Monday, October 13, 2014

Big Sit! @ Milford Point

On Sunday, October 12th, I joined the "Surf Scopers" for their annual Big Sit! at Milford Point in Milford, CT. Led by Frank Gallo, Patrick Dugan and Jim Dugan, this team has been doing this for years with great success. Their team record (which also happens to be the all-time CT state Big Sit record) coming into this year was 107 species, which was set in 2010.

The forecast was shaping up to be a promising one. In an autumn that has been devoid of classic cold fronts, the wind was forecast to be North overnight and into the morning, with an onshore shift predicted for the afternoon. This held true and led to a strong nocturnal and morning migration for us.

We met in the Milford Point parking lot at 4:30am so we could be stationed at the outer platform circle to listen for nocturnal migrants, owls, or rails. Things started off slowly while we were waiting for the birds (and coffee!) to kick in. It really picked up just before dawn in the form of descending thrushes. There were several Swainson's Thrushes plus a couple Gray-cheeks calling on their way down. A Common Raven croaking in the dark was a nice surprise. Our first Pine Siskins of the day were calling in the moonlit sky.

cold, windy and dark at 4:45am...but it didn't slow these guys down

Once first light arrived the birding was fast and furious for the first few hours. We were ticking birds left and right, setting a record pace early. Thanks to the North winds we enjoyed a nice morning flight of passerines. Since we are positioned well out a barrier beach and far from forest, the morning flight at Milford Point tends to be light over the point itself. On this morning a strong flight was visible over the woods far to the north. Some larger birds such as robins and blackbirds were identifiable, but those birds were super distant. Still, we received some spillover along the point itself, at least enough to log most of the expected stuff. However the total lack of Purple Finches, which made a really strong push yesterday throughout the region, goes to show how stunted our flight was.

sunrise from the platform

Waves of sparrows were moving down the point, dominated by Swamp, Song, and White-throats. Singles of White-crowned, Lincoln's and Towhee were nice additions. A steady stream of raptors were moving over the woods far to the north...on the same line as the passerines. It didn't take long to log all of the expected falcons, accipters, and eventually buteos. Both vultures and several Bald Eagles were tallied as well.

A young Broad-winged Hawk passed directly over the platform on the point. Not many buteos take this route.

Geese were on the move too. At first light we had a flock of Brant fly in from the north, newly arrived from the tundra. Several flocks of Canadas passed overhead; one of these flocks contained an obvious Cackling Goose, which probably goes down as the rarest bird of the day.

No identifiable Cackling Geese in this flock though. There are a few small birds in there, as there seem to be in many migrant Canada Goose flocks. The top bird may be a candidate...

Brant (adult in foreground with two juveniles behind)

As we hit the midday lull we were still on record pace. The hawk flight died as the wind lessened and eventually shifted to the east then southeast. We began to spread out from the circle, scouting the visible area for new species. I was particularly impressed by the numbers of Nelson's Sparrows...over 40 individuals from dull gray subvirgatus to brighter alterus/nelsoni were seen. I had the only Saltmarsh Sparrow of the day, but it was not seen from the circle so does not go on the official list.

Great Egret

looking back at the platform from the sand spit on which the plovers and terns nest

Our morning was so successful that, as Jim predicted, the afternoon was like pulling teeth. We just didn't have many "easy" species to find at that point. They came in ones and twos with quite a bit of effort.

prickly pear cactus, native to Connecticut coastal scrub

Monarch butterflies made a strong showing with several dozen seen throughout the day

view from the tip of Smith's Point at high tide

a different kind of Osprey...

The record of 107 was broken in the early afternoon. By the time I departed at 5pm, the total was in the 110s. The final tally ended up at a pretty amazing 117 species. That number is going to be tough to break, but you know that they'll be out there again next year to try their best.

 - Nick

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ghost Sparrow

This eumelanin-challenged (erythristic, pending further research) Swamp Sparrow was photographed in Halifax, MA on September 29, 2014. A detailed note, along with photos of a very similar specimen from the Yale Peabody Museum, will appear in an upcoming issue of The Connecticut Warbler. Much thanks to Mark Szantyr, Julian Hough, Louis Bevier, and especially Jake Musser for their help in identifying this stunning bird both to species and apparent plumage abnormality.





For now, at least, I am going to refrain from getting into much detail about this bird. I do plan to post a copy of the piece that Jake and I are putting together, whenever that is done, which would explain the identification, describe the abnormality, and show photos of the similar specimen for comparison. So, more later.

 - NB

Sheffield Island, Norwalk, CT

This morning, thanks to special access obtained by friend Larry Flynn, Greg Hanisek, Larry and I birded Sheffield Island in Norwalk, CT. The southwestern-most of the Norwalk Islands, I have wanted to bird here for quite some time, but access is limited. Sheffield is a small island, .6 mi x .2 mi at its widest points. Despite their small size, these islands seem to pack habitat that should be attractive to migrants. Still, without previously setting foot on land, it was difficult to be sure until today.



The island holds a beautiful mix of habitat. It contains tall deciduous trees, a few small cedars, thickets, shrubs, tall grasses and weeds, a tiny freshwater gully with Phragmites, a couple slivers of saltmarsh, pebble/shell beach, and a small lawn by the lighthouse.


erosion caused by Hurricane Sandy

This corner, sheltered from the NE breeze and lit by the morning sun, was particularly active

One of two bits of saltmarsh

The habitat is there. The question is, will it deliver? In three hours today, which was about all we needed to cover pretty much the entire island, we tallied a satisfying 50+ species, the best being a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT which Larry had while Greg and I were off wandering. There were many sparrows to sort through, including gobs of Swamps. Among the Swamps was a single LINCOLN'S SPARROW, and there were two NELSON'S SPARROWS in the Spartina. Warblers were only present in ones and twos, but we did tally seven species (not including Chat). Overall, we were pleased.

"Interior" Nelson's Sparrow


Seeing the habitat, recording a goodie like Yellow-breasted Chat, and running into a few nice pockets of birds give me hope that this place has real potential. It is an island after all. My hope is to get out there at least once more this year, perhaps during rarity season later this autumn.

departing Sheffield Island
 - Nick

Saturday, September 13, 2014

WHISKERED TERN, Cape May

Just back from a successful down-and-back run to Cape May for the adult WHISKERED TERN found there yesterday. Greg Hanisek, Phil Rusch, and Nick Block joined me for the chase. Weather was dreary but we made sure to arrive at 7am which allowed us to avoid the rain. Photography was difficult given the weather, but I got some stuff worth posting anyway. We enjoyed prolonged killer scope views while the bird was roosting on the beach and repeatedly watched it forage over the Bunker Pond, sometimes in company with a Black Tern. It spent the entire morning commuting back and forth between the beach and pond. We left Cape May very tired but happy!

Whiskered Tern (right) with Forster's Tern

During our only moment of sunlight all morning, the Whiskered Tern can be seen head-on in the middle of the frame, to give you an idea of what you're looking for among your typical autumn east coast flock.


coming in for a landing

left to right: Common Tern, Forster's Tern, Whiskered Tern





with juvenile Black Tern foraging over the pond


The bird was easily picked out in flight, as this photo indicates.

Amazingly, all three North American records are summer adults from Cape May, NJ (1993, 1998, 2014), although the 1993 bird later moved to Delaware.

 - Nick

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sandy Point (CT) shorebirds

Sandy Point in West Haven, CT is one of Connecticut's top shorebirding hotspots. Hey, stop your snickering! We do too get shorebirds here, I swear...

Jutting into the middle of New Haven Harbor from the west, Sandy Point is a small piece of sand and marsh that has a rather nice track record of rarities over the years. You'll never find loads of shorebirds here, but the quality can be surprising. Many of the point's best birds do not linger for very long, as one might expect for such a small parcel of land. Sandy Point has a reputation for being a great "drop-in" place for birds downed by weather or looking for a quick feed. The species composition here can vary greatly not only from day-to-day, but from tide-to-tide. Occasionally a goodie will hang around for a while, like the Snowy Plover found by Julian Hough that stuck for weeks in 2004!

Map of New Haven Harbor with three of the best known birding spots highlighted in red.

Last week Michelle Meyer and I took an evening walk out the point. A front had passed the night before with a healthy amount of rain in tow...excellent conditions for grounding shorebirds at a place like this. Sure enough at the tip of the point were two WILSON'S PHALAROPES and a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER. A quick phone call to Gina Nichol and Steve Bird had them wading waist-deep across the channel that separates the two sandspits. The four of us enjoyed fine views in falling light. In the few days since then, many birders have visited Sandy Point to check out these locally scarce species, which surprisingly lingered for several days.










Wilson's Phalaropes






Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Other goodies have been turned up as well. An AMERICAN AVOCET spent two days, a second BUFF-BREASTED dropped in, and Mark Aronson had three HUDSONIAN GODWITS fly over but refuse to land. Also scattered were more regular species such as AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER, RED KNOT, and PECTORAL SANDPIPER.


American Avocet

Red Knot (juvenile)

Taking a back seat to the shorebird diversity has been a spectacular concentration of Common Terns and Laughing Gulls in the harbor, which peaked at a combined 10,000+ birds over the weekend. I personally do not recall ever seeing a concentration quite so dense in CT before. Among the terns and gulls have been many FORSTER'S TERNS, a couple BLACK and ROSEATE TERNS, and a pair of CASPIAN TERNS that spent the better part of one day there. Alas, no jaegers nor Sabine's Gull...

 - Nick