A glimpse of Island birdlife

Sat, 12/30/2017 - 6:45am
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Starting in January 2009, the Crazy-as-a-Coot bird walkers (co-led by Maggie Komosinski) meet twice a month (October through June) to survey bird presence and activity, and to take pleasure in our surroundings. We meet at different locations around the Island, depending on weather, mostly wind direction. Most outings produce something to marvel at: hundreds of starlings flying in unison to form curlicues and paisley patterns, or a raft of 30-plus American coots bobbling in place on Sachem Pond, despite a stiff wind and choppy surface waters. Our birding abilities and focus vary widely. We do our walk to see which bird species are around. We do it for friendship, we do it for sociability, and, we do it to share pleasant — sometimes surprising — walks in differing parts of the Island. 

Crazy-as-a-Coot Walk, 2017

The Crazy-as-a-Coot bird walkers were about 100 feet behind me, milling around, greeting and chatting with each other. They reminded me of a small flock of gulls bathing on the surface of my pond, on an early, sunny, calm morning: flapping wings, dipping heads, splashing water, mewing and cawing, not loud exactly… but definitely a noticeable presence of congregation.

We were a group of 18: a large group, swollen from our core of about nine, with new recruits, seasonal attendees, and first- or one-timers. It was a sunny day with clouds looming on the periphery; but, for the time being, it was a fair-weather morning to walk from Wardens Pond to the beach, along Cooneymus Road, in the lee of the northeast wind.

When I arrived, with Elspeth and Pat, the non-driving members of the group, most Coot walkers were already gathered. The regulars, Nigel and Cathy, had scanned Wardens Pond and seen nothing, not even a lone mallard. As we took stock of the increasing crowd, Maggie and I wondered how we would see any bird, as we would clearly not be advancing in stealth mode.

As we started off, a few myrtle warblers fled their quiet perch in the sun-lit trees along the pond. What birds were in attendance flitted away from our path along the road before most of us got near enough to even raise binoculars. Oh well, Maggie and I agreed, at least everyone would have a chance to see ducks on Cooneymus Pond through the spotting scope. In the fall and winter, there are always ducks on Cooneymus Pond. Slightly out in front, I got the scope set up on a little hillside yard overlooking Cooneymus pond and swamp. Soon I was joined by the group at the spotting scope, but although the view of the pond and wetland was stunning, there was not a duck to be seen.

Giving up on the pond, we proceeded towards the beach, with the only observations being twos and threes and fours of myrtle warblers dashing ahead of us, zipping across the road, and executing evasive moves and hairpin turns among the branches of shad and bayberry — wonderful to experience, but difficult to see. I had hoped for some exceptional sighting to mark this last walk with Maggie as co-leader, before her return migration to her natal environs of Long Island, N.Y. Since 2009, Maggie and I had led more than 150 early morning Coot Walks. Rarely had we seen anything too unexpected, but most outings resulted in a merry search and/or a beautiful view.

We made our way down the wide path to the beach and set up the scope for scanning the water. There was a large raft of common eiders mixed with scoters, and a few common loons here and there. One of the loons still had a lot of its iconic, checkered black and white breeding plumage, a great comparison with the dull winter plumage that we would mostly be seeing during the upcoming months. The contrast was a point of interest for a few of our new participants, and provided an engaging activity: to locate first one, and then the other loon in the view of the spotting scope. By waiting as the waves rolled towards the beach, suddenly the loon would appear in the trough between waves, a study of black and white against a royal blue sea.

At the top of the beach path, one in the group asked, “What are those three birds coming from the sea towards us?” At the shoreline edge, the three geese made a turn parallel to the beach and passed across our viewing direction. I was stunned and yelled, “Brant, Maggie, brant!” This species of goose is similar to Canada geese, but smaller, with a small white patch on its black neck. Brant is a species that Maggie and I had often looked for, but had not seen together — until this day.

A photo was taken of the group. After all, it was the biggest group ever, and it had turned into what some islanders call a “Block Island blue day.” With nice looks at eiders, scoters and loons, and then the brant wheeling by as if tipping a wing to the group, I was feeling more positive about the day’s Coot-walk sightings.

It was a cool morning, we’d been out a little more than an hour with limited, but satisfactory success, and, as a group, we were ready for our awaiting teas and coffees. We end every Coot-walk with a stop at Bethany’s Diner, where we warm up, indulge in breakfast, and make our list of birds seen that day; it felt like time to wind down and finish the day’s walk.

On our way back, we paused at the edge of Cooneymus Road to scan the swamp and pond again, surely there must be a duck in there somewhere. Maggie spotted a pair of gadwall. I set up the scope so everyone could get good views of the dapper-plumaged pair. While Cathy was peering at the gadwall floating at the far edge of the pond, she wondered, “What is that coming out of the reeds behind the ducks?” I jumped to the scope to take a look; the clapper rail did not linger long before fading back into the reeds, almost like an apparition making a momentary curtain call. Such is the way of rails. Fortunately, several of us got good views of this wary bird with its tawny coloration, pronounced decurved bill, and relatively long legs, and could make a positive identification. While I stayed at the edge of the road with some of the group, trying to relocate the rail and showing the novice birders the elegance of the gadwall’s plumage, a few of the regulars made their way up to the hillside yard, hoping that the height would provide better sight lines to refind the clapper rail. Gaining higher vantage worked. Nigel had seemingly relocated the bird. Maggie and I, and those of us still in the road, made our way to the upper yard. There it was: the bird was magically not slipping in and out of the reeds, but rather, it was carefully stepping from swamp tussocks to muddy roots and back to tussocks. But something didn’t seem quite right with the identification, and we started to realize that we were not looking at the same bird as seen at the road. I agreed with Maggie that the bill seemed much shorter than the view we had had before; and Maggie agreed with me that the plumage didn’t seem the same.

While looking at the bird — which cooperated by slowly walking in and out of the clumpy vegetation — we called out its field marks: a short stubby bill more like a coot bill, a flash of white in its tail, long legs but even longer yellow toes, and the breast coloration in the sun seemed to shimmer dull purple and greenish-blue. With hesitation I offered, “I think that’s a purple gallinule”: An unlikely and rare sighting. The more experienced birders among us looked and relooked at the bird, we flipped pages in the field guide back and forth, and slowly, cautiously, we got excited. Most of us had never seen a live purple gallinule in the field, and, unless we were to go to the swampy regions of the southeast U.S., we might never see one again. By the time we finished looking, and relooking, the group was delighted and confident in our sighting of an immature purple gallinule.

With a sense of deep satisfaction bordering on elation, we slowly, reluctantly, left the hillside yard to join the other Crazy-as-a-Coot bird walkers, who were well down the road headed for the diner. The core birders amongst us knew we were savoring an experience that we would likely never have again. Those of the group, for whom this was their first bird walk, may not have known how special this day was and how lucky they were. Even those regulars, who generally prize the walk and the communion over the birds, could feel the air of excitement sparked by the discoveries of loons in breeding plumage, brants, gadwalls, clapper rail and purple gallinule.

It was a beautiful walk from pond to ocean, from shrub land to beach. The sky and sea were painted azure and aquamarine. The energy of excitement was palpable among the walkers. It was as if the energy displayed by the darting and cavorting myrtle warblers amidst the twigs and branches along the way had been shared. 

*****

Purple gallinules, like rails, are inhabitants of marshy environments. The normal range of a purple gallinule is “tropical, subtropical and temperate America” extending south to Argentina. Edward H. Forbush in “The Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States” provides a great description of the haunts and habits of this species:

“The elegant and tropically-colored purple gallinule is second in grace and beauty among the water-birds only to the male wood duck. It seems to be a great wanderer and its wanderings occasionally bring it to New England. Its long-toed yellow feet enable it to run rapidly over lily pads and other water vegetation, but unless frightened or pursuing elusive prey it is rather deliberate in its movements. It is a great runner, however, and an active climber and does not hesitate to climb into shrubs, vines and trees where it often perches. It swims well but usually keeps more to cover than to open water. It feeds on insects, worms, small snails, and other small aquatic animals and wild fruit seeds and other parts of plants.”

Forbush states that the purple gallinule “is a rare visitor in Rhode Island” with only eight published records from January 1889 to 1929. To add support to this statement of rarity, the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee lists 11 records of this species from 1890 to 1998. Three of these purple gallinule R.I. sightings are from Block Island (1928, 1973 and 1991). Interestingly, the May 12, 1928 record is in the Elizabeth Dickens Bird Collection (Block Island School); this bird was apparently killed by a cat, and was donated by Lila Rose.

The Block Island records of purple gallinule were increased by two in 2017. First, Nigel Grindley found a newly dead specimen beneath a utility wire on his driveway along Wardens Pond, on Feb. 27, 2017. That bird was passed on to Chris Raithel from the Department of Environmental Management who prepared it as a study skin, and it now resides at the American Museum of Natural History. The second 2017 record for purple gallinule was seen during the Crazy-as-a-Coot bird walk on Nov. 7, 2017, as mentioned above.