2016-07-21 / Nature

Island Habitats Bustling with New Life

By Jack Kelly


Adult terns and two chicks are visible during feeding time on the rookery rock. The chicks have a tannish hue to their plumage. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Adult terns and two chicks are visible during feeding time on the rookery rock. The chicks have a tannish hue to their plumage. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Aquidneck Island is teeming with new avian life as thousands of nesting birds of many different species have realized the hatching of their eggs in recent weeks. The diets of the hatchlings are as varied as the breeds themselves, and adult birds are busy foraging for prey such as insects, fish, small mammals, and marine creatures.

The island hosts a large number of migrant neotropical species, including at least five different members of the swallow family. Barn swallows, tree swallows, bank swallows, northern rough-winged swallows and purple martins breed and nest across the region. These adroit colorful fliers display hues of electric blue, green, and purple, and are entertaining to watch as they pursue mosquitoes and flies.

Swallows are often found in open terrain near water and may be observed flying, skimming or splashing low over a pond or brook. They are regularly sighted resting on utility wires or tree branches, and it is not uncommon to see two or three different species roosting next to each other. Swallows feed their young in brief hovering flights without perching, particularly after the young leave the nest. The adults will feed their fledglings until the juveniles are fast enough to catch prey on their own.

A juvenile barn swallow waits its turn to be fed. (Photo by Jack Kelly) A juvenile barn swallow waits its turn to be fed. (Photo by Jack Kelly) One of the truly majestic sights of nature may be witnessed around Sachuest Point in Middletown, beginning in late August and extending through the first half of September. Thousands of swallows gather, or stage, for fall migration to South America, and they gorge themselves on insects from the surrounding marshes and wetlands, as well as the plentiful berries in the area. It is a spectacular experience and one worth viewing.

Another migratory nesting population that has increased in recent years is the osprey. This raptor species has recovered from the devastating effects of DDT, which took the breed to the brink of extinction in the early 1970s. Ospreys have made a dramatic comeback in our area.

A new pair claimed a nesting platform in the Gooseneck Cove salt marshes and entertained local birders this past spring. Hundreds of visitors witnessed the large birds of prey performing mating rituals and flight dances while they fashioned a nest to their own specifications. The birds’ first brood hatched a few weeks ago and the three chicks are growing quickly under their parents’ care. Both adults have been observed bringing fish to the nest to feed their chicks; within weeks the young ospreys will reach fledgling status and will learn to fly and fish with their parents. This is necessary if the juvenile raptors are to survive their first migration to South America in the fall.

For at least the ninth straight year, a colony of nesting common terns returned to their rookery rock in the middle of Gooseneck Cove in May. These medium-sized seabirds, migrants from South American wintering grounds, have entertained local birders for almost a decade with mating antics, flight performances, and formidable defense of their nesting area.

The colony has produced at least eight down-covered chicks to date and they are most visible during feeding times. The adults keep the young hidden in the crags and vegetation of the rock during other parts of the day to ward off avian predators such as egrets and great blue herons. When the adults sense danger or an intrusion into their territory, they will put up a sustained response and mob any perceived threat with a vigorous attack.

These are just a few of the unique avian species that are raising young across our region this season. A walk through any of the habitats of Aquidneck Island offers new discoveries and memorable experiences.

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

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