Central America and South America. The call of this small but intrepid bird is a flat “timp” or “tchip.”

Although fall migration is slowly ending, there still are chances to be surprised by the greatest show on earth – nature.

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