2014-08-21 / Around Town

Shoreline Visitors

By Jack Kelly

Monarch butterfly feeds on lilacs. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Monarch butterfly feeds on lilacs. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Late August is an excellent time to take a hike through any of Aquidneck Island’s many diverse and scenic habitats to discover the natural beauty in our own backyard. The tapestry of nature is never more evident than during this time of year.

Butterflies common to Newport County have been sighted across many areas of the island. One of the most distinguishable is the Monarch, with its colorful patterns of orange and black. This large butterfly, with a wingspan of 3.5-4 inches, is usually seen feeding on flowering plants. The Monarch is widely known for its late summer and early fall migration of thousands of miles from the eastern United States and southern Canada to wintering locations in Mexico. One migratory destination is a forested area outside of Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico, where thousands of monarchs will cover every inch of the oyamel trees that grow in that region.

Mourning Cloak at Brenton Point State Park. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Mourning Cloak at Brenton Point State Park. (Photo by Jack Kelly) The species’ migratory habits have been the subject of a number of scientific studies for many years. Scientists and biologists have theorized that Monarchs use a type of natural geomagnetic compass, similar to certain migratory birds and sea turtles. Earlier this summer, the University of Massachusetts

Medical School and Worcester Polytechnic Institute released the results of a joint study on the Monarch. It found that proteins in the butterflies’ antennae would activate the inclination compass when exposed to light on a certain wavelength, at the ultra-violet/blue end of the spectrum.

In recent years, the Monarch has suffered a severe drop in population due to habitat loss in the U.S. Canada, and Mexico. Milkweed, a plant vital to the Monarch’s survival, is disappearing across the insect’s domain due to the effects of herbicides and genetically-modified crops. The 2013 tally of the win- tering population showed the lowest count in 20 years, prompting a growing outcry in the scientific community about the potential loss of these prolific pollinators.

Wilson’s Warbler at Brenton Point State Park. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Wilson’s Warbler at Brenton Point State Park. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Another butterfly common to Aquidneck Island is the Mourning Cloak, a large, uniquely-colored species found across North America and Eurasia. The name is a literal translation from many Scandinavian languages and the German name “Trauermantel.” In Great Britain, this breed is known as the Camberwell Beauty, thought to have come to Britain’s shores in imported wood from Sweden in the early 19th century.

Mourning Cloaks have a wingspan of 3.5 inches and are commonly found in hardwood forests feeding on the sap of deciduous trees, but they may be found in other habitats. This butterfly does not migrate but overwinters in our area, using tree cavities or loose bark to shield against the cold and is usually among the first to be seen in spring.

Bald Eagle (Photo by Bob Weaver) Bald Eagle (Photo by Bob Weaver) Along with the fluttering butterflies, migratory songbirds have been reported recently across the southern end of Aquidneck Island. Brenton Point State Park has been the scene of multiple sightings of Hooded Warblers, a Wilson’s Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Baltimore Orioles, and other feathered friends.

The petite Wilson’s Warbler has a body length of 4.75 inches and a wingspan of 7 inches. It is yellow overall and its neat, black cap fades after breeding season. It forages actively in areas with low undergrowth and shrubs, flitting through the brush or trees, capturing insects on the wing or hovergleaning from foliage.

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. It breeds and nests in the northwestern continental U.S., Alaska, and across southern Canada. It winters along the Gulf Coast of the U.S. and farther south into Mexico, Central America and South America.

These are just a few of the treats awaiting nature walkers in the wilds of Newport County. Migration Notes:

The immature Bald Eagle observed at Gooseneck Cove seems to have settled in for a prolonged stay. It has been sighted on a daily basis feeding on fish and waterfowl in the wetlands.

An immature Peregrine Falcon has been spied in the same area feeding on migratory shorebirds and other flying prey.

A family of Red-tailed Hawks, which nested in a large copper beech tree on the western shore of Gooseneck Cove, has been observed hunting over the wetlands and other points along Ocean Drive.

A dynamic migratory display will be under way around Sachuest Point, Sachuest Beach and Third Beach in the next week or two. Thousands of Tree Swallows stage for migration in this area annually during the last week of August. It is a sight well worth seeing. The birds move in huge flocks, taking flying insects on the wing and gorging on berries and seeds as they prepare for the long migration south.

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