Thursday, October 8, 2020

Oct 2 - Hammonasset 'Big Day' - 123 species including COMMON RINGED PLOVER

I had a stretch of free time last week and aimed to spend one entire day at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, CT. This is arguably the best all-around birding location in the state. After several days of "blocking weather" (= weather not conducive to migration), back-to-back cold fronts were forecast to pass through the region on Oct 1st and 2nd. Sandwiched between the two fronts were very light north winds (essentially calm at the surface) and cloudy skies on the night of the 1st into the 2nd.

Friday the 2nd seemed as good a day as any to try this: migration conditions seemed halfway decent, and a cloudy, cool, dreary day would keep this popular park mostly free of visitors.

I arrived at 5:10am for some predawn owling, railing, and NFC (Nocturnal Flight Call) listening. Upon opening the car door, I was greeted by the sounds of passerines calling overhead. The good migration conditions, low ceiling, and lack of wind helped create an ideal scenario for hearing nocturnal migrants. At first the NFC density was moderate, and some lulls in the action were interrupted by a calling GREAT HORNED OWL. Rails were quiet at night, despite my attempts to get them going (I would later hear Clappers calling from the salt marsh).

As first light approached, the intensity of the flight calls increased. Thrushes dominated the skies. SWAINSON'S were by far the most numerous, followed by GRAY-CHEEKED. I could not pull out a Bicknell's by ear, and early analysis of my phone recording seems to show all Gray-cheeked-like calls at or below 4.5kHz peak. There were also a few VEERIES, HERMIT, and WOOD THRUSHES. Rounding out the calls were SCARLET TANAGER, ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK, and some warblers and sparrows, most of which I could not confidently identify to species given my experience level with this tricky craft of nocturnal migration.

As dawn approached, the intensity of the NFCs reached overwhelming status.

Just that right there would have made the day a pretty special one.

Finally it was time to get to Willard's Island for the early morning diurnal songbird migration/reorientation. I did not do a dedicated Morning Flight watch this time; movement after daybreak actually seemed quite modest and there didn't seem to be much flying out. Instead I birded Willard's on foot and ended up tallying 14 warbler species there, all common ones, plus an assortment of seasonal migrants like both KINGLETS and BROWN CREEPER. A LINCOLN'S SPARROW was the only one I would see all day.

After Willard's I drove to the west end and walked around part of the campground, picking up a few new things here and there, though nothing unexpected.

As the tide came in, shorebirds were flushing from the marshes and actually chose to roost on the Nature Center parking lot. An assortment of common shorebirds paraded in, including a couple PECTORAL SANDPIPERS. 

At 11am I began to fill in the eBird list to see how many species I had wracked up. Without many uncommon birds on the list, I was guessing somewhere in the 70-80 range. The actual number - 97 species - surprised me. And I hadn't looked off Meigs Point yet.

Sure enough a Sound Watch produced a handful more species including WHITE-WINGED SCOTER and a lone AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER on the beach. I'd hit 100 species by noon. I wasn't about to quit then!

From here on out I kept picking up new birds as I worked my way back and forth through the park, checking sections of scrub and dune that I rarely get to explore. One of the reasons for this exercise was not just to see what species total was possible in early was to force myself to scour every inch of the park I could. I was really enjoying it.

Not long after a brief spritz of early afternoon rain, the skies cleared as cold front #2 passed. The sun came out for the first time, and that brought a few new species all at once: both VULTURES and RED-TAILED HAWK lifted up from the mainland. Another check off Meigs Point (the second of three on the day) revealed a few migrating shorebirds (mostly Dunlin) and a few FORSTER'S TERNS.

Finally at the end of the day I found myself relaxing on the Cedar Island platform as sunset approached. I had the place to myself while COMMON NIGHTHAWKS hunted the skies and BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS squawked in the distance. A few shorebirds squabbled on the mudflats. The air was still and the setting was incredibly peaceful.

Then, from behind me came a call I had been waiting to hear in Connecticut for a while now...the mournful "poooo-yip" of a COMMON RINGED PLOVER. I spun around, spotted a single small shorebird flying over the marsh, and put my bins up to see a Semipalmated/Ringed Plover-type bird by itself. It called a second time, confirming what I had heard the first time. Realizing that an identifiable photo was out of the question as it whipped past me, I reached for my phone and got a recording going, but not before the bird silently disappeared behind a stand of Spartina marsh grass, presumably landing on the mudflat behind the grass where several shorebirds had already gone to feed.

Totally thrilled by the encounter but also frustrated at the lack of documentation, I waited until it was too dark to make out field marks and left the park, which had technically already closed. The rangers were rounding up the stragglers, which was only me tonight. No further sight nor sound of the bird. Not about to quit, I soon regained entrance to the park using the Night Birding pass and returned to the platform with phone actively recording in hopes of a repeat performance that did not happen.

[An extensive effort to relocate the bird the next day was unsuccessful.]

Still, it was an unexpected cap to an awesome day in the park. Hammonasset really shines at this time of year, and its rarity track record continues to grow.

Clearing skies after frontal passage

As an aside, the ABA's October Big Day record for the state of Connecticut stood at 92 species, which is a total that several birders have unknowingly beaten on their own many times, I am sure. Nobody really does ABA Big Days by month. Heck, I hit 123 by myself on this day in a single park. So, for now, that is the new October ABA number.

Full list:

- Nick

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Willard's Island Morning Flight Update

This past weekend I spent both mornings monitoring Morning Flight at the north tip of Willard's Island inside Hammonasset Beach State Park. On the heels of a strong cold front, birds would be moving. The flights were reasonably productive relative to other regional Morning Flight locations, so I have hope that this site will prove to be a reliable location to observe this phenomenon to some degree when the weather is right. Time will tell.

Saturday (9/19) was the better day. From 630-930am, 420 individual warblers flew out the north tip of Willard's (2.33 birds/minute). Twelve species of warbler flew out, the best being one CONNECTICUT WARBLER. Northern Parula was the most common warbler. Forty-six Flickers were on the move too. 

It was a slow but steady movement throughout the entire time period. Nearly all birds seen were solely in flight, as I positioned myself too far from the trees/shrubs to see birds there. Identifications were made from a combination of field views and "back-of-camera" views. Most birds were giving flight calls.

I added two warbler species on the walk back, and others reported a few more around Willard's, making the island total at least 17 warbler species for the morning. But overall, Willard's Island itself was rather quiet after the flight died. It did not seem to hold many birds, simply serving as a conduit to the mainland for reorienting passerines.

Morning Flight stationary eBird checklist:

Click images to enlarge:
Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Northern Parula (left) and Black-and-white Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

"Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warbler

"Yellow-shafted" Northern Flicker

"Yellow" Palm Warbler

"Yellow" Palm Warbler

Sunday (9/20) was quite slow at the tip. From 700-845am, 60 warblers flew out (0.57 birds/minute), some doubling-back to land as they would not commit to crossing the marsh. We tallied nine warbler species flying out, Parula being dominant. Contrary to the day before, there were some warblers lingering on Willard's itself and near the trailhead/outhouse, fifteen species counted to my knowledge. There were also a couple each of both kinglets, Blue-headed Vireos, and Dark-eyed Juncos, all hinting that October is not far away.

Morning Flight stationary eBird checklist:

For those not interested in frustrating views of warblers shooting through the sky (most of you), I would not be surprised if many of these birds stop in the vegetation on Willard's and filter northward to its tip before making the marsh crossing. In other words, anywhere along those trails might be a fine place to view these birds in the trees and shrubs in their brief visit before they continue northward into the wind. I may give that a shot one day instead of doing the Morning Flight thing.

Remember that Hammonasset Beach State Park's "Early Entry" option ends at 6:30am and requires a CT Duck Stamp purchase. The park then opens to the general public at 8:00am.

 - NB

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Willard's Island for Morning Flight?

Bluff Point State Park in Groton, CT is well-established as one of the best places in the region to observe "Morning Flight" of passerines during autumn migration. Discovered years ago by Dave Provencher, Dave and other eastern CT birders monitor the site each year and log thousands of songbirds as they funnel out the northwest corner of the park after each cold front. During the first few hours of daylight, these birds  "reorient" into the wind after their night's migration, moving back into preferred habitat after being pushed offshore by northwest winds overnight.

I usually visit Bluff only once or twice per season because it is a bit of a haul for me at just over an hour's drive. I have half-heartedly been trying to find a closer Morning Flight spot over the last several years without much consistent success. I've dabbled with a handful of spots along the coast between New Haven and Madison. A couple have been total duds, and a couple others have been decent but inconsistent.

One spot I've been eyeing is Willard's Island, part of the well-known and heavily-birded Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison. Willard's looks intriguing as it is the first decent patch of green that birds should see as they hit that particular point of land.

Hammonasset Beach SP circled in yellow

Arrow pointing to Willard's Island

A closer look. A small oval patch of green surrounded by saltmarsh.

This is not a large piece of woodland by any means, but it should theoretically suck in some birds during morning flight. Willard's is actually pretty well known as a migrant landbird trap as-is, and it is large enough to hold some birds for the day, especially in late spring when the occasional fallout occurs.

Its north-south orientation is likely advantageous in funneling reorienting birds to the north tip before they fly out from there.

Up until recently, the park did not open to birders until 8am (essentially too late for morning flight of nocturnal migrants). Well, it still doesn't officially open until then, but the Connecticut Ornithological Association has negotiated birder access to the park before its official opening, under a certain set of conditions. During the warmer months, the park booth is already manned overnight to allow access to/from the park's campground. They have always allowed in fishermen as well. Now, birders are also allowed inside after hours with proof of purchase of a Connecticut Migratory Bird Conservation stamp.

I made a recent visit following an early season cold front. My decision to try Willard's for morning flight was a late one, and I did not arrive to the north tip of the island until 6:50am. Over the next 45 minutes I had ~35 warblers of eight species fly out, plus a few flycatchers, nuthatches, gnatcatchers, and a Baltimore Oriole. Not exactly hopping, but there were birds, and I had missed some of the peak time.

Given all of the above, I think that Willard's Island shows promise for a reliable morning flight event of some degree, though my expectations are tempered. As my availability coincides with cold fronts, I plan on keeping an eye on it.

 - NB

Monday, August 24, 2020

Guest Post by Tim Spahr: Finding Connecticut Warblers in Fall Migration

In recent years, thanks to good old fashioned field work, Tim Spahr of Massachusetts has developed a knack for finding Connecticut Warblers in southern New England during autumn migration. He is kind enough to share his secrets with us here. Thank you, Tim!


Copyright Tim Spahr

Finding Connecticut Warblers in Fall Migration
by Tim Spahr

Connecticut Warblers are sought-after species due their shy and retiring nature, elusiveness, and overall rarity. Northeastern United States birders are fortunate to get a shot at these birds during the fall migration period, as they often stop in our area to refuel ahead of their long, overwater flight to South America. The sheer difficulty of locating one of these gems in migration can also make finding one a satisfying conclusion to any fall birding outing.

Copyright Tim Spahr

General information:

Connecticut Warblers breed from Western Quebec westward across the boreal regions of Canada (and the northern United States) into Manitoba and even Yukon. Their preferred breeding habitat is bogs and swamp edges, and some spruce and upland forest as well. Connecticut Warblers follow an odd racetrack-shaped migration route, with spring migration being through Florida and up the Ohio Valley before spreading out into Canada. In fall, the birds take the same northeastern route as Blackpoll Warblers, filling up on fat before a 3+-day overwater flight to South America.

Fall migration is late, with the bulk of the birds passing through the Northeastern States in the second half of September. While they can be located coastally, in locations such as Plum Island in Massachusetts, or Cape May in New Jersey, their preferred habitat is around 50km inland and surprisingly in overgrown fields, preferably dense with ragweed and with sumac edges. In Massachusetts, the birds love untended squash and pumpkin fields lined with staghorn sumac. They also will use swampy forest edges and red maple swamps less frequently.

Once the proper habitat is located, finding the birds is still a great challenge. The birds are extremely shy and wary, and often will simply run away on the ground, similar to rails. Often they will fly directly into thickets when flushed and vanish immediately. There are keys to identifying even these fast flying birds. Look for the direct flight, similar to a thrush, and the thrush-like proportions but with a contrastless greenish look in flight. They often frequently give their buzzy flight note—identical to Blackpoll and Yellow Warblers—and this will separate them from any other warbler with these colors. Once safe in thickets or field edges, they often call an odd ‘pwik!’ call note, not really similar to any other bird in this habitat. Birds can sometimes be coaxed into the edge with playback of call notes or mob tapes, but just as often the birds are located simply by flushing them randomly while working these field edges.

Confirming these birds can also be a challenge, as silent Connecticut Warblers can be mistaken for Common Yellowthroats, Mourning Warblers, or Nashville Warblers. Many overeager birders see Common Yellowthroats with eye rings and follow this pitfall to misidentification. Key ID points for Connecticut Warblers usually include an extensive dull brown or gray hood, coming further down into the chest than Mourning Warblers, extremely long undertail coverts; a full and complete white or off-white eye ring (never broken at the front of the eye) and lastly a grayish or buffy throat, never showing bright yellow. When in full view, the proportions of a Connecticut Warbler will appear strange, as often these birds are storing so much fat they are bulging like a shorebird ahead of long migration.

So this autumn, starting in mid-September, how about checking your local fallow pumpkin or squash field, or other field overgrown with ragweed, and see if you can find a Connecticut Warbler? You will be adding a good scientific data point about a tough-to-find Northeastern specialty.

Copyright Tim Spahr

Copyright Tim Spahr

Copyright Tim Spahr


[Nick's note: I put Tim's tips to work last autumn and was able to find a few CONWs in exactly the habitat he described. Two of the birds were flushed from the fields themselves (one ragweed, one overgrown squash), and one responded to pishing the tangles at the base of staghorn sumac at the edge of a pumpkin field that was overgrown with ragweed. Thank you again, Tim, for the fantastic information, photos, and sound clip.]

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Cape Cod Weekend - July 24-27, 2020 (Franklin's Gull+)

Advanced travel planning in 2020 has been a bit of a lost cause for obvious reasons, so I have been eager to pounce on whatever reasonably safe opportunities have presented themselves for getting the %&$# out of Connecticut. This past weekend's hot, humid and dry weather inspired a long weekend on Cape Cod with friends. Shorebird migration should be in full swing, and seabird activity had been picking up at Race Point...hopes were high for a birdy weekend, and that's exactly what we got!

Dave Provencher and I departed CT very early on Friday (7/24) morning as we drove to Chatham with kayaks mounted on the car. We would attempt to kayak out to the South Beach/Monomoy complex in search of shorebirds and terns. We knew that this would pose a challenge, as the landscape out here has changed drastically since South Beach breached during a storm in 2013, making the waters extremely difficult to navigate. We paddled out of Morris Island on the low tide and were met with large exposed sand shoals as anticipated. This forced us to paddle pretty far west before we could turn south towards our destination. After navigating several shallow channels and making one brief portage, we passed between North and South Monomoy Islands and landed on South Beach for high tide. On South Beach we located one significant shorebird and tern roost and worked that for a while before beginning the paddle back to the mainland, which was more direct now that we had more water to work with. We tallied literally thousands of shorebirds of 18 species throughout the day, though we spent far more time paddling (some 11+ miles) than birding.

Given what we learned on Friday, we decided that on Saturday we should focus on the flats adjacent to Minimoy Island, a small island that is part of the NWR and itself is off-limits to the public. Joined by Sarah Dzielski from New York, the three of us set out again at low tide. We were able to be more efficient this morning since we could eliminate Friday's trial-and-error, so we made better time. This allowed for a few hours of wandering the mudflats east of the island, and there were loads of feeding shorebirds to look through. The highlight for us was the godwit flock - 13 HUDSONIAN and 1 MARBLED. But there was plenty more to see. I always enjoy a good WILLET [sub]species comparison, as will most other birders once they are split.

Hudsonian Godwits

Roseate Tern

Common Tern

Sanderlings plus

Two "Western" Willets at right, the furthest right in alternate plumage. With "Eastern" Willet and Hudsonian Godwit.

Marbled Godwit

After two days of extensive kayaking we were happy to spend Sunday on land, even though the heat and humidity really kicked up a notch. We were at Race Point by sunrise and enjoyed a wonderful shearwater show as 100+ each of GREAT, CORY'S, SOOTY and MANX were scoped with the sun over our shoulders. Three PARASITIC JAEGERS made passes throughout the morning. We did not connect with the subadult Sabine's Gull that has been seen intermittently over the past couple weeks, but the constant activity kept us on our toes. FIN and MINKE WHALES also made several appearances. The reliability of viewing seabirds at this location from a reasonable distance never ceases to amaze me.

adult & juv Roseate Terns

juv Roseate Tern

juv Common Tern

adult & juv Roseate Terns

All four shearwater species could be seen in each mixed flock foraging offshore

Gray Seals in the surf

The midday heat was a bit much to fight through today, so we retreated to A/C and resumed birding late in the afternoon. A stop to scan the water from Nauset Beach Light didn't produce anything of note. We then walked out Coast Guard Beach to its southern tip at the start of the falling tide. There were a few shorebirds around, though most seemed to be roosting across the channel on Nauset Beach. Separate flocks of GREAT BLACK-BACKED and LAUGHING GULLS were on our side of the cut, and amongst the Laughers was an alternate-plumaged adult FRANKLIN'S GULL. We watched this bird for several minutes as it preened vigorously and eventually flew off to the south, as did most of the flock as the tide dropped and the sun began to set.

Franklin's Gull among Laughing Gull flock

wing stretch

It was back to the 'yaks on Monday, launching from Chatham and making the short paddle across the inlet to North Beach Island in search of roosting shorebirds, which were in very short supply. Back to focusing on gulls, we picked out a first-summer LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL amongst the large gull flock on the outer beach.

As the tide dropped we paddled over to Tern Island and birded the expanding mudflats, which held several hundred shorebirds. We had a good study of SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHERS including at least one of the Prairie 'hendersoni' race and a few that seemed intermediate with 'griseus.' Another "WESTERN" WILLET was there, and Dave picked out a distant PECTORAL SANDPIPER that made only a brief appearance. In all, fifteen shorebird species on the flats here.

I tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to identifying hendersoni Short-billed Dows in New England. Some are really obvious and have solid orange down through the vent, with sparse spotting at the breast sides, and broad golden 'tiger stripes' above. Birds like the one pictured in the foreground above I think are very likely hendersoni. When this bird was turned away and bent over feeding, you could see orange between the legs and through the vent, though the rear flanks lack orange. The upperparts of this bird are not broadly barred with gold, but it is brighter than the griseus feeding behind it.

This marked the end of our long weekend on the Cape that was loaded with thousands of shorebirds, seabirds, and a surprise Franklin's Gull. Cape Cod is a coastal birder's paradise, especially at this time of year when shorebird migration really gets cranking. Those of us who reside in southern New England are lucky to have it within a reasonably short driving distance.

 - Nick

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Last Weekend report: T.S. Fay & Western Sand incursion - July 11 & 12, 2020

Last weekend was spiced up by Tropical Storm Fay, a weak cyclone by tropical standards, that made landfall in southern New Jersey after a quick run up the coast from North Carolina. Given the brevity of the storm's track over open ocean, not much entrainment was expected, but you never really know with these systems...they are ALWAYS worth birding [safely].

Here in coastal CT we were expecting an 8-12 hour window of 30mph east winds during the evening and night of the 10th. When that magic number of 30mph is reached, it seems to greatly increase the chances of something pelagic being blown into Long Island Sound.

Several birders spent the early morning of the 11th (Saturday) sound-watching along the CT coast. The eastern Sound delivered with a few GREAT SHEARWATERS from land in the first 90 minutes of daylight. They were generally seen flying east, back towards the open ocean. A mid-morning ferry ride across the eastern sound yielded nothing of interest - clearly those few shearwaters were blown in overnight and GTFO as soon as they could.

Shifting gears to shorebirds, I birded high tide at Sandy Point in West Haven on the afternoon of the 12th (Sunday). Numbers and diversity were decent for the date, highlighted by 10 WESTERN SANDPIPERS, which about doubles my prior state high count. Adult WESAs have made an uncharacteristic push into southern New England and Long Island this July, when they are generally very scarce. 

Western Sandpiper

Laughing Gull

 - NB

Monday, June 29, 2020

A "drop everything" chase - Terek Sand in Rhode Island!

The weather on Long Island Sound was looking good yesterday, save for some PM thunderstorms that were likely to pop up. A friend of mine had been eager to get on the Sound for some fishing, so we took advantage of the opportunity to get out there. We traveled eastward about 20 miles from New Haven to the best local Black Sea Bass grounds, and sure enough the fishing was hot. We boated five species (Black Sea Bass, Porgy, Northern Sea Robin, Striped Sea Robin, and Smooth Dogfish), saving some for a future dinner.

Mid-morning we received word that there might be a TEREK SANDPIPER at Napatree Point in Rhode Island, right near the CT state line. Napatree Point is a long sand spit that separates Little Narragansett Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. While waiting for confirmation, we weighed our options. My fishing pal was keen on chasing down such a mega rare shorebird. We were only about 35 miles from Napatree, so rather than boating back west to New Haven and then driving east to Rhode Island, we would chase by boat. Having been to Napatree once or twice before, I knew that it was possible to beach a boat near the lagoon where the bird was reportedly seen. We had a plan. All we had to do was wait on a final ID.

Later in the morning we heard that the ID was confirmed, and the bird was still there: Jan St. Jean had found a Terek Sandpiper, a first for Rhode Island and one of just a handful of Lower 48 US records.

And we were off!

Our route from fishing grounds to Napatree Point

The ride took us about an hour and a quarter, but we got bad news just as we approached the point...the sandpiper had flown from its feeding area on the rising tide, presumably to roost somewhere. By the time we safely anchored the boat on the bay side of the point (which took some creativity, as you really need two anchors to pull that maneuver and we only had one!), it hadn't been seen for at least an hour. There was a crowd at the lagoon, and a few birders had begun to scour the rest of the point without success. It was not looking good!

Overlooking the lagoon where birders were searching for the vagrant shorebird

If not hiding somewhere on Napatree, it seemed that its next most likely location would be Sandy Point, an overgrown island sandbar about 3/4 mile to the north, the western tip of which lies in Connecticut. Locals confirmed that Napatree shorebirds sometimes do go over there to roost. Sandy Point, which again is an island and not a "point" of land, is only accessible by boat. Having the boat as our mode of transport was looking rather fortuitous. We decided to give it a shot.

The blue star marks the lagoon where the sandpiper was originally found, and the yellow star marks the eastern end of Sandy Point (RI)

Here you can see the state line drawn in

The plan was to slowly cruise the shoreline in search of the sandpiper, which was possible because we could get reasonably close to shore with the boat in a few feet of water and a sandy bottom below. We started at the eastern end of Sandy Point and didn't have to look for more than five minutes before we spotted the Terek. Thrilled and borderline shocked at how easy that was, I phoned friends back on Napatree to let them know. As we were trying to decide how to safely shuttle people over to see the bird in the age of COVID-19, we noticed two beach walkers approaching the bird. Sure enough they spooked it, and it flew while calling not far in front of the boat, though quite backlit. A somewhat liquid, rapid yellowlegs-like "too-too-too."

Terek Sandpiper creeping along the shore of Sandy Point (RI)

on its way back to the mass of patiently waiting birders at Napatree...

The sandpiper flew directly back towards Napatree, and we again alerted the folks back there. They were eventually able to relocate it briefly a few times, mostly in flight by the sounds of it.

With the bird under our belt and scattered storms bearing down on the region, it was time for us to head back towards New Haven Harbor. About halfway home we were on a course to intersect a thunderstorm, so we were forced into Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, CT. We enjoyed a bite on the deck at Liv's Place while the storm passed and made it back to dock safely in New Haven at 9:15pm, with just a bit of twilight left. It had been a long and adventurous day on the water rewarded with a mega rare shorebird and plenty of fresh fish. 

It's really hard to beat summer on the New England coast.

Skies beginning to darken over land...

Dinner overlooking salt marsh while waiting for the storm to pass

Ready to depart Westbrook for the final leg of the journey home

 - Nick