10/29-10/31 Sandy

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Sandy birding began early on this day, when Jake Musser and I met Glenn Williams around 7:30am at Avery Point in Groton, CT. At this time, winds were 25-30mph out of the NNE with gusts only slightly higher. Hurricane Sandy, boasting maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, was well south of Rhode Island at the time. The day started rather uneventfully, with local birds kicking around in the form of a few scoters, Forster's Terns, Bonaparte's Gulls, and many Laughing Gulls. Other than LAGU numbers being higher than usual for the date, there were no signs of storm-blown birds early.

As the day wore on, the winds increased, particularly after noon as Sandy moved north and then began her bend northwestward. That day, each National Hurricane Center advisory showed Sandy only intensifying as she approached. First 75 mph, then 85 mph, finally peaking at 90 mph - a strong Category 1 storm. As her winds picked up, her central pressure dropped to levels even more impressive than those wind speeds. We checked the Ledge Light weather station via cell phone every hour or so as the wind cranked up gradually and turned more from the east. We really started to feel it around 2pm, when the first thoughts of "should we really be out here right now" began to cross my mind. The lighthouse station read 45 mph sustained with gusts to 70. This would be its last transmission of the day, as it apparently stopped communicating with the website around this time. What we considered our first "storm birds" appeared in the form of a dozen Common Terns, which normally have vacated Long Island Sound by now. Here we go!

Glenn's conscience got the better of him and he decided to head home to be with his family (a better man than me, that's for sure!). Unfortunately the campus police saw him exit which alerted them to our continued presence. They drove right up to our porch hideout to escort us off campus, thus ending our vigil when it was just showing signs of getting good.

From here Jake and I cautiously headed to Old Saybrook where we were lucky enough to find a safe, elevated public viewpoint for the last hour of daylight. There wasn't much moving here except for several Laughing and Herring Gulls, but after a few minutes Jake spotted an adult dark-backed tern, heading west at the wind's mercy, not putting up much of a fight. We were being buffeted by the wind at this rather exposed location which is what kept us from seeing the necessary detail to identify it to species, so we had to leave it at SOOTY/BRIDLED TERN. This got the blood pumping and gave us hope for the remaining daylight and the following day.

We didn't have anything else of note before we lost our light, so we decided to drive back home as long as the roads were OK. Although driving back out of that suburban neighborhood was dicey with some trees already down, we made it back to I-95 safely and continued home. Needless to say we were one of very few vehicles on the road, as all highways were declared closed except for "essential travel" by our governor. There was some debris, most of which I managed to avoid hitting, and one large tree strewn across the road. Otherwise, an easy ride home considering it came at the peak of a very impressive storm.

Sandy made an earlier-than-expected landfall in New Jersey that evening. While asleep, the winds kept cranking as they turned east and then southeast. I awoke to a stiff SE wind, but nothing like the ferocity we had experienced the evening before.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My plan this morning was to be at a point of land, ANY point of land, at daybreak. Finding a place that was not underwater or shut down by police would be the hard part. While I wasn't about to be terribly picky about which point I was on, I still had to decide which direction was better to try first: west or east? I had been going back and forth on this for the last 24 hours. Should I head west, as close to the storm as possible, thinking that this might increase my chances of seeing the tropical species that are often entrained in these storms? Or was east the way to go, since that would put me closest to the open ocean and the point at which most pelagic birds would probably be leaving Long Island Sound?

After much debate I decided that west was best, so my first choice was Shippan Point in Stamford, Patrick Dugan's traditional lookout. But I had been told that Shippan Ave was roped off by cops on Monday, making access questionable for Tuesday. Stamford is a long drive for me so I decided not to take the chance. Closer to me, but still towards the west-central end of the sound, was Stratford Point, which was still open the previous afternoon to my surprise. My plan was to arrive around 6am, over an hour before sunrise, just to see if the point was accessible. If so, great...I would just wait in the car for sunrise to come. And if not, I would have some time to scramble to another location, hopefully still putting me on the coast by dawn. Well, Stratford Point was blocked off.

I decided to just bee-line it to Old Saybrook where Jake and I had been the evening before. Luckily, and surprisingly, much of the Saybrook shoreline was still open, and the roads were passable, at least at this low tide. Here myself and a few friends/birders set up for a day's seawatch (well, 'soundwatch' to be exact).

The day started out at first light with loads of gannets, scoters, loons, gulls, and Forster's Terns heading east, presumably leaving Long Island Sound after being blown in by Sandy. It was incredibly birdy, about as alive as I've ever seen Long Island Sound, so hopes were high that some rarities had been blown in with them. We had our first tubenose around 7:40 am, a distant GREAT SHEARWATER. I was ecstatic as this was my long-awaited first shearwater in Connecticut. By 8am we had our first of seven LEACH'S STORM PETRELS for the day. We observed at least three ROYAL TERNS throughout the morning. Our first phalarope was distant and unidentified, but we soon had another one much closer, this one identifiable as a RED PHALAROPE. There would be more...33 more to be exact (plus a total of 7 unidentified phals that were also likely Reds).

Red Phalaropes
Royal Tern

Forster's Tern
A first-winter BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE made a nice close pass. Everyone enjoyed fine views of that one. It was followed by a distant adult later in the day. Our first and only jaeger was a pretty straightforward immature PARASITIC. Would have preferred Pomarine for sure, but a jaeger in Connecticut is always a red-letter bird no matter which species.

Many birds were passing distantly, including another GREAT SHEARWATER and two unidentified large shearwaters that were mere specks in the haze. But around 10:15 am we had a CORY'S SHEARWATER appear seemingly out of nowhere not too far offshore. I snapped just a few photos which show field marks consistent with "Scopoli's" Cory's Shearwater, the nominate subspecies that breeds in the Mediterranean Sea.

apparent "Scopoli's" Cory's Shearwater, with extensive white bleeding into underside of primaries and relatively slim head
We had two more distant Cory's later that day. We had to depart at 3:30pm, but just before we did, another CORY'S made a relatively close fly-by. This bird pretty clearly had dark primaries underneath, confirmed by photos, typical of the borealis subspecies that breeds in the eastern Atlantic.

Here are all the highlights for the day:
4 Cory's Shearwater
2 Great Shearwater
2 large shearwater sp.
7 Leach's Storm-Petrel
34 Red Phalarope (in groups of 1 to 6 all day)
7 phalarope sp. (probable Reds, views just too poor)
2 Black-legged Kittiwake (one close immature, one distant adult)
15 Common Tern (late)
150 Forster's Tern
5 Royal Tern
1 Parasitic Jaeger

As it turned out, being further east worked out just fine.

I spent dusk at Sandy Point in West Haven, hoping for a lingering storm-driven rarity. No luck there. Though the evening gull roost held two juvenile LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLS.

Two juv Lesser Black-backs are in the right half of this photo. The bird in the foreground is browner than typical, but when the bird stretched its wing, a typical LBBG upperwing and tail pattern were observed. However the bird that really had me interested was that darker-mantled adult with the skirt on the left side of the flock.

I tried to slowly approach the flock in hopes of a better look, but they spooked all at once and I never saw anything more on this bird. There are a number of things this could have been, some rarer than others. I'll never know.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I started today the same way I started the day before, hoping again for birds emptying out of Long Island Sound along with Andy G. and Greg H. But it was not to be. Apparently pretty much everything pelagic had moved on, not surprisingly. In fact a Pomarine Jaeger or two were the only pelagics reported statewide today.

While soundwatching the wind switched a bit to the west, and landbirds began to move. Black-capped Chickadee flocks made attempts at crossing the sound, finches were flying, and a passing flock of swallows contained 3 Barn, a Tree, and a CAVE.

Hammonasset SP was closed, so Greg and I continued on to Lighthouse Pt for a brief watch that featured finches (Siskins, Goldfinches, and Purple Finches in decreasing order), a few Cedar Waxwing flocks, and an Eastern Meadowlark. After that I took a long walk out Sandy Point and found an immature BLACK SKIMMER, undoubtedly storm-related.

Black Skimmer

I last checked out Milford Point on the falling tide. No storm waifs, but did have a nice juvenile American Golden-Plover among the Black-bellieds.

juvenile American Golden-Plover

Overall, Sandy brought Connecticut some great birds along with her fair share of coastal destruction. I hope that everyone reading this escaped the storm without any family loss of life, health, or irreplaceable property.

 - Nick


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