Southern Wader and a Surprise Stercorarius
Last week Tom and I had planned a quick morning trip for shorebirds to the salt ponds of Rhode Island’s south shore. At the last minute, Tom and I decided to change our plans and venture to Coney Island to (hopefully) experience the “mega-rare” Grey-hooded Gull, which we did successfully (see below blog). With the gull still firmly printed in our minds, I was still interested in heading to Rhode Island. With the shorebird migration nearing peak, many interesting species were being reported; Marbled Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, and tern species: Forster’s and Caspian.
Along with the myriad of shorebird species, a single fresh juvenile White Ibis was discovered on August 3 rd at Winnapaug Pond. I had never seen a White Ibis in New England, so Tom and I decided to stop at the pond on our way to Quonachontaug and Ninigret Ponds. The weather forecast was delightful with cooler temps, light southerly winds and sunny. Low tide was at
10:30 am which was perfect for the late morning walk out on the sandbar flats of Quonnie and Ninigret (falling tide walking out and incoming walking back). Since low tide was not until later in the morning, a detour around Winnapaug searching for the Ibis would be a good way to spend a little time waiting for prime tide.
At 6:45 am we arrived at Atlantic Avenue (which cuts between Misquamicut Beach and Winnapaug Pond) and immediately we began searching from my truck for any signs of birds in the pond. The first morning flights of Snowy Egrets arrived in pairs and small flocks flying easterly. The main parking lot on the beach side was closed, and a small gathering of gulls were roosting in the fresh water puddles. In the group of Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls was a single juvenile Laughing Gull. As we continued east on Atlantic Ave., I noticed another closed parking area on the pond side which was also covered with deep rain puddles filled with drinking and bathing birds. I pulled off the side of the road, and from the open windows, we spotted both gulls and shorebirds. In with the Herring and G B-backed Gulls were a dozen Laughing Gulls from fresh juveniles to adults. There was also an interesting mixed flock of shorebirds: Lesser Yellowlegs, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Plovers, Least Sandpipers, and a Piping Plover.
Juvenile Laughing Gulls
Bathing juvenile Laughing Gull
More egrets were moving and they all seemed to be heading to the eastern end of the pond. We followed the birds to the marshy area at the head of the pond at the inlet of the breachway. The flocks continued as we drove to the area while watching more birds settle into the marsh. Although it was a long viewing distance, the bright white birds were easily seen as they landed in the burnished green marsh and also in the distant roost trees. Looking through my window with binoculars, a few Cedar Waxwings were perched on the tree islets in the marsh. As Tom hopped out of my truck with his scope, a single Coppers Hawk flew right over him heading for the thickets along the beach. He began scanning the many birds in the main inlet area across the other shore of the pond. Egrets, both Snowy and Great, a handful of Great Blue Herons, and swirling flocks of Common and Least Terns were all feeding in the marshy area. As a single Green Heron flew by the truck, Tom announced that a few Glossy Ibis were also flying into the area. Unfortunately, the marsh grass was high, and it was difficult locating many of these birds when they landed in the outer marsh. Since there wasn’t any street parking on Atlantic Ave., we had to move to the end of the street by the breachway and turn around and try again from the other side of the street, and maybe a better vantage point.
Driving back on Atlantic Ave. (this time heading west) I stopped at a good spot with a wide space in between the phragmites. Tom hopped out of my truck and just as he did, I saw the dark/light wing flashes from the White Ibis (in my binoculars) fly in from the east and into my view crossing the space between the “phrag”. I yelled to Tom, but by the time he raised his optics, the bird was gone. From our vantage point our vision was limited, and we couldn’t see where the bird landed. We drove up the street a short distance hopefully for a better view. The truck stopped as we saw a large gathering of Egrets with a few Glossy Ibis. We surveyed the entire distant marsh area, and did not find the White Ibis. Suddenly, there it was; it lifted up from the heavy marsh grass and flew across the open area, this time Tom had a long look as we both watched the bird settle back in amongst the other birds only to be lost again, it was 7:15 am. We were both satisfied with the view, but maybe a closer look would be better? I looked across where the bird landed and noticed two houses on the other side of the marsh by the inlet. Both houses were familiar to me. I remember meeting an exhilarated birder on the road near the breachway in the late winter. I was looking for the Eurasian Teal that had been reported there. The man had been birding for only a short time and he had spotted an unusual duck behind his house. He didn’t know which species the bird was and he asked me to follow him to his house (which I gladly did) in hopes that I could ID the bird for him. His house was conveniently located on a small cove on the breachway inlet. After a short visit and conversation, (we exchanged business cards) and he told me that I could park in his driveway anytime, and bird the cove area.
I drove over to his house, but he wasn’t home. Even though I had his permission, I felt a bit uneasy about parking in his driveway, so Tom and I decided to see what we could see from the truck. Looking across the cove and along the opposite shore of the inlet area. a large gathering of birds lined the shoreline: Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons and a few Glossy Ibis. We searched through all the birds, but couldn’t see all of them. I pulled my truck up a few yards, and noticed another group just west of these birds. Tom and I only had a narrow view at the birds between two cottages. I decided to step out of my truck and hopefully get a better look. Thorough my binoculars I thought I spotted a “grayish” bird mixed in with the egret flock. I decided to take a few distance pictures of the birds with the hopes of looking through them later on my laptop. As I started taking pictures, the “grayish” bird took off, and it was the White Ibis! Tom exclaimed “There’s the Ibis-I got it”! I quickly reviewed the images in my LED on the back of my camera……there it was! Although the images were a bit “grainy”, I was very happy to have gotten these images through the little ”window of opportunity” that presented itself framed between two beach cottages.
Juvenile White Ibis (behind Great Egret)
White Ibis taking off into view
White Ibis flying out of view (again)
Since the dead end road was very narrow, I couldn’t turn my truck around so I had to back down the road. Just as I put my truck in reverse, I glanced through the cottages and saw a single dark Tern circling around the inlet and it suddenly made a dive to the water. When the bird lifted off the water I again had a brief look at the bird. I told Tom, but it disappeared between the cottages before he could get a look at it. The Tern was black”ish” with “sooty-grey” underwings and light abdomen. I didn’t see the bird long enough to make a positive identification of a BLACK TERN, so it will be listed as a “possible” Black Tern.
Satisfied with the sightings of the Ibis and possible Tern, and since we were in the area, I decided to drive out to Weekapaug Point for a few minutes of “sea watch”. Along the rocky shore, a flock of 24+ hen Common Eiders were feeding along the receding shoreline negotiating the incoming southerly driven rollers perfectly. The eiders were now awkward appearing because of summer moult, missing their primaries and sporting short “stubs” of renewing tail rectrices. A steady procession of Least and Common Terns were flying east out from shore. Tom suddenly said that he “has a very possible Jaeger in his binoculars”. The bird was a few hundred yards from shore outside the working lobster boat. I looked up to see a large brown bird following a tight flock of Common Terns that had assembled into a clustered ball shape flock. The bird was large appearing and “chunky” with a Jaeger-like snap to the wing beat, but seemingly more labored than the smaller Jaeger species. As the bird turned broadside, it had the classic look of a Pomarine Jaeger…..we both agreed! Great find Tom!
|Remember, you can double-click on this or any other image to enlarge it...|
With the two great sightings in hand, I headed east for our first shorebirding location: Quonochontaug Pond. Although not a premier shorebirding spot like the flats of Ninigret, it is a good location none-the-less. Quonnie does not get the heavy birding traffic as Ninigret, and even though the numbers of birds are fewer, the same species are recorded in either location. The breachway canal at Quonnie was already lined with fisherman when we arrived and a few of them were unhooking the Porgies that they were catching. Common and Least Terns were very active feeding in the canal and in the pond. I parked the truck at the north end of the parking area, and looking around; we were the only birders there. The tide was falling beautifully, and the small sand spit in the marsh in front of my truck was alive with shorebirds. Tom and I walked a short distance on the spit, and the first birds we saw were Short-billed Dowitchers a few feet in front of us! The sand spit was perfect for watching and photographing birds. The sun was behind us, the birds were quite tame, and a cool breeze from the south made the morning comfortable.
Short-billed Dowitcher feeding along the small sand bar
Flying- notice the white dorsum feathering between the wings
In front of us were a mixed flock of a hundred shorebirds: Short-billed Dowitchers, Willet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Semi-palmated Sandpiper and Plover, Least Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones and a few Piping Plovers. We watched the birds for about an hour and looking at the tide, we decided to try Ninigret flats.
Part of the Shorebird flock (seven species) in image
Dowitcher and a Ruddy Turnstone
As we were leaving a flock of 20 Short-billed Dowitchers flew into the pond, flew around us and then landed in the cove at the western side of the breachway. A few additional single Dowitchers zeroed in on the sandbar in front of us and joined the other birds there.
Part of the flock of Dowitchers
Soon after, we had a very interesting sighting. We were watching a flock of shorebirds on the shore across the canal. A single Willet flew from the shore and began (what appeared to be) flying towards a Redtail Hawk. The Willet then flew directly at the hawk and suddenly began chasing the Redtail across the pond. Tom and I looked at each other in disbelief, thinking that maybe the Willet and the Hawk coincidentally met in the air over the pond. But that theory was clearly debunked when we heard the Willet screaming at the hawk as it followed the hawk closely across the pond, terminating the “chase” as the buteo approached the far shore. The Willet turned around and then rejoined the other shorebirds along the grassy shore! I am still shaking my head over that one!
Willet chasing Red-tailed Hawk...
Terminating the chase
Arriving at the very busy camping hub at the Charlestown Breachway Park, it was still an hour and a half to low tide. The canal was buzzing with feeding Common and Least Terns. Walking along the shallow water at the edge of the canal, Tree, Barn and a few Bank Swallows were heading east crossing the canal over our heads. One Swallow fell victim to a Sharp-shinned Hawk that appeared out of nowhere then taking its prey into the phragmites and bushes across the canal.
Least Tern “hovering” over the canal
The exposed “flats” were busy with shorebirds and terns and their numbers were building. A group of friendly Rhode Island birders had assembled on the flats searching carefully through the several hundred shorebirds for a possible uncommon or rare migrant species.
One of Rhode Island’s bird clubs out on the “flats”...
Tom and I watched the birds for another hour and although the earlier reported Marbled Godwits, Stilt Sandpipers and Caspian Tern weren’t present (or visible from our locations), there were good numbers of Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstones, Least Sandpipers, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Plovers, a single White-rumped Sandpiper, 6 Piping Plover and a single Kildeer and Black-bellied Plover. A single Forster’s Tern was also present among the Common and Least Terns. Also present were many Great and Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, 3 Green Herons, and quite a few Saltmarsh Sparrows.
Keith looking for the shallow path across a rather deep breachway, which was 5 feet deep in places... we know that because as one local birder waded across he had some points where the water was up to his neck.... he held his scope above his head but his binocs took a bath....
Img 9542 actually 9452
Banded worn juvenile Common Tern
As we were driving back to my house, we reflected on the excellent morning. The weather was spectacular, the area (as always) is beautiful, and the birds were present and cooperative with a few surprises: (certain) White Ibis, (possible) Black Tern, (probable) Pomarine Jaeger, Short-billed Dowitchers, Piping Plovers, and a Forster’s Tern.
Keith Mueller Killingworth, CT.
Great Blue Heron
(possible) BLACK TERN
Barn, Tree and Bank Swallows
Herring and Greater Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls
Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls
(probable) POMARINE JAEGER following a flock of Common Terns
Herring and Greater Black-backed Gull
Great Blue Heron
Ninigret Pond/Charlestown Breachway-
Herring, Greater Black-backed Gulls
Great Blue Heron
Tree, Barn and Bank Swallows