2014-07-31 / Nature

Evening Surprises in the Marsh

By Jack Kelly


The average adult Tern is 14 inches long and has a wingspan of 31 inches. The bird has a silvery sheen above and bright white underparts, with a black cap that extends to the top of its back. It has a very long tail that projects well beyond its wingtips when stationary, a black-tipped orange bill, and orange legs and feet. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The average adult Tern is 14 inches long and has a wingspan of 31 inches. The bird has a silvery sheen above and bright white underparts, with a black cap that extends to the top of its back. It has a very long tail that projects well beyond its wingtips when stationary, a black-tipped orange bill, and orange legs and feet. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A recent early evening trip to the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes showcased the diverse wildlife that frequents Newport. The roadway into the marsh was alive with songbirds singing and foraging in the brushy habitat. Blue Jays, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-winged Blackbirds, and a host of other species were observed. Further ahead, an adult mink and her pup ran across the roadway as they traversed the wetland’s boundaries. A startled doe and her fawn bolted into the phragmites in search of safety. On the east bank, a raccoon prowled for marine prey, while an Osprey circled over the open channel in the southern reaches of the wetlands. A male Belted Kingfisher was perched on an overhanging branch, surveying the water for small fish.


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 skies above the area were active with Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows feeding on flying insects. Five Common Terns from the rookery in Gooseneck Cove were diving for small marine prey for their chicks and fledglings. Wading birds such as Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons and a Green Heron were silently stalking fish and eels in various parts of the marsh.

However, a remarkable sighting on the first peat mound, located on the east side of the wetlands, revealed two juvenile Forster’s Terns, with the breed’s characteristic black eye patch, resting on the mud. This widespread and versatile Tern species nests in salt marshes and along barrier beaches on southern coasts of the United States, on the mid- Atlantic coast, and on lake islands and in prairie sloughs across the northern United States and southern Canada. The closest nesting areas to Newport are generally on Long Island. Forester's Terns have the unique behavior of migrating north into southern New England once the chicks have fledged. In late August they gather in mixed flocks to migrate south to wintering grounds.

All Terns are extremely territorial of their rookeries and highly protective of their young. In the excitement of observing and photographing the fledglings, I forgot about those facts. One of the young birds flew closer to my position and landed near the east culvert, not 30 feet away. As I relished at my luck, I suddenly heard a series of low, rattling “kiks” behind me and realized a second too late that my position was not tenable. The first adult knocked my ball cap off my head, while the second buzzed my left ear close enough for me to feel its wing feathers! Terns are capable of inflicting serious scalp and facial injuries, and I quickly retreated to the safety of my car. As dusk approached, I watched the adults feed their young and escort them in flights around the perimeter of the marsh.

Patrick Roche, a friend of this column, passed away in Newport recently. He was a long-tenured and very active volunteer at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. His knowledge of the natural world and his willingness to share his wisdom enriched the lives of many visitors to Sachuest Point. The Harlequin Ducks that winter at the refuge were among his favorite wildlife topics. His genuinely warm, inviting personality and big welcoming smile will be greatly missed by his family and friends.

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