The tidal mud flats and salt marsh areas on Ninigret Pond at Charlestown Breachway have provided local birders with many special birds and many fond memories. Known to Rhode Island birders simply as the Breachway, it is a premier location for birding during the summer shorebird migration season. During shorebird migration, the area is a must stop for local birders hoping to add to their year bird lists and perhaps find that rare visitor that will cause area birders to drop everything and head down to the Breachway. Birders are also able to observe many species that breed in the grassy marsh areas and are plentiful during the spring and summer months. The Breachway offers birding opportunities in all four seasons of the year, but the most enjoyable and productive times are late spring and summer. It doesn't get any better than a summer morning out on the tidal flats surrounded by migrating birds.
Because Charlestown Breachway is a popular area for summer activities, it can get busy during the middle of the day. There is a nice sandy ocean beach, and the jetty at the Breachway is well known for striped bass and scup fishing. Kayaking, boating, clamming, and sunbathing are popular activities on Ninigret Pond near the best birding areas. The area provides a great opportunity for combining various summer activities into an enjoyable day. The beach is never really crowded due to the limited number of parking spots in the lot. There is a state RV camping area for self-contained vehicles adjacent to the parking area.
Figure 1. Map A: Directions to Charlestown Breachway
Local birders are usually out on the mud flats by 8:00 am on weekends. The best birding times are before 10:00 am and after 3:00 pm when the birding area is less crowded. On weekend days between July 4 and Labor Day, the parking lot may fill by 9:00 am and stay full until 2:30–3:00 pm, so early arrival is critical to assure entry. When the lot is full, all cars are denied access at the entrance.
Season passes are checked and day parking fees are collected at the entry kiosk, which is staffed between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. Entry before 8:00 or after 4:30 is free. Parking fees have varied over the past three years, so check the Rhode Island Division of Parks and Recreation website for current daily fees and season pass rates. Rates in 2017 for Rhode Island residents and nonresident seniors were $6 for a weekday daily pass, $7 for weekend days, and $30 for a season pass. Resident seniors paid $3 on weekdays, $3.50 on weekend days, and $15 for the season. For nonresidents, the weekday daily pass was $12, the weekend day rate was $14, and the season pass was $60.
Charlestown Mud Flats. All photographs by the author.
The Charlestown Breachway mud flats and marsh are located on the south coast of Rhode Island in the town of Charlestown in Washington County. US Route 1 is the main thoroughfare that provides access to the shore. From the north, take Interstate 95 (I-95) South and bear left at Exit 9 to merge onto Route 4 (RI-4). In 9.9 miles, continue straight onto US Route 1 (US-1). Stay on Route 1 for 16.8 miles to the first Charlestown Beach/Breachway exit and make a U-turn. Take the first right after the exit turnaround onto Narrow Lane and go to the end, turn left onto Matunuck School House Road, then take the first right on to Charlestown Beach Road. Continue to the end of the road for the Charlestown Breachway parking area. It is 2.8 miles from the Route 1 Charlestown Breachway exit to the parking area. Note: Parking for Charlestown Beach is along Charlestown Beach Road, just before the road bends to the right. Do not pull into this lot by mistake, but continue all the way around the bend for approximately 0.5 mile to the end of the road and Breachway parking. See Figure 1 Map A for directions.
From the west, take Interstate 95 (1-95) North in Connecticut to Exit 92 and turn right onto Route 2 east (CT-2 E) toward Route 49 (CT-49) and Stonington; continue on Route 2 for 1.4 miles. Turn right to merge onto Route 78 (CT-78 E) toward Westerly/RI Beaches. Continue south on Route 78 for 4.6 miles to US Route 1 (US-1) and take a left onto Route 1 North. Continue for 10.7 miles and turn right at the third Charlestown Beach exit, just after the General Stanton Inn and Flea Market signs on your right. This will put you on Narrow Lane. Follow the directions in the paragraph above to reach Charlestown Breachway.
To get the most out of birding at the Breachway mud flats, you need to cross a tidal channel. Birding the marsh area is possible without crossing, and you can scope the mud flats without crossing the channel, but this limits the possibilities. The tidal channel at the crossing is approximately 50 feet across, and the water depth ranges from mid-thigh at low tide to mid-chest at regular high tides. Local birders often change into clothing suitable for the crossing in the parking area facilities; after birding, they change back into dry clothes.
Most birders cross the channel from early June through the summer. Crossing before June requires wearing waders, but I have found that it can be quite productive beginning in early May. Water temperatures range from the low 60s in early June to the 70s and 80s after the beginning of July. The channel floor at the crossing is hard packed sand. This makes it easy and safe. You may encounter muddy areas if you attempt to cross in other places. The tidal flats are mostly hard packed sand, but wet areas can be slippery, so caution is advised. Water shoes are highly recommended, and suitable footwear is a must because there are snails and broken clamshells that can do damage to bare feet.
To reach the recommended crossing point from the parking area, walk approximately 100 yards north through the RV park to the boat launch ramp. From the ramp walk right along the shoreline for about 100 yards to the narrow tidal channel at the point. The walk along the bank for these first 100 yards may be dry at low tide or up to two feet deep at high tide. Turn right, go a few yards, cross another narrow shallow tidal channel (depth up to two feet), and look immediately for a narrow, hard-packed sandy area to your left facing the wider channel to the north. This is the area that is most often used to cross. From this area, prior to crossing, it is possible to access tidal marsh grass areas and to use a spotting scope to search parts of the tidal mud flats. For crossing guidance, see Figure 2 Map B.
Another option for accessing the birding areas is to rent a kayak or bring your own, which allows you to visit the flats without a wet crossing and lets you explore the shoreline of Ninigret Tidal Pond on the other side of the Breachway channel. Many uncommon birds have been reported from this area, including Gull-billed and Royal terns and Tricolored Heron. The birding areas are a few hundred yards from the launch area. You can rent kayaks on Charlestown Beach Road, and there's a boat launch just before the entrance to the town beach parking area. To reach the boat launch, take a right to the Charlestown Beach parking area, and just before reaching the lot and entry kiosk, turn right into the launch area. Parking is free, even if you bring your own kayak, but the launch lot may fill by 10:00 am on weekends.
Birds of the Tidal Mud Flats
The Breachway mud flats, although fairly small, are a major stopover for migrating birds. During peak high tide there are almost no exposed flats where shorebirds can feed, but many birds roost on the limited exposed flats. At low tide there are extensive mud flats that you can walk in less than an hour, but I recommend that you spend more time as birds are always coming and going. Some birders bring chairs and stay for a couple of hours, looking over the constantly changing array of birds on the mud flats. My preference is to bird the area around mid-tide and avoid the tidal extremes because birds are more spread out at low tide and less numerous at high tide. The best birding at the Breachway mud flats is during the shorebird migration periods. Birds begin arriving on their northern migration in large numbers in early May and continue until the middle of June. Southward migration picks up in late June and continues to the beginning of September. Peak season is from late June to the end of August. Over the past couple of years I have made an effort to get out there in May and have found numbers of shorebirds close to those of the peak times.
Migrating terns and gulls increase in numbers and diversity from the middle of July to the middle of August. Common and Least terns breed in the area and are common all summer. There are a few sightings of migrating Caspian Terns from late April to early June. Tern species expected each season include Forster's, Black, and Roseate. Black Skimmers and Royal Terns make an appearance most years. A Gull-billed Tern was seen and photographed in May of 2017. Laughing Gulls and an occasional Bonaparte's Gull use the tidal flats for roosting. Tern numbers have decreased over the years, probably due to increased boating and other summer activities, but every year there are notable sightings.
Herons and egrets are common throughout the summer. Great Blue Herons and Great and Snowy egrets feed out on the flats and are joined along the grassy and wooded shoreline by Green Herons and Black- and Yellow-crowned night-herons. The many fish species and fry provide food for a host of bird species. Juvenile and adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons have been seen annually; in July and August they are usually in the area across from the main channel behind the sandbar.
One of my fondest birding memories occurred out on the mud flats in 2003 when a juvenile Reddish Egret landed 30 yards from us. It proceeded to feed and chase baitfish around for the next hour in typical Reddish Egret fashion. This Reddish Egret was a Rhode Island first, and it stayed in the area for the next two to three weeks, giving a lot of birders and photographers a show. Something special can turn up when you least expect it. In recent years, American Avocets seem to show up every couple of years. Three Black-necked Stilts also made an appearance one year and stayed for a few days.
Swallows are worthy of attention at the Breachway. Barn, Tree, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged swallows hawk insects out over Ninigret Pond and the tidal flats. Look for Cliff Swallows with other swallows beginning in early June. There is a Purple Martin house near the kayak launch area with nesting martins. During Tree Swallow migration in late summer, thousands fly over the area and roost in the shrubs and phragmites.
Birds of prey often cause havoc with feeding shorebirds. Peregrine Falcons and Merlins appear every year in August. Watching Peregrines circling in the distance and diving at lightning speed on feeding shorebirds is quite an experience when you're standing close to the action. Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks hunt close to the wooded edges.
Shorebirds are the main attraction. Every year, thousands of birds migrate through the Breachway and use the tidal flats as a rest and refueling stop. Some stay for one or two weeks and feed, others stop for a couple of minutes and continue their migration, and some fly over without stopping. At times during peak migration there are a thousand shorebirds in an area that you can scope while standing in one spot. This site attracts rare vagrants and Rhode Island firsts and is a must-bird area during late spring and summer. Common migrants include Piping, Semipalmated, and Black-bellied plovers; Killdeer; Least and Semipalmated sandpipers; Greater and Lesser yellowlegs; Short-billed Dowitchers; and Sanderlings. Willets are common; they breed in the marsh grass and are noisy and aggressive if you wander too close to their territory. Young chicks forage on the flats in August, usually close to marsh grass. Other shorebirds include Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, and Pectoral and White-rumped sandpipers. White-rumps are most numerous in May and June but present in fewer numbers at other times. Dunlin are common during the winter and spring and stay through the end of May. Western and Stilt sandpipers make an appearance almost every year. American Golden Plovers, Baird's Sandpipers, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Wilson's Phalaropes are seen some years, often in August. Rare vagrant shorebirds that have been recorded at the Charlestown Breachway mud flats include Lesser Sand-Plover, Little Stint, and on two occasions, Curlew Sandpiper.
A couple of my most memorable moments as a birder occurred on these tidal mud flats. The first was a lesson learned involving the Lesser Sand-Plover, known previously as Mongolian Plover. On my first visit to the mud flats in 1999, a couple of local birders told me that they had seen a Mongolian Plover, lost sight of it, and were searching to relocate it. New to birding, I figured that they must be mistaken, and I gave the search only a half-hearted 20-minute attempt. The bird was relocated right after I left. It stayed for a few days, and interested birders were able to observe this rare find. I had no knowledge of the birding hotlines that spread the word and missed out on seeing this great bird—all because I didn't take the initial report seriously enough to put the time into finding it.
Another memorable moment occurred on July 4, 2012. My wife and I often go to the beach on summer mornings to relax, and I usually take an hour to explore the flats. As I crossed the channel, I saw a lot of bird activity. As I got closer, I noticed a bright peep feeding with a group of more than 100 Least Sandpipers. It was a breeding-plumaged Little Stint. Fortunately, I had my camera and the bird was cooperative. After verification, the word went out and a few local birders came by that afternoon. The next morning many more birders showed up, but the stint was not seen again.
Birds of the Grassy Tidal Marsh
The Charlestown Breachway's grassy marsh areas offer their own birding rewards. Extensive areas of marsh grasses and reeds are intermingled in and surround the tidal mud flat area. Saltmarsh and Seaside sparrows are common nesters here. You can hear their songs beginning in May, and both species are easily seen. Saltmarsh Sparrows are prevalent in any short grass area. Seaside Sparrows seem to concentrate more in three areas close to the main tidal mud flats. The first, an area of short marsh grasses bordered by reeds, is east of the channel crossing. It can be reached by walking around the point just before crossing the tidal channels. Both sparrows can be found along this stretch. Just after you cross the channel, there are two islands of extensive grass areas bordered by short shrubs that the Seaside Sparrows use as singing platforms. The first island is directly ahead of the crossing and the other is just east of it. Virginia Rails and Willow Flycatchers are present during spring and summer. There is a tidal pond just south of the main channel crossing that can hold American Bitterns into early May. Virginia Rails also seem to concentrate in this area.
Birds recorded during the Christmas Bird Count include American Bittern, Wilson's Snipe, and in some years Nelson's and Saltmarsh sparrows. Dunlin are usually present in large numbers, and Black-bellied Plovers occur some winters.
Strategy for Birding the Charlestown Breachway Mud Flats and Marsh Grass Areas
For an enjoyable birding experience, plan to spend a couple of hours exploring the area. I prefer either early morning or mid to late afternoon. Try to avoid peak high tide when the birds may be limited to a small roosting area.
There are three main areas of mud flats that should get a birder's attention. The first is the substantial area of mud flats right after you cross the tidal channel. Walk to the right after crossing and continue between the two marsh grass islands. I use a combination of two strategies to bird this area. Many birders bring a spotting scope and position themselves in an area with a good view of this entire tidal flat and methodically examine the shorebirds in the area. Keeping an eye on the sky, noticing the new birds arriving on the scene, and being aware of those that are just flying through in migration are all part of this strategy. The composition of the species present is constantly changing with the arrival and departure of new individuals and groups of birds. The second strategy is to walk around the perimeter of the mud flat area with binoculars to obtain a closer view of feeding birds. The shorebirds are usually busy feeding and not too concerned with nearby birders, often walking to within a few yards of people, but please be aware if you are causing nervousness in individuals or the flock and back away.
Another area to explore is a small island of mud flats just a couple of hundred yards to the east. This is a favored roosting area for gulls and terns and a feeding area for shorebirds. Roosting Caspian and Royal terns sometimes mix with the roosting gulls. This is where the Little Stint was found in 2012.
The third area is a sandbar on Ninigret Pond in the middle of the main boating channel that leads to the Breachway and provides access to the ocean. During high tide periods this sandbar can be completely underwater. It's located about 200 yards to the west of the northerly point of the main mud flat. This is a favored roosting area for terns, gulls, cormorants, and for feeding shorebirds. This sandbar has often rewarded birders with the more uncommon visitors such as Black Skimmers, Royal and Caspian terns, American Avocet, and Marbled Godwit. Access the area by walking in the water to the tip of the marsh grass island that is closest to the sandbar. The water is shallow and easy to navigate. This area provides you with a good scope view of the sandbar. Across the channel from the southern end of the sandbar is a muddy area along a wooded shoreline that is frequented by Black- and Yellow-crowned night-herons. Marbled Godwits have also occurred in this area. Visit the sandbar early in the morning, especially on weekends, as boaters anchor their boats and use the bar for sunbathing and other beach activities. For specific areas, see Figure 2 Map B.
The Charlestown Breachway mud flats are surrounded by areas of tidal marsh grass. In addition, the area is dotted with small islands of marsh grass and shrubs. These areas provide great habitat for breeding birds such as Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows, Virginia Rails, Willets, and Willow Flycatchers. Virginia Rails can sometimes be heard calling from the marsh grass areas. The others are common and usually conspicuous. The two main areas for marsh birds are the grassy islands out on the mud flats and an area to the east of the main crossing. For locations, see Figure 2 Map B. The area east of the channel has many deer paths and paths made by duck hunters that you can use. Mosquitos can be a problem, so take precautions and bring repellant.
Other Birding Spots along the South Coast
There are many other excellent birding areas and opportunities along the south shore of Rhode Island. These are all easily accessible from Route 1. There is good birding in all seasons in southern Rhode Island.
The Frances Fleet out of Galilee does whalewatching trips to areas south and east of Block Island. Combining a whale watch with a morning at the Breachway can make for a productive day of birding. Cory's, Great, Sooty, and Manx shearwaters, Wilson's Storm-Petrels, Parasitic and Pomarine jaegers, and South Polar Skua (2017) have all been seen in the last couple of years. Whale watches normally depart at 1:00 pm and begin running on July 4. Contact the Frances Fleet or check their website for the summer 2018 schedule. To reach the Frances Fleet at Galilee take the Route 108 South exit off Route 1 (a few miles north of Charlestown Breachway Exit) and follow signs for Galilee.
Figure 2. Map B: Tidal Mud Flats.
Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge offers good birding in all seasons. Migrating warblers, vireos, and thrushes are abundant in the spring and fall. Notable species such as Prothonotary and Golden-winged warblers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Philadelphia Vireos have been recorded. Breeders include Least Bitterns; American Redstarts; Black-and-white, Blue-winged, and Yellow warblers; and Common Yellowthroats. White-eyed Vireos are common breeders throughout the Refuge. Winter at Trustom is the season for waterfowl. In addition to the common species, Redheads, Eurasian Wigeon, Barrow's Goldeneyes, Tufted Ducks, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Tundra Swans have been recorded here. To reach Trustom NWR, take the Moonstone Beach Road exit off Route 1 (two exits north from the Charlestown Breachway Exit), go to the intersection at Matunuck School Road, and take a right. The entrance to the refuge will be a mile or so on the left.
Napatree Point at Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island, is another prime shorebirding spot. The birding is excellent from May to mid-September. Parking during the summer months can be a problem. There is two-hour parking on the main road, but finding a spot in the middle of the day can be difficult. Walk through the private parking areas toward the beach. Go past the dirt uphill path to the beach and continue to the bay side. Most birders walk the bay side to the far end of the peninsula—where the best birding areas are—then walk back on the beach side. The entire trip is about three miles. Terns and shorebirds are abundant, and American Oystercatchers are present from May to October. A couple of pairs may breed in the area, but during the August migration there can be over 50 present.
Besides the excellent birding, the south coast of Rhode Island offers many opportunities for relaxing and enjoying a day or a few days in the area. There are great public beaches, such as Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, East Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown, Charlestown Beach, and the Charlestown Breachway Beach in Charlestown.
There are plenty of fine seafood restaurants. Within a couple of miles of the birding site are The Matunuck Oyster Bar and Grill on Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown and the Charlestown Breachway Grill, which is at the corner of Charlestown Beach Road and Matunuck School House Road. The town of Narragansett and the Galilee area offer many fine restaurant choices for every taste. From Westerly to Newport, there are plenty of lodging choices along the south coast of Rhode Island. Book early as the area has become a popular summer vacation destination.
Editor's Note: Readers may also access an earlier article about birding Charlestown Breachway titled "Coastal Birding in Rhode Island" by Alan E. Strauss that ran in Bird Observer June 1992, Volume 20 (3): p. 129-135.
Carlos Pedro has been an active Rhode Island birder for the past twenty years. He especially enjoys pelagic birding and has organized 25+ birding pelagics to Coxes Ledge and Block Canyon off the southern coast of Rhode Island. He likes to travel and combine birding with beaches and sightseeing, especially enjoys planning and doing self-guided birding trips, and has visited 32 countries on these birding adventures.