2015-01-15 / Nature

Winter Tides Mean Beach Treasures

By Jack Kelly

Sanderlings forage at the water’s edge Third Beach in MIddletown. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Sanderlings forage at the water’s edge Third Beach in MIddletown. (Photos by Jack Kelly) For shell collectors and local artisans, winter is the best time of year to find unique and intriguing artifacts that are left behind by receding tides.

One of the most prized treasures to beach trekkers is sea glass, or as it is colloquially known, Mermaid’s Tears. Mariner legend describes sea glass as tears shed by mermaids for sailors lost at sea. Centuries of human habitation in Newport County have contributed to a large cache of broken glass littering the water. Many glass nuggets are produced by the sanding and polishing action of the waves, and they are ripe for collecting along the shorelines of our island.

Scallop shells, in a variety of blue colors, as well as hues of browns, yellows and reds, line the beaches. Multiple clam species, including large sea clams, quahogs, razor clams, angel clams and others, have left the remnants of their existence scattered across the sands. Marine organisms and creatures such as sand dollars, anemones, seahorses and others, may be found entangled in the seaweed of the wrack. Other discoveries include the petite shells of dog winkles and whelks.

Visitors to our sandy ocean beaches will also most likely see numerous seabirds, shorebirds and other avian species. Great Blackbacked Gulls, Herring Gulls, and the diminutive Ring-billed Gull are denizens of local shorelines. One shorebird species that winters along the region’s beaches is the Sanderling. This pale sandpiper can be seen foraging at the water’s edge, racing back and forth with the waves while probing for invertebrates exposed by receding waters. With a body length of eight inches and a wingspan of 17 inches, it has a ghostly gray plumage above, white below, and a thick black bill and heavy, black legs. In spring the Sanderling develops breeding plumage that includes a rufous wash to the head and breast, as well as rich, black scapular and mantle feathers. Sanderlings winter on both coasts of North America as well as Mexico and Central America. It breeds and nests near water on the dry, rock strewn tundra of the Arctic Circle, high in Canada’s Nunavut territory.

Another winter shorebird resident is the Dunlin. Once known as the Red-backed Sandpiper, it breeds in the marshy tundra of northern Canada and northern Alaska, and winters on both coasts of North America, as well as the Gulf Coast, Mexico and down into Central America. With a body length of 8.75 inches and a wingspan of 17 inches, it has a plain gray-brown (“Dun”) plumage above, white below, a long, black drooping bill, and black legs and feet. The Dunlin uses its long bill to probe methodically in the sand and mud for invertebrates. It undergoes a dramatic change prior to breeding season in the spring, when it develops a striking bright brick-red plumage on the crown of its head and back, as well as a deep, rich black belly patch. These two shorebird species are just an example of the bounty of life that exists along the coastline during the winter months and are well worth seeing.

Many beach strollers take trash bags along on their walks and clean up litter left on the shorelines by winter tides. This is a simple activity which sends a great message, especially to children, about the importance of protecting the environment. Whatever the reason for going to the seashore in the winter, it is a personally satisfying journey.

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

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