2014-01-10 / Nature

Winter Walks Yield Nature's Wonders

By Jack Kelly

A Sanderling and a Dunlin forage for invertebrate prey on Third Beach. (Photos by Jack Kelly) A Sanderling and a Dunlin forage for invertebrate prey on Third Beach. (Photos by Jack Kelly) For many folks in Newport County, the very thought of a winter beach walk is enough to bring goosebumps and chills. However, there are some who celebrate this season and seek the stark, natural beauty of local beaches and shorelines. Adventurers to these sandy sanctuaries may be pursuing quiet moments for reflection and contemplation or just a simple walk with nature. Hardy fans of the cold and wind are treated to sights and sounds that others miss. Winter presents beachcombers with a cornucopia of treasures and keepsakes.

Experienced walkers enjoy low tide because shells of every size and color may be found in the beach wrack. The shells of scallops, clams, quahogs, whelks, dogwinkles and snow white sand dollars may be found along the beaches and rocky coastlines of Aquidneck Island. Anemones and other small marine creatures may also reward keen-eyed observers. Sea glass, said to be mermaid tears shed for lost mariners, can be found in a variety of colors and sizes in the sandy environs of local beaches.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. This time of year also brings gifts of the natural world to local bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts who follow the movements of many avian species in our region. Thousands of wintering waterfowl, seabirds and raptors are observed and photographed by legions of admirers along the area’s shorelines. In the past several weeks, Snowy Owls have appeared along numerous local beaches from Brenton Point State Park to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. These large Arctic raptors have been forced south in search of prey.

A recent walk with friends along Middletown’s Third Beach revealed a multitude of unique and varied species afloat, aloft and foraging along the shoreline. Waterfowl and seabird breeds foraging for small fish and shellfish included Common Goldeneye, American Black Ducks, Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers, Brants, Canada Geese, Common Eiders, Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, and various gulls.

A Ruddy Turnstone races across the sand. A Ruddy Turnstone races across the sand. A number of shorebirds including Dunlins, Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones were observed at the water’s edge searching for invertebrates and small marine animals. All of these species winter in the Newport County area and migrate north in the spring. Sanderlings are small, pale sandpipers that can be seen at area beaches in early spring, fall and winter. This species has an average body length of eight inches and a wingspan of 17 inches. It breeds and nests on the dry tundra and coastal rocky regions of northern Nunavut, within the Arctic Circle.

The Dunlin, once known as the Red-backed Sandpiper, has a body length of 8.75 inches and a wingspan of 17 inches. This species has a long, drooping bill that it uses to probe methodically in mud and sand for invertebrates. Non-breeding colors include a plain, gray-brown above and pale white below. It nests and breeds on mudflats along the north coast of Alaska and in southern Nunavut.

The Ruddy Turnstone is a colorful shorebird with ruddy tones above, pale hues below, and bright orange-red legs. The average bird is 9.5 inches long with a wingspan of 21 inches and feeds in beach wrack for small invertebrates and along rocky areas for small crustaceans. This adaptable species will also feed on worms from plowed fields and can be found among gulls in landfills. It nests and breeds on the northern coastal tundra of Alaska and Nunavut.

During our chilly stroll, my friends and I observed a flock of shorebirds suddenly flush north down the beach, and we quickly scanned the sky for the reason. A Merlin Falcon was flying over the adjacent marsh when the smaller birds activated their “flocking defense” and escaped from the grasp of the raptor. The Merlin gave up its pursuit and flew south towards a group of approximately 40 Snow Buntings foraging for seeds in the Sachuest Beach campground. The Buntings employed the same flocking defense, and flew east towards Sachuest Point, while the Merlin turned north in search of prey.

As our group prepared to leave the beach, nature had one more spectacular surprise for us as a Snowy Owl flew over the marsh and landed on an unused Osprey nesting pole. It had a heavily streaked body with an all-white head and seemed to be watching the gulls and ducks along the beachfront. It was a dramatic ending to our delightful afternoon of birding.

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