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A trip to Napatree to celebrate the start of the frustration season

September 12, 2013

(Photos by Bruce Fellman) On a sand spit that is still off-limits because of concerns over the welfare of Piping Plovers and Least Terns, a large group of American Oystercatchers — the birds with gray backs, black heads, and long orange bills — holds court, while a few cormorants (all dark feathering) and gulls mix in. Within a few weeks, the Oystercatchers will head south, but the other species will hang around for the rest of the year.

After we completed what has become an annual late-summer migration to Fenway Park—where, incidentally, we witnessed a bit of history when Boston pounded out eight home runs and clobbered Detroit, 20–4 (Go Sox!)—it was definitely time to start making trips to the shore to bear witness to that other migration.

I’d been getting e-mails from the Rare Bird Alerts around the region that the natural world was beginning to be on the move, and towards the end of the last week, I observed what just might have been the start of things in our area.
I’d been over at the Miner Preserve, the Stonington Land Trust’s 80-plus acre refuge that I’d been helping to survey for biodiversity, and two signs of passage had become immediately obvious. First off, I actually needed a long-sleeved shirt in the mid-afternoon; it was windy and chilly. And second, the air above the huge meadow was alive with big dragonflies, many species of which are known to migrate. Try as I might, I couldn’t net any to determine whether they were the long-distance travelers, but the fact that there were so many in the sky made me think that I really ought to head to the coast to find out if the leavetaking had begun in earnest.
My favorite spot, as longtime readers know, is Napatree Point in Watch Hill. Napatree is a 1.5-mile-long peninsula that juts out into Little Narragansett Bay, and while the beach and the dunes are impossibly beautiful, it’s also almost equally impossible to snag a place to park in the area during the summer tourist season. To be sure, you can find parking, but it’s very expensive, and I, as longtime readers also know, am very cheap, to say nothing of patient. Whatever Napatree is waiting to reveal can wait until after Labor Day, when the parking is often there in abundance and, more importantly, is free.
So it was last Sunday morning, a sparkling clear day with a light breeze: perfect for any creature with a mind to travel. But when I got out of my car on Bay Street, I was not, unfortunately, greeted with any of the signs I’ve come to associate with a strong migration push. It was, of course, pretty early in the season. The harbor was still filled with glorious yachts whose owners were not yet thinking about fleeing to Palm Beach and other southern destinations. The historic carousel was still whirling delighted children around and around. There were no “Closing for the Season; Half-Price Sale!” signs on any of the shops. And there were still plenty of tourists and locals enjoying the sun, the warm sand, the ice cream at St. Clair Annex, and the hope that maybe they’d catch a glimpse of Watch Hill’s new celebrity resident, singer-songwriter Taylor Swift.
They were not, however, steady streams of migrants: dragonflies, Monarch and other butterflies, and hawks and other birds. Nor was there any evidence of a congregation of naturalists bent on monitoring the biological traffic. Indeed, as near as I could determine, I had Napatree all to myself—well, in the observational sense.
There were plenty of beach goers, including a number in the water, but what was conspicuous in its absence was the cadre of hawk watchers in their usual spot at the start of the trails just past the final parking lot. Napatree is a hawk migration hot spot, and I was surprised to find the usual observation area unoccupied by the usual couple of serious and, truth be told, rather unfriendly older gentlemen so busy scanning the skies for telltale blips that they make it clear they don’t have time to engage in frivolous chit-chat with passers-by, even passers-by weighted down with cameras, binoculars, spotting scopes, tripods, field guides, and other gear that would, I’d suppose, mark the person as a member of the fold. Alas, an unappointed member of the fold and so, I have learned, not someone who needed to be talked to and filled in with the details of what had been seen. Maybe I need an identification tag.
Anyway, if there’s to be a hawk watch site at Napatree, it hasn’t opened for business yet, and it was immediately clear why. The local osprey are not yet of a mind to move. There was one sharp-shinned hawk zipping along the dunes, but I couldn’t be certain it was a migrant; it may simply have had urgent business in Stonington Borough, a few miles to the west. I may, or may not, have spotted the first migrating Monarch butterfly, but again, I couldn’t be sure it was traveling out of the area. And most of the dragonflies I observed were odonates that probably weren’t going anywhere: Blue Dashers that are still courting and laying eggs in local ponds—odes that will continue these pursuits until the adults succumb to old age or the first frosts.
But if the main push out of our area has yet to take place, there were definitely signs that it was starting. As I walked, I was, every so often, startled by the buzzing of hummingbirds, all of them heading west and probably the vanguard of the leavetakers. (On the ridge, the hummingbirds tend to abandon the feeders for the year during the third week of September.) Running along the beach in front of me were small congregations of Semipalmated Plovers, all now in the process of putting on their drab garb. This is true of all the shorebirds, and it will drive observers to distraction as they grapple with the challenge of identifying hosts of LBJs—little brown jobs, as newly molted migrants are known, semi-affectionately, to birders.
Fortunately, the Semipalmateds retained enough of their distinctive feather characteristics that I knew them with reasonable certainty, and I had the same good feeling about a large group of American Oystercatchers that I spotted at the end of a sandspit. I’d have had a better feeling but the area they gathered together in remained off-limits, because, during the breeding season, it had been a nesting area for Piping Plovers and Least Terns, both of which are protected under state and federal laws.
Just to keep me from feeling too smug, a large shorebird landed nearby, and though it happily posed for pictures, I’m still not 100 percent sure of its identity. Given the short bill and dark legs, it’s almost certainly one of the larger plovers, and I’m leaning more towards an American Golden than a Black-bellied. But I could easily be convinced otherwise.
So goes the opening round of the frustration season.
There were triumphs, too. I had better luck identifying overturned horseshoe crabs, bright red rose hips, Cabbage White and Sulphur butterflies, and a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant that worked the shallows by the parking lot seawall for minnows. It was good practice for the challenges ahead. The migration was about to swing into high gear. I was ready.


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