2014-04-17 / Nature

Avian Array Rewards Admirers of Nature

By Jack Kelly

Great Egrets display for both breeding purposes and territorial disputes. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Great Egrets display for both breeding purposes and territorial disputes. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The springtime avian exodus has begun to pick up momentum across Newport County. Tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds have already departed our region and are winging north. Meanwhile, summer breeds have begun to take their place in the varied habitats of Aquidneck Island. A recent excursion through the southern end of the island revealed the teeming diversity that exists only a short distance from our front doors.

The Gooseneck Cove salt marshes, located along Hazard Road in Newport, were alive with a number of species. A dozen Bufflehead ducks, most likely only a few days away from migrating to Alaska and Canada, were diving for small fish in the main channel of the wetlands. Foraging in pairs, the ducks were gorging to build up their fat reserves for the journey north. Other waterfowl such as Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Red-breasted Mergansers were also feeding. Local female Mallards, or hens, are actively establishing nests. Some are already incubating eggs.

An adult Osprey was circling and hovering over the wetlands. The large raptor suddenly pulled in its wings, splashed down into the water, and emerged with a pogey grasped in its talons. Gaining altitude, it flew north in the direction of the nest at Toppa Field.

A male Red-tailed Hawk soared above the region, most likely looking for prey for himself and his mate. His partner will not leave the nest that the two built together after she laid her first egg. She will remain at home high in their pine tree until her last egg hatches. The male is responsible for finding food and protecting their territory from other raptors.

Two wading bird species, a pair of Great Egrets and a single Snowy Egret, were also combing the marsh. Great Egrets occupy wetlands across most of the United States, including colonies that live among the islands of Narragansett Bay. With a body length of 38 inches and a wingspan of 51 inches, this striking white bird is easily spied. It boasts a long neck, dark legs and feet, and a long yellow bill that darkens during breeding time. Other mating signs include vivid green loral skin between the eye and the base of the bill, and long “nuptial plumes,” or aigrettes, on the back.

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, with a body length of 24 inches and a wingspan of 40 inches, was foraging for small fish. This specimen nests in wetland habitats across many parts of the United States, and, like the Great Egret, also calls the islands of the bay home. For a few weeks during high breeding season, the adults sport crimson loral skin, tangerine feet, and abundant nuptial plumes on the breast and back. The birds normally display snowy white plumage, black legs, and yellow feet and lores.

Both the Great Egret and Snowy Egret were hunted to near extinction for the millinery trade in the early 20th century, as their plumes were in demand for the popular ladies’ hats of the era. The public outcry against the practice led to modern bird conservation practices and the establishment of the first national wildlife refuge by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

An interesting array of feathered friends was also on display at Brenton Point State Park on Newport’s Ocean Drive. The park is a wintering spot for a number of songbirds, including Song Sparrows, Whitethroated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows and Eastern Towhees. The walkway along the trails that meander through the park’s heavy thickets and scrub brush is a bird watching paradise any time of year, and this visit was no exception. Residents such as American Robins, Blue Jays, and Black-capped Chickadees filled the air with their songs.

The Eastern Towhee, a member of the sparrow family, was noticeably louder than the other birds with its cheerful, whistled song that sounds like “drink your TEEEEE” or sometimes “drink TEEE,” with the last note higher and longer. The adults of this species nest in gardens, fields, and woodland thickets across the Northeastern and Midwestern United States, as well as in parts of southern Canada. The average adult is 8.5 inches long with a wingspan of 10.5 inches. The male has a black head and back, with rich rufous-orange sides and a white belly. The female is similar to the male, but has soft brown back and head plumage. These birds forage with a “double-scratch,” thrusting their bodies back and forth to reveal seeds and insects buried under leaf litter.

We are lucky to share our island home with so many accessible natural wonders that await our discovery.

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