2015-09-03 / Nature

Migration Picks Up Along Flyway

By Jack Kelly


A group of male American goldfinch drinks from a puddle. A group of male American goldfinch drinks from a puddle. As fall approaches, billions of birds are beginning their southern migration along the Atlantic Flyway to warmer climes and wintering grounds. Aquidneck Island’s community of bird watchers and nature enthusiasts are elated over recent avian sightings across the region’s diverse habitats. Birders have reported an increase in shorebird, songbird, seabird, and even raptor species along the area’s beaches and rocky shorelines, as well as in the meadows, fields, wetlands and forested spaces of our island.

Many of the avian wonders passing through and using the area’s resources for stopovers are committed to journeys totaling thousands of miles. One particular shorebird species, the whiterumped sandpiper, is flying from its nesting grounds deep in the Arctic Circle to Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, a trip of about 8,000-9,000 miles. Many warbler species will also travel thousands of miles to the forests of South America.


A juvenile osprey enjoys a fish lunch recently, atop a light at Toppa Field. A juvenile osprey enjoys a fish lunch recently, atop a light at Toppa Field. Biologists and ornithologists believe that hormonal changes triggered by the changing length of daylight stimulates birds to begin their seasonal migratory behaviors, with each species receiving the call to begin moving based on the nesting regions involved and the hardiness of the birds.

Over the past four decades, advances in research and technology have given scientists the opportunity to investigate how birds reach their destinations. It is thought that many species use a variety of visual aids, such as the sun’s position by day or the stars by night, to set their course and arrive at their destination. Other species are known to use the earth’s electromagnetic fields or polarized light to orient themselves. Some waterfowl species begin migrating with their parents and apparently learn specific routes from them and other members in the flock; such birds probably recognize and follow certain rivers, ridges, and coastlines. However, migratory skills in most birds appear to be innate rather than learned.


An adult semipalmated sandpiper probes the beach sand for aquatic insects and invertebrates at Easton’s Beach. An adult semipalmated sandpiper probes the beach sand for aquatic insects and invertebrates at Easton’s Beach. Bird watchers have reported a number of local sightings. A mixed flock of shorebirds, including over 150 semipalmated sandpipers, 100 semipalmated plovers, and 40 sanderlings, as well as a pectoral sandpiper, a small number whiterumped of sandpipers, and a red knot, landed at Easton’s Beach for a two-day rest and foraging stopover recently. An adult pair of migratory Caspian terns, the largest tern species in the world, and a juvenile Caspian tern were also spotted on the beach, mixed in with scores of gulls.


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. Hundreds of shorebirds, such as spotted sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, and dowitchers, have been passing through the rocky coastline of Brenton Point State Park. Two pairs of American oystercatchers have also been observed feeding on seaweed-encrusted rocks at low tide. The mixed forest and scrub brush habitats of the park are hosting numerous songbird species, including blue-gray gnatcatchers, red-eyed vireos, whiteeyed vireos, a Philadelphia vireo, Baltimore orioles, and warblers.

The osprey pair that nests at Newport’s Toppa Field, high in the park’s cell tower, have successfully raised three juvenile raptors, which have been observed flying and fishing around area wetlands and ponds. This is the adult pair’s tenth season at Toppa and they have raised a total of 24 young osprey in that time. Soon, the adults will leave the young birds on their own to begin their lives as apex predators. The juveniles must prepare themselves for the long migration to South America, where they will remain for about three winters as they mature. Adulthood will bring this season’s young back to their point of origin to continue the circle of life and to propagate their species.

Sachuest Beach, Third Beach, and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge will soon become a staging area for the migration of thousands of tree swallows. During the end of August through the beginning of September, locallynesting swallows gather in these areas to fatten up on insects and berries for their long southern flight. It is a natural phenomenon that has to be seen to be appreciated. The swallows move en masse, creating living, swirling vortexes of hundreds of birds as they glut themselves on insects.

The fall migration cycle will continue through approximately the first week of October, with each species following nature’s timetable for their travels. After that, birds that winter in our region will begin to arrive, ushering in the telltale signs of winter.

For information on the latest sightings, visit the Audubon Society of Rhode Island at asri.org or call 401-949-5454. Another excellent resource, where bird lists with stopover information are available, is the Norman Bird Sanctuary at normanbirdsanctuary.org or call 401-847-2577.

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