Having been two months since my last Prudence visit, I figured it was about time to scour some thickets, bird some marshes, and put together a nice November list. One of my favorite months in New England, November is renowned among the local birding community as rarity month. A time when unusual birds, some as many as several thousand miles off course, find themselves under the scrutiny of many binocular-wielding birders. I won't go much into the details of how and why some of the much rarer birds end up here as it is dependent upon many different factors, none of which I'm particularly qualified to describe.
Recently however, a couple systems of very strong southern winds pushed migrants offshore the southeast states and "slingshotted" them north to New England. Some of the birds that were seen were migrants that had left the area a month prior on their southbound migration, and some were southern species that are only seen this far north during such weather events in the fall and as "southern overshoots" in the spring. As color drains from the landscape and browns and grays begin to dominate, it is beyond exciting to see a pop of color in a thicket in the form of the glowing breast of an elusive Yellow-breasted Chat or a late warbler. Such is the excitement of November birding. Songbird migration for the most part is slowing down as waterfowl migration ramps up, and rare birds linger in the thickets if only you are lucky enough to find them. Nomadic winter finches inject an amount of uncertainty into every morning (though we may not see more than Red Crossbills this year). It is an in-between time, when the fall and winter migrations of birds collide.
Chase Way saltmarsh on Prudence Island in winter. Likely the most reliable spot for Little Blue Heron in the state during the spring and summer months.
I can't say Prudence is the best birding location, filled with rarities in the fall and crammed with unusual migrants. But I can say that 85% of the island is preserved land, it's a beautiful place to explore by bicycle or by foot, and it's hard to go wrong if you spend the day. It's unique in many ways, and is very underbirded. At the widest spot the island is about 1.5 miles across, but it's approximately a 7.5 mile bike ride from tip to tip, and with most of the roads unpaved it's no easy task to cover a lot of ground. Some hard choices always have to be made when deciding where to bird for a full day, since the options are endless. The ferry (www.prudencebayislandstransport.com) is still inexpensive at $13 round trip with a bicycle and the schedule is very birder-friendly with a 5:45am option often available.
For a trail map and some information about the history of the island, view this PDF, from the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Andy and I had a fun day exploring the island together in early May, putting together a list of 100 species, so I decided to see if he was up for another trip. North winds and cooler weather forecast a decent day of late-season migration. With sunrise at 7:20am and no 5:45 ferry option on the weekend, we took the 7:30 to the island. This turned out for the better as we ended up breaking the state Double-crested Cormorant high count on the way over. Scanning the horizon in every direction we were greeted with many flocks of hundreds of cormorants, making their way south in loose skeins. Cormorants have a semblance of organization in their migrating flocks, often forming fairly neat V's, but when compared to geese they seem merely like gangs of ragtag teenagers. Some of the flocks easily totaled one thousand birds or more and by the end of the day we had estimated and counted 6,968, with 95% in the early morning. A pair of Long-tailed Ducks flew by as we approached the pier, making a quick new addition to the islands cumulative list.
With the first highlight of the day already achieved, we made our way north to the neck with hopes of a morning flight. Stopping briefly at a marshy patch we tried to entice out a Virginia Rail but soon realized the stiff Northeast breeze was putting a damper on our attempt. As soon as we came within view of Nag Pond it was evident that the full moon high tide had flooded the entire marsh and was only just beginning to recede. Several small groups of Canada Geese and American Black Ducks fed out in the saltmarsh of the pond, and as we stopped to scan the waterfowl we noticed a few songbirds in the marsh elder and bordering cedar tree. One was a surprise Blackpoll Warbler which have been very scarce this fall, and another was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet which popped out of the shrubs and into the cedar tree only a few from Andy. It started preening and put on a good show with the brilliant red crown extremely visible as it contorted its tiny body into odd positions. A harsh call alerted us to a Wilson's Snipe whizzing overhead, presumably having a hard time finding a place to land in the waterlogged marsh. One of my targets for the day was Nelson's Sparrow, and so I was eager to walk the edge of the marsh with such a high tide. I figured it would be a fairly easy species to find here even at this somewhat late date, given the healthy breeding populations of Saltmarsh Sparrows during the summer. However, upon pushing through the bordering elder, I realized the water was still too high for my not very waterproof hiking boots. Figuring I could try again later, we moved up to the neck itself. A calling Hairy Woodpecker was nice to hear and gave us a surprise as it jumped the gap northbound, not a species I see often in prolonged flight. A Yellow-rumped Warbler and a couple Blue Jays added to the flight but that was about it before we decided to hit some thickets near Chase Way. A Marsh Wren calling from some phragmites was a nice addition to the list. We pulled out some more Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos, but nothing unexpected or particularly exciting. We walked the back of the beach where it borders the marsh but didn't have much other than a Black-bellied Plover and some distant White-winged Scoters and Horned Grebes.
Some typical November thicket birds, Hermit Thrush on the left and Black-capped Chickadee on the right.
Heading north of the neck we had a Gray Catbird, and a Hermit Thrush in a birdy area before we took the first beach access road. A large flock of American Crows flushed from the trees by the beach and from the edge of a big puddle. As we walked west up the beach Andy noted the marsh ran parallel behind the dune and so we switched to the backside, hoping again for some saltmarsh birds. It was still flooded enough to make walking hard but it wasn't long before we flushed a Nelson's Sparrow from the marsh elder on the edge. The bird flushed twice showing its very pale colors and weak flight style before it relocated to some spartina alterniflora adjacent to the open water of the marsh inlet. After this success we decided to head south along the west (sheltered) side of the island. We didn't find much until we stopped for a lunch break at Farnham Farm. Our second Yellow-bellied Sapsucker called, an Eastern Phoebe and several Eastern Bluebirds sallied out for insects, and some raptors soared overhead. Two Turkey Vultures and a Red-tailed Hawk were joined by a distant buteo that initially had us confused. It turned out to be an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, barely showing the pale crescents at the base of the outer primaries that usually make for an easy ID. In the overcast conditions it looked nearly black at the altitude it was maintaining. We enjoyed the comical aspect of the two goats at the farm and their strange rectangular pupils, fed them our apple cores and were on our way. The thickets and fields around the NBNERR headquarters were rather devoid of birds, though picking up two very distant soaring Black Vultures was a nice find. We birded the road down to the T wharf and back finding a few more raptors, slowly made our way over to the east side of the island and hit a nice pocket of birds just before we left the south reserve boundary. Among a plethora of "feeder birds" we found two Eastern Towhees, two more Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Hermit Thrush, and one of the biggest surprises of the day, a late Red-eyed Vireo. Our last few stops produced some Field Sparrows, a flock of Laughing Gulls, and a last ditch attempt to get our Song Sparrow count above fifty to trip our 10th eBird filter of the day.