2015-12-03 / Nature

Life at the Beach

By Jack Kelly


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 recent spate of above average temperatures and bright, sunny days has compelled many local residents to visit area beaches. For some, the sight of wintering shorebirds has prompted questions about species identification and survival in a harsh New England winter.

The most commonly observed breeds in our region include dunlins, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones, while an occasional blackbellied plover may also be present. These are hardy species and may be found wintering along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. They are well prepared by nature to survive the weather and cold temperatures which may affect Aquidneck Island.

The dunlin, once known as the red-backed sandpiper, breeds and nests in the marshy tundra of coastal Alaska and the Arctic Circle. Its winter plumage of plain graybrown, or “dun,” is replaced by breeding colors of a striking, bright brick-red back and head spot, with a black belly patch below, in early spring before its migration north. It uses its long, drooping bill to methodically probe tidal beach sand and mudflats for marine invertebrates and other prey.


Two sanderlings dance with the incoming waves at Sachuest Beach as they collect marine invertebrates from the water’s edge. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Two sanderlings dance with the incoming waves at Sachuest Beach as they collect marine invertebrates from the water’s edge. (Photos by Jack Kelly) The ruddy turnstone nests and breeds chiefly on coastal tundra along Alaska’s north coast and into the province of Nunavut, in the Arctic Circle, and winters on the beaches and rocky coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. It uses its slightly upturned bill to overturn shells, seaweed and other beach debris in search of invertebrates. Turnstones also forage for mussels and barnacles, either shattering or prying them open. This widespread species is highly adaptable and may be observed eating earthworms in plowed fields, taking small crustaceans on mudflats, or picking through trash at landfills with gulls.

Sanderlings are the most numerous wintering shorebirds in the Newport County area. This species breeds and nests deep in the Arctic Circle on dry tundra, and winters on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. and Mexico. Their winter plumage of contrasting gray and black colors above, with snow white below, are replaced by breeding colors of black scapular and mantle feathers, which have bright rufous edges, while the head and breast have black spots and a rufous wash. Sanderlings forage along the water’s edge, racing back and forth with the waves, as they search for marine invertebrates.

Lingering shorebird migrants have been recently reported across Newport County, with the sightings of lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs and a pectoral sandpiper in Jamestown and Newport wetlands.

For those with questions about any avian species or other wildlife breeds observed across Aquidneck Island, please email inquiries with as complete a description as possible and any photos to news@newportthisweek.net

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