2014-10-16 / Nature

Small Songbirds Passing Through

By Jack Kelly


Ruby-crowned Kinglet captures insects at Third Beach. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Ruby-crowned Kinglet captures insects at Third Beach. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Weather and wind direction shifts brought a bounty of diminutive songbirds to Newport County recently. Local bird watchers logged sightings of a large number of varied species throughout oceanside habitats that included the Sachuest Point region, Brenton Point State Park and the Norman Bird Sanctuary. One particularly active area was the pine tree and scrub brush habitat surrounding the Third Beach parking lot, with over 20 migratory bird species identified and recorded.

Raptor species including Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Merlin Falcons and Peregrine Falcons have been spotted in fairly large numbers across Aquidneck Island. These birds of prey follow and pursue the flocks of smaller transients, utilizing them as a sort of flying smorgasbord. The songbirds deploy two defenses against attacks from above, and are usually successful in avoiding certain death.


Yellow-rumped Warbler in the thickets at Third Beach. Yellow-rumped Warbler in the thickets at Third Beach. The first defense is flocking, where birds caught in open fields or other vulnerable positions will take off and fly very closely together while executing drastic dives and turns to escape predators. The second defense involves alarm calls issued by birds foraging in or near trees and shrubs. At the first alert, every member of the feeding group will seek shelter in the foliage and wait out the threat. Many local birders have experienced these moments when a sudden silence falls over a habitat and it is a sign that raptors are in the area.

The Bay-breasted Warbler nests in the dense fir and spruce forests of southern Canada, where it forages for spruce budworm caterpillars and other destructive insect pests. It winters in Central and South America, and like many other Neotropical birds, crosses the Gulf of Mexico nonstop, when migrating to and from its wintering grounds.


Blue-headed Vireo sits on a branch. Blue-headed Vireo sits on a branch. The species has a wingspan of 9 inches and a body length of 5.5 inches and displays a variety of plumage colors depending on the season. It has a high, thin lispy song of “thi thi thi thi thi thi” on one pitch. It has a call of a loud, sharp “tchip.”

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is a highly versatile bird that nests in coniferous and mixed boreal forests and highland forests of the mountains in the western United States and across southern Canada and Alaska. It winters in a wide range from the southern Pacific and Atlantic coasts, Gulf Coast, and down into Mexico and Central America. It forages for insects from farm fields up to treetops and is a late fall season migrant. It has a wingspan of 7.5 inches and a body length of 5 inches, and like other warbler species its colors vary with the seasons. The Yellow-rump is named for its characteristic bright yellow rump displayed in all plumage variations. It has a loose, sweet, chippy or warbly trill song that trails off at the end, it also calls with a rich but flat “tchip.”


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 Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a late season migrant with a wingspan of 7.5 inches and a body length of 4.25 inches. It breeds and nests in the coniferous forests of the western United States and across southern Canada and into Alaska. It winters in the southern tier of the United States and into Mexico and Central America. This tiny, compact bird forages in groups with other small birds, moving restlessly through vegetation with nervous flicks of its wings. It regularly hover-gleans insects from the tips of branches while delivering its distinctive call of a low “jedit.” Plumage colors depend on the season with the male displaying a little scarlet crown when agitated.

The beautifully colored Blueheaded

Vireo is a staple of migration across our region. It nests in the deciduous forests of the eastern United States and across southern Canada. It winters along the southern Atlantic coast of the United States, the Gulf Coast and down into Mexico and Central America.

This trademark vireo has a wingspan of 9.5 inches and a body length of 5.5 inches. It forages with other woodland birds in scrubby thickets and forested regions for insects. Its plumage takes on brighter or duller color patterns depending on the season. It has a slow, simple, and sweet song on high pitch described as “Robin-like.”

The Golden-crowned Kinglet inhabits coniferous forests yearround and can often be found by its high, lisping calls of high “see” notes. It nests in mostly boreal and high mountain forests across the northern United States and southern Canada and winters across a large swath of the lower United States.

This tiny bird has a body length of four inches and a wingspan of seven inches, and can often be seen hanging upside down gleaning insects and larvae from pine needles and branch bark. It forages in mixed flocks during migration and can often be found in forested habitats locally.

As the fall migration cycle winds down, a few interesting species are still passing through the island. There is still time to catch a glimpse of these fearless travelers and enjoy the beauty and majesty of the natural world.

For more information on the birds in this article, visit allaboutbirds.org.

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