Looking Through a New Lens
Migrating with the birds to South County, RI and rediscovering the world above
By Penelope Gallo
It was as we crossed into the South County, Rhode Island region, our regular haunt for weekend vacations, that the tension melted away and the background noise in my head quieted. We were heading into familiar territory, where our weekend adventures always proved successful.
My husband, Dan, and I were off on another birding getaway, a favorite pastime of ours that never fails in the relaxation and enjoyment categories. We were ready for our time to be monopolized by the fascinating birds that awaited us, and for our eyes to be focused on the feathers in the sky.
From Napatree Point to Rome Point, the southern Rhode Island shoreline is a festival of natural beauty as well as birding and wildlife viewing. Dazzling birds put on a show throughout South County as they begin their migration, winging their way to winter grounds. Seals sun themselves on beaches and rock formations. Farther out to sea, whales flirt with whale watchers as they cruise by. With every trip, South County always shares its good nature with us.
As we made our way along a road fringed with fall colors, I asked Dan which bird he was most looking forward to seeing.
“I’d like to see a Common Loon again,” he said.
Of course. While we were still dating, the first bird we ever “watched” together was a Common Loon. In fact, a lot of our memories as a couple seemed to be tied to spotting some species of bird. That’s part of the reason why we keep returning to South County. Its pristine setting of color and life has become a sort of oasis, especially for migratory birds, making for an endless well of memories to recall.
Finding more than loons
We began our day with the birds by visiting the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, where we had a great chance of seeing loons. It was a peaceful spot with easy trails through varied habitats—everything from upland to grasslands, shrub lands, wooded swamps and freshwater ponds. We took a trail that wended its way through wetlands, giving us good views of Great Blue Herons. While studying the herons, a loud rattle suddenly shot past us. It was a Belted Kingfisher and it was on a mission, plunging into the water after a fish. To our delight, it wasn’t the only one going fishing, for right overhead an Osprey flew over, carrying the catch of the day in its talons. A Great Black-backed Gull was in fast pursuit, trying to snatch an easy lunch. Every direction seemed to be teeming with birds. It felt as if we were in the middle of a nature documentary.
Hungry for more sightings, we turned onto another trail that was still richly colored with autumn leaves. While looking at the varying red, yellow and orange tones, we noticed the thickets on either side of us were busy with fall migrants. Golden-crowned Kinglets flitted about and we saw a couple of Eastern Bluebirds land briefly. We even observed large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers feasting on bayberries. The air was filled with their chatter. We listened and watched with wide eyes and ears, spying species after beautiful species through our binoculars and in front of our very eyes. We had found ourselves in the middle of a birder’s paradise yet again.
At the end of the trail was an observation platform that commanded an amazing view over Ninigret Pond, a huge coastal salt pond. We stood there quietly, taking in the vista. We were quite pleased by our sightings, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of loons. As if he was reading my mind, Dan said, “We’ll see one soon.”
We headed back to our car when the sun began to set. My mind was replaying all the fantastic sightings we had in just one day.
“Raptor!” Dan called out suddenly. We lifted our binoculars to look at a bird swooping low over the grassland.
“It’s a Northern Harrier,” I said. We watched it fly toward the horizon; we didn’t move an inch, even as the sky began to darken.
Watching that bird glide through the air while the light of the setting sun glinted off its wings fully immersed me in the birding experience and it just felt right to me. As we climbed into the car, I told Dan, “I know it’s getting dark, but I’m not ready to call it a day. I want to see more.” He smiled, replying “Me too.”
A fresh perspective
Through the South County Style Vacation Guide, we learned about an observatory near the sanctuary: the Frosty Drew Observatory & Sky Theatre in Ninigret Park. Every Friday night, the observatory opens to the public for stargazing. It appeared the night sky was going to stay crystal-clear, so we decided this was that something more.
As we approached the observatory, we paused for a moment and looked up at the cosmos. It was unspoiled; a far cry from the light pollution we’re used to in the city. One of the resident astronomers walked by, noticing our locked gaze and commented, “It’s the clearest night sky you’ll find on the east coast.” I think he was right, because we were amazed by how many stars we could see twinkling in the sky.
We climbed the stairs to the dome of the observatory and there in the center was a large, powerful telescope pointed up to the sky. The moon was out and I was amazed how much lunar detail I could see with my naked eye. When I looked through the telescope’s eyepiece, nothing prepared me for the moon’s intricate details—there were craters, of course, but also mountains and valleys. The complexity of the landscape was incredible. The experience was much like the first time I had looked through binoculars many years before to study a Cardinal. When I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, I saw each detail of the bird’s bright red feathers. It was like a whole new world had opened up to me.
We got to see Saturn, too, just before it set out of sight in the evening sky. A tiny dot of light that looked like just one of many stars turned out to be so much more when looking through the telescope. There were experts on hand to explain what we were looking at—a planet formed from hydrogen and helium, surrounded by rings made up of pieces of ice and rock. I remembered diagrams of Saturn and its rings from school, but I hadn’t realized I would be able to make out the rings so crisply and clearly.
“The detail is amazing,” Dan whispered to me. “I never thought about how varied the landscapes are on other planets.”
“I never really saw beyond the twinkling lights,” I admitted.
Though we expected the high note of our day to be with a loon, we found ourselves looking beyond the horizon, past where the birds fly. We strayed away from something we always knew, discovering a fresh perspective that introduced us to another section of the world.
South County’s a favorite that’s still full of surprises. We saw the universe, quite literally, through a new lens.
Request a free copy of the South County Style Vacation Guide to begin planning your unforgettable Rhode Island getaway.