2013-12-19 / Nature

Wildlife Enthusiasts Brave Cold for Bird Count

By Jack Kelly

The 114th Newport/Westport annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count was held on Saturday, Dec. 14 across wide areas of Aquidneck Island that included sections of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth. Our local bird count is part of the international count that will be completed by Jan. 4. For purposes of cataloging species, our region is known as the Westport/ Newport circle, which has its center in Little Compton. The circles, each 15 miles in diameter, are set in zones across North America, South America and other regions in the Western Hemisphere. The annual event allows biologists and ornithologists to gauge the various avian populations and discern if there are any significant increases or decreases in overall numbers.

A group of 34 volunteer bird watchers, biologists, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts met at the Norman Bird Sanctuary at 7 a.m. and broke into three separate teams, which were assigned to specific regions within the perimeters of the count’s specified areas. I eventually joined one of the teams that was assigned to the southwest arc of the circle. This section includes everything east and south of Eustis Avenue in Newport, stretching to the Sakonnet River and as far north as Green End Avenue in Middletown. This wide-reaching parcel includes the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and the St. George’s School property, as well as all of the ponds, wetlands and beaches in the region. Each year the volunteers return to the same properties to keep a historical record and to collect avian information.


Volunteers Barry Murphy, Matt Grimes and Paul Letoille count avian species at Sachuest Point NWR. Volunteers Barry Murphy, Matt Grimes and Paul Letoille count avian species at Sachuest Point NWR. The weather was absolutely brutal, with temperatures hovering in the low teens, a northeast wind driving windchill factors to near zero, and snow showers passing through the area intermittently. Longtime participants, including Matt Grimes, Rey Larsen and Paul Letoille, proclaimed this year’s count the coldest they have ever experienced. However, all of the volunteers in the southwest section were up to the task, walking miles through fields, scrublands, wetlands, and forests. I was especially pleased to observe a male American Kestrel, North America’s smallest falcon, foraging for prey in the vast southern field of Sachuest Point and a female Harrier Hawk seeking rodent prey in the same area. Yet the best moments were the discoveries of a number of Snowy Owls along the coast.


Snowy Owl hunting from perch on the rocks of Sachuest Point shoreline. Snowy Owl hunting from perch on the rocks of Sachuest Point shoreline. Another surprise was the sighting of a male and female Eastern Towhee in the woodlands near Purgatory Chasm. These colorful birds are 8.5 inches long with a wingspan of 10.5 inches. They are winter residents of our region, but nest and breed in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, as well as in areas of southern Canada. This species forages with a “double scratch,” thrusting its body back and forth to reveal seeds and insects under leaf litter in wooded thickets and forests.


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. Letoille, sector coordinator, reported that 74 species were identified and recorded across this particular zone. He was impressed with the record number of four Snowy Owls, (three at Sachuest Point and one at Easton’s Beach) that were observed in the sector, as well as the large number of waterfowl found in Green End Pond and Easton’s Pond. While the final results of the Newport/Westport count have not been fully tabulated, there were more than 10 Snowy Owls found in the region.

It is important to note that the vast majority of Newport and western Middletown were not included in the count.

Return to top