Birds Flock Here in the Fall
Enjoy globally important birding with beauty on the side during the gorgeous foliage season.
If fall birding in Rhode Island isn’t on your bucket list already, it should be. The southern part of the state, what locals call "South County," is a special fave among our feathered friends. Choose either Westerly or Narragansett as your home base, and plan to stay two or three nights. You’ll need a car, so plan to rent if you arrive by plane (to PVD) or Amtrak. There are Enterprise offices near the Westerly and Kingston stations. Extend your trip viewing nature from the sky with HeliBlock Helicopter Tours or from the water with Save the Bay, with seals an added bonus after November. Or hop over to Block Island for more birding.
Westerly offers luxury hotels and the quaint and scenic village of Watch Hill, known for ocean views and famous summer resident Taylor Swift. Stay at the Weekapaug Inn (at one third their summer rate) and step off their dock onto an electric launch for a private tour of Quonochontaug Pond with their naturalist, who can also advise you on birding in the area. Narragansett, another beautiful shore town just north, offers more affordable hotel options among storied seafood restaurants. The Break, a boutique hotel with a surfer-chic retro vibe, features a year-round saltwater pool, ocean-view rooftop bar, and a fireplace in every room.
Day one, arrive early to catch the raptors at Napatree Point Conservation Area, Watch Hill, where you can easily spend a half a day. Designated a “Globally Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society, the 86-acres of conservation area on Narragansett Bay are home to multiple endangered species and rare habitats. Look out for terns, Oystercatchers, hawks and falcons. Ready for lunch? Try Ten Sandwiches for deliciously inventive sandwiches, as well as salads and smoothies. And stop by the Candy Box for childhood favorites and hard-to-find sweets.
In the afternoon, head to Ninigret Wildlife Refuge, in Charlestown, starting at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center to grab maps of the six miles of moderate to easy hiking trails. The refuge encompasses forested uplands and wetland habitats, grasslands, shrubs, wooded swamps and freshwater ponds, as well as Rhode Island’s largest coastal salt pond, best viewed from the observation platform at Grassy Point. Look for songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. For lunch, try Charlestown Rathskeller, originally a speakeasy and now featuring a raw bar and pub fare, including famed truffle fries.
Day two, start at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge. The 787-acre refuge includes Trustom Pond, a saltwater lagoon, barrier beach, freshwater ponds, as well as woodlands, shrublands and fields. Part of the barrier beach is a nesting site (and closed) to protect Piping Plovers and Least Terns, but you can expect to see shorebirds, gulls and terns from the open parts of the beach. For lunch, check out Matunck Oyster Bar for pond-to-table oysters and other local seafood.
After lunch, go to Narrow River Kayaks (reservations a must) to pick up your canoes or kayaks to explore the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge by water. This 550-acre refuge was originally established to protect a population of black ducks that winters here, but it also hosts egrets, herons, waterfowl and other shore birds. The refuge features uplands and saltmarsh habitats, as well as the Pettaquamscutt Cove estuary. Had enough birds? Wander down Main Street in downtown Wakefield to check out shops like the Purple Cow and Spangles, and then grab a “coffee cabinet” at Green Line Apothecary’s soda fountain--or something stronger at Whalers Brewery or Sons of Liberty Beer & Spirits.
Day three, head to Great Swamp Management Area for several hours of birding around the largest swamp in New England. The 3,350-acres include 2,600 forested wetlands and an important and protected swamp habitat. Access the five-mile loop trail from the Rhode Island Fish & Wildlife Headquarters on Great Neck Road in West Kingston. Hunting is allowed in this management area, so you must wear orange during hunting season. Then have lunch at the Breachway Grill in Charlestown for an amazing lobster roll.
In the evenings, enjoy at least one cozy dinner at your hotel--one of Weekapaug Inn’s three restaurants or the Break’s Chair 5. In Westerly, also dine at 100-year-old Olympia Tea Room, serving generous cocktails, simple, locally sourced food and an extensive wine list. Or try Ella’s Food & Drink for some French-Asian inspired dishes created by the award-winning Chef Jeanie Roland, author of Butter Love & Cream. After dinner, take advantage of the darkest skies between Boston and New York City to do some stargazing at Frosty Drew Observatory, open Friday nights in fall, or listen to live music at the Knickerbocker Cafe.
In Narragansett, enjoy views of the bay and local seafood from the Coast Guard House next to the historic Narragansett Towers. Or load up on lobster at the family-owned Nordic Lodge buffet. For evening entertainment, check out The Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston.