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

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