Special features

Rhode Island’s harlequin hotspot

One of the largest concentrations of Harlequin Ducks on the East Coast makes Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge a superb winter birding destination
By Geoffrey S. LeBaron | Published: 2/1/2007

Sachuest-Point-OriginalwWe drove into the parking lot on a late fall day, and my heart sank. It was foggy. Thick as pea soup, a classic coastal New England experience. We entered the abrupt edge of the drenching, gray fog bank as the foghorns moaned. It wouldn’t be good for scoping distant birds, but I knew the weather wouldn’t make any difference to my fellow grad student and friend Mim as long as we found the object of our quest — her first Harlequin Duck.

We walked briskly along the trail through clouds of chipping Yellow-rumped Warblers. Song Sparrows flitted away, and given the season I was surprised to hear the lovely song of an uncommon (for here) Lincoln’s Sparrow from the thicket. Shortly we came to the rocky shore of an open promontory, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The visibility was just good enough for us to see the wave-washed rocks about 50 yards offshore. And lots of ducks were on and around those rocks.

I set up my scope and quickly began scanning. I was afraid the fog would roll in even thicker and the rocks would disappear in the mist. Most of the birds were Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers. Where were the Harlequins? I knew they had to be here. I soon realized that some of the darker, smaller “rocks” had white markings on them — Harlequins standing just above the water line: The best reference to their location was an eider visible at the end of the rocks. In no time, Mim was oohing and ahhing as she watched her life Harlequins jump into the water and begin feeding. The even gray light in the fog was perfect to see the often-hidden spectacular colors in the ducks — black and white patterning turned into gorgeous slaty-blue and bright chestnut. What wonderful birds!

While Mim watched the ducks, the fog bank rolled offshore, and I looked again at the eider we had used as our waypoint for the Harlequins and realized that it was different from the other birds in the flock. It was an immature male King Eider, a rare bird anywhere south of Newfoundland — proof that it always pays to look at every bird you find, even in a small refuge in our smallest state.

The search for Mim’s Harlequins reflects many of my birding experiences at Rhode Island’s Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. For a birder, the place is exciting, educational, moody, ever changing, and especially great to explore in winter.

Sachuest pointers

Sachuest Point is located in Middletown, Rhode Island. The 242-acre refuge features three miles of hiking trails. The visitor center, open in winter only on weekends and some holidays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., has restrooms.

When to go: Harlequin and other sea duck numbers build up from late October into December and remain at peak into March. In February and early March, you might see the spectacle of their courtship displays. Watch for Short-eared Owls at sunset.

Weather: Clear winter days in New England are glorious and bright — and often windy and very cold. Despite relatively moderate air temperatures in southern New England, the maritime influence and exposed geography of Sachuest mean you’ll need to prepare for low wind chills. Dress in layers, bring wind protection, wear good walking shoes, and use plenty of sunscreen.

Accessibility: The trails, while fairly well maintained, can be muddy or frozen, and wet rocks can be slippery.

Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
41˚28’48N 71˚14’37W
(401) 364-9124

Many people, if they think of Rhode Island at all, conjure a vague notion of something that calls itself the Ocean State and lapse into thoughts of glamorous Newport and the America’s Cup sailboat race. In fact, for naturalists the state is blessed with a surprising variety of habitats: evergreen forests in the northwest, barrier beaches and unique salt ponds on the coast, wooded sanctuaries in urban Providence.

At any season, the birding can be spectacular because Rhode Island’s location attracts northern species and southern vagrants. The state’s size is an added benefit. A place that is far away here is equivalent to next door in most other areas.

Most visitors simply travel on I-95 on their way from New York to Boston, missing the state’s natural riches, including the island that gives the state its common name. (Few people ever use the official name: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.) The namesake island is the largest in Narragansett Bay; its eastern shore is bounded by the Sakonnet River. Newport, on the southwestern corner, is the island’s largest city. Sachuest Point is on the southeastern tip, about five miles from Newport.

Best birds of the point

The best months for birders to visit are October to March. The shrub lands and open areas of the refuge attract songbirds, and the rocks and waters offshore harbor wintering sea ducks, alcids, and other open-water treats. Good vegetative cover in thickets produces a plentiful supply of small mammals to attract wintering raptors. To top it off, the views of the town of Little Compton to the east and Newport to the west are spectacular — a combination of birding and location that is hard to beat.

Beginning in September, but particularly through October and into the Christmas Bird Count season, the thickets are attractive to migrating and wintering land birds, including large numbers of Yellow-rumped “Myrtle” Warblers. When you see them feeding on the winter crop of myrtle berries, you’ll fully appreciate their name.

And keep an eye on the warbler flocks for more unexpected birds, such as Nashville or Black-and-white Warblers, and more commonly Yellow-breasted Chats or Palm Warblers. Northern Mockingbirds are common, and Gray Catbirds remain in the thickets in low numbers. Sachuest Point is a great place to study winter sparrows; the variety of plumages in Song Sparrows here is amazing, and I love having a giant, bright chestnut Fox Sparrow hop suddenly into view.

But let’s face it: Birders here brave the winter cold and wind to see waterfowl. The full gamut of Atlantic sea ducks can be present. Besides Harlequin Duck, expect large numbers of Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, and Black, Surf, and White-winged Scoters. Look for rarities, such as King Eider and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Common and Red-throated Loons, and Horned and Red-necked Grebes are all found offshore.

Depending upon winds and the timing of your visit, you might see Northern Gannets diving to capture fish. They’re usually well offshore but are sometimes in the mouth of the Sakonnet River.

Watch for Razorbills and, rarely, Dovekies bobbing in the waves. Numbers vary from year to year; in some years Razorbills can be almost expected, while in others they are nearly absent. The alcids’ relatives, the gulls and shorebirds, are always present in good numbers. Scan the rocks just below the trails for close-up views of Purple Sandpipers, and you’ll readily appreciate the species’ elegant beauty.

I love searching through gulls because you never know what will turn up. Besides the usual suspects loafing on the beaches or in parking lots— Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls — keep an eye out for “white-winged” gulls, too. Glaucous and (more frequently) Iceland Gulls winter around the point in small numbers.

Don’t pass over those “black-backed” gulls, either; Lesser Black-backed Gulls are being found in increasing numbers, and for two years in a row, a Black-tailed Gull, a high-interest vagrant from Asia, visited for a few weeks. Offshore flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls sometimes include a Black-headed or Little Gull. And don’t overlook the occasional Black-legged Kittiwake that may shear by in the distance.

Onshore, the raptors of Sachuest Point are just as fun to watch. The most frequently encountered daytime birds of prey are Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon. Red-tails and harriers hunt the fields, and a falcon can streak by at any moment.

Just up the road

The Norman Bird Sanctuary is a privately owned wildlife refuge only a few miles from the Sachuest Point visitor center. Walk the sanctuary’s seven miles of trails in spring, summer, or fall to look for woodcock, warblers, vireos, swallows, and other birds.

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Entrance fee: $4 for adults,
More information: www.normanbirdsanctuary.org

Rough-legs up close

Absent in some winters, the sought-after Rough-legged Hawk appears in fair numbers in others. When one drifts into sight, I love to hike slowly along the rocky bluffs and let it approach me. Occasionally, it will hover nearly within touching distance overhead. The full variety of plumages has been recorded, from ghostly light-morph juveniles to strikingly patterned dark-morph adult males.

If you see a big white plastic bottle in a field or on a rock, take another look. Snowy Owls can show up anywhere, and despite their obvious colors, they can be easy to dismiss as a piece of trash. Of course, they’re no trash birds; they’re genuine top-dog arctic raptors. Snowy Owls are among the largest and most powerful birds in the world, and you won’t soon forget the sight of a Snowy watching you with its intense, yellow gaze.

Don’t leave too soon. At dusk, the visitor center parking lot is the best location to watch the birds change shifts over the fields. As the sun dips low and Northern Harriers head to roost, Short-eared Owls appear. I enjoy watching Short-ears hunt; they look like big brown-and-white moths. Often near sunset both harriers and owls will be in the air together, and occasionally I’ll watch them sparring for hunting territories.

Such is the magic of Sachuest Point.

The refuge’s most famous avian attraction, though, is the large wintering population of Harlequin Ducks. The lovely northern waterfowl breeds mainly from eastern Siberia through Alaska and the mountains of western North America.

Smaller populations nest in eastern Canada, southern Greenland, and Iceland and winter along the Atlantic coast from New Brunswick to Maryland. Eastern North America’s ducks are the rarest.

Eastern Harlequin Duck

Four populations of the Harlequin Duck are found worldwide. The largest, estimated at 200,000-300,000, breeds and winters in western North America and eastern Asia. Year-round populations in Greenland and Iceland number about 5,000 each. The smallest group is the eastern North American population. Today it totals about 1,800 birds, up slightly during the last five years but far below historical estimates of 5,000-10,000.

Breeding range: Most eastern Harlequins breed near eastern Hudson Bay in northern Quebec. A few breed in Newfoundland and Labrador, on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, and in northern New Brunswick.

Winter range: Coasts from Newfoundland to Maryland, including Sachuest Point, Rhode Island. Approximately half the population winters in New England.

Protection: Canada has designated the eastern population a species of special concern. Hunting Harlequins is prohibited in Canada and the United States.

Threats: Dams, mines, and roads in remote breeding areas; potential oil spills on coasts; incidental killing by hunters who misidentify females or young as other waterfowl; pollution.

Management plan: Published in 2007, Canada’s management plan is available online.

Where to find Harlequins

Harlequins at Sachuest Point number over 100 some years — one of the largest wintering concentrations on the East Coast. You will most likely find them along the eastern shore, and you can see them in excellent detail: slate blue body, white spots and crescents, chestnut sides. Their appearance is undeniably wonderful, but their behavior is equally fascinating. They feed in the pounding surf at the edges of rocky outcroppings, diving to feed on shellfish and other crustaceans.

When you watch them disappear and reappear in the foamy surf around the rocks, it seems inconceivable that they are not crushed. Yet they pop to the surface, bob about, then dive again in the next wave. Harlequins are supremely adapted to feeding among crashing breakers; in fact, their bones apparently heal amazingly quickly if they are crushed against the rocks by the ocean’s power. Many Harlequin Duck museum specimens have multiple broken, then healed, bones.

Let’s take a quick tour. My favorite way to explore the refuge begins and ends at the parking lot near the visitor center. Head east on the main trail toward the Sakonnet River, scanning the flocks of passerines in the thickets along the way.

Snowy Owls can be sitting anywhere, and always be on the lookout for hunting raptors.

When you reach the shore, turn left. After a short distance, you’ll find an observation platform that provides one of the best spots to view Harlequin Ducks. The birds are usually on the rocky outcroppings known as Island Rocks or in the intertidal area. Once you have your fill, return to the main trail and continue south to the island’s tip. Watch for Harlequins and other waterbirds, and check the rocks below for Purple Sand­pipers. Scan the fields to your right for raptors.

Reaching the southern tip, scope offshore for gannets, kittiwakes, alcids, and other seabirds. They can be seen anywhere around the point but are most likely spotted here. Returning northward toward the parking lot along the west shore, scan the large flocks of goldeneye and scoters.

This is one of the most likely areas to find a Barrow’s Goldeneye or perhaps a Red-necked Grebe or an interesting loon. With prevailing northwest winds, this is also the shoreline where Rough-legged Hawks often kite, using the updrafts to search thickets for prey.

For the best views of Harlequin Ducks, I recommend visiting Sachuest Point in the afternoon. Plan to stay through sunset. The afternoon light is better on the birds along the eastern shore, and you’ll have the opportunity to wait for the changing of the guard from Northern Harriers to Short-eared Owls on your return to the parking lot. This is a wonderful and special spot for birders and is a globally important wintering area for eastern North American Harlequin Ducks. Enjoy your visit! 

Geoffrey S. LeBaron is the director of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. He attended graduate school at the University of Rhode Island and loves birding in this little-appreciated state. He leads birding trips there, always including his favorite spot — Sachuest Point.