Birders flock to island for rare find
To the average person, the visitor was nothing more than a shorebird whose length was shorter than a standard ruler. But to birders, it was the opportunity of a lifetime: This is just the seventh time in the history of the Lower 48 states that the wood sandpiper has been confi rmed, according to Rachel Farrell, the state’s unofficial record keeper of birds. It’s also the first time it’s been spotted in New England.
Farrell was the person who got the news out that the sandpiper was spotted. For 11 years she has run a private daily listserv that allows her to email hundreds of birders with updates on where and when rare birds can be located.
From Saturday to Monday, residents may have noticed an unusual amount of vehicles parked on both sides of North Road near the wastewater treatment plant. License plates that read New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine graced the cars and trucks. That’s because the sandpiper is what avid birders call a mega, a term given to fowls that are nearly impossible to spot in a certain area. A wood sandpiper in the Lower 48 is exactly that.
“It’s extremely rare,” said Todd McLeish, an expert birder who has been writing about wildlife for more than 20 years. “That’s why so many people from so far away ended up in the little hamlet of Jamestown.”
While many of the birders who arrived on the island were here to see the wood sandpiper for the first time, the bird wasn’t a “life bird” for McLeish. He previously spotted the species in Alaska, the only state in America where the bird is frequently come across. McLeish was in Alaska for precisely that reason: to find birds.
“Every vacation I’ve ever taken has been to go look at birds somewhere,” said McLeish, who is a public information officer at the University of Rhode Island.
McLeish came up Monday from Kingston on his lunch hour – dressed up in a button-up shirt and slacks – and drudged the 250-some swampy yards from North Road to the area in Marsh Meadows where the sandpiper was located that day. Fortunately for McLeish, Powell was there to lend him his boots.
The bird was first seen on Saturday morning by Carlos Pedro, an out-of-state birder who was in Jamestown to see a tricolored heron. Pedro had previously seen the wood sandpiper in England, which typically breeds across Europe and Asia in wetlands just south of the Arctic. The bird migrates to Africa and southern Asia. Sometimes birds can get lost and find themselves in Hawaii in the North Pacific Ocean, or crossing the Bering Strait onto the Alaskan islands. But anywhere else in the United States is nearly unheard of.
According to the 2006 Shorebird Guide, the sandpiper is about 8 inches long and weighs 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 ounces. It is longer legged and shorter billed than other types of sandpipers, and it’s active, with continued bobbing while it walks. It wades in marshes and muddy shorelines, and it often chases insects.
At 11:24 a.m. Saturday, Farrell, using her listserv, wrote, “About 12 birders are looking at a probable wood sandpiper at Marsh Meadows in Jamestown. The bird is about 40 feet from the road, just south of the water treatment plant, in the northwest corner of the marsh on the west side of road.”
Later that night, she sent out an update: “Thanks to Carlos Pedro for finding the phenomenal wood sandpiper in Jamestown this morning. At 5:40 p.m., the wood sandpiper flew out of the pool at Zeke’s Creek Bait & Tackle at Marsh Meadows, heading towards the Jamestown toll plaza. It was watched as it flew down among the plaza’s light stanchions. There’s a small pond at the plaza and it’s possible it landed there or at the rocky shoreline next to the plaza. The tide is affecting the bird’s ability to forage. It’s a good idea to check Marsh Meadows tomorrow from mid-morning through early afternoon, when the tide will be low enough to expose feeding areas.”
While Farrell’s instincts were right, birders were looking on the wrong side of the road. The bird was on the west side of North Road when Pedro discovered it, but on Sunday, the sandpiper had different plans.
Powell, unlike the majority of the birders, knows the island. He took it upon himself to check the east side of the road, deep in Marsh Meadows, close to the second osprey nest near the toll plaza. Powell’s intuition was right – he spotted it. But he had one concern: If he told Farrell, her email would prompt hundreds of birders to walk on the environmentally sensitive area to catch a glimpse.
“I decided that it’s the end of the year, and there isn’t a lot of activity in the marsh right now,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be a bid deal. If it were spring, when birds are nesting in the marsh, that’s a different story. But it’s a time of year where the marsh is getting pretty quiet.”
The wood sandpiper also brought added business to the downtown area at a time when things typically slow down. Slice of Heaven was busier than usual during lunchtime Monday, and one man was celebrating his 90th birthday with a sandwich after seeing the wood sandpiper for just the second time in his storied birding career.
Phil Bedient drove down from Pittsfield, Mass., with three people who belong with him to the Hoffman Bird Club: Noreen Mole, Tom Begley and Tom Collins. For Begley and Collins, the sandpiper was a life bird.
“Never see it before,” said Collins. “Another to add to my list.”
As for Bedient’s list, he already had the wood sandpiper on it from a trip he took to India. The 90-yearold, who gets around as though he is in his 60s, currently stands at 2,295 species. With a little more than 10,000 total species of bird on the planet, Bedient, who began birding as a teen with his aunt, has seen more than a quarter of them. He was surprised to hear of a wood sandpiper in Rhode Island.
“It must have gotten lost,” said Bedient. “It could have got caught up in some wind.”
Of the nearly 2,300 species that Bedient has come across – he has been birding in more countries than he can remember – asking which one is his favorite is not an easy answer for the nonagenarian.
“Today,” he quipped, “it’s the wood sandpiper.”
When pressed for his all-time favorite fowl, his answer was a surprise. “It’s probably the blackcapped chickadee,” he admitted. “I’ve seen millions of them, but they’re great. They eat from my feeders and they sit on my hat.”
Bedient remembers a story when he was out birding with Mole and he started to feel something on his head, as if someone was pulling his hair.
“It was a black chickadee,” said Mole. “Pulling his hair out with its beak.”
“That’s why I like them,” said Bedient. He then pointed to his baldhead: “That’s how this happened.”
Coincidently, Bedient’s bird club’s next scheduled trip is to the Rhode Island shoreline this weekend. The overnight trip will search the Narragansett Bay coast for migrating shorebirds, passerines, ducks and hawks. A trip to Jamestown to see the wood sandpiper may be added to the agenda.
It’s anyone guess as to how long the bird will vacation on Conanicut Island. It was spotted again on the west side of North Road Wednesday morning. Powell says it’s a juvenile, so it’s new to migrating. “It’s still learning. It doesn’t know what it’s doing yet. It’ll probably just hang out in Jamestown and eat until it gets fat and big enough to leave. We’ll just have to enjoy it while we can.”