Birders like to count the species and numbers of individuals around them. This tradition probably started way, way back, but in North America, the first official Christmas count was in 1900 as an alternative to the older tradition of shooting birds on the holiday.
In Jamestown, the annual Christmas count started 38 years ago by Candy Powell, her husband, Chris, and their friends. It occurred to them that a spring count might also be fun, so that tradition was launched the following May. This year, I assisted Candy by taking notes on the birds that we observed.
Nine of us met at the Jamestown Police Station on May 14, which is officially International Migratory Bird Day. The winds had finally turned to the south, and the day was sunny and warm. Wayne Munns, long-time Rhode Island birder who now partners with Candy to organize the count and tabulate the data, facilitated the “who goes where with whom” before we set off to bird. Candy, her neighbor, Dawn Laman, and I were assigned to town.
I was a little afraid that meant Jamestown center, so I was happy to learn that our first area to bird was the Conanicut Island Sanctuary that borders the golf course and has beautiful views of the Marsh Meadows wildlife refuge. As we strolled along the paths, we heard a number of year-round residents, like black-capped chickadee, Carolina wren, downy woodpecker, song sparrow and American robin. But we also heard the persistent songs of newly arrived migrants defending their small territories.
Yellow warblers’ “sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet” came from everywhere with a total count of 22 by the end of the sanctuary walk. Gray catbirds were close behind at 15, but we also heard the “teacher, teacher, teacher” of an ovenbird and the “bizz, buzz” of a bluewinged warbler.
As we approached the marsh, we were greeted by the calls of the red-winged blackbirds and the osprey. Regal-looking great egrets were fishing in the creek, and a double-crested cormorant swam by with its head just sticking up from the water. Three glossy ibis were poking their curved beaks into the mud searching for invertebrates, and large gray shorebirds, called willets, were doing the same.
Across the marsh, we heard the harsh croak of a common raven and, looking over to Windmist Farm, we could see the large blackbird sitting at the top of a tree. Another osprey flew by with a fish, and long-tailed common grackles flew over the grass.
Leaving the sanctuary, we cruised in front of the Rhode Island Bridge Authority. Turkey vultures were soaring in the sky and we spotted several killdeer on the ground. Named for their loud call, these plovers are often found in grassy areas, where they lay their eggs on the ground among small stones.
We checked under the Newport Bridge for peregrine falcons, but the nest box seemed to be gone. But I added a lot of starlings to the list, as well as our one and only pigeon, a few house finches, and more catbirds and yellow warblers. We also had the first of two Baltimore orioles of the day.
You can’t do a bird count in Jamestown without stopping at the Powell’s yard, which is a bird sanctuary unto itself. Hummingbirds, American goldfinches, song sparrows, robins, chickadees and downy woodpeckers all call it home. We heard another raven and a warbler, called a northern parula, from the yard.
The Conanicut Yacht Club turned up the best look at roughwinged swallow any of us had ever seen. Usually flying rapidly along the shore scooping up insects, two brown swallows landed on the dock railing just feet from us and sat looking at us with their dark eyes before flying off.
We did actually drive through Jamestown, but only on our way to Racquet Road and the back way to Fort Wetherill. Candy spotted the one and only northern mockingbird for the count, and I glimpsed a lone barn swallow over the boatyard.
The area near RIDEM’s offices and dock turned up beautiful looks at a white-eyed vireo and an eastern towhee. All around this area, prairie warblers were calling, and as a final reward we had a beautiful look at a male with his black chest stripes and face markings.
Back at the police station, the groups tallied up the results. That morning, Candy had arrived with a pink plastic flamingo that is awarded to the person in every count who sees the most interesting bird of the day. The flamingo is covered with the name of the special birds, the dates and the winning birders.
When we got to the warblers, Margie Hemp called out a wormeating warbler and the rest of us knew that was it. Hard to see because it is shy and well-camouflaged, Hemp had first identified it by sound before she and Chris Powell got a close look at its striped head. For a young person who has only been birding for a few years, Hemp has great eyes and ears. She certainly deserved to take that pink flamingo home to proudly display.
The Jamestown count identified 87 species of birds, lower than the record of 115 species. The count was scheduled for the week before but postponed due to bad weather. Had it been ealier, the number of sightings would likely have been much higher.
Jamestown Spring Bird Count*
Species Total Count
Yellow Warbler 198
Red-winged Blackbird 187
American Robin 153 Double-crested
Gray Catbird 174
Song Sparrow 123
Herring Gull 89
European Straling 87
Northern Cardinal 76
Eastern Towhee 72
Barn Swallow 68
Black-capped Chickadee 37
Tufted Titmouse 34
Turkey Vulture 22
Canada Goose 22
Purple Sandpiper 17
Great Black-backed Gull 10
Savannah Sparrow 9
Glossy Ibis 8
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4
White-throated Sparrow 3
White-breasted Nuthatch 3
Black Vulture 2
Purple Finch 1
Snowy Egret 1
Green Heron 1
Northern Harrier 1
*A partial list of the 87 species sighted