A day for the birds: Bird-watching in New England is full of variety

A day for the birds: Bird-watching in New England is full of variety

MIDDLETOWN - Thank goodness our recent trip to the Norman Bird Sanctuary, 583 Third Beach Road, did not turn out like the last time my son, Nick, and I went bird watching.

A few summers ago, after touring Civil War battlegrounds in Gettysburg and Maryland, we decided to go hiking and search for local wildlife species, particularly birds. Before long, we were lost on Mount Catoctin in nearly 100-degree weather.

Let me say here that Nick, an Eagle Scout and experienced outdoorsman, does not agree that we were ever really lost. But I am far less easygoing than he is, and from my point of view, we walked in circles in the searing heat for what seemed like an eternity, hoping our bottled water and trail mix would hold out. Since Nick can read both maps and compasses, it wasn't too long before we found our way again, but for me, the experience was unpleasant and frightening just long enough to prompt me to ask, "Tell me again why bird watching is fun?"

Nick's answer was simple, but it made perfect sense. "Everyone sees the most common ones, but every now and then, if you're lucky, you get to see a rare one." At just that moment two pileated woodpeckers flew so close to us that we could nearly touch them. They landed on a nearby tree and put on a thrilling, wing-span fluffing, tree-trunk-pecking show that lasted for several minutes.

Pileated woodpeckers, secretive by nature and considered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in New York to be, "One of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent," were among the rare birds species that Nick had hoped to see. Assured now that we would not, in fact, perish on the mountain, I could finally relax and enjoy myself. "Oh," I told him, taking in the beautiful and unusual scene, "I get it, now."

Our trip to the Norman Bird Sanctuary promised a bird watching adventure in a much more inviting environment. Established in 1949 following the death of Mabel Norman Cerio, who bequeathed 235 acres of land to ensure the protection and preservation of birds, the sanctuary has grown to encompass 300 acres of forests, thickets, fields, ponds, streams, meadows, ridges, salt marshes and a sandy beach, all ecosystems where a wide variety of birds propagate and thrive.

The trails at the sanctuary are clearly marked and easy to follow, and most connect to one another in loops. After traversing a number of trails that led us through fields, meadows, across a pond and over a rocky ridge, Nick and I easily found ourselves right back where we started. We saw a number of birds, including dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, northern flickers, and even a downy woodpecker.

Snapping pictures of these avian treasures was difficult. In fact, when we rounded a bend into a meadow rich with berry-laden bushes, there was a frantic flurry of activity and then no movement or sound at all. Nick quipped, "This is where the sparrows would be if they weren't hiding from the media."

For those who prefer to observe birds in their own backyard, Matthew Schenck, education assistant at the Norman Bird Sanctuary, suggests installing a birdfeeder. Don't be afraid that feeding the birds is bad for them, he says.

"There has been much debate about the consequences of feeding birds in winter, but most scientific evidence suggests that providing protein-rich food, such as seeds and suet, does more good than harm. Many worry that feeding the birds in your back yard will cause them to rely too heavily on humans for food. However many birds that would visit a feeder in winter would be searching for seeds in the wild if the feeder was not in place," said Schenck. He added, "If you are providing food to birds, they will become dependent to a degree on your feeding station and removing the food mid-winter can be harmful."

"There are variety of birds that will be attracted to feeders during winter in Rhode Island. Some of them, like northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, and tufted titmice, are common birds year round," said Schenck. "Others, such as white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, spend the summers further north and flock to Rhode Island in winter to avoid the harsh weather on their breeding grounds. We do occasionally experience winter irruptions of bird species that are usually not found in Rhode Island. A great example of this was the huge numbers of snowy owls we experienced last year."

Backyard birdwatchers may also see members of a group called "irruptive finches." Among these birds are crossbills, redpolls, pine siskins, and purple finches. "Species in within this group normally live in the vast conifer forest of northern Canada but occasionally migrate depending on seed crops. Which species and how many individuals move south depends on what types of trees have poor seed crops on any given year."

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is sponsoring citizen science program called "Project Feederwatch" where backyard birdwatchers can record common and rare bird sightings at www.feederwatch.org . For more information about the Norman Bird Sanctuary, which is open year round except on major holidays, visit www.normanbirdsanctuary.org or call 401-846-2577.

Norman Bird Sanctuary was established in 1949 following the death of Mabel Norman Cerio, who bequeathed 235 acres of land to ensure the protection and preservation of birds. The sanctuary has grown to encompass 300 acres of forests, thickets, fields, ponds, streams, meadows, ridges, salt marshes and a sandy beach, all ecosystems where a wide variety of birds propagate and thrive.