2014-06-05 / Nature

Afternoon Walk Reveals Avian Diversity

By Jack Kelly

A Yellow Warbler forages for insects in a bush at Sachuest Point. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A Yellow Warbler forages for insects in a bush at Sachuest Point. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Flora and fauna are flourishing as local habitats re-awaken to the sunlight and warmth of late spring. A walk through any of Aquidneck Island’s refuges, sanctuaries, or greenways offers a window into the behavior of local wildlife as summer approaches.

A recent afternoon visit to the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge’s restored salt marsh provided some amazing sights and discoveries.

A number of migratory shorebird species, including Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs and over a dozen Dowitchers were either resting or actively foraging in the marsh as they took a break from their long journeys to northern Canada and Alaska. These birds usually travel by night and rest and feed during the day.

Migratory songbirds that nest locally, such as Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstarts and Willow Flycatchers seemed to be in the process of mating. The small birds flitted among the surrounding shrubs and trees, gleaning insects and singing to attract mates. The brushy habitat seemed to be alive with caterpillars, tree snails, and other crawling and flying insects that offered a cornucopia of potential meals.

Across the mudflats of the wetlands, pairs of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls displayed ritual courtship routines of neck rubbing and bill touching.

Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, their wispy nuptial plumes resplendent in the sunlight, stalked marine prey in the waters of the marsh, while a solitary Green Heron slowly and meticulously sought nourishment along the shoreline. A pair of Glossy Ibis, with the breed’s classic long decurved bill, joined their wading cousins in the marsh. This species is known for its rich dark maroon neck and head plumage, which is accentuated by iridescent green and purple feathers on its back and wings.

Brightly colored Barn and Tree Swallows captured flying insects on the wing. The aerial adroitness of the swallows was breathtaking as they dove, climbed and made pinpoint turns in the sky while pursuing their quarry.

At one point, a rather agitated Song Sparrow kept landing close to me and issuing a rather terse “tsit” in my direction, until I realized I might be too close to its nest. Moving away, I was able to observe the sparrow bringing a caterpillar towards its nest to feed its young. While Song Sparrows are very common permanent residents and the most widespread of American sparrows, it was a thrill to watch this bird care for its brood.

As late afternoon turned into early evening, the Dowitchers began to stir. Soon enough, the small flock winged their way out of the marsh, continuing towards the north. The egrets, Ibis, and the Green Heron also departed, most likely returning to their night perches on the smaller islands of Narragansett Bay. The other inhabitants faded into the shadows of dusk.

As nighttime crept across the wetlands, a pair of Black-crowned Night-Herons made an appearance. These wading nocturnal predators feed on fish and crabs but are also omnivorous and will take the nestlings of small birds. The deep black crown and plumage of this species, combined with pale white coloring below, allow this stealthy predator to blend well into the shadows.

The air became thick with mosquitoes and it was time to depart. As I drove out, nature had one more surprise. A low-flying Barn Owl passed right in front of my car. Nesting Notes:

The Osprey pair nesting in the cell tower at Newport’s Toppa Field has welcomed at least two hatchlings. The adult birds have been observed bringing fish to the nest and actively feeding their offspring. It will be at least three weeks before the young birds will be visible for an accurate count.

The Osprey nest involved in the power outage in Middletown and parts of Portsmouth was not active at the time of the incident. A National Grid spokesperson commented that the nest was left in place, but sticks that had fallen loose and caused the outage were removed. This nest may become active in the future.

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