Monday, August 12, 2013

Rhode Island Birders

Rhode Island Birders and guests: (Font row from left to right) Michelle Patenaude, Patty O'Neill, Jan St.Jean, Carlos Pedro, Kathy Patric, Linda Ferraresso, Barbara Sherman. (Back row) Wayne Munns, Dan Finizia, John Magill, and Sue Talbot.
After three great days with the good folks of Swarovski Optik and fellow bird bloggers it was time for me to head home to Idaho. Clay Taylor of Swarovski and I boarded a 5:50am flight to Chicago on a small United Express partner aircraft. We were surprised to see such an empty aircraft as every other flight I've been on in the last several years has been completely full. The missing passengers were a large group of cute little girls in matching t-shirts from Mexico on their way home from a church summer camp. They had the misfortune of being held up in security and had arrived at the gate about the time we were supposed to leave. Two of the little girls shared the exact same name which caused a problem for the airline as they booked just one seat and there were no additional seats available. The airport staff asked for volunteers to take a later flight. Silence in the cabin. They asked again offering a travel voucher. I heard grumpy murmurs from fellow passengers concerned about missing connecting flights. We all stared at each other. The little chica without a seat hugged her carry-on bag and bowed her head with big puppy eyes welling up with tears. It broke my heart.

I was anxious to get back to my wife and kids, yet other than being with them, I had no immediate obligations. I stood up and volunteered to fly later. The passengers on the plane actually applauded. Either they were happy to get the show on the road, or more likely they were delighted to get me off the plane. Clay laughed and commented, "I knew you'd be the first to volunteer." I'm still considering the meaning of his comment. Does he find me a chivalrous man of character or a conniving opportunist gunning for a free flight? In this paradoxical world, can't I be both?

The gate attendant searched frantically across all airlines for the quickest way to get me from Providence to Boise...a monumental task to begin with. The only thing available was a 5:30pm flight that would put in Boise around midnight. That wasn't ideal, but I would have to be upgraded for free to first class and they'd provide me an airport vendor meal voucher on top of a travel voucher. Darn it! Being the good guy can be rough. Did you know that in first class they really do have hot moist towels? I thought that was just a joke on Seinfeld, but it is real! And it's awesome!

So what is a birder to do while stranded in a city far from home? Go birding of course! But how to go about it is another challenge. While I waited for my new flight arrangements to be made, I desperately searched the web on my iPad for the closest eBird hotspots and figured I'd could take a cab and just see what happens. That didn't seem too appealing. I needed local experience to point me in the right direction. I looked up Rhode Island ABA members on the online directory. None of them had shared their email or phone numbers. Foiled! Then I remembered

I took the free shuttle back to the hotel so that I could enjoy breakfast with the remaining bird bloggers. Meanwhile, I emailed the three Rhode Island birders listed on BirdingPal. In the email I explained my predicament and asking if anyone on such short notice would be interested in birding with me or at least directing me to a local hotspot. The first to respond was Jan St.Jean. She happened to read my email while in a McDonald's drive-thru on her way from northern Rhode Island to pick up a friend visiting from Vermont to go birding at Charlestown Breachway on the southern coastal edge of this tiny state. I called Jan and she informed me that this birding destination would require some chest deep wading, but if I was up for it, she and her friend would pick me up on their way south. Sounded great to me!

I knew I'd be in good hands when Jan and Michelle arrived a half hour later driving a Subaru (the unofficial vehicle of all North American birding) sporting the highly coveted "BIRDER" chapa.
We zipped on down to the Charlestown Breachway exchanging pleasantries and making some connections to common birding friends near and far. Ya just gotta love how small birding can make the world.

As we pulled into the parking area, Jan named all the birders already there by recognizing their cars. It turns out that I had the enormous fortune of tapping into the most active group of Rhode Island birders. Jan herself was leading the way for the 2013 RI Big Year and currently holds second place on the most birds all-time in the state. We would quickly join up with Dan Vinizia who sits first all-time in Rhode Island, and John Magill currently in second for 2013. Many of the other birders I'd meet had impressive state lists. These were avid birders and unabashed listers. They are intrepid birders, willing to brave wind and rain and wading through chilly waters to stand for hours on slick and slimy mud with all kinds of biting bugs to search through hordes of tiny shorebirds identifying and enjoying each one. While there was a quiet current of competition among them - everyone knowing their species count and their rank among their peers - there was also a fantastic spirit of cooperation and friendship between everyone. It seemed that each birder was trying to reach 300 species for the year and that they were anxiously engaged in helping each other to achieve that lofty goal. On top of that, there were extremely skilled birders among them...both men and women equally pointing out flight calls of incoming shorebirds and field marks on the plainest peeps.

They helped me identify four life birds in as few minutes. Seaside Sparrow. Saltmarsh Sparrow. Stilt Sandpiper. Pectoral Sandpiper. This was birding at its best!
Wading across the breachway channel was a fun adventure for me. Never having done anything like that in the course of my birding experience, this felt like a true National Geographic adventure for this city slicker from Idaho.

Jan and Michelle took me to several additional birding hotspots throughout the day including Trustom Pond NWR, Succotash Marsh, Marsh Meadows Preserve, and the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace. We caravanned with Dan Finizia and Sue Talbot, bumping into the rest of the Rhode Island birders group at some of the spots. Everyone contributed in suggesting specific locations to see specific birds I was after. They helped me pick up two more life birds that day, American Black Duck and White-eyed Vireo, so six total lifers for the day. On top of that, we saw 80 species of birds - a pretty healthy list for one day of birding. Jan introduced me to delicious clam cakes which I was munching on when Dan pointed out the fly-by Black Ducks. I'll never forget Dan, that giant of a man and birder, protecting us all with his umbrella from a chilling rain out on the mudflat.

My flights home were uneventful...except for the fun luxury of flying first class.

Cheers to the Rhode Island Birders and many gracious thank-you's to my BirdingPal hostess Jan St.Jean. It was an honor to be with you all for a wonderful day of birding in Rhode Island.
Jan St.Jean in foreground with John Magill and Sue Talbot at Rhode Island's Charlestown Breachway.


  1. Sounds like birding at its best! Well done to them and to you, and congratulations on the 6 lifers too.

  2. what an adventure giving up the on-board ticket offered you Robert. You luckily were prepared with a change of get-wet clothing and change again before reboarding. What a treat, enjoyable reading

  3. What an adventure. I am happy that Birdingpals was a success for you! Congrats on your lifers.

  4. Fun post, Robert. I admire your pluck!

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  6. I'm so glad you found a Stilt Sandpiper then! I felt really bad that I didn't get you on the one at South Beach.

  7. Robert, I so enjoyed your "when life gives your lemons, make lemonade" story. Congratulations on the many life birds!

  8. Robert, what a hoot! It apparently paid of for you to volunteer to giv eup your seat! What a story and life experience you got out of this! I'm glad I scrolled down to find this story!

    BTW, Gus and I are heading to Utah early next month and hope to roll through Idaho on our way to Yellowstone. Too bad you don't live near Idaho Falls! I am dying to meet you in person!

  9. I always carry a notion, "everything happens for a good reason, however disappointing it may look at first".