2016-08-25 / Nature

Surprise Avian Visitor Delights Birders

By Jack Kelly


A red-neck phalarope by the breakwater on Ocean Drive. This bird is usually found out on the ocean, more in migration, not close to the shore as seen here. (Photo by Bob Weaver) A red-neck phalarope by the breakwater on Ocean Drive. This bird is usually found out on the ocean, more in migration, not close to the shore as seen here. (Photo by Bob Weaver) A rare and transient pelagic shorebird, a red-necked phalarope, took up temporary residence in the waters of Brenton Point recently. First observed in the early dawn hours of Thursday, Aug. 18, by local bird watcher Matt Schenk, word quickly spread of the bird’s presence. This species is hardly ever sighted this close to shore, and its discovery caused quite a stir within the birding community.

According to Rachel Farrell, coeditor of Field Notes of Rhode Island Birds, there have been a handful of sightings of this species around Aquidneck Island and the rest of the state. Only two recorded observations were found for Aquidneck Island: a Middletown sighting in 1937 and one near the Newport-Jamestown Ferry route in 1954. Four sightings have been recorded along the South County shore since 2005. Birders wishing to see this remarkable breed will often partake in pelagic ocean cruises to observe this and other open ocean species.


A juvenile osprey prepares to dive into the waters of Gooseneck Cove. Note the juvenile “check mark” white markings on the wings. A juvenile osprey prepares to dive into the waters of Gooseneck Cove. Note the juvenile “check mark” white markings on the wings. Scores of birders from as far away as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire made the trip with hopes of catching a glimpse of this long distance sojourner as the bird’s stay stretched into Friday before an early evening wind shift may have prompted the phalarope to move south.

The red-necked phalarope is usually observed during migratory movements in the spring and late summer seasons, as it moves to and from its nesting and breeding grounds on lakeside tundra in northern Canada and Alaska. In late summer, most members of the species migrate to the open ocean waters off southern Canada, where they stage and feed robustly for their nonstop movement to Southern Hemisphere ocean waters.

With a wingspan of only 15 inches and a body length of 7.75 inches, it is hard to believe that this delicate-looking bird is capable of thriving in the rough and turbulent waters of the open ocean.

The red-necked phalarope is one of only two pelagic shorebirds, the other being the red phalarope, which lives the majority of its life on offshore open ocean waters. The red phalarope is known colloquially as the “whale bird” for its foraging habits of picking parasites from the backs of basking great whales at sea.

Observers at Brenton Point have also been treated to sightings of over a half dozen other shorebird species, including least sandpipers, semi-palmated sandpipers, semi-palmated plovers, spotted sandpipers, ruddy turnstones, a Baird’s sandpiper and short-billed dowitchers, which were foraging in the abundant beach wrack along the park’s rocky shoreline. The area is a well-known stopover for migratory shorebirds on their way to South American wintering grounds.

For more information on any of these species or other birding questions, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website at allaboutbirds.org.

Best Birding Spots

Miantonomi Park

Norman Bird Sanctuary

Brenton Point State Park (fields, woods, seashore)

Albro Woods, Middletown

Hazard Road, Newport (including Ballard Park and Gooseneck Cove saltmarshes)

Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Middletown

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

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