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Friday, December 24, 2021

First sighting of a sharp-tailed sandpiper

URI student takes birdwatching community by storm, discovers bird never before seen in Rhode Island

By Todd McLeish

When University of Rhode Island senior Sam Miller discovered a sharp-tailed sandpiper at the Galilee Bird Sanctuary in Narragansett in November, it caused significant excitement among the birdwatching community. 

During the three weeks the bird remained in the area, hundreds of people from throughout the eastern U.S. flocked to see the bird, which breeds in Siberia and winters in Australia.

Miller found the bird – a species never previously observed in the Ocean State – during an all-day event he organized in which dozens of local birders sought rare birds along the Rhode Island coast.

 “November is rarity season in the Northeast, so we targeted the most rarity-productive habitats in Rhode Island and hoped that someone would find something cool,” said Miller, a wildlife and conservation biology major from Gambrills, Maryland. “I didn’t think I’d be the one finding the rarest bird, but other rare and uncommon birds were discovered as well.”

The event, which he called a Rarity Round-up, is an annual event in his home state, and Miller wanted to launch something similar in Rhode Island.

“Hopefully there was enough interest to make it an annual event,” he said. “It seemed to work out pretty well.”

Miller has been interested in wildlife since early in his childhood, and he eventually obtained a camera to take photos of the birds at his birdfeeders. After flipping through a field guide to identify the birds in his photographs, he realized how many other species could be found, so he started looking for them.

“I mostly go birding around Maryland and Rhode Island, but I take advantage of family vacations to do some birding, and last winter I road-tripped to Florida with friends to see birds there,” he said.

He chose to enroll at URI after meeting the University’s ornithology professors, Scott McWilliams and Peter Paton and discovering that Rhode Island is an excellent place to observe fall migration. He has served as a teaching assistant in Paton’s field ornithology class for two years, and he is in the midst of a research project to learn about nocturnal bird migration and morning flight along the Rhode Island coast.

“Most songbirds migrate at night, and as the sun rises, they descend to land,” he said. 

“Birds descending in the vicinity of Point Judith either continue their migrations to Block Island or land at the coast. In most cases, those that land at the coast continue flying farther inland in search of more productive habitat to refuel. Others may find the coastal habitat suitable and refuel there. At Camp Cronin on the Point Judith peninsula, I could study this decision making and see how it may be impacted by varying weather conditions.” 

Camp Cronin is where Miller spent his early morning hours in September and October recording the nocturnal flight calls of birds flying by for the two hours before dawn. He also conducted flight counts at sunrise and walked transects to document the species and numbers of birds that spent the daylight hours at the site.

“I got more intensified morning flights when visibility was less than ideal to Block Island,” he said. “When there’s poor visibility, more birds seem to descend at the coast rather than continuing over water where weather conditions and the presence of habitat is uncertain. When birds descending at the coast can see across Block Island Sound, I believe many decide to continue their migrations to Block Island, but this will require further research.”

“In my 26 years at URI, Sam is undoubtedly the most field-savvy undergraduate I have had the pleasure of working with,” said Paton. “He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the birds of Rhode Island. He has already established himself as one the most skilled birders in Rhode Island, and he has yet to graduate from URI. I am sure he will go far in the field of ornithology.”

As a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, Miller made an extra effort to reach out to the local birding community, and he even helped start a text messaging group to quickly share information about interesting bird sightings. It not only helped him become acquainted with the state’s most active birders, but it also helped other new birders get connected to the community.

With one semester left before graduation, Miller is looking ahead to graduate school and a career as an ornithologist.

“I’m probably going to take a year to work and get some field jobs before going to grad school,” he said. “What happens after that is a bit up in the air. I’ve always thought about a career in academia, because I like to teach, but I’m going to take one step at a time and see what opportunities come my way. And I’ll take it from there.”