Saturday, March 28, 2020

Big Day birding during a pandemic

Well that's not a blog title I thought I'd ever write!

COVID-19 has abruptly changed everyday life across the entire planet, altering the way we interact with others, at least for the time being. We are currently in the disease’s exponential growth phase here in Connecticut. I am a Physician Assistant who has practiced in Orthopedic Surgery for the entirety of my ten years as a PA; I work in a hospital. At this point I have not yet been called to the front lines of this battle. I expect that to change at some point late next week or the week after that, as we approach All-Hands-On-Deck mode in the Waterbury area. Since my own chance of infection will likely increase soon, I am trying to take advantage of safe outdoor activities while I can. COVID-19 infection would mean strict self-quarantine for [at least] 14 days. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, stocking up on some fresh air instead of toilet paper would do quite a bit for my sanity!

The local birding in late March is usually dominated by intense ephemeral gull concentrations as flocks wander Long Island Sound to feed on barnacle larvae that bloom at this time of year. For whatever reason, this event has essentially failed to materialize in 2020. The gulls seem to be practicing social distancing too!

In the absence of this highly anticipated event, and since we are really just in the very early stages of spring bird migration, I was looking to try something different. Hence the idea of a March Big Day in Connecticut. The ABA has been tracking Big Day/Year records for a long time…probably since their inception. A handful of years ago they went from an annual print publication (“ABA Big Day & ABA List Report”) to an online database (“ABA Listing Central”). A welcome change, except for one massive problem. They have yet to transfer the old records over to the online database, at least for the monthly state Big Day records. So the online database is largely useless at the moment because there is no way to tell if the numbers published there are actually records. So to find the CT Big Day record for the month of March, I had to check both the online Listing Central and the most recent edition of the print version; the newest print version I have is from 2011.

Anyway, the print version shows a record of 112 species from CT in March, as of 2011; the online database has nothing. So, as far as I know, I was shooting for 112 or better. Whether or not this is the actual record I cannot verify with 100% certainty.

With Friday March 27th off from work and the weather looking promising, I decided to give it a run. In strong contrast to 2019, I have only been birding in CT twice so far this year, so I am really out of the loop. I did a bit of research via eBird and the CTBirds listserv, asked a few friends for specific locations of some notable species, and went on my way.

Obviously due to the current state of things I had to take precautions to make sure I do not somehow contribute to the spread of this virus, in addition to keeping myself healthy so I can contribute when called upon in the coming days. So this Big Day was done solo. I packed all food and drink from home. The only common surface touched was the gas pump for one fill-up, and I used disinfectant wipes for that. A healthy 6+ feet was kept whenever I encountered others in the field.

I headed to the NW Corner of the state for a 4am start. The main pre-dawn target here was Northern Saw-whet Owl, but I was unable to connect. Incidentally I picked up BARRED OWL and AMERICAN WOODCOCK. Dawn birding began at Aton Forest in search of Sandhill Crane, Ruffed Grouse, and other northern breeders. The dips kept coming, as the cranes were not in the one small field to which they are usually faithful, and no grouse were drumming on this unexpectedly breezy early morning. But I did pick up a couple things including PURPLE FINCH, FOX SPARROW, PILEATED WOODPECKER and BROWN CREEPER. I did not have a strict inland schedule planned, but looking back I realize that I lingered here too long.

My next cluster of spots took me to Litchfield. The Little Pond boardwalk had been producing some locally scarce species, so I took the walk out there. SWAMP SPARROW and PINE WARBLER were singing, and a few RUSTY BLACKBIRDS were very vocal right along the boardwalk. Bantam Lake was quiet, and the shimmer was quite harsh thanks to prematurely clearing skies, but at least that got the raptors in the air. After seeing KESTREL at a nearby breeding location I headed for the coast.

If someone could tell me how car issues seem to know to rear their heads on Big Days, I’d appreciate it. I killed probably half an hour though the morning dealing with the splash shield underneath the front end of my Civic, which decided to fall apart in pieces. Nothing major, but it cost me time I could have used at the end of the day.

Finally at the coast a bit after noon, I started in Stratford with the BOAT-TAILED GRACKLE colony. Nearby ponds held BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON and RUDDY DUCK. At Long Beach I got my first taste of what was to come for the rest of the day…the parking lot was crowded and many people were walking the beach. With families home from work/school and unable to congregate elsewhere, residents are taking to the outdoors in numbers I have never seen outside of summer weekends. The fact that it was a stunningly sunny and warm day didn’t exactly help matters. Don’t get me wrong, everyone was practicing Distancing and keeping a healthy distance from one another with the exception of obvious families. This was very encouraging to see. It was nothing like the scenes from Florida last week with those asshole college students telling the world they don’t care about the health of others.

Despite the disturbance I did tick ICELAND GULL and PIPING PLOVER, but missed some expected species that were certainly scared off by the people. The rest of my loop through Stratford was pretty quiet, but at least AMERICAN COOT was right where it was supposed to be.

Next up was Milford Point, the estuary on the other side of the Housatonic River mouth from Stratford. An AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVER had been there for days and was easily found once I walked out the sandbar (luckily human activity wasn’t so bad here). While scanning the Sound and picking up new water birds I came across a drake HARLEQUIN DUCK, an unexpected bird and notably a new Self-Found bird for me in the state! The marsh side was full of ducks including NORTHERN SHOVELERS. Up to this point I was doing fine, though I was missing quite a few shorebirds.

Easy on/easy off I-95 in New Haven for both scaup. The marsh at Shell Beach in Guilford had PINTAIL, and my one and only HORNED GREBE of the day was on the bay side.

It’s funny how quickly momentum can change on a Big Day. There are ebbs and flows. One hour you are missing target after target and wasting too much time looking for them; morale can really take a hit. The next hour you’re tripping over new birds and everything seems to be coming together; spirits are lifted. This happens at least a couple times every Big Day, and I was about to see one of those swings.

After the Long Beach experience I was beginning to dread my next stop, Hammonasset Beach State Park. The birding can be great, but it is the #1 beach in the state and is overrun on hot summer days. On this day it could be described as a shit show at best. My time there did not start well. There was no parking at Meigs Point, where I wanted to look offshore. The trails had heavy traffic. The shorebird roost at Cedar Island was devoid of birds. I made a poor decision and wasted 20 minutes on Willard’s Island looking for passerines that never appeared. About 45 minutes had passed at one of my most crucial stops and I did not have a single new bird to show for it.

I still had to check the west end of the park for Horned Lark, the long-staying Harris’s Sparrow that I wasn’t even sure was still around, and a few other passerines. My fears were realized when I got there and saw people scattered all over the fields that are normally ignored by visitors in favor of the beach experience. One guy was hitting golf balls. Another dude was preparing to fly a kite. I scanned the one small lawn that was unused and spotted a rather lonely-looking HORNED LARK. At this moment Micky Komara, the original finder of the HARRIS’S SPARROW, pulled up. It was about 4pm, and I was considering calling off the rest of the day, given how poorly I was doing at this crucial juncture. But she informed me that she was headed for the Harris’s and kindly asked if I wanted to join. Big Day rules aside I took her up on the offer of 6-foot-distance walking company. When we reached the spot where the sparrow has been coming to seed I spotted it a bit further down the edge. It eventually came in to the seed. It really is a striking bird, and I’m glad I got to see it before it departs for points north/west, which should be sometime soon. I thanked Micky for the encouragement and headed on my way, kicking up a SAVANNAH SPARROW on the walk back to the car. A short walk in the campground behind Swan Pond was very birdy, particularly loaded with Robins and Juncos. I rapid-fire added WINTER WREN, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER and a PALM WARLBER. No luck with the Chipping Sparrows that had been there. Five birds in a matter of 20 minutes reenergized me, and I continued along the coast.

Time wasn’t on my side at this point and I recalled the extra time spent waiting for those damn cranes and ripping bits of plastic from the undercarriage of my car. It would be a race against sunset. I would have to triage my list of remaining locations. This always happens.

I was still weak on shorebirds and decided to check the Menunketesuck flats for Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, two species that often winter out there. Sadly I pulled up to the Town Beach overlook to find the gates closed. Some coastal towns are closing beaches in an effort to prevent unhealthy social gathering in our attempt to flatten the COVID curve. I had checked the town’s website the day before and did not find any notice of this closing, though I could have missed it. It didn’t cost me more than 10 minutes, but that was my last decent shot at those species.

The next area to hit was Old Saybrook where I had two targets: Snow Bunting and Snow Goose. The small gravel area where the buntings had been hanging out was, you guessed it, overrun with people and vehicles. Luckily I was able to see the nearby SNOW GOOSE around the corner without getting out of the car, and around this time I spotted an adult PEREGRINE FALCON in flight over the mouth of the Connecticut River.

At this point, around 6pm, I was sitting at 102 species. Sunset would be at 7:11pm, and I still had five really good possibilities after dark: Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Virginia Rail, Clapper Rail, and Wilson’s Snipe. Anything beyond those five would be an unexpected bonus. Doing the math and working backwards in my head, I figured I needed five more species before dark to give myself a really good chance to tie the month’s record, and six to put me in position to break it. I would only have enough time for one more region, and that would be Harkness State Park & vicinity.

I had seen neither a scoter nor an eider all day, mostly due to points of land being closed or inaccessible in some manner because of COVID. Upon arrival to Harkness I pished the thickets next to the marsh for American Tree Sparrow (nope) and checked the marsh itself for Greater Yellowlegs (nada). Looking off the point was much more productive. A mixed flock of SURF and BLACK SCOTERS were close to shore, as was a lone WHITE-WINGED SCOTER. COMMON EIDERS were in several small flocks further out. A NORTHERN GANNET was moving eastward on the horizon. Those five minutes gave me five quick birds, so all of a sudden I was at 107. One more bird before dark would put me in excellent shape. And I still needed Great Cormorant and Purple Sandpiper, the former just about a guarantee and the latter a good possibility! So I scanned the rocks to the east over and over – nothing. Scanned the channel marker offshore – nothing. Sunset was in five minutes. I left the park and quickly drove the immediate area both east and west, checking the lighthouse and rocks at the mouth of the Thames River, and the rocks near Jordan Cove. It was hard to believe, but there was not a Great Corm nor a Purple Sand in sight. Those Big Day twists and turns at work again.

The night session started out quite well. A freshwater marsh up the Connecticut River had VIRGINIA RAIL (108) calling on its own and a GREAT HORNED OWL (109) hooting off in the distance. No Screech Owl though, surprisingly. Back down to the coast, CLAPPER RAILS (110) were easily enticed to call. I tried several times to tape up a Greater Yellowlegs or a Marsh Wren after dark, but no dice. I didn’t have to walk very far into an inland wet field to flush a WILSON’S SNIPE (111). It was 11pm and that left me plenty of time for that screech owl to tie 112. I had three more reliable screech spots nearby, and I was sure one of those would work. The first spot did not work, but just around the corner from there I decided on a whim to check the wet field edge for screech and was surprised to hear a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL (112) tooting. Not typical breeding habitat for them, so perhaps a migrant or a lingering winterer. Still plenty of time for screech to break the record. Except that the screech owls did not feel like talking this evening. At spot after spot I was met with silence all the way to midnight. I had to laugh at the unpredictability of it all.

This exercise ended up being more fun than I had anticipated. Big Days are meant to be done in groups, and I would have loved to be with friends for this one too. But this is what we have to do for the time being. Having a number to shoot for definitely spiced things up, especially in those final eight or so hours when it became apparent that I would end up very close to that number. More importantly, I was able to safely spend an entire day outside doing something I love, completely invested in a goal that largely distracted me from the crisis we are in the midst of facing. As the worst of this COVID outbreak is still ahead for Americans, any such distractions are welcome.

Best Birds:
Harris's Sparrow
Harlequin Duck
American Golden-Plover

Biggest Misses:
Great Cormorant
Black-bellied Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone
Eastern Screech-Owl
Northern Flicker
American Tree Sparrow

- Nick

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Birding the Oldest Desert on Earth

I am recently back from co-leading a wonderful two week "Birding Safari" to southern Africa with the Connecticut Audubon Society, in tandem with Nature Travel Namibia. I'll follow with a trip report sometime soon. After the group departed I spent two days on my own in Walvis Bay, Namibia, which is without a doubt one of the top coastal birding locations I have ever seen.

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When you think of the desert, chances are that jaegers are not the first birds that come to mind. Nor would you expect thousands of shorebirds, terns, or flamingoes. How about fur seals and range-restricted dolphins?

The iconic Namib Desert is the oldest in the world. Its dramatically tall sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. It may come as a surprise that much of this desert is coastline, spanning the entire coast of Namibia (and a bit into Angola and South Africa), where it meets the South Atlantic Ocean. I am fascinated by the obvious contrast inherent to coastal deserts. How can such a parched environment literally stand adjacent to miles and miles of water. And yet this goes on for some 1,200 miles.


Somewhere near the midway point of that desert coastline, a long finger of sand wiggles out from the mainland and parallels the coast for about 10 miles. This barrier beach forms Walvis Bay.




Walvis Bay satellite view with key areas marked

On the inside of that barrier beach, tidal sand and mud flats stretch for miles. At the south end of the bay lies a large area of salt works that produces more sea salt than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. The natural bay combines with the man-made salt flats to provide a vast amount of foraging and breeding habitat for coastal birds. This oasis, positioned smack in the middle of a supremely harsh coastline, is stacked with literally tens of thousands of birds. This holds true particularly during the austral summer, when shorebird and tern numbers are significantly augmented by nonbreeding migrants from the Northern Hemisphere.

It is #$@*ing magical.


Esplanade along the lagoon


View from my side room at Lagoon Lodge. The front rooms have full Bay views.

For those familiar with my home region of New England (USA), it most reminds me of the South Beach/Monomoy area of Cape Cod in terms of habitat, species composition, and sheer numbers...not to mention rarity potential. It seems that just about every shorebird or tern rare to southern Africa has turned up here.




mudflats for miles


Looking west from the Esplanade. The flats on the east side of the lagoon are right in front of you, but those far bits of land to the west are teeming with thousands of birds...and are barely scopeable in good conditions. You'd need a kayak to get on top of the bulk of the birds out there.

What surprised me most was the quality of the seawatching. Even with all those shorebirds around it was difficult to pull myself away from watching the ocean. JAEGERS were particularly common; I had multiples of all three species, though the hoped-for Brown Skua never did make an appearance. CAPE GANNETS were present in modest numbers. Tubenoses were represented by SOOTY and CORY'S SHEARWATERS. Terns were always present in good numbers, seven species in fact, including the range-restricted DAMARA TERN. On the morning of the 6th there was an impressive northward movement of BLACK TERNS; I tallied 283 individuals.


White-winged Tern


Black Terns


Damara Tern


Long-tailed Jaeger record shot

dark morph adult Parasitic Jaeger in the fog

Hartlaub's Gull


first cycle Kelp Gull

Adding to the seawatching fun were regular sightings of CAPE FUR SEALS and HEAVISIDE'S DOLPHINS!


Cape Fur Seals


Heaviside's Dolphin record shot


Looking down the beach to the south. Driving 50km in that direction gets you to Sandwich Harbor.


Sunrise through the marine layer at Paaltjies

While I stood facing the ocean, shorebirds were thick behind me. Diversity was nice, noting 18 species, many in large numbers. My favorites included CHESTNUT-BANDED and WHITE-FRONTED PLOVERS and AFRICAN BLACK OYSTERCATCHER. There were certainly more species to be found, had I more time to explore. GREATER and LESSER FLAMINGOES, one of the bay's top attractions, were always in sight by the hundreds.


typical scene at Walvis Bay






Greater Flamingoes, pictured here, far outnumbered Lesser

After nearly two days here I felt like I barely scratched the surface. I bet I probably scoured only 10-20% of the birds on the ground. The only areas on which I had time to focus were the esplanade (east) side of the lagoon, the road through the salt works, and the seawatch from Paaltjies. With more time, I would have loved to rent a kayak to reach the thousands of shorebirds I could see feeding on the west side of the lagoon, or bird the wetland formed by the wastewater outflow east of town, or take a touristy boat cruise around the bay for a different perspective, or rent a 4x4 to drive all the way out to the tip of Pelican Point, or try to gain access to the Oyster Farm (private), or hop on a pelagic trip (reportedly organized sometimes). Ideally, I'd have a full week.

Heck, driving down the beach some 50km to Sandwich Harbor for a couple days, where the dunes get dramatically large and a smaller barrier beach creates another tidal lagoon, must be worth a try.




That video was done by an outfit that runs day trips from Walvis Bay, but supposedly one can acquire a permit to drive your own rental vehicle all the way to Sandwich Harbor.

So many reasons to go back.

If there was one downside to birding here, it was that the birds seemed skittish. Whether feeding or roosting, I struggled to get close to the flocks, which is something I have not experienced quite to this degree. Was it the constant threat of the jackals that roam the desert? Or the presence of so many jaegers (one of which I did see cross over the beach towards the flats)? I don't believe that persecution from humans is a problem here, and there were no falcons in sight. Perhaps my sample size was too small and they aren't usually this spooky.


Black-backed Jackal eyeing me as it trots through the sand

I get the feeling that most birding tours do exactly what our group did, which is give Walvis Bay no more than a day or so - just hit the esplanade and the salt works, perhaps with a look at the ocean, and make sure you see the endemic Dune Lark not far outside of town. And I get why. A traveler's time in southern Africa is often limited, and there is so much unique wildlife and scenery to soak in over a large distance. You've got hornbills and turacos and charismatic megafauna to see! Technically speaking, most of the birds at Walvis Bay can be seen elsewhere on the continent or in the world - Damara Tern and Dune Lark are the two biggest target birds for listers, and they can both be found within the same morning. But as you can see, there's so much more to it. If you're also enamored with coastal birding and have the time to spare, I recommend giving Walvis Bay an extended look.

 - Nick