Our Environment: “Tracking the Bird Count” By Scott Turner

Sunday, December 30, 2018


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PHOTO: Scott Turner

The Queen River ran dark and wide under the boardwalk in the Marion Eppley Wildlife Refuge.

Karen and I were in the sanctuary, which is only open to the public for scheduled Audubon programs, as part of an annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in and around West Kingston, R.I.  

We arrived before 8 a.m. to join Don H. and Peter C., who led us for about two hours along a loop trail in Eppley, which, at about 1100 acres, is one of the largest properties overseen by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Eppley is intensely managed for wildlife habitat. For example, we saw where felled trees here and there were left to rot, leading to dense thickets of native vegetation springing up in their place.  

Given the extraordinarily high amount of recent rainfall, the preserve was exceptionally moist, contributing to an emerald sheen across swathes of the landscape.

We tromped through forests and fields past iconic evergreen plants of New England such as star moss, ground pine, wintergreen and young white pine. The route also took us over boardwalks, old and new, some floating in place over swift waters.  

That morning, Eppley was rather still. Indeed, away from coastal habitats in winter, Rhode Island’s forests, ponds, rivers and meadows are often quiet.  

At Eppley, most birds that we encountered came in small flocks of mixed species of songbirds in which several Black-capped Chickadees formed the nucleus. 

Typically, other birds in these groups included Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and maybe some Golden-Crowned Kinglets, a Hairy Woodpecker or Red-bellied Woodpecker, and one or two Carolina Wrens. 

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PHOTO: Scott Turner

Highlights of the walk included a Brown Creeper and an American Tree Sparrow. 

A Brown Creeper is an especially lovely sight. This relatively thin and tiny gleaner of insects is a bark-like blend of brown and white that spirals up tree trunks and limbs in search of bugs. An amazing feature of the Creeper’s life history is that the species builds its nest between the trunk and loose bark on dead or dying trees. 

The American Tree Sparrow is a winter visitor, spending the breeding season far to our north. It is also a handsome creature, featuring a rusty cap and a gray face, a two-toned bill and noticeable black spot on its light gray breast. 

Over the last 20 years, I’ve found many fewer American Tree Sparrows in Rhode Island. To see even one was both a treat and encouraging. 

According to the National Audubon Society, it and other groups and agencies use information collected from Christmas Bird Counts “to assess the health of bird populations, and to help guide conservation action.”

So, when you’re on a count, you feel like you’re not only getting out and experiencing the natural world, you’re doing a good deed. 

By the way, Don H. was a gracious host and guide, even making the group some scrumptious chocolate chip cookies for the adventure. Moreover, Peter C. was an excellent birdwatcher, with crackerjack listening skills. 

On a count, you do more than contribute to a larger cause. You connect with a community of kind and concerned citizens, often making new friends and creating memories of winter trips afield.

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Scott Turner is a Providence-based writer and communications professional. For more than a decade he wrote for the Providence Journal and we welcome him to GoLocalProv.com. 


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