Monday, July 30, 2018

Weekend on the water - Jul 28-29, 2018

This past weekend I traveled up the CT coast and back, from Norwalk to where Long Island Sound meets a more open version of the Atlantic Ocean. The motivation for the journey was to take some friends searching for the shearwaters that I and many other birders had seen by ferry earlier in the week. Though the weather pattern had changed, we figured we would still be able to find some birds in NY waters if CT waters failed us.

Leaving the dock after 1pm on Saturday left me not much time to bird, but made the most of it. I picked up Stefan Martin in Stratford for a quick check of the breakwater and sandbars at the mouth of the Housatonic River. Highlights included a ROYAL TERN and a FORSTER'S TERN.

Forster's Tern

Royal Tern

A Royal Tern flies over the sandbar while Steve Spector watches

I continued east after returning Stefan to shore. Next stop was Falkner Island off Guilford, the site of last year's Bridled Tern. Tern numbers seemed down compared to last year at this time, though a handful of ROSEATES were evident. Most surprising to me were some 20 GRAY SEALS hauled out on the tiny, rocky Goose Island immediately to the west of Falkner. Before seeing them, I heard one wail a few times - a sound I had never heard before and had me thoroughly confused for a few minutes!

Gray Seal

I continued to poke along various breakwaters, jetties, and islands as I moved east. Three COMMON EIDER at the Clinton Breakwater were a surprise that far west. This species' stronghold in CT is the coast of New London County, but they have yet to move west of the Connecticut River with any regularity. Other than a few scattered ROSEATE TERNS, the only other highlight along that stretch of coast was two fledged juvenile LITTLE BLUE HERONS on Duck Island in Westbrook.

About 7 miles out of my destination marina in Groton a bank of fog suddenly rolled in. Fighting through that without radar was no fun, but I made it back safely before dark...and before a strong storm rolled through.

The cold front that brought those evening storms had passed overnight, and we were greeted with a moderate NW breeze when we met at the dock Sunday morning. This was not a wind conducive to pushing shearwaters a few miles into CT waters, so hopes of a repeat three-shearwater day were slim. Still, we drove out to the ferry lanes and waited. Frank Gallo, Phil Rusch, and Dave Provencher were just back from Arizona the night before and wanted to make up for missing the Long Island Sound shearwater incursion from earlier in the week. Glenn Williams had gotten his CT shearwaters on Wednesday, but was hoping for more. Upon our arrival a subadult PARASITIC JAEGER robbed a fresh juvenile Common Tern of its food. A harsh lesson for such a young bird.

Parasitic Jaeger swooping down to catch the fish dropped by the terrified tern

Parasitic Jaeger

A slick of fish oil did not attract a single bird, though we did have two Cory's Shearwaters on the CT side.

One of the Cross Sound ferries, being birded by Paul Wolter (I'm pretty sure!). Hey Paul, the Cory's is over here!

Looking for a break, we figured we would do a loop through NY waters and return a bit later to try to boost our Connecticut lists. The waters to which we were headed are where Long Island Sound meets a more oceanic body of water: Block Island Sound.

First, at The Race (the narrow eastern opening of Long Island Sound between Fishers Island and Little Gull Island), we found just a few more CORY'S SHEARWATERS and not much else. We moved southwest towards Great Gull and Little Gull Islands. We spotted a distant feeding frenzy southeast of Great Gull and headed there. What seemed like a smattering of distant shearwaters we soon realized was a large mass. The birds were concentrated along a line of bait that was being blitzed by larger fish (species not identified). It was mayhem for a few minutes there. The sound of the blitzing fish and mewing shearwaters was impressively loud. You couldn't hear the boat running.

At its peak, we had about 1800 shearwaters in sight in all directions. GREAT SHEARWATER dominated, with lesser numbers of CORY'S followed by SOOTY. A handful of MANX SHEARWATERS really made my day. I rarely get to see that species so close. The advantage of viewing these birds from a small boat is that you're almost down to their level, which makes for intimate views and quality photo ops.

We could have stayed out there for much longer. With so many birds around, you feel like there's something you're missing. We were not able to pick out any rare terns among the thousands of Commons and many Roseates from the Great Gull colony. Four more PARASITIC JAEGERS were having a blast, though. I took several photos between running the boat and scanning for new birds.

Cory's Shearwater

Cory's Shearwater

Great Shearwaters

Manx Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Cory's Shearwaters

Cory's Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Great Shearwater

In hopes of getting a Great or Sooty in CT waters, we returned to the ferry lanes and spent the next hour or so running the state line in the middle of the sound. One more CORY'S was all we could muster on the tubenose front.

This was quite a day. Probably my second best shearwater experience behind last year's nutso event at Race Point in Provincetown, MA. To be able to do this easily out of a CT port, just a few miles from state waters, made it that much sweeter. Interestingly, we did not see a Wilson's Storm-Petrel all day. And amazingly, we had been to these exact same waters four weeks prior and did not have a single tubenose in sight. The unpredictability of seabirds is part of what makes them so alluring.

I dropped the guys back in Groton and headed back towards Norwalk. A choppy afternoon made for a slow ride back. The only bird of note along the way was an adult BONAPARTE'S GULL still looking quite nice, probably just off the breeding grounds.

Bonaparte's Gull

 - NB

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Cape Cod, July 15-16

Hi all. Here is a quick post from a recent overnight jaunt to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I've copied and pasted my post to Massbird, plus an addendum for Sedge Wrens in CT:

On Sunday 7/15 Allison Black and I kayaked from the Morris Island causeway to South Beach via North Monomoy. We paddled out on the rising tide and back on the falling tide. On the way back we paddled via the east side of North Monomoy, which left us having to drag our boats over sand on a few occasions. Apparently a large amount of sand, presumably from the extensive breaching of South Beach over the last few years, has been pushed westward. The route formerly taken by Outermost Harbor and Rip Ryder to drop birders off at South Beach is no longer navigable because of this, at least on the lower end of the tide cycle. It is fascinating how quickly and drastically things can change out there.

The shorebird numbers were very modest for the date, at least as compared to the glory days of South Beach some 10 years ago. There wasn't much of a shorebird roost at the traditional area of South Beach down to the connection with South Monomoy. Particularly, dowitcher numbers were low, and we saw no godwits. Most dows were actually seen on the flats NW of North Monomoy on the rising tide.

The terns were a highlight, as several thousand were commuting between South Monomoy and the ocean by flying over South Beach. Many were using the sandy washes and flats on South Beach to roost. Highlights were a ROYAL TERN and 7+ ARCTIC TERNS (two adults, one second-summer, and 4+ first-summer).

Arctic Tern (adult)

Arctic Tern (adult) - likely same individual as above

Arctic Tern (first summer)

Arctic Tern (adult)

Arctic Tern (first summer)

Arctic Tern (first summer) - same individual as above

Royal Tern

American Oystercatcher nest, found quickly by Allison

"Eastern" Willet defending a nest/young

There were a few Gray Seals along our paddle between South Beach and North Monomoy, which always makes me a bit nervous given the numbers of White Sharks just on the other side of the dune, but no sign of anything scary in those shallows there. I've no idea how often, if at all, sharks get into that area in its current state. The Sharktivity App doesn't seem to show any sightings in that sheltered area, for what that's worth.

On Monday 7/16 we took an 11am whale watch to Stellwagen Bank out of Barnstable. It was foggy on the bank. Wildlife was sparse. We had one Humpback Whale for cetaceans. Seabird numbers were very low...we only hit one decent little pocket in Cape Cod Bay on our return trip, which included one LEACH'S STORM-PETREL.

immature Northern Gannet
On our way home Monday afternoon we took a short detour to the Connecticut Audubon Society property in Pomfret, where a pair of SEDGE WRENS is breeding. Within minutes of our arrival on this warm evening we had one of the wrens singing and another calling from the fields on each side of the road. After a bit of waiting, one of the birds popped into the open and remained perched long enough to allow for prolonged scope views.

The place was quite birdy otherwise, particularly around the freshwater pond/marsh down the hill from the road. Orchard Orioles, Green Herons, and Wood Ducks to name a few. A staging swallow flock held a CLIFF SWALLOW. Nice place for sure.

 - NB

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

CT shearwater bonanza

Finding seabirds in Connecticut takes a strong combination of work and luck. This is especially true with the shearwaters. These medium-sized strong-flying seabirds are not easily pushed astray by a bit of wind. Long Island Sound, a narrow body of water split between Connecticut and New York, is mostly cut off from the open ocean. Only a narrow opening in the eastern sound communicates with the open Atlantic, and even that is a bit sheltered by Block Island (RI) and the South Fork of LI. It is not a preferred body of water for a shearwater...until very recently.

Just to put things into perspective, here is a quick summary of CT's "accepted" shearwater records. All of them:

Cory's Shearwater:
 - One found inland following Hurricane Belle, Aug 1976 (per Zeranski & Baptist 1990)
 - One found inland, Oct 1985
 - One viewed from land, Jul 1997
 - Four viewed from land following Superstorm Sandy, Oct 2012
 - A few in the eastern Sound from ferry, Aug 2015
 - A few in the eastern Sound from ferry/boat, Aug 2017
 - One from shore western Sound, Aug 2017

Great Shearwater:
 - One dead along coast, Jul 1973 (per Zeranski & Baptist 1990)
 - One moribund, Nov 1985
 - One found moribund in coastal harbor, Jun 2006
 - One seen from land following Hurricane Irene, Aug 2011
 - Two from land following Superstorm Sandy, Oct 2012
 - One found moribund on coast, Jun 2017

Sooty Shearwater:
 - One seen from boat, Jul 2004

Manx Shearwater:
 - One seen from land, May 1980
 - One seen from land following Hurricane Irene, Aug 2011
(There are at least two other non-cyclone sight reports that are presumed good.)

That just about sums it up as far as I know. Shearwaters are historically rare in Connecticut, some rarer than others. I have been birding the CT coast on and off since the late 1990s and did not see my first shearwater in CT until 2012. Note, however, the recent spate of random non-cyclone related sightings of Cory's Shearwaters from the eastern end of Long Island Sound (summers 2015 and 2017).

Fast forward to 2018. As a LIS boater/birder and general pelagic enthusiast, I have been monitoring the regional tubenose situation this year. Shearwater numbers began to build on the south shore of Long Island in late June. On June 30th I spent some time in my boat checking out the eastern Sound in search of any tubenoses, but came up empty. During the first week of July, shearwater numbers really seemed to build in the eastern Long Island area. Over the past 2-3 weeks, impressive numbers have been seen between eastern Long Island and Block Island (RI) in particular. These waters are tantalizingly close to CT.

The last several days have featured tropically humid conditions, steady wind, bouts of heavy rain, and intermittently poor visibility along the coast. The wind has been blowing from the S/SE (exactly the direction in which those shearwaters have been seen). With so many shearwaters so close by, and with prime conditions for moving them just a few miles into CT waters, a few like-minded birders had planned on taking this morning's 7am ferry from New London (CT) to Orient Point (Long Island, NY) in search of pelagic birds.

As if any more motivation was needed, an eBird report popped up claiming a handful of Cory's and one Great Shearwater from the same ferry yesterday afternoon! So I can honestly say that I boarded that ship this morning with an expectation of seeing a shearwater at some point along the ride. Can't say I've thought that before!

On board this morning were Greg Hanisek, Bill Banks, Frank Mantlik, Dan Rottino and I. The ferry trip across to Long Island is just about split between CT and NY waters. We used smartphone GPS to keep track of our location re: state line. Not long after pulling out of the mouth of the Thames River, Greg spotted a GREAT SHEARWATER on the water in front of the ferry. This bird was probably not well, as it did not budge as the monstrous vessel just nearly missed it.

Great Shearwater

We then had a small flurry of a few CORY'S SHEARWATERS and a WILSON'S STORM-PETREL on the CT side. All of these Cory's (and all Cory's seen well today) were clearly of the expected borealis subspecies.

Cory's Shearwater

On the NY side we had yet more Cory's, another Wilson's, and two PARASITIC JAEGERS.

A toasted bagel with cream cheese and coffee while enjoying our success and waiting for the return trip...

The ride back somehow managed to be even better. First, on the NY side, some 6-8 Cory's Shearwaters were taking part in a distant gull/tern feeding flock. As we pulled out of Plum Gut we had a subadult NORTHERN GANNET soon followed by a CASPIAN TERN.

We then intersected a scattered group of GREAT SHEARWATERS that were actively flying westward into the sound. One of the last of this group was a SOOTY SHEARWATER; so close to CT, yet so far...

Just as we were crossing back into CT waters for the final leg of the trip, we spotted a SOOTY SHEARWATER ahead, safely across the state line. Amazingly just the second state record, and the first fully documented. 

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

One more GREAT SHEARWATER in CT for good measure, plus a few more Wilson's.

Today was Connecticut's first three shearwater day.

It will be interesting to see how long these birds stick around. Will they clear out as soon as this weather pattern breaks? Will some settle in to the Sound now that they have been introduced to it?

As far as long-term patterns go, can we now expect a few healthy Cory's Shearwaters to wander into the Sound without cyclone help during most summers? This now makes 3 out of the past 4 years they have appeared.

A Great Shearwater in NY waters of Long Island Sound

 - NB