Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
A Quest for a Rare Bird
July 11, 2020
By Steve Grinley
It has been a long time since we have had a birding “adventure” – one where we travel some distance to see a rare bird. We were hoping to travel to Arizona, Texas, or Florida this year to try to add a few birds to our life list, or North America list. But in this year of the pandemic, none of those destinations are possible.
Our birding has been pretty much confined to Essex County. Unless it is a life bird or maybe a Massachusetts bird, we haven’t ventured much further. However, our ears perked when we heard about a Terek sandpiper in Rhode Island a couple of weeks ago. Margo and I had seen a Terek sandpiper in Thailand ten years ago, but never in North America. In fact, this Rhode Island bird was only the fourth record for the lower United States. It is a medium sized sandpiper with yellow legs and a unique upturned bill.
On the first day it was sighted, we didn’t hear about it until late afternoon – too late to make the two and a half hour drive to Westerly, close to the Connecticut border. We called our friend Linda who, of course had already gotten the “scoop” on the bird from her friends down in Rhode Island. She was ready to head there at first light the next day. Margo and I, along with Margo’s brother Bob, thought we would head out later in the morning once we got word that the bird was still there.
So once we saw the bird reported on eBird the next morning, we made the long drive to the little town of Watch Hill and the sandy beach peninsula known as Napatree Point. Directions were to walk along the bay side of the sandy peninsula toward the “lagoon”. So despite some billowing clouds and the threat of storms, we made the trek in soft sand down the edge of the beach grass. We encountered a couple of Willets and a piping plover along the long walk. Song sparrows darted back and forth from the dune grass to the sand. A Phoebe perched on one of the area signs.
After half an hour, we came upon a group of birders and a small inlet of water that looked like it had to be the lagoon. We found our friend Linda who had been there for hours, unfortunately without seeing the bird. Others standing watch confirmed that the bird was seen several hours before, but had flown over to “Sandy Point” a small island of sand far enough offshore to make even the large gulls almost indiscernible through our high-powered scopes. Other familiar faces (with masks) from Massachusetts and New Hampshire lamented the same unsuccessful tale.
We spent a few hours standing vigil, looking at black-bellied plovers, willets, gulls and a couple of spotted sandpipers. We also watched as threatening clouds and distant thunder and lighting came closer and closer. As dark clouds continued to approach, and with no sign of the rare sandpiper, Linda and many other folks finally left.
As we watched more storms approach on radar, and knowing that our scopes and tripods would act as great lightning rods, we eventually called it quits. As we started back down the beach, a few birders were just arriving to search for the bird.
We trudged back toward the shelter of the town, knowing that the skies would be opening up soon. But before we could make it back to the parking lot, the skies did just that. A tropical downpour pelted our bodies and soaked us to the bone. Distant lightning was coming closer. The warm summer day suddenly felt much chillier with the cold rain.
When we finally reached the parking lot, a young birder was heading back out the beach. He stopped long enough to tell us that he just received a text that the bird had returned to the Lagoon! Margo, Bob, and I just looked at each other, but decided to race for cover in the pouring rain to plan our next move.
We found refuge under an overhang of one of the shops. I checked the radar and it appeared more storm cells were coming. We had to make a decision to head back out to the Lagoon or to abandon our quest for another day. To be continued…