New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rare Shorebird in Rhode Island

Wood Sandpiper- October 22, 2012- Jamestown, Rhode Island-   On Oct 13, Carlos Pedro (again) found another rarity, a Wood Sandpiper in Jamestown at the northwestern corner of the Marsh Meadows Wildlife Preserve. The bird suddenly became a fall celebrity. Hundreds of birders from all over the eastern US “flocked” to the small island town for their chance to see (and photograph) Rhode Island’s first record, and only the seventh record in the lower forty-eight states. Classified by the ABA as a “Code 2” species which means-

     Code-1 and Code-2: Regularly occurring North American avifauna.
Includes regular breeding species and visitors. There is no firm designation between Code-1 and Code-2 species, except that logically Code-1 species are more widespread and are usually more numerous. Code-2 species have a restricted North American range, are more widespread, but occur in lower densities, or are quite secretive making their detection often difficult. We readily acknowledge that some Code-2 species are harder to find than some species that have higher codes.

     Judging by the number of birders that descended (and continue to) on Jamestown, and the fact that this is only the seventh sighting in the lower forty-eight, I think everyone there may have a different opinion on this bird’s  “Code” status.

     For over twenty years I have driven through the Meadows on North Road (causeway) heading to one of Jen and my favorite birding spots: Beavertail Point SP. Beavertail is one of the best locations in Rhode Island (for CT birders) during the fall and winter to watch for seabirds and seaducks especially on the days when the easterly gales drive the seabirds close to the Point. Jen and I have spotted  Gannets, Shearwaters, Red-necked Grebes, Razorbills, Black Guillemot, Dovekie, King Eider, Harlequin Duck, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, and Snowy Owl here. But I (we) have never stopped at Marsh Meadows for birding, I have just driven by; who would have thought?

     During the week I was reading all the reports of the bird as it continued to entertain birders from as far away as Michigan and the Carolinas. I was teaching an art class all week, so I wasn’t able to drive to Jamestown. Sunday the 21 our class ended and I kept hoping the bird was still there. (In a few days, I will be posting a complete report of the spectacular Scarlet Macaw sculptures that were carved in my class- watch for it). On Sunday evening the Rhode Island report came in that the bird was still in the marsh at dusk in the northeast corner. I contacted Paul L’Etoile and Bob Weaver and they gave me great advice regarding where to look for the bird, being low tide at 7:30 am was perfect. Thank you Bob and Paul, I appreciate all your help!

   On an embarrassing note: after twenty years of traveling down this road, I never knew where the WTP building was. Being so focused on getting to Beavertail, I passed by the big red brick building without ever knowing that it was there.

     I arrived at 7:30 am and parked near the Water Treatment Plant. Since the bird was generally seen at the northeast corner of the eastern half of the marsh early mornings and late afternoons, I decided that would be the best place to start. I walked to the northeast corner of the marsh and found out that I had missed the bird by ten minutes. John Tobin, a birder from Maine who arrived just after dawn, told me the bird left as I was walking along the path. After having fifteen minutes of spectacular private close viewing, he watched it as it flew over the trees to the North of the marsh and landed in the farmer’s field by the greenhouse. Right then and there I was a bit upset with myself getting a late start that morning. But I had a feeling the bird would be back that day, just had to be patient and wait it out. But where would the bird show up, and would anyone find it? Being a Monday morning, I wasn’t sure how many birders would be there looking for the bird.

     We were joined by another birder from Maine; Chip Moseley. We all talked while waiting for the bird which was a no-show. While waiting for the (hopeful) return of the Sandpiper, several  Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks buzzed the marsh fringes of the northeast corner; we all silently hoped the Sandpiper would stay clear of these accipiters.

     We decided to try the northwest corner of the marsh on the western side of the marsh on the other side of North Road. At around 9:15 am. We started walking back the quarter mile trail.  As we were walking out to the road, we ran into a couple from Philadelphia who have a cottage in Rhode Island. They spotted a smaller bird in the main tidal pond (east side) along the causeway. It was hanging around with the Yellowlegs on the small mudflat in the center of the pond. Chip and I decided to take a look at the bird while John decided to take a walk to the northwest corner to try his luck. We exchanged phone numbers and Chip and I went to take a look in the main pond to see if we could locate the bird. At first we didn’t see the bird, so the couple from Philly left. Within a few minutes, the smaller bird came walking out from the other shore. Since I had never seen this species before, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. As the smaller bird walked to the center mudflat, its body shape reminded Chip and I of a larger Pectoral Sandpiper. The lighting was really poor for plumage identification so we had to rely on shape only.

     As I mentioned, the bird was hunched in a relaxed posture. Its head looked squarish and long, bill was medium length and a bit heavy at the base, the body looked short and chunky, the wing projection was of equal length with the tail, and since the bird was wading in shallow water, we couldn’t see how long its legs were. At first it resembled a White-rumped Sandpiper with short wings. Even in the poor lighting you could see a heavily marked chest which made it look more like a Pectoral Sandpiper. Making identification even more difficult, when the bird walked near the Greater Yellowlegs that were assembled on the mudflat, this bird looked much smaller small by comparison.  


      As we adjusted our positions to get a better angle on the bird (because of the bright sun) it became clear what the (small) bird was: the smaller bird was the Wood Sandpiper. At that minute, in my mind I was hoping for closer and better views of the bird, I really wanted see and  photograph this bird up close; to experience the intricacies of its delicate plumage. I knew in my heart that I would be carving a decoy of this bird, just needed to make mental field notes of its bill shape, plumage markings, etc. Photographs are helpful, but the field notes develop the best inspired work.  But even with less than ideal scope views, I was happy to be experiencing this rare bird. 

     I called John to let him know that we had located the bird, but unfortunately, his voicemail picked up instead.  The Sandpiper flew off and circled the pond twice landing again n the mudflat joining the Yellowlegs.

     After fifteen minutes we were joined by a Father and son from Maine who had just arrived and we watched the bird for a few more minutes. Apparently we had all taken our eyes off the bird because it was suddenly gone! By now John showed up and we all searched for the bird. I suggested that the bird flew up and into the panne behind Zeek’s Bait Shop where it spent much of the day on Sunday. Chip’s time ran out and he had to leave for an engagement. 
     The Father and son, and John walked over to Zeeks, and they motioned to me that they found it! I yelled to Chip who was just about to get into his van. The panne behind Zeek’s was much closer; about sixty yards, and of course the lighting was much better. The five of us could see the bird beautifully. The sun painted a beautiful painting with a clear Cerulean Blue sky, Raw Sienna and Yellow Ochre marsh grass framing the subtle earthy Umber tones of the bird’s plumage.


     We watched the bird for a while and other birders from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts joined us. I wanted to get a better angle on the bird in the panne, so I walked quietly along the edge of the spongy marsh and settled in the Phragmites just south of the panne. The sun was at a perfect angle behind me, and my Phrag hide put me as close as twenty-five yards from the edge of the panne. This panne was separated into many pools by little fingers of marsh that bisected it. Often from Zeek’s the bird would disappear behind these “fingers” of grass and would be out of sight minutes at a time. Often we would think that we took our eyes off the bird again and it had left without us seeing it.

     But my view into the panne was perfect offering me great views even when the bird wasn’t visible to the others at Zeek’s. I was careful not to disturb the bird, but in reading many of the posts and blogs by some of the photographers, they mentioned that the bird didn’t pay too much attention to them and would often walk within feet of them. But still, I was cautious.

      After fifteen minutes, the bird took off and flew across the marsh, I lost sight of it.

     When I joined the other birders back at Zeek’s, they followed the bird as it flew to the northwest corner of the marsh on the other side of the road. The Father and son, and Chip having great looks and wonderful experience with the bird, said good-bye and left for home. I decided to take a walk to the northwest corner to try and locate the bird. As I was walking across the causeway, I met another birder and told him where the bird had gone. His name was Ben Porter from Mass., and he decided to walk with me. Just as we started up the WTP driveway heading for the path, my phone rang, it was John. He informed me that the bird had just flown in and landed in the small panne near the causeway on the west side not far from my parked truck. Ben and I walked back a short distance, and there it was, not fifty feet from the road.

     The bird walked through the small panne and got much closer feeding all the way. John, Ben and I watched the bird for five minutes marveling over the fact that we had such close views right near our parked vehicles. It stayed for five minutes when a large truck drove over the causeway, causing the bird to take off.

     It flew over the road to the eastern side. We re-located the bird in the main pond on the far bank. It was now associating with the seven Greater Yellowlegs.

      It stayed there for ten minutes and then flew back to the shallow panne behind Zeeks. Watching the bird again for some time behind Zeek’s I was satisfied. Having had good long (fairly close) looks at the bird and being able to take a few half-way decent photos, I decided to call it a day! Just as I got to my truck near the WTP, I looked up to see that the sky was filled with birds. I knew that something had spooked the birds and I thought maybe a Peregrine? However the reason why became quite clear as a  Bald Eagle was drifting over the marsh riding the wind from the northwest. The presence of this large bird of prey scattered all the birds in the marsh: Yellowlegs, Mallards and Black Ducks, Herons, Egrets, Cormorants and the Wood Sandpiper. All the birds left the marsh (and returned later) but the Sandpiper circled the marsh and then landed again in the panne behind Zeeks.

     While in the area, I decided to grab a quick lunch and then drive around Beavertail for a quick look. The Park was mobbed with people enjoying the beautiful day, so I decided to drive through and head home. When I got back to Zeeks, more birders had shown up and although the bird was in the panne, it was pulling its disappearing act again. No one was sure if the bird had flown off or was hiding behind the grass again. One of the birders I met was from the area, Capt. Ed Hughes. We talked a bit and then the bird took off and then flew over the marsh again heading for the northwest corner. But this time it landed behind the sandbank at the mouth of the creek. We were quite surprised that the bird decided to land in the open area in the gusty wind.

     It stayed there for fifteen minutes, and again flew back and landed in the panne behind Zeeks. At 1:45 pm, most of the gathered birders had left except Capt. Ed and two others.

     The bird again disappeared in the panne so I walked down to the Phragmites to see if I could locate it which I did.

     A few minutes later the remaining birders left, so Capt. Ed joined me near the panne.  The bird worked the opposite side of the panne, so we decided to get closer to the panne for better position hoping the bird would get closer. That’s just what it did. Within minutes, the Sandpiper walked our way.

     Before we realized it, the bird was within eight feet of us! At one point the bird was too close for our lenses, we had to slowly back up so we could fit the bird in our viewfinders! Amazing!! What a spectacular bird!!

      Eventually the Sandpiper walked away from us, and we left carefully not to disturb the bird.

     From the parking area near Zeeks, another birder showed up and we pointed out the bird for her. She was very happy indicating that she had driven for two hours to see the bird and it was a "lifer" for her. The bird stayed in the panne behind Zeeks and then flew around the marsh with the seven Yellowlegs as I was driving away.

     It eventually returned to the panne behind Zeeks. I want to personally Thank Bob Weaver and Paul L'Etoile for their great tips for finding the bird, and to Carlos of course for finding it for everyone!

     Other highlights: Mallards, Black Ducks, a pair of fly-by Green-winged Teal, Greater Yellowlegs, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Coopers Hawk, 2 Kestrels, 3 Merlins, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, D C Cormorants, Sharptail Sparrows, Goldfinches, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Meadowlark

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT