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Monday, March 31, 2014

Sachuest Point NWR - March 27, 2014

No fog drifted across the landscape, yet despite this most un-obvious lack, the day was of a rather rustic complexion. The clouds maintained a dreary, grey pallor as they scudded above the fields of Sachuest Point pushed onward to the horizon by a breeze of an intimidating strength. We had departed, grandfather, brother and I, to this seemingly barren region in the hopes of seeing a particularly famed Barn Owl. A bird which had daily amazed the binocular-wielding clan, flying moth-like and low above the grasses to the tune of feathered wings returning to nighttime roosts. This was a thrilling creature not only in the birds rhythm but also in its status - an elusive species and what may be called a priority “twitch” (i.e. a bird which you should drive a hell of a long way to see).

We arrived at 3:00pm to find the parking area barren of birders, a rare happenstance. All to be observed in the way of pale-necks (birders) were a few gents carrying porro prism binoculars and while so doing enjoying the comfort of their pickup trucks. It should be noted that in the birding world there exist three classes of birders; the birdwatcher (i.e. people who own cheap binoculars), listers (i.e. people who maintain not only a life list but care for their year list with similar enthusiasm), and finally the birders (i.e. people who own expensive binoculars and dislike birdwatchers and despise listers). These people were of the birdwatcher genre and therefore in the birding world considered of no importance. It should also be known that I consider myself a member of none of these classes but embody styles and habits from all three. Now, to return to the story; not only were birders notably lacking from the scene, but equally every other species generally visible from the car lot were not to be found. However, just visible in the marsh was what appeared to be a Snowy Owl, hunkering against the cold in neither a stylish nor owlish manner, but an owl just the same. We observed this individual for a few minutes but the distance, even through a spotting scope, was daunting in the manner of viewing and we soon lost interest, deciding to get a closer view later in the day when perhaps it would be more active.

Despite the large distance spanned by the well-kept nature trail, the sought for Barn Owl was on average most easily found over the fields directly below the parking lot at dusk. Yet the sun had a good three hours between its current position and the horizon and it was therefore decided that owls would be unlikely to be seen flying at such a time. A walk around the grounds would be more successful in the aim of seeing birds. Thus we embarked down the trail heading to the south and west. Here we found our second Snowy of the day. This bird was to be seen sitting on the hill facing west to Sachuest Bay where Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads were just visible bobbing amongst the waves of unsavory proportions. This bird was a rather fine individual whose plumage was all but unmarred by dark barring common to the species. He seemed rather uninterested in our presence although he was an alert creature; constantly displaying his head-turning capabilities as he scanned the surrounding area for predatory dangers or prey to be predated. After observing the marvelous creature for a good while we continued our walk. Although we did not see anymore birds which matched the owls in scarcity or proletarian popularity the walk was an enjoyable one. At Sachuest Point itself, the namesake of the refuge, we scored for our list both Surf and Black Scoter, while Harlequin Ducks and a larger flock of Black Scoter were seen near Island Rocks  (on average the most successful birding spot of the refuge’s land). On the nature of the Harlequin Ducks, it should be noted that these are stunning birds. The males outer appearance consists of a complex design, featuring; slate-blue, a contrasting white and a dark rufous color commonly seen on the spines and covers of outdated books. These birds are a popular species in the birding world but have gained little notoriety elsewhere despite both their striking appearance and their bold habit of favoring rocky coastlines (and along those coastlines the most wave swept and sharpest rock outcroppings) where they dive for invertebrate cuisine.

After a while, that being the time it took us to get properly chilled from the wrathful sea breeze, we returned to the car and drove over to Newport for a coffee break. Nothing needs to be said on the nature of this brief birding cool-down, although perhaps warm-up would be more apt to describe the situation, other than that the we found the visited Dunkin’ Donuts to be particularly pleasant. 
Soon we returned to the sanctuary where we recognized that the day was now getting late, it being about 5:00pm, and the large and alarmingly tame White-tailed Deer population was now making its crepuscular appearance. Still no Barn Owl was to be seen so we walked part of the trail which headed along the north-eastern division of the refuge’s coast. Other than a number of deer, some Purple Sandpipers sharing a rock, and a particularly heroic-looking Red-tailed Hawk (although it could be argued that all individuals of this species display a particularly heroic appearance, and that therefore this bird was nothing special) little was to be seen. 

We then agreed that the best approach to seeing the Barn Owl would be to return to the car and await the birds appearance. We did as such and subsequently were treated to a quick view of the second of the two Snowy Owls we had seen that day (apparently there were four in the refuge) as it flew in no particular direction and with similarly vague (to us at least) motivation. Leaping from the car, whose windows had just begun to fog, we hurried to the spot where this owl had been seen to fly, that being directly behind the visitor center. We were unable to locate the feathered creature but did meet up again with the hawk-who-we-were-not-sure-was-heroic. He sat at the very top of the center’s roof and as he took flight from this promontory, which was almost directly above us, I found I had come down with a case of Birder’s Back, which, as can be imagined, is far more dramatic in its achievement than the dreaded Birder’s Neck. The pain of the misdirected back soon faded as did the final rays of the sun. Finding ourselves yet again of a chilled manner we returned once more to the warmth of the car.

After a while we got bored of the particular view which we had chosen for ourselves, so we drove down to the Sachuest Saltmarsh, which is just visible from the visitor center. This was where we had seen the first Snowy Owl of the day hunkering in that unstylish manner of his. When we arrived at this new view point the Snowy, still not recognizing of his flaws of posture, sat keeping company with a few Killdeer and some birdwatchers, all of whom still rested in pickup trucks. Here we stayed for some fifteen minutes watching deer grazing in the meadows and quite desperately hoping for the appearance of the Barn Owl, a bird which we have tried for with no success multiple times this year. It is with heavy heart that I inform the reader that like previous attempts this excursion was, in its primary goal, a failure, but despite this sorry fact an enjoyable and pleasant day nonetheless. Dammit all we DID see two Snowy Owls (and a Mink which I neglected to mention) - isn't that enough? 

Thanks is once more owed to my grandfather for escorting, sponsoring, and enjoying this naturalists adventure. It was, after all a quite awesome experience.

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