Sunday, February 3, 2013

New England Big Year 2013 - Chasing rare birds in Rhode Island

A group of birders head out into a farm field in Tiverton, Rhode Island, in search of Vesper Sparrows and other unusual winter birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
As things in life often do, my big year plans have recently changed a bit - instead of doing a Massachusetts big year, I've decided to do a New England big year. The reasons for this are manifold, but chief among them is the fact that I have a busy work schedule with limited time, and I know with a fair degree of certainty that on some weekends I will be in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire or Maine. I came to the decision to expand the geographic range of my big year based on these plans, and on the fact that I live within a relatively easy drive of both New Hampshire and Rhode Island, two states which are great for birding. Rhode Island, with its endless miles of coastline offers innumerable beaches, wetlands and other great bird habitat to explore, especially in the winter, and New Hampshire will offer me a chance to see Boreal species which I might otherwise miss this year. My new goal for the year is to try and reach 300 species seen/heard in the 6 New England states.

So yesterday I went on a group trip organized by the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, and met a great group of birders and some very knowledgeable trip leaders. Even before we left the sanctuary I got a great look at some nice biurds, including several American Goldfinches and a Carolina Wren which was singing loudly from behind an old wooden fence. I began this expansion yesterday with a  great day of birding in Rhode Island, where I added 14 more species to my year list, and 5 new life species. One of my new life birds, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker showed up on an early stop in the day, at a small wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island.  I

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clings to the side of a tree at a wildlife sanctuary near Tiverton, Rhode Island. These rare visitors to New England eat sap and insects. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Seeing this new bird was very exciting, as I had previously spent a few lunch breaks scouring the Boston Public Garden in search of a reported sapsucker seen along Arlington Street. In addition to this bird, we were also lucky enough to see three other species of woodpecker in the same area - Downy, Red-bellied and Northern Flicker (yellow shafted).  Along with the woodpeckers came other birds - titmice, chickadees and even a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. In just a few minutes I had added 3 more species to my year list and new bird to my life list. We continued on in the woods, looking and listening, and I heard  a Golden-crowned Kinglet calling from some brush, which was exciting.

Our next stop was a big farm field, open and covered with the stubble of last year's crops. As we scanned the field our trip leader pointed out a group of about 20 small birds moving low to the ground across an open section of the field. I looked through my binoculars and added another life bird to my list - the Horned Lark. As we made our way around the fields I added another species to the year list: Savannah Sparrow. We searched hard for any sign of a Vesper Sparrow, but none were seen.

 A marsh beside farm fields in Tiverton, Rhode Island attracts a wide range of winter birds, from American Tree Sparrow and Black Ducks to the rare Sandhill Crane. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
We next checked some marshes and an open section of beach, with fields in the distance. It was here that we got an amazing look at a Sandhill Crane - a life bird for many of the people in our group, and certainly for me. We were able to watch it fly high above the field for several minutes as it flapped and glided. A very cool bird, and one I would really like to get a closer look at sometime soon. it also made me wish I had a better camera - I got a couple of photos, but the bird just looks like a little grey speck against a blue sky. At this point I was pretty happy with the trip, I had added two new life birds and many to my year list, including a solitary Turkey Vulture seen from the car. The day was not over yet, however, and we made two more great stops. One was at an open section of beach where I added Surf Scoter and Thick-billed Murre to my life and year lists, and another was along a road in front of a farm where I had the opportunity to see two Northern Lapwings which had shown up in a field. Although I could only get a marginal look at them through my binoculars, there were plenty of generous people there who were willing to let others peer at these super rare birds through their spotting scopes.

A rocky beach in Rhode Island was one of the last stops in a day of birding the Ocean State. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

All in all it was an amazing day of birding and a lot of fun. Maybe next time I'll hit New Hampshire, as this big year continues.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

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