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 October...it 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 October...in a single park. So, for now, that is the new October ABA number.

Full list: https://ebird.org/checklist/S74339672

- Nick