Binoculars emerging along with spring’s warmer weather
She has been called the “Bird Lady of Jamestown,” and it’s not a title she takes lightly. Candy Powell, along with her husband Chris, are the go-to resource for identifying birds in the area. With spring here, the busy season has begun.
The Powells have lived in Jamestown for 35 years. Candy is president of the Rhode Island Audobon Society, while Chris, a retired state biologist, chaired the town’s conservation board for 26 years. The couple have been birders for more than four decades – “hiking with a purpose,” according to Candy.
With bird counts routinely reaching 100 species or more, along with a few rare feathered friends that visited Conanicut Island last year, Jamestown is becoming a hot spot for birders. The Powells are at the center of it all.
Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in the osprey population in Jamestown. There are five known active osprey nests on the island, including the one at Marsh Meadows that currently houses three eggs – it’s the only location known to have eggs. The other nests can be found on poles at Fox Hill Farm, South Pond, Lawn Avenue School and on private property on the west side of Beavertail.
New hatchlings will begin migrating south at the end of August, said Candy, and their destination can be as far off as Colombia or Cuba. They will remain in their winter grounds for two years, and if they survive, they will return to the nest where they were born. However, returning birds are not always sexually mature, so for the first year they may live in an eggless nest with their partner. An active nest does not mean there will be eggs, she says.
Older birds tend to come back every year. Not all ospreys go as far afield as South America. Powell cited year-round populations of osprey in Florida and South Carolina. The Jamestown birds do tend to go farther south. Since there are so many returning birds, the osprey has to get creative to find new nesting places. Last year some birds tried to take up residence on the top of the water tower and had to be discouraged.
“They’ll find a spot if there isn’t a pole,” Candy Powell said. “On the other hand, we have a couple of poles in the Fort Getty area that have remained bare. The birds haven’t done anything with them in the last few years.”
In the 1950s the use of DDT as a pesticide was widespread. The chemical had a dire effect on many bird populations, and ospreys were especially harmed. As a result of the spraying, the eggshells became so thin that when the birds sat on them they broke. Ospreys stayed away from Jamestown for a number of years until the use of DDT was banned in the 1960s. The birds began to return, and have been here ever since.
“They’re fish-eating birds exclusively, so coastal communities like Jamestown, which had remnants of some old poles, were attractive to them,” she said.
The recent decline of the fish population in Narragansett Bay has had no discernible impact on ospreys, according to Powell. She said while they fish in salt water, they will also feed at ponds and are not above raiding local koi pools for dinner.
Jamestown has its own osprey camera. Residents can observe the Marsh Meadows nest by accessing ConanicutRaptors.com. The camera was offline for some time while the bridge authority built its new headquarters. The camera’s signal was transmitted from the old building. The camera should be back online any day.
Last October a wood sandpiper made a rare appearance in Jamestown. It was the first time the bird ever touched down in New England, and just the seventh time it’s been spotted in the Lower 48. Powell said the most plausible explanation is it became part of a flock of other sandpipers that frequent the area.
A month later a mountain bluebird was spotted at Fort Getty. Only once before had the species been confirmed in Rhode Island. It was about 2,000 miles east of its normal range. Because of these rarities, Powell never knows what to expect.
“We got a report just yesterday of 43 glossy ibis in Marsh Meadows,” she said. “There is a white- faced ibis among that group. That’s a bird from Florida, but every once in a while when there’s a big glossy ibis flock that comes through in the spring, we have a white-faced ibis. I’m not sure why, except that it’s another bird that might have gotten into a flock of close relatives.”
Powell said climate change may be a factor in traditional southern birds appearing in the North. In some cases, she added, they don’t return to the South in the fall. According to Powell, 40 years ago there were few cardinals in New England and robins were only seen in the spring. Now those birds can be spotted year round.
Another surprise last year was the “explosion” of barred owls, meaning an influx of a bird where it usually wouldn’t be. Unfortunately, there were multiple reports of the owls being hit by cars on the island. Powell said no one knows why it occurred. Veterinarians have said disease and pathological problems are most likely not the cause. Though many theories abound, it might just be there are so many birds in Jamestown they become susceptible to road accidents. Despite the dangers, the owls are still nesting on the island.
According to Powell, when it comes to good spots for bird watching in Jamestown, it depends on the time of the year. She said in the spring, woodland areas are best because the warbler season is just starting. She recommended the Conanicut Island Sanctuary trail near the police station.
Another good spot is the South Pond trail behind the water-treatment plant on North Road, she said.
According to Powell, some of the most common birds are popular among birdwatchers because of their beauty. She included in this group cardinals, black-capped chickadees, robins, red-bellied woodpeckers, warblers, goldfinches and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Along with Evelyn Rhodes, she has been leading the island’s seasonal bird counts for three decades. The tradition continued last Saturday when volunteers joined together for the spring bird count. Four teams were assembled and assigned to four different locations: the farms, Beavertail, the north end and downtown. Last May, 101 species were counted, along with an Eastern bluebird couple nesting at Godena Farm. In 2011, the spring bird count set a record with 110.
Bird count story on Page 19.