2015-11-12 / Nature

Newly Arrived Songbirds

By Jack Kelly


An adult Savannah sparrow in the marsh at Third Beach. An adult Savannah sparrow in the marsh at Third Beach. For local birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts, the change of seasons has presented an array of new and widely varied species to observe across Newport County. A recent walk through the woodland, scrub brush, and seaside habitats of several island regions revealed the presence of newly arrived wintering songbirds.

A small mixed flock of snow buntings and horned larks was sighted in Brenton Point State Park, foraging for seeds and insects in the grassy fields. Snow buntings breed and nest in the remote dry tundra and rocky barren areas of northern Alaska, northern Canada and the Arctic Circle. In mating season, the male of this species displays a snow-white head, neck, breast and underparts, with a black back and wing sections. The female is colored similarly, but the white of its plumage is muted and less stark, and the dark areas of the bird are a streaky gray-brown, including its crown. The seasonal plumage change is dramatic and may afford the birds a little more warmth in winter. This hardy bird is a lateseason migrant and winters across lower Canada and the upper tier of the United States from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. It may be found in a number of areas locally, including rocky shorelines, beach dunes, and open fields.


An adult male horned lark feeds on seeds at Brenton Point State Park. An adult male horned lark feeds on seeds at Brenton Point State Park. The horned lark is the only native lark that nests in North America. With a range that includes most of Canada, Alaska and the Arctic Circle, it breeds in diverse habitats including fields, dry tundra, shortgrass prairies, and even airports! Displaying males have black plumage “horns,” facial masks and breast bands, with rich yellow tones on the face. They sing their ethereal songs on the wing to attract females. This bird feeds on insects and seeds, and in the winter may be found mixed in with flocks of other ground-feeding species such as snow buntings and lapland longspurs.


An adult male snow bunting rests at Brenton Point State Park. An adult male snow bunting rests at Brenton Point State Park. A large number of sparrow species also winter on Aquidneck Island, including fox, white-throated, white-crowned, American tree, dark-eyed juncos, and others. With few exceptions, most are found locally in thickets and open brushy or marshy environments, where both seeds and insects, the mainstays of their diet, abound.

Many of these species nest across Canada and Alaska in dense boreal forests of deciduous and coniferous trees, or along streams, ponds, bogs and rivers in dense brush. Most sparrows have monogamous mating systems, with males singing to defend a territory and attract a female. However, some, such as the Savannah sparrow, which attempts to mate with as many females as possible, are polygynous.


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. Newport County offers many birding possibilities during the fall and winter months, and a short walk into one of the many brushy areas across the region may reveal these small wonders of nature.

Return to top