Sunday, June 25, 2017

Quinnipiac River Marshes

Twice during mid-June I spent a few afternoon hours kayaking parts of the Quinnipiac River and its marshes in North Haven, CT. Paddling in here during the breeding season had been high on my list of things to do since hearing two Clapper/King Rails there about three years ago. Being upriver without spartina grass in sight and within earshot of Virginia Rails, I had assumed them to be King Rails. This, however, was in error. I was a bit surprised when, in following up on these birds, I watched a perfectly normal-looking Clapper Rail wander out of the phragmites and into plain sight. So much for the King Rail assumption.

Subsequent research on this topic revealed records of both Clapper and King Rails from this marsh dating back to the 90s. I have no idea, to this point, of the ratio of Clapper to King. It could be that there's enough salt water up there to be a perfectly fine place for Clapper Rails to breed, with the occasional overshoot King Rail; this is the case along the CT coast in general. But, what if the situation is more interesting than that? This marsh is mostly inaccessible except by boat thanks to few public access points, and those few land-based spots are hardly ever birded anyway.

On top of that, there are supposedly breeding Least Bittern in that same complex. This is clearly a fascinating section of tidal river marsh where a contiguous brackish waterway hosts some species tied to freshwater and others allied closely to saltwater.

I was very unsure what I would find, if anything at all, during these excursions. I paddled upriver and down, detouring through narrow side channels as the tides allowed.

white arrow indicates the area in question

zoomed up

This was a very pleasant kayak. The currents through the main channel are not strong, and there are several places to detour deeper into the marshes.

Birdlife was dominated by OSPREY, four species of swallow, and your usual assortment of songbirds that called the riverbank home. There were an impressive number of SPOTTED SANDPIPERS along my route; I estimated 8 or so adults. Both BLACK and TURKEY VULTURES were often in view overhead. I was surprised not to see any Bald Eagles, as there is an active nest along this marsh and often some nonbreeding immatures as well. The most abundant bird in the marsh itself was undoubtedly MARSH WREN. There were always at least a few singing within earshot no matter where I was.

Tree Swallow

Spotted Sandpiper



There were several muskrats in the river. This was historically a well-known site for trapping this species.


There were marsh birds to be seen and heard, as I had hoped. Though not exactly vociferous, four VIRGINIA RAILS were intermittently calling, one of which I caught a fleeting glimpse. Right around sunset of my first excursion a silent LEAST BITTERN appeared along the bank the main river itself, feeding just below some phragmites. Yep, they are here.

Least Bittern

Very near the bittern sighting, also right along the main phragmites-dominated river, three large rails called. This was also rather close to the spot where I had laid eyes on the Clapper Rail a year or two prior. Unfortunately, and frustratingly, I was not able to get a visual of any of these birds.

It is likely that these are all Clapper Rails, I guess. But given the brackish water, the presence of freshwater-associated birds and plants, and the history of King Rail being seen here, I would like to get a look at as many of these large rails as possible. Who knows...there could be a King Rail or hybrids lurking in there somewhere. I hope to get back in there sometime later this summer.

- Nick

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Butterfish Hole, June 4th

Over the past couple years my brother and his best friend Rob have aggressively pursued offshore fishing. Western Long Island Sound has them feeling a bit claustrophobic, and who could blame them! Rob's family's new boat has allowed them to get offshore much more often. With the way the weather has been so unsettled this spring, I was surprised to hear that they were planning on a run offshore on Sunday. A day's break in the weather resulted in a forecast for calm seas, and I was pumped to join them for a quick trip during that window. We left the dock in Milford, CT before first light. The run to Montauk and around the corner to the south was wonderfully smooth as predicted. We ended up about 20 miles south of the point at a well-known area called Butterfish Hole.

We encountered very little life until we hit the hole itself; the grounds to the north seemed dead. Once we saw our first few shearwaters, however, it was game-on and we seemingly had life around us at all times for the rest of the trip. Tubenose diversity was a bit better than I expected. The four regular shearwaters were represented, a couple times all four side-by-side. SOOTY, GREAT, CORY'S and MANX in order of decreasing abundance.

four shearwater species here

Great Shearwater

Only a few WILSON'S STORM-PETRELS were seen, likely just arriving to inshore waters at this latitude. A subadult PARASITIC JAEGER toyed with the shearwater flocks a couple times. That bird even came to check out our boat; this is something Pomarines and Long-tails will readily do, but Parasitics tend to shy away from least the ones I'm on!

Parasitic Jaeger

The occasional COMMON TERN or two moved through, and two immature NORTHERN GANNETS were present as well. The surprise of the day came as we were nearing the end of our time at Butterfish when a light morph NORTHERN FULMAR came buzzing into our chum slick. The bird made a few passes around the boat before settling into the slick itself for a few minutes.

Northern Fulmar

Bottlenose Dolphins stole the show for a while, when a couple pods of 4-6 animals quickly multiplied and were flanking us from all sides. They put on quite a display breaching and bow-riding for several minutes. The view from the flybridge was awesome.

Once early afternoon came, the high clouds from an incoming low began to hide the sun. We took this as a sign to head for home. Seas remained calm, and the rain held off until we were nearly back to dock in CT.

When you live in central CT, getting on a boat a half-hour from home, having a day on the water like this, and getting home before dinner is a dream scenario. Tough to beat!