2014-12-18 / Nature

Tally Taken for National Bird Count

By Jack Kelly


Bird count volunteers Matt Grimes, Patty O’Neill, Barry Murphy and Paul LeToille observe waterfowl along the coast of the Esplanade in Middletown. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Bird count volunteers Matt Grimes, Patty O’Neill, Barry Murphy and Paul LeToille observe waterfowl along the coast of the Esplanade in Middletown. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The 115th Annual Newport/ Westport Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count was held recently across a number of Aquidneck Island’s habitats. This year’s count resulted in a total of 131 avian species spread across the reporting zone.

The Audubon Society has set criteria for determining avian populations by establishing a system of circles that are 15 miles in diameter, spread across many parts of the world. The Newport/Westport circle has its center in Little Compton and takes in approximately twothirds of our island. Unfortunately, the southern section of Newport, encompassing many southern beaches, Newport Harbor, and Brenton Point State Park, are excluded. However the count region does include many prime habitats, including Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, and many rural ponds and farm fields in Portsmouth.


A Red-bellied Woodpecker seeks insects and larvae in an oak tree at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. A Red-bellied Woodpecker seeks insects and larvae in an oak tree at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. On Sunday, Dec. 14, the day began at 5:30 a.m. as local bird watchers, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts gathered at predetermined sites across the area to conduct an owl count. Under the dim light of a waning quarter moon and a blanket of stars on a crisp, cold morning, the volunteers used recorded calls and human uttered calls to attract any nearby nocturnal avian predators. One of the sheer delights of the pre-dawn walk was the viewing of meteors flashing across the sky above the tall, leafless trees in the forested areas.

Owl enthusiasts were stunned by the number of owl species present across the count region and reported six breeds including Barn Owls, Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech Owls, and a Northern Sawwhet Owl. Yet there was a bit of disappointment expressed by some participants over the lack of Snowy Owl observations this year.


Harlequin Ducks feed in the waters off Sachuest Point. Harlequin Ducks feed in the waters off Sachuest Point. As the sun rose into a cloudless sky, the volunteers spread out to other areas to count waterfowl, songbirds, shorebirds, seabirds and diurnal raptors. Large rafts of sea ducks and other waterfowl including Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Buffleheads, and Common Eider were sighted along a number of coastlines. Other duck species such as Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, American Black Ducks, Mallards, and Ruddy Ducks were observed across many ponds in the count territory, as well as thousands of Canada Geese.

A surprise migrant greeted participants at the Sachuest Point NWR in the form of a very late season Tree Swallow, as the vast majority of this species migrated to South America over three months ago. A female juvenile Harrier Hawk and a mature Red-tailed Hawk hunted for prey as the volunteers crisscrossed the expanse of the refuge. Songbirds including Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, Carolina Wrens, and many more filled the air with calls as they moved about the property.

For many, the day went well into the late afternoon, as groups reported their findings from various sectors and headed out to search new zones. While a final report will be forthcoming in approximately a week, the vast majority of species recorded were resident or wintering breeds. Unlike past years, there were no rare birds observed during the count. Local birders remained upbeat because they know that any minute of any day can bring another gift of nature our way.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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