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Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge: Not just for the birds

Two birdwatchers lugging cameras, binoculars and a spotting scope the size of a grenade launcher emerged from a trail at Rhode Island’s Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge earlier this week, just as Maggie Jones, Phil Plouffe and I drove into the parking lot.

Maggie approached them and asked, “Did you see one?”

“Just a few minutes ago,” the man with the spotting scope replied, “but it flew into the woods.”

The three of us groaned. No need to specify what flew away — virtually every avian acolyte in the Northeast, from backyard birder to university ornithologist, knows that Sachuest, a stunning, 242-acre oceanfront preserve in Middletown, just east of Newport, is a premier winter home for Bubo scandiacus, commonly known as the snowy owl.

These powerful predators mainly eat mice and lemmings in their Arctic breeding grounds; after they migrate south, they feed on ducks, gulls and a variety of small animals. They are a sight to behold.

Truth be told, Maggie, Phil and I had not driven an hour from southeastern Connecticut just to observe these owls. Sachuest attracts a wide variety of other migratory flocks from the far north, and even better, its three-mile trail provides some of the most breathtaking, sweeping ocean vistas in southern New England. You don’t have to be John James Audubon to appreciate Sachuest; our visit would have been amply rewarding even if we only wound up seeing a couple of pigeons.

“It’s a place of astounding natural beauty, both rugged and serene,” Maggie noted … “a place where rocky shore, pebbly beach, sandy beach and grasslands all come together.”

The wide, smooth path leads hikers around the sanctuary’s perimeter, providing near-continuous views: The Breakers and other Newport mansions, as well as the Cliff Walk to the west; the open waters of Rhode Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean to the south; and dozens of tiny, rocky islands that surround Sakonnet Point to the east.

The sanctuary’s low-scrubland interior, where deer often graze, contributes to a sense of airy expansiveness, while shoreline rocks are shaded in calming hues of gray-green that contrast with sparkling, aquamarine water. Altogether, the effect is both tranquil and dazzling.

Sachuest, one of five national wildlife refuges in Rhode Island, was formed some 200 million years ago after the Pangea supercontinent split. The peninsula had been farmed and used to raise sheep from colonial times through the early 1900s, when it also had been a site for horse racing.

The U.S. Navy operated a rifle range and communications center there during World War II, before the Aububon Society of Rhode Island donated a 70-acre tract in 1970 that led to the creation of the wildlife refuge.

How lucky for birdwatchers, hikers and all others who welcome open space — the property is now permanently protected from development and open to the public, free of charge.

No sooner had we begun hiking than a winged creature flew overhead.

“Marsh hawk,” Maggie announced. Director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, she has been leading birding trips to Sachuest for decades; Maggie, Phil and I, along with other friends, have been hiking together for just as long.

A few minutes later, we reached an opening in a thicket that lines the trail and followed a side path to an overlook. Not far offshore, a raft of greater scaup bobbed amid gentle waves. Phil pulled out binoculars and Maggie set up a tripod for her spotting scope while I fiddled with my camera.

The water churned as these round-headed ducks with white stripes dived repeatedly for mollusks and plants. It was a long way to go for a meal — scaups fly here from northern Canada. After a few minutes of watching them, we resumed our hike.

At the next overlook, we watched common goldeneye, whose most distinctive features, not surprisingly, are bright yellow eyes. As with other species, the males have more colorful plumage.

Over the next couple hours, we stopped to observe buffleheads, common eiders, great cormorants, black and surf scoters, hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks and my favorite, harlequins — the clown princes of diving ducks. Named for the colorfully garbed character once featured in Commedia dell’arte theater, harlequin ducks have slate-blue feathers streaked with splashes of red and white.

These birds are sometimes called lords and ladies, totem pole ducks, painted ducks, squeaker ducks and blue streakducks. The ones we watched seemed to spend more time underwater than above the surface.

Scoter and eider dive 60 feet or more to find mussels, clams, urchins and sea stars, which they swallow whole. Long-tailed ducks can dive more than 180 feet deep.

Maggie also identified a variety of resident and wintering songbirds that flitted about in thickets of bayberry, multiflora rose and honeysuckle: mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, chickadees, bluejays, cardinals and yellow-rumped warblers

Before long, we completed the trail circuit, and finally saw our first snowy owl: a life-sized sculpture of the bird, perched inside the visitor center. Good enough.

Before heading home we decided to take a short drive to Beavertail State Park in Jamestown, just west of Newport.

Created in 1980 from federal surplus land, the 153-acre park at the southern end of Conanicut Island offers panoramic views of Narragansett Bay. Like Sachuest, it attracts abundant flocks of migratory sea ducks, and we enjoyed more mesmerizing bird-watching while strolling the shoreline.

The plaintive, wailing whistle of black scoters provided an eerie, audio accompaniment to the visual spectacle.

The park also features the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum and the remnants of Fort Burnside, a former World War II fortification.

For more information about the park, including directions, visit https://www.riparks.com/parks/beavertail.php

For more information about and directions to Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/sachuest_point/

 

 

 

 

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