July 29 - Old Lyme to Guilford via land and water

Every year during late July or August we experience our first autumn-like morning here in southern New England...that day when you step outside and feel something that almost resembles a chill in the air. That morning came yesterday. A cold front had moved through the previous day, which by yesterday morning had ushered in a cool and crisp air mass and a WNW breeze.

I met Phil Rush and Glenn Williams in Old Lyme at 6:45am and we headed to Griswold Point for some low tide shorebirding. The base of Griswold Point was breached by Hurricane Sandy and is currently passable only on the lower tides. As we walked out, small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds passed overhead, moving down the coast to the west. Swallows passed, one by one, also migrating. Yep, "fall" is here as far as birds are concerned.

Shorebird numbers were probably about average for the date and location, though only the most common species were present. Tern numbers were surprisingly low, except for Least Terns, which apparently were doing quite well. We saw many fledged young and even a few small chicks still running around the dunes.

Least Tern chick

By the time we finished at Griswold Pt we had tallied all six of the expected swallow/martin species including a single CLIFF SWALLOW.

From there, we met Andy Griswold in Deep River for a ride on his boat. Highlights included a handful of FORSTER'S TERNS before reaching the river mouth, where Common Terns took over. Our goal on this breezy day was to lay out a menhaden oil slick in hopes of attracting a Wilson's Storm-Petrel, which is an irregular visitor to Long Island Sound, especially at the eastern end. A few factors were working against us...none had been reported in CT waters yet this year, very few are being seen inshore from surrounding states, and we have been lacking the hot and humid weather that seems to be associated with their pulses into Long Island Sound...so we were expecting nothing. Still, July has historically been the best month to see them in CT, and we had a nice breeze from the west to carry the fish oil scent toward the far eastern Sound and points east.

After somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes of chumming, a single WILSON'S STORM-PETREL flew in from the east, directly to the fish oil. The bird took one pass down the slick and disappeared. We had expected it to linger, but it did not. Another half-hour of chumming resulted in zero more birds. Still, a success. It had been nearly 3 years (Hurricane Irene in August of 2011) since I had seen my last WISP in CT waters, so I was very pleased. You could argue that any day with a tubenose in CT waters is a good day.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Otherwise, we had very few birds on the sound, and only a handful of terns. Undoubtedly the best sighting of the day came when Andy caught a brief glimpse of a small-to-medium sized SEA TURTLE (unidentified, but not a Leatherback) next to the chum slick. Unfortunately the turtle submerged as quickly as it surfaced, so the rest of us were unable to see it. Glenn informed us that all of the Atlantic sea turtles have been recorded in Long Island Sound waters at one point or another.

Our return trip up the lower CT River was more productive than the ride out. We spotted a pair of Bald Eagles, now regular breeders in the area, hanging out close together.

Bald Eagles

Our Forster's Tern count rose to 16 overall, including at least one family group with begging juveniles. Several birds could be easily scoped from the Deep River town dock looking up-river.

juvenile Forster's Tern

adult Forster's Tern

adult and begging juv Forster's Terns

After we left Andy at the dock, Glenn, Phil and I drove to Shell Beach in Guilford to check out the shorebird show there. We were hoping to see the previously reported Long-billed Dowitcher and Stilt Sandpipers, but were very pleased to find that there were well over 750 shorebirds working the shallow pools and muddy edges. The water level in this small [presumably] freshwater marsh is perfect right now for migrant shorebirds. Dominating the flats were some 650 Semipalmated Sandpipers, many of which were carefully feeding on floating muck. This is not their preferred method of feeding, as the muck was too soft and deep to fully support even their light bodies, so many were forced to "foot patter" like Wilson's Storm-Petrels while flapping their wings to keep from falling into the muddy water. One bird was not so lucky, as Glenn spotted a Semi that had apparently fallen head first into the muck and could not recover. Only its rear end and legs were sticking above the mud, legs still twitching occasionally as it fought unsuccessfully for its life. That's a tough way to go!

Eventually we spotted the LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER and later one of the STILT SANDPIPERS. Other highlights included two adult LITTLE BLUE HERONS, a single PECTORAL SANDPIPER and my first fresh juvie Least Sandpipers of the fall.

fading alternate plumaged Long-billed Dowitcher, poorly digiscoped from a distance

Overall, a really enjoyable day of coastal CT birding with great company.

 - Nick


  1. Nice post, Nick. It brought back the recent trip you led us on to Hydrographer's Canyon. Thanks again.

    Kathy Van Der Aue


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