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

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