2014-10-09 / Nature

Fall Migratory Journeys of the Young

By Jack Kelly


A juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper forages along Brenton Point State Park’s rocky coastline. A juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper forages along Brenton Point State Park’s rocky coastline. Worldwide bird populations are at a zenith in late summer and early fall due to the previous summer’s breeding and nesting. Billions of avian travelers begin the fall migration cycle to wintering grounds in habitats around the globe. Many of these sojourners are juvenile birds participating in their first migration and are highly susceptible to predators, disease and misdirection. The mortality rate of these young transients is approximately 50 percent.

Various species find their way south in a number of complex manners. Whether migrating with adults, using the sun when migrating by day or the stars when migrating by night, or by depending on the earth’s electromagnetic fields and polarized light sources, birds orient flight patterns to an eventual destination.

Newport County hosts tens of thousands of migrants due to its proximity to the Atlantic Flyway, and local bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts have reported a wide variety of species during the present fall migration.


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 Black Skimmer is the sole North American representative of its subfamily, Rhynchopinae, a species in which the mandible (lower bill) is longer than the maxilla (upper bill). Skimmers use this specialized bill to forage for fish. Feeding mostly at night, they lower the mandible into the water while flying, and snap the bill shut upon detecting a fish. Skimmers prefer calm, shallow waters, especially at low tide, when small fish are more concentrated by the tidal change.

Both adult and juvenile Skimmers have a wingspan of 44 inches and a body length of 18 inches. The young birds will take on the characteristic adult plumage of a black head, white face, white breast, and white belly, as well as black upper wings and back, as they mature. During this time its bill will take on a vivid red-orange color, and its legs will turn bright red.


An adult Caspian Tern (L) nurtures a juvenile Caspian Tern in the Easton’s Beach parking lot recently. (Photos by Jack Kelly) An adult Caspian Tern (L) nurtures a juvenile Caspian Tern in the Easton’s Beach parking lot recently. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The closest known nesting areas are located on Cape Cod and Long Island. This species winters on the United States’ southern Atlantic coast, Gulf Coast, and down into Mexico and Central America. Skimmers emit a nasal, yapping, puppylike “ip” and a series of vibrating nasal calls.

The White-rumped Sandpiper undergoes one of the longest migrations of any shorebird. It nests in the wet tundra of Nunavut, high in the Arctic Circle, and winters in Patagonia, at the far southern tip of South America. Both adults and juveniles have a wingspan of 17 inches and a body length of 7.5 inches. It is noticeable in flocks of foraging shorebirds because its wings project well beyond its tail. It rests and feeds in wetlands, and along sandy and rocky beaches in our region. It has a call that is a short, faint, squeaky “tseek” that has an electrical quality.

The Black-bellied Plover nests near water on the dry tundra ridges of northern Alaska and Nunavut. It winters on mudflats, coastlines and wet farm fields during inclement weather, along both the southern Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States, Gulf Coast, and down into Mexico and Central America. Both juveniles and adults have a wingspan of 29 inches and a body length of 11.5 inches. It has a rich, sweet, slurred “pleeooohee” call.

The husky, heavy-billed Caspian Tern is the largest tern in the world and has a wingspan of 50 inches and a body length of 21 inches. It nests in colonies on large lakes and estuaries across the northern United States, southern Canada and the southern coast of Alaska. It migrates in family units at night and winters along the Gulf Coast, eastern Florida coast and down into Mexico and Central America. The terns forage for small fish and rest during the day while migrating.

Adults have a deep, black cap which fades after breeding season, a heavy deep red bill, with pale gray plumage above and white below. Juveniles are colored similarly to adults but have dark bars on their wing and back plumage. Adults emit a very harsh, raspy “rrrrreOW”, while juveniles give a high “whewheeoow.” During migration family groups can be heard overhead at night with the juvenile’s whistled “groveling call” answering the adult’s raucous screech.

Fall migration continues with more species passing through every day. It is truly a time of awe as nature presents one of the greatest shows in the natural world. For information on local sightings visit asri.org or call 401-949-5454. For more information on the birds presented in this article, visit allaboutbirds.org.

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