November in Connecticut is often a season that brings several reports of rarities across the state to the inboxes of delighted birders, and the trip on Sunday, November 26, was planned to follow this likely influx anywhere it fell. But by the time the weekend rolled around, there was not a peep of a rarity anywhere, no matter how many times we refreshed the listserve.
But do you think that the Connecticut Young Birders’ Club was going to sigh, pack our bags, and resign ourselves to a couple of hours of depressing inland birding? Not in a million years!!!!! No, we’d set out to the coast with binoculars raised to the skies and find ourselves those rarities! And just look what happened…
The day began brightly at Shippan Point, unique as though it is a suburban peninsula of the city of Stamford and has no actual viable bird habitat, it juts very far into the Long Island Sound, making it the sight of many amazing pelagic sightings for Connecticut, including rarities such as Northern Fulmar and Manx Shearwater. I arrived as the sun rose at the end of the point, directly ahead on the horizon, casting its brilliant lemon reflection into our scopes. Gale Ulsamer, a club member who joined us relatively recently, was there as well. Starting out, the action out at sea was slow, with the better sightings being close to shore American Black Ducks and Great Cormorants. Slowly, the other members began to arrive, toting their own scopes upon their backs. Soon James Leone, of whom this is his only second trip, Nicolas Main, and our club president Jory Teltser had joined us. When Aidan Kiley arrived, our posse was complete and the real seawatching began.
Quickly, Jory was able to pick out the huge, stretching silhouette of a Northern Gannet against the skyline. Shippan Point is a great place to see gannets; they were my very first lifer on a CTYBC trip, having gotten them in January of this year at the same place. All of the club members got nice views of this bird; though very far away, it was still large, clearly showing just how sizeable these sulids really are. It provided great opportunities to compare its ponderous, vertical, bowed flight style with the steady, constant flaps of the Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls that surrounded it.
One of our top priorities at this location were the winter sea ducks which had already established themselves at this season, because many of the club members needed them as life birds. Despite the intense glare from the sun and the distance between us and the sound, we were able to pick out a bobbing white Long-tailed Duck moving between the rocks, many Red-throated Loons that flew as straight as arrows across the surf, and finally, two White-winged Scoters rapidly traveling south. Though all of these birds were lifers for James and the scoter a lifer for Nicolas, the views were very subpar, though we were hopeful for more satisfactory views at some of our many later seawatching locations.
Next, we headed east to Sherwood Island S.P of Westport, which (as usual) has been a host as of late to interesting specimens including an uncommon Eastern Meadowlark, its usual Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Connecticut’s latest ever Canada Warbler, found by our very own Jory.
Immediately, it seemed the weather was good for us, with the bright glare lessening some, with a cool breeze blowing over the marsh. We began at the airfield, where we quickly spotted the caramel-brown female Northern Harrier that has been hanging around here lately, giving good looks for everyone. Then, Aidan and I led the group around a small hedge to see if any interesting sparrows were about while Jory hung back, but only the expected Song, White-throated, and Savannah Sparrows were about. As we were ready to leave, a medium-sized bird flew above our heads, against the sun. “What was that?” Asked James. Identifying the bird by its compact shape, wide tail, and stocky bill, both Aidan and I responded instantly, “Starling”. But it was Gale who caught us in our mistake, having followed the bird as it dropped into the field. “No, guys. That was the meadowlark!”
Aidan and I quickly realized that she was right, and, with Jory having joined us at this point, made a plan to move closer to the model airplane field where it was bunkered down, following the edge of the marsh.
At the saltmarsh, the wind was blowing strongly, and both Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures rode on the gusts. Hooded Mergansers and Greater Yellowlegs both sat on the muddy edges, and as we scoped out these ducks, somebody realized that one of them was not like the others. “It’s a Pied-billed Grebe!” shouted Jory, and we all quickly got our optics on it. Though not terribly uncommon in Connecticut in general, it’s a very unusual visitor to Sherwood Island; Jory’s first in his many years of birding here. It was a life bird for Nicolas and a state bird for myself. Unfortunately, the bird would’ve been a life bird for James, but he was not able to get his bins on it in time before it disappeared behind a wall of reeds. We all assured him that he would have many opportunities to see it later, and took the time during our visit to refind it without success.
At the airfield, we all got great views at the Eastern Meadowlark that foraged among the short grass and the tall tussocks that lay between, alternating between periods of glorious views and mouselike secrecy. We also had time to discuss the unfortunate decline of this melodic and characteristic bird from Connecticut’s grasslands; as its breeding habitat is of native grasslands is very specific and declining due to agriculture and urbanization, it is only now found breeding in a few preserves in inland Connecticut. We all felt very lucky to enjoy such great views of this species; perhaps we won’t be having the opportunities to see it as well again.
We then headed to go seawatching; unfortunately, a combination of cloudy seas and winds did not make for good conditions, as opposed to the clear land we stood on. We all did, however, get good lucks at the park’s signature Lesser Black-backed Gull, a lifer for Nicolas. At the windy mill-pond, we picked up a few more duck species including Bufflehead and Mute Swan, and a fruitless search for the continuing Canada Warbler was the bookend of our good run here at Sherwood.
Staying in Westport, we decided to visit a local location Jory had recently discovered; a large suburban pond called Held Pond. The last time he had gone there, he had discovered sizeable flocks of Ruddy Ducks, which James needed as a life bird. Sure enough, as we sneaked our scopes through the scraggly brown trees that divided the neat houses from the water, we all got good lucks at the little rufous-brown, stub-tailed Ruddy Ducks. This was a short visit for one species, and after ten minutes we moved on to our next location in Westport.
At this point, the whole group was getting hungry, and lucky for us that our next location, Bulkley Pond, was accessed from the parking lot of a Shake Shack! After Nicolas, James, and Gale had gotten great views at a beautiful lifer adult male Northern Pintail, we all enjoyed some hearty hamburgers, hot french fries, and simply delicious shakes. At this point, Jory had discovered a very interesting bird among a flock of Green-winged Teals – a bird that he had identified as being a possible Common Teal, the Eurasian subspecies (sometimes considered its own species) of Green-winged Teal. These birds have showed up among flocks of American teals before, so the possibility was definitely there. However, this bird was quite secretive, and Jory only got looks for a few seconds and resolved that he was “60% sure it was a Common Teal”. He resolved to check this hometown location later for this interesting individual.
We had gotten wind that an Iceland Gull was being seen at Southport Beach, which would be a new Westport bird for Jory, an avid town-lister. We sped over there and sure enough, among a group of gulls at the place where the tidal creek emptied into the ocean, a ghostly pale Iceland Gull stood against the blue. We all got great scope views at this interesting individual who are just beginning their annual winter irruptions into Connecticut.
At Penfield Reef in Fairfield, we were treated to a much different kind of sea-watching. Penfield Reef is a massive sandbar, extending almost a fourth of a mile into the sea, giving it the characteristics of another great seawatching destination. Here, we were treated to much better views of White-winged Scoters bobbing up and down in the sandside surf, bracing themselves against the cold. Long-tailed Ducks also made good appearances. Both Common and Red-throated Loons were spotted above the gray sea, and on land, Sanderlings huddled among the massive gull flocks. As we added our third, and then our fourth Northern Gannets of the day, we headed to what would be our last birded town of the day, Stratford.
We started at the Stratford marina, a small boat dock. There, we found a rare and unexpected bird – a Short-billed Dowitcher, roosting alone on the pilings! This plain little bird, with almost no distinguishing features but for its long bill and white eyebrow, was the subject of much fascination to the veteran birders of the group for its uncommonness, especially to photographers Aidan, Gale, and Jory, who managed to spend over twenty minutes photographing this stationary, immobile bird in unchanging lighting; I contented myself with a couple digiscopes. Also of interest to us were the continuing Yellow-crowned Night Herons which, though common visitors to the state in summer, are quite rare in winter. These beautiful birds were four in number and exhibited to us both adult and juvenile plumages, useful to James and Nicolas, to whom they were lifers.
After finally picking up and leaving the dowitcher to its lonesome, we decided to take a very brief detour to nearby Birdseye Boat Ramp to get James a lifer in the flock of coots that lived there. By very brief, I’m not exaggerating – we drove into the boat ramp parking lot and did not stop the car as we swung by the harbor’s edge. James got fine looks at some close American Coots as we swung back out of the lot once again, Jory’s foot still on the pedal. As we headed up the drive, a white Great Egret flew above us – a bit late for this spring, summer, and fall denizen of Connecticut.
Finally, with the sun setting so soon on this early winter day, we decided on our last location, Long Beach. Long Beach is always full of surprises at this time of year – only a week or so before that, I had birded the beach with Jory, and had one of my best days of birding ever, filled with rarities including King Eiders, a Short-eared Owl, and even an American White Pelican!
While there, we immediately did have a surprise; right by the parking lot surf, our second Iceland Gull of the day, swimming through the turquoise-gray waves. This one was much closer than our first, and we all got great views of its uniform, pale ashy-gray plumage and its little hard black bill.
As the photographers in the group got great pictures of this interesting gull, one of the passers-by on the beach noticed our distinguishing field marks that marked us as birders (binoculars, fleeces, perpetual warbler neck) and told Aidan about how as he had been walking his dog earlier that morning, he had found an “Arctic Owl” that he had seen fly into the marsh. An Arctic Owl.. sounded a lot like a Snowy Owl to me.
On our way down, we searched hard for Snow Buntings, birds both Nicolas and James needed for life, that we had missed at Sherwood Island and at Penfield Reef. Though we were unable to find them, there were other birds hiding in the scraggly scrub, including big, pale Ipswich Savannah Sparrows, a New England winter specialty that’s always pleasing to see.
Still, we couldn’t find either buntings nor larks, so as some of the group stayed down beach to seawatch, I led James and Nicolas up through more vegetation – but there was no luck. Sighing, my eye strayed to the bronze-hued windblown marsh, where hundreds of Black Ducks accompanied by Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads swam. “Wait here,” I told them. “I’m going to look for the Snowy Owl.” My scope moved back and forth over the marsh. Every time I saw something white, my heart jumped. Gull, signpost, signpost, signpost… wait. Sure that’s a signpost? I moved back and focused and… yes! Though far away, there could be no doubt that the little figure I saw was indeed a Snowy Owl! I picked up the phone and called Jory to let me know what I was seeing, who immediately started jogging towards me. In the end, all of the group got good looks at this awesome winter visitor, a long-awaited lifer for myself and James. There can be no doubt that this was the bird of the day.
As the sun set over the Long Beach, we managed to locate a very confiding juvenile Horned Lark, again a lifer for James and Nicolas. The light at this point was gorgeous, unbelievable, a fantastical mix of deep oranges and rich scarlets spilling over the horizon. It was the perfect lighting for some great group shots and some individual shots of Jory, who was in good need of some new profile pictures.
As the group assembled together to walk back to the car, discussing the many highlight birds of the journey, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to this awesome trip. The CTYBC has done it again, organizing an amazing day of observing nature in interesting and varying locations alongside our fellow friends and enthusiasts.