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.]