The Naturalist's Journal

The newly returned Piping Plovers are searching a specially reserved section of the Napatree Point dunes for safe nesting sites in which to increase the population of this federally threatened species.

 

I have been very dutiful about sticking to the COVID-19 rules, but last week, on a sunny and windy day following a much-hyped-but-less-than-epic nor’easter, I did something that may not have been anti-coronavirus correct. Indeed, the possible-transgression I’m about to own up to may not have even been, strictly speaking, legal.

Mea culpa: on the morning of April 14th, at around 7—early to avoid contact with many people and to hit the timing of the low tide—I drove past the road signs suggesting that I should really turn around and self-quarantine. I then entered Rhode Island from my home next door in Connecticut. I should point out that I’d done this before: my walking route takes me briefly into the Ocean State, and all of the places we shop for necessities, be they groceries, medications, hardware, or toilet paper (not that you can actually buy a roll in that town or any other), are in Westerly. 

Of course, this kind of travel is considered, by the SWAT teams guarding the border, official business, and as long as you’re clad in official garb—I’ve taken to wearing the dress Biolevel Four Hazmat Suit I sewed from a pattern I found on the Internet—you’re typically waved through the checkpoints without a fuss.

This time, I feared, could be different.

True, I was on sort-of official business—my visit to RI was to gather information about the state of the shorebird migration at Watch Hill’s Napatree Point beach for this edition of my venerable Journal—but, since I couldn’t do the walk in my heavy-duty, do-it-yourself Personal Protective Equipment garb, I wasn’t sure my trek would be allowed. I was, to be perfectly honest, very, very nervous. Even though I was not, to the best of my knowledge, carrying the Plague, I’d never felt this unwelcome in what was, after all, my birth state.

Maybe I shouldn’t have worried.

There was absolutely no traffic on Bay Street and, miracle of coronavirus miracles, I had my complete pick of places in which to park. I did see three joggers working their easy way north on the sidewalk, but once they passed, I felt free to get out of the car and head towards the Great Beach. I carried an N95 and gloves in my camera backpack, and, tellingly, the haunting statue of “The Dreamer,” as the boy sitting atop the town drinking fountain is known, was wearing a regulation surgical mask. From a socially distant six feet, I nodded a thank-you.

The youngster was too busy contemplating an uneasy future to nod back.

In this, the awakening time of the year, I should have been walking in a crowd of beachgoers, some out with their dogs, others strolling for exercise. There would, of course, be folks checking for storm damage and admiring the still-strong waves. There’d be surf-casters, and, last but hardly least, there’d be naturalists scanning the shore and the sea for birds, both those rarities blown in by the gale and the feathered citizenry newly arrived on migration.

I would have been in the last group, but I was the only member of my congregation present. In human terms, I was weirdly alone—in two hours on the circuit of the beach, I counted two dog walkers and one jogger—but the birds more than made up for the enforced solitude. I wouldn’t know this until I returned home and discovered an e-mail note from my friend Harold Hanka, the spectacularly good photographer for the Westerly Sun, but had I better eyes and a more powerful lens, I just might have been graced with a fly-by past the Watch Hill Lighthouse of a Brown Pelican, an iconic southern species probably blown north by the gale. Harold had been at the light in search of surfers riding the huge waves, and all of a sudden, he spotted and photographed a bird whose identity he was unsure of and asked me to confirm. You can see his amazing image at www.thewesterlysun.com/news/westerly/photos-a-rare-brown-pelican-spotted-in-the-area-along-the-coast/article_8f485f56-7f7a-11ea-8b50-736ec8e7f41a.html

I didn’t get a pelican from my vantage point on the beach, but over the constant crashing of the waves, there were plenty of gulls making their noisy presences known. And when I crossed the dunes to trek the calmer, Little Narragansett Bay side of the Point, I was soon joined by one of the newly resident Osprey, this one carrying a fish for his mate, who was no doubt tending to egg incubation chores.

A species of small goose called Brant still patrolled the more sheltered coastline, flocks of cormorants continued to pass overhead in review, and sailing by in the vicinity of the mussel beds fronting the Napatree “lagoon” area, there were Dunlin on the wing and in residence. All of these birds had been in the neighborhood throughout the winter-less winter, but the waves of “peeps,” as sandpipers and their migratory cousins are affectionately and, on occasion, vexingly, known to birders, had yet to appear. 

Still, the vanguard travelers were making themselves obvious, as several dozen American Oystercatchers, their black and white feathering and brilliant red-orange bills striking in the sunshine, made a racket on the mudflats. Their excited and near-constant, high-pitched piping notes told me that they had arrived in courtship mode, and they were clearly giving no thoughts to social distancing mandates as the elegant birds, once almost brought to extinction by market hunters and saved by the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918, were busy getting ready to carry on the species. (You’d be doing birds a favor by writing to your representatives in Congress and opposing Trump Administration proposed changes in MBTA standards that would make birds more vulnerable.)

I tipped my wool hat, still needed against the wind and chilly weather, to the Oystercatchers, and I reveled in the greenery emerging from the Salt Spray Rose canes and other perennial vegetation coming to April life. Once I rounded the headland, I noticed that the ocean side of he beach was now roped off to protect Least Terns, which were not yet back from their travels, and Piping Plovers, which, thank God and enlightened conservation measures, were “home” and checking out sections of the dunes for the best nursery sites. I delighted in spotting a pair of plovers, whose numbers are starting to rebound after a horrendous plunge, and issued a silent prayer for continued protection and a great and productive nesting season. I also gave a prayer of thanks that the trio of surfers I noticed were not monitoring my travels and conveying the fact that I was actually a “foreigner” to the local authorities. Nobody had attached a tracking device to my car and its CT plates, and when I finally reached the safety of the border by Potter Hill, I greeted the treeful of Double-crested Cormorants in the middle of the Pawcatuck River with a measure of relief. I then duly returned to the hermitage on the ridge and its isolation and quarantine. For the next 14 days, I’d stay, if not entirely at home, then at least outside of Rhode Island, well, except for those 100 yards or so on my cardiac-team-mandated walking route when my trek takes me briefly into the Ocean State. I promise I won’t be lingering… or stopping to say hello.

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