Crazy as a Coot, Happy as a Lark

As director of the Ocean View Foundation, Block Island’s First Warden Kim Gaffett leads nature tours. Our reporter went on one of her legendary bird walks.
Tue, 07/01/2014 - 12:15pm

On winter mornings when even the sun has difficulty deciding whether it should rise, almost nothing stirs on Block Island, not man nor beast nor machine. On our road, unless the transfer station is open, Howie’s yellow school bus is often the first and only vehicle to pass by my house until mid morning, and there are almost never morning joggers.

There’s an exception though. On certain Tuesdays, a small group of sturdy New Englanders joins naturalist Kim Gaffett (also the island’s First Warden) for Crazy as a Coot, an early morning bird walk at a location determined the previous evening — most likely by where she has seen interesting birds recently or where others have told her they have seen some.

I confess that this winter I was unable to drag myself out of the house to join the group. Though I am up with the rising sun at their meeting time of 8 a.m., I am still sipping coffee and catching up on my email messages, finding excuses not to go outside into the grey cold. This winter was so dreary that even my cat, a huntress with a nose for every small creature, curled up in a ball on an easy chair and became, temporarily, an indoor pet.

On June 17, the Coots held their last bird watching walk of the season (there are plenty of themed summer walks, though, which we’ll discuss later), to be followed by a celebratory breakfast at Bethany’s Airport Diner. I did manage to get to that one, because after all, I hate to miss a party, even one that starts at 8 a.m. And, in June, the weather had finally turned.

The destination was Cormorant Cove. There’s not much parking down there, so we met up at the corner of West Side and Champlin Road, the street most of us know as Coast Guard Road, and carpooled down to the end.

Eighteen of us joined Gaffett for the bird walk, marking the return of cottagers and visitors; birds aren’t the only migratory islanders.

Gaffett brought her scope and fellow birder Maggie Komosinski brought her pen and pad to keep track of the birds we spotted. The first in our sights was a black and white American oystercatcher minding its own business, trolling for oysters and clams in the wet sand of low tide along the water line. Gaffett set up the scope so we could all see it more clearly without disturbing it. Though binoculars work well for spying on the birds, the scope offers a much clearer view, especially when it’s set up on a tripod as Kim had done. The oystercatcher was quite dashing, particularly its long bright orange bill.

I am new at bird watching, and confess I don’t see half of what the experienced birders see. When everyone’s attention turned from the beach to the fields across the street, they saw robins, goldfinches and other feathered friends. I saw one robin and one goldfinch. My attention wandered to the daisies growing in one of the meadows, the high grasses stretching back to a tree line, the sweet cottage I’d not noticed before. These coot walks are good for enjoying the countryside even for wannabe birders who can’t seem to spot a hawk on a branch. Gaffett took a few minutes to teach us about dune formation, explaining that what we were looking at was the backside of a dune. She pointed out black pines in the distance — how, although the older ones died off in a beetle infestation, young ones are now replacing them. She also showed us cedars, roses, bayberry, hawkweed and sorrel. Finally there were the grasses. All of these, Gaffett said, catch the sand and build it up from the backside.

We celebrated afterward at an outdoor table at Bethany’s Airport Diner, where Robin Fletcher made sure we all got the correct orders and lots of coffee or tea. Bethany even came outside to say hi and bring us a cake. Komosinski wrote up the final bird count. There were 22 species spotted; the most plentiful were great black back gulls (30 of them).

Summer’s schedule of walks
Though this was the last coot walk of the season, Gaffett will be leading other walks and bird banding sessions throughout the summer as Director of the Ocean View Foundation. Among their activities, designed for children and adults, are Tuesday bird banding and Friday bird walks at Andy’s Way. Check or the weekly Block Island Times for their full schedule.

Even if you have never gone on a nature walk — or maybe especially if you haven’t — Gaffett is extremely knowledgeable and her narrative will draw you in. You might even take on a new hobby as it seems I am beginning to do. I can feel the birdwatching beginning to take hold on me, for when I visited the mainland a day later, I spotted wildfowl swimming on a reservoir and slowed down to try to see what kind of ducks they were. Unfortunately, I could not stop, as the mainland is busier than Block Island after all, and was stymied in my quest to check their markings and look them up. I felt frustrated, and suddenly, as traffic was barreling down on me, I realized, perhaps I was getting to be more of a birdwatcher than I thought.