Friday, March 6, 2015

Abrupt (and welcome!) changes ahead

It has been so cold and snowy for so long that it is easy to forget we're already through the first week of March. The calendar says spring is almost here, yet is feels like the dead of winter. Average high temperatures here in Connecticut are around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but we have not been even close to that number for most of the past six weeks. Don't get me wrong; we're used to cold snaps, even down here in southern New England, but not without a thaw every once in a while! Many northeastern cities experienced their coldest February on record. In the birding world, visible northbound migration has been nearly nonexistent. The only noticeable local movements have been from waterfowl retreating southward, away from frozen inland rivers and lakes. However, they're about to pull a U-turn.

We are right on the cusp of breaking out of this deep freeze, and with that will come a rapid change in the birding scene here in Connecticut. Spring migration, although subtle at times, will be obvious to those who pay close enough attention.

Waterfowl, forced further and further south by the inland freeze-up, will follow the melting ice back north. It will be time to monitor all bodies of water for flocks of teal, pintail, shovelers, etc. Geese will be moving back through, which should mean a rash of rarity sightings...all flocks should be checked as any of the unusual geese are possible. March is perhaps the best month to find a Tundra Swan in Connecticut; sometimes flocks are briefly grounded by inclement weather. Early March has always been as good a time as any to find a Barrow's Goldeneye among the flocks of Commons. This has already proven true as at least a few have been seen along the coast in the last few days.

You'll likely begin to notice more and more Turkey (and Black) Vultures circling overhead as these shorter-distance migrants begin to filter back from their wintering grounds. Hawk migration generally kicks into gear during the month of March. We don't have any really good spring hawkwatches here in Connecticut, but one can still observe migration in the right place at the right time, particularly later in the month.

It is hard to believe, given how frozen our harbors are right now, that Piping Plovers will be returning to their favorite beaches any day now, while the ridiculous cackle of American Oystercatchers will soon be audible at these same locations. Killdeer, which we should have been seeing by now, will probably arrive by the beginning of next week. Wilson's Snipe will be an easy find at places like Durham Meadows once those fields turn from snow to slop. And American Woodcocks will start displaying too.

March also brings the beginning and peak of the annual "coastal gull show," caused by plankton blooms along the shores of Long Island Sound. It will be interesting to see how the extensive coastal freeze will impact this event, if at all. Expect all the usual species plus higher numbers of Iceland Gulls and staging of Bonaparte's Gulls. Black-headed Gull is more likely early in this event, while your best shot at Little Gull will come toward the end of the month or into early April. One can only hope for the state's second Ross's Gull (the first was among Bonaparte's Gulls in early spring 1983)...but steadily decreasing local numbers of "Bonies" make this feel less likely every year.

As far as passerines go, Eastern Phoebes will go from essentially absent right now to rather common in a few weeks. The rapidly increasing Common Ravens are already on eggs (or working on it...just like Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls). Tree Swallows often hit the lower Connecticut River first, as they should be doing very shortly.

One species that we haven't seen in Connecticut for years but might expect is Bohemian Waxwing. These irruptive frugivores have been making a significant move to the south in recent weeks and may even continue to do so for a little while longer (even though the calendar approaches spring) as they devour all crabapples in their path. This species made its last significant appearance in the state in April of 2008, so history says that we still have some time to find them before they disappear back to the northwest.

Open country birds such as Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting will also be moving around this month. The longspurs and buntings are particularly worth seeking as they begin to come into striking spring colors. And check all longspurs for rarer species too. Maryland (I believe) had a Chestnut-collared Longspur recently, and Larry Flynn found a Smith's Longspur in Westport, CT during late March several years ago.

March is a bit early to be talking about warblers, but Pine Warblers will arrive on breeding grounds before we hit April. This is also a great month to see and hear Fox Sparrows, which are likely to be singing on warm days.

We can't leave out one of the true harbingers of spring...blackbirds. Red-wings and Grackles have already begun to turn up in a few places, but the floodgates will open soon. Rounding out the passerines, irruptive finches such as Purple Finch, Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll should pass through in small to moderate numbers as they work their way back north, so keep those feeders stocked.

We've all been patiently awaiting spring, and it is finally set to arrive as we know it. It does seem odd writing about a season that still seems so far away, especially on the heels of last night's near record cold. But the wait is almost over. Enjoy the "warmth" (45 degrees is going to feel balmy!) and the change of seasons that we're about to experience. It's been a long time coming!

 - NB

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