2017-04-20 / Nature

Spring Bird Migration is in Full Swing

By Charles Avenengo


Among the spring birds arriving are tree swallows seen here sunning at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Among the spring birds arriving are tree swallows seen here sunning at the Norman Bird Sanctuary. (Photo by Carmen Rugel) Spring migration is upon us.

“The dam has burst,” says Newport naturalist Lauren Parmelee, senior director for Education Programs for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “There are new birds coming in every day.”

The migration has been going on for a while. It kicked off with the male red-winged blackbirds who arrived over one month ago, followed by the calling woodcocks. “We’re past the baby steps,” Parmelee said.

Indeed, while the peak migration remains a couple of weeks away, the real fancies are now appearing, such as orioles, tanagers, warblers, and vireos. For now, there are daily arrivals, departures, and layovers in the bird world. Most of the winter birds have moved north, having been replaced by migrants from further south, some of whom have checked in for the summer.

The island has about 40 species of year-round birds. Called residents, they include most of our familiar species such as mallards, herring gulls, red-tailed hawks, owls, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, and mockingbirds. In addition, three more have been introduced to North America; the rock pigeon, the house sparrow and the European starling. Most of these residents are well into their nesting duties, with the most prolific having nearly reared the first of two or three broods they will raise this year.

The rest of the birds migrate. Because birds are so mobile, more than 270 other types have been recorded on Aquidneck Island. They arrive and depart the island from all directions of the compass at different times of the year. With some exceptions, March, April, and May are considered to be the main spring migration months. By June, most birds are into their nesting season.

Of the migrants that have arrived on Aquidneck Island, some have begun their nesting season. Topping the list are the ospreys. Newporter Mark Anderson has been monitoring them for the past seven years for the Audubon Society.

“This year, the male returned to its nest at Toppa Field on March 28, and the female returned the following day,” he said. “They have been recorded in Newport for 12 years.”

Their presence is considered a success, because for decades they were absent due to the effects of the now banned DDT. According to the Audubon Society monitoring program, Aquidneck Island has 11 active nests.

Another returnee is the American oystercatcher. These striking medium-sized shorebirds with bright orange bills have typically nested on Rose Island. They make feeding forays to Aquidneck Island, most often during low tide at Coaster’s Harbor Island. But beginning last summer, a pair was observed nesting off a private estate along Ocean Drive. This year, four were observed at Brenton Point State Park, indicating that their numbers could be growing.

Piping plovers are also back. Similar to the osprey, their presence began about 12 years ago following a decade-long absence. Carefully monitored by volunteers for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, at least two pairs of the federally protected shorebirds have been seen in the Second and Third Beach areas.

A sure sign of spring is the return of the insectivores. They wouldn’t be here if their food source, insects, weren’t on the wing. They couldn’t survive without them. These include three types of swallows: tree, rough-winged and the fork-tailed barn swallows. In addition, the earliest of the family of flycatchers, the Eastern phoebes, are setting up shop in backyards.

Three types of blackbirds have returned. They use the local marshes for nighttime roosting. These include the male red wings mentioned above, common grackles and brown-headed cowbirds. Joining them in the marshes are waders like great and snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons and glossy ibises. A little blue heron was also reported last week from the Norman Bird Sanctuary.

Along the water, most of the waterfowl have departed for points further north. But some remain, including a few common loons. When northern lakes and ponds freeze, loons spend the winter just offshore. Now, the loons are beginning to move northward. In addition to being seen along the coast, they have recently been spotted in local ponds, including Easton’s, Green End and St. Mary’s. Closer looks reveal that they are molting into their striking checkerboard pattern.

Similar to loons, two cormorant species are on the move. They have employed a barely perceptible sleight-of-hand by pushing north, and have been replaced by slightly smaller double-crested cormorants.

Binocular views further offshore from Ocean Drive and Sachuest Point reveal a near daily presence of Northern gannets. Windy days sometimes push them a few miles north into the Narragansett Bay passages. Larger than gulls, they dramatically dive-bomb head-first into the water when feeding. These gannets are working their way northeasterly to a single nesting colony in Eastern Newfoundland.

These sightings are a combination of personal observations, along with those of active birdwatchers in the field. Many bird sightings are currently reported on the Internet. As evidenced by the website, e-bird.com, bird-watching has surged to an all-time high. Since the beginning of April, 108 reports have been made to the site from more than two dozen birdwatchers on the island, featuring 114 species of birds. And these are only the ones that were reported. A few decades ago, there were barely two dozen bird-watchers in the entire state.

“[This is my] favorite season,” Parmelee says, and then after a brief pause, adds, “Now is the time to get out there. It’s always a treasure hunt.”

Spring Bird Arrivals Since April 1, 2017

American coot
American oystercatcher
American robin (augmenting
the smaller winter population)
American woodcock
Barn swallow
Black-crowned night heron
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
Brown-headed cowbird
Cedar waxwing
Chipping sparrow
Common grackle
Double-crested cormorant
Dunlin Great egret
Eastern phoebe
Eastern towhee
Gray catbird
Greater yellowlegs Little blue
Heron
House wren
Killdeer
Northern gannet
Osprey
Palm warbler
Pine warbler
Piping plover
Red-winged blackbird
Rough-wing swallow
Snowy egret
Swamp sparrow
Tree swallow
Virginia rail
Wilson’s snipe
Yellow-rumped warbler

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