February Trip report

Hello all! Nicolas Main writing. Some of you may not know me, but I have been an avid member of the Connecticut Young Birders for almost a year. Recently another member, Will Schenck, has taken up writing the summaries although, i’ll be filling in. I hope that my first club trip write up will consist of good storytelling, that both entertains and excites!

Considering that I am one of the only young birder’s who resides as far inland in Litchfield County as I do, I am usually faced with a grueling journey to attend most of our club trips. Despite the long drive, I was determined to meet up with both Jory and Aidan for our annual February outing, eager to assist with the round up of wintering birds at some excellent local spots. Although there was a disheartening forecast for rain later in the day, we wanted to give local birding areas in both Stratford and Bridgeport a chance.

To start off the trip, we thought it was important to stop at a hotspot known as Long Beach. Due to the fact that this is such an excellent location for birding, we knew we would come across some amazing birds. Upon arriving, we were greeted by a group of hyperactive Long-tailed Ducks. This assured us that with the warm weather and active birds, that it was going to be a successful trip.

Adding to the promising conditions, sea watching was going to be that much easier with the calm, and clear waters. Continuing onto the beach, the real birding began. Before Jory and Aiden could set up their scopes we were immediately swarmed with a flock of Horned Lark which produced a great photography opportunity. While trying for a decent shot of the larks, a quick scan with scopes produced diving Common Goldeneye, and group of Greater Scaup. These amazing conditions seemed to be sending the birds into a frenzy as well. Flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling frantically flew back and forth looking for a place to land, sea ducks dove desperately all while a massive group of Brant called in the background. With a final scan, we came across two Iceland Gull’s sitting far out on the jetty, accompanied by Snowy owls. Racking up 22 species, we thought that Long Beach had resulted in some notable birds and decided to move on to another hotspot.

Deliberating in the car ride about new cameras, and lenses, we made our way to Seaside Park. Immediately pulling into the park, we were greeted with a massive nest created by an introduced exotic species known as Monk Parakeets. Surprisingly, the Parakeets were mingling amongst the European Starlings on the ground. By moving further into the park, we scanned for a flock of foraging birds which can sometimes consist of multiple species. Within a minute of searching, Aidan was able to pull out the flock which consisted of Horned lark, Snow bunting, and a Lapland Longspur all scurrying their way about the field. We also scanned a small group of gulls looking for anything unusual, and with nothing intriguing, we moved on.

Next, we proceed with the trip to a nearby energy plant which tends to hold massive groups of gulls; and they were everywhere. On the ledges of the building, in high concentrations on nearby rooftops, and even riding along on the moving garbage trucks. A Red-tailed Hawk flew from each corner of the rooftop of the plant and thankfully shuffling the gulls as it flew by. After a few minutes of scanning through a chained fence, we came across our third Iceland Gull for the day, which sat on a rooftop. Although not a rare gull, this species can be somewhat uncommon but always exciting to find!

Our next stop was “The Reef”. Thankfully the high tide was receding which opened up not only the sandbar but provided great opportunity to find some exciting birds. When walking onto the beach we were instantly meant with a massive raft of 700+ Greater/Lesser Scaup, where we eagerly scanned the group in hope of Tufted Duck. Sadly the raft moved further and further out which limited our ability to find the rare duck. Despite the missed opportunity, we managed to locate our fourth Iceland Gull, which was intermingled with the Ringed-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls. In conclusion, this hotspot was far from a dud, with White-winged Scoters along with some far out Great Cormorants which were both new for the day.

Granted we didn’t get too many species at our next location, Sunken Island, we still obtained one of our trip highlights. A beautiful male Harlequin Duck which was found by Aidan swam amongst the group of White-winged Scoters. Because this rare bird has such astonishing plumage, it is always a treat to find along the Connecticut coast. Not picking up anything else too exciting other than a dozen of Horned Grebes, we proceed on.

Thoroughly birding most of Bridgeport and Stratford, we went on to some area in Westport. Bulkley Pond tends to be an easy stop for the club, where we can pick up a resident male Northern Pintail that mixes with Mallards and sometimes Green-winged Teal. After the quick pitstop for the ducks, we moved on to some other small and quick locations.

Disappointingly the sun was swallowed up with clouds which reminded us of the impending rain, we had to move fast. Quick 15 minute stops at Southport Beach and Gorham Island resulted in Red-breasted Mergansers, some Common Loons, along with Gadwall and Hooded Mergansers. Admittingly these spots we hurried, we managed to save some time for our final spots.

Having been focusing so much on the seabirds, it was refreshing to hear Black-capped Chickadees calling when we arrived at Burying Hill Beach. As they sang, we were thankfully meant with a up close Lesser-backed Gull. Although this birds seemingly simple appearance, it is an always exciting bird to come across. As this bird waded further down the shoreline, Jory and Aidan came across a Red-throated Loon in their scopes, along with a large group of Long-tailed Ducks. Spending 20 minutes here, we thought it would be a smart idea to move on as the clouds appeared to become darker, and more menacing.

The forecast stated that at 2:00 pm, the rain would start. Although the days had begun to start getting longer, my fellow members and I were disappointed that we would not be able to bird until sundown. Due to the short winter days, the past couple have trips have ended seemingly too fast. Although running out of time, we had to make the best of it.

Saugatuck Shores was our next location and final location. Although residential, small spots that opened up to the beach provided a spot where we could set up the scopes.While scanning an older man on his bike stopped and asked what we were up to. On occasion we are stopped by a curious passersby and we are questioned. It is always fun and somewhat rewarding to educated a curious person. Jory explained that we were bird watching and in search of any rare or uncommon ducks. Unfortunately we told the man, we haven’t found any yet. At the next open spot leading towards the beach, I was astonished by the amount of Long-tailed Ducks that stretched from Sherwood to Norwalk. Several massive rafts held up to a total of a whopping 600 birds. While Aidan scanned the shoreline, Jory was busy looking for a Barrow’s Goldeneye. After we celebrated finding the 5th Iceland Gull of the day along the beach, Jory managed to find an interesting looking Common Goldeneye. Having the day started off with great conditions, they now began to worsen. Rain started, a haze in the scope, and over 400 Goldeneye all together, it was impossible refind the peculiar female Goldeneye. With the misfortune of missing a new bird, the Goldeneyes still managed to provide an incredible experience. We not only watched but listened to the Goldeneye take simultaneous flight. The roaring sound of the birds lifting off was a better experience, to me, than getting a new bird. Satisfied with our excursion at Saugatuck Shores, we took a break from birding to take pictures of the beautiful landscape, Jory taught both me and Aidan some excellent landscape photography techniques.

Racking up a total of 50 species, we had a decent day. Although we had to rap up the trip early to weather, it was a successful trip that resulted in two lifers for me. I look forward to the warblers that will soon start to make their way back to the wonderful state of Connecticut, and hope our next few trips will result in some great passrine birding!

– Nicolas Main

 

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New Haven Mega Bowl 2018

Though no one can deny that the peace and tranquility of observing birds in beautiful settings alone in the field is one of the best experiences of birding, the Big Day is a close contender. Sleepless nights, heat-stopping chases, and the smell of victory on the horizon… hard to beat!! That’s why the annual New Haven MegaBowl is such an awesome event for the CTYBC! This competition takes place the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday every February. A Big Day within the limits of New Haven County, it’s special in that each species is assigned a point value; teams add up their seen species’s points to determine their score, so in theory, a team with less species but more points could win against one with more species but less points.

The birding scene in Connecticut lately has been slow, with few rarities around and passerine birding being quite the dud due to weather conditions. Also, with Brendan at college and Jory competing in a science fair, the CTYBC team, the “Darth Waders”, was down to three members – Preston, Aidan, and I. Still, the CTYBC had won last year, our team of Fairfield County youngsters beating out crowds of veteran birders on their home turf. It was epic. The CTYBC team this year was determined to bird our hardest for the win. Our legacy depended on it.

The competition began at 6:00 a.m, and as the clock stuck the beginning of the Big Day, our team was out at the dark, wind-blown Wheeler Marsh in Milford in the attempt to hear such specialties as Marsh Wren, Clapper Rail, and Long-eared Owl, the last of which our team had heard hunting at this very spot last year. The first bird of the day – the flocks of American Black Ducks quacking noisily in the predawn light, mixed with Hooded Mergansers and Canada Geese. We quickly played for Marsh Wren and Clapper Rail, but yielded no results. The rules of the MegaBowl ban playing for owls, and we would eventually end up with no vocalizing owls.

Our next stop was Milford Point, where the marsh, stones, and even the very sand of the beach was glassed in ice. The birding on the sandbar immediately yielded results- we had good views of a flock of pale Snow Buntings among the dead beach plants, and in no time at all, we had found Snowy Owl roosting atop the beach. We skirted in carefully to seawatch, where we found Common Goldeneyes, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, and innumerable Greater and Lesser Scaups bobbing in the freezing surf.

Next was our first rarity chase of the day, for a Harlequin Duck that had been seen at the mouth of the Oyster River in New Haven. The bird was known to be drifting between two locations – one a public beach, one a seawatch off a residential road. At the beach, we found nothing but the first Mallards of the day, but Holcomb Street was immediately successful – the beautiful adult male Harlequin Duck, a lifer for both Preston and I, showed brightly in the morning sunlight. Accompanied by very close Red-breasted Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks, we additionally found a surprise Northern Pintail – an adult male, no less! As this species is usually a denizen of Connecticut’s ponds, lakes, and saltmarshes, we were pleasantly surprised to see this one at a coastal seawatch.

Next came a quick stakeout at the small Beaver Pond Park. Though the sign in the park claimed patronage of such species as Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, and Least Bitterns, we did not find any of these, but instead sought out three furtive American Coots that huddled secretly in a thick reedbed.

Looking over old eBird reports, Aidan had found a mysterious spot in New Haven by the name of Proto Drive, that in the past had yielded such birds as Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Virginia Rail. Upon our arrival, we found the habitat to be very intriguing: an extensive cattail/Phragmites marsh. Unfortunately, the entire marsh was completely frozen. On a strange ice path through the middle of the marsh, we were surrounded by the tall plants like walls, where we played for Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren without success. In fact, the whole area – which did seem like good habitat, was dead in the water. The only new species added were Carolina Wren and Northern Flicker.

Last year, the strange and unexplored Branford Dump had been our saving grace. Not even a hotspot, we had discovered such birds as Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, and Fox Sparrow on its brushy trails – and none other than a Black-crowned Night-Heron lurked on the shores of its large central lake. With passerine birding being as quiet as it was, we hoped that this spot would again show us good nature. However, the freeze was the death of us again. The lake that we prayed would host the night-herons was solid as stone. The passerine plague had reached here as well – though we did add Eastern Bluebird, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and White-breasted Nuthatch, the spot was otherwise very quiet. With a species total in the mid 40’s, we knew we had to pick up the pace if we wished to get a winning total.

Leetes Island Road in Guilford had been host to Killdeer in the past, but when we checked it out, the deadly cold had pushed out any waterfowl that once may have resided in the marshes there. However, luck was on our side when we decided to step out of the car at a random location – a young Bald Eagle was cruising over the marsh, a flock of Cedar Waxwings foraged in suburban trees, and a couple of Common Ravens flew high above the woods. We were all glad to add three good birds to our list, before quickly continuing on to Tuxis Island.

Tuxis Island, a tiny nearshore island of rocks and surf, was blue and clear. A Barrow’s Goldeneye has wintered here for years, and we were quickly able to pick out a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye among a small group of Commons. After scanning the rocks for Purple Sandpiper, we headed to Hammonasset Beach S.P – which would ultimately be the best spot of the day, our kind of saving grace.

As soon as we arrived at Hammo, we spotted a large flock of Horned Larks swirling around the short grass of the parking lot area. It took no time at all to get our scopes onto the plain little birds to pick out a Lapland Longspur, with its intricate face pattern, that lay hidden among the flock. A great bird and a good start, we continued quickly to the Moraine Trail, where we would scout out our seabirds.

With their harlequin bills and prominent white-backed heads, Surf Scoters immediately stood out to us from the beach we watched from. Their compatriots, farther away in the gray sea, White-winged Scoters, were more elusive but recognizable. On the shore, huge mixed flocks of Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones foraged vigorously. Every time a wave or jogger swept up a great flock, we had our eyes on for any birds that stuck out of the flock, and soon we had found the first Purple Sandpipers of the spot. As we watched the birds swirl around in coordination, suddenly two Purple Sandpipers alighted directly on the surf across from us — close enough to be identified naked eye! I got amazing, full-frame digiscopes of these beautiful birds, not often seen close, and even got to hear them call – a shrill peeap!

At the end of the Moraine Trail, more birds awaited us – a Red-throated Loon offered good looks, and we found a nice-looking Iceland Gull along the slipper shell piles. Preston even spotted us a flyby Merlin, a good addition to the species set.

Then it was time to check out Willard’s Island, a kind of hammock of spruce-cedar forest that lies above the continuous salt marsh of Hammonasset. Here, Yellow-rumped Warblers abounded, feeding in noisy flocks on the blue cedar berries. Preston was able to spot a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the high needles.

By the time we had finished at Hammonasset, it was after noon, and the daylight was fading fast. It was time to head inland!

At Konolds Pond in Woodbridge, the ducks abounded. We spotted many Ring-necked Ducks on the unfrozen parts of the lake, along with flying Mute Swans, and a few colorful Wood Ducks, distant but unmistakable on the water’s far shore.

On the drive to River Road in Southbury, Aidan’s mom (a gracious driver) spotted a bird that she initially identified as an American Kestrel, which would be new for the day. We wheeled back to check it out, but it turned out the bird was a Red-shouldered Hawk, a new raptor for the trip. We continued to the river happy to have spotted it.

At River Road, where in April the club had spotted Veeries, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Cerulean Warblers, the Common Mergansers were still there, starkly white and green against the wide pewter river. We were here on a chase; we searched through the massive flocks of Canada Geese in search of a few rare geese that had been accompanying them in the past weeks. Though it took some searching, we were able to locate the two immature Snow Geese and the two Ross’s Geese – an exceptionally rare visitor to the state! – on the far river bank. Interestingly, there has been extensive debate on the purity of one of these Ross’s Geese, the immature bird- or how much “Snow Goose blood” it has to be still considered a Ross’s Goose. For our purposes, one was fine!

Our final location was the Cassidy Training School, an interesting area of tall grassland in the northern reaches of New Haven County. During the winter, it’s been host to species such as Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and White-crowned Sparrows. Some of the first birds we saw there were a massive flock of American Crows in a corn field. Some patient listening finally yielded a calling Fish Crow, which we nearly missed for the day! In the roadside grasslands, we were able to see many good species of sparrows, including both American Tree Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow – a very good species to see wintering in Connecticut! A calling Hairy Woodpecker was the last bird of the day, the contest ending at 5:00.

We ended the day with 72 species, a significant downgrade from last year’s total of 81. This was due to really, really bad passerine birding – we missed such obvious species as Red-bellied Woodpecker and even Dark-eyed Junco! However, the sea watching conditions were fair, and we got such rarities as Harlequin Duck, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, and Barrow’s Goldeneye.

As the sun set, we headed back to the Kellogg Center in Derby, a preserve center, where the awards ceremony takes place. Having eaten a delicious dinner of chili and pasta, we anxiously awaited the results of the competition. Though the birding was a lot quiet than last year, we had confidence that our skill as birders would lend us an upper hand in the contest. When at last the results were read… we were so thrilled to learn that the CTYBC Darth Waders had once again won the New Haven Megabowl! Here’s to many more.

-Will Schenck

November 2017 Trip Report

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.

 

-Will Schenck

October 2017 Trip Report

The club trip for this October 27th had a tumultuous start because of very limited availability. Originally, the trip had been planned to be an overnight at Cuttyhunk Island of the Elizabeth Islands off of Cape Cod. Unfortunately, with the new school year coming to a rapid crescendo, very few club members could find the time to take that much time off of their schedules, and thus, the trip was planned to be a full-day trip at a location in coastal Connecticut – a good choice for late October, a season on the coast which flits between early winter arrivals and the last denizens of fall migration. But Jory Teltser, who as our President would usually be leading the trip, was away in Cape Cod to visit former President Alex Burdo (and do some awesome Mass birding). So the duty of the leader fell to me.

I was really excited to plan my first club trip. Everything was new and a bit frantic – emailing parents, texting members, finding the right locations and everyone’s target birds. I was even more excited to have a new member on the trip – James Leone of Norwalk. It’s always so awesome to get another young birder for the team, so I wanted to make James’s first club trip memorable. The only other member joining us was Nicolas Main of Litchfield, who joined the club in April and has been a regular attender. We would be meeting at Greenwich Point Park to spend the entire day birding my home town.

7:00 a.m in the parking lot at Greenwich Point, and the wind was blowing strongly overhead, giving a wintry cast to the gray sky. The birds seemed of winter too; as James, the first to arrive, stepped out of his car, we observed a quick rapid-fire sequence of lifers for him – he had only started birding this summer. A sleek, silver-starred Red-throated Loon swam in the choppy harbor, and the throaty warbler of Brants echoed from the west beach. Nic arrived soon after, jumping out of his car to see a flock of Great Cormorants pass overhead, a lifer for both Nic and James. As we prepared to begin our coverage of this massive, birdy park, we could hear the wispy, shrill calls of a Golden-crowned Kinglet rising out of a bare-branched shrub. Both Nic and James got their eyes on this little mite of feathers, another lifer for both of them, before it fluttered off into the ashy dawn. We had barely been in the field for 15 minutes and James already had seen four lifers! His first club trip was off to a good start.

As we walked the seaside sassafrass forest, little brown shades of Song, White-throated, and Savannah Sparrow – a bird which Nic needed for life that he would later get better views of – darted in and out of the brushline. The angled silhouette of an Osprey, a little late for the park at this time of year, flapped over the harbor, and another raptor, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, another interesting bird for James to study more closely, surprised us with a rapid flyby.

As we walked, I got a better idea of who James was as a birder. Though he had only figured out his interest this summer, his rapid assimilation of birding knowledge, technology, and lore was truly remarkable. Along with Nic, he participated very well with two relatively experienced birders in discussions of extinct birds such as Heath Hens and the differences between Connecticut bird populations and habitat types currently and historically. As a young birder with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of life birds to pick up along the way, I am so excited to have him as a new member!

Eventually, we emerged from the woods to meet Greenwich Point’s tiny, fragmented saltmarsh that was surrounded by shrubland. Though it isn’t much, and certainly doesn’t host any breeding marsh birds such as Clapper Rails or Seaside Sparrows, I knew from experience that it would be just the place to pick up multiple life birds for James, who hadn’t done much coastal birding. The shrubland was quickly productive at first glance, providing good looks at Northern Mockingbird, a bird with which James has not much experience with, and a gorgeous female Cooper’s Hawk. Seeing both of the common Accipiter hawks in a short time provided a great discussion on the identification characteristics of these often confusing species.

Our main target bird for the marsh was Nelson’s Sparrow, a bird though is an Ammodramus marsh sparrow like Saltmarsh Sparrows, only occurs in Connecticut on migration and does not require pristine or extensive habitat. As an American Black Duck, new for James, and three Snowy Egrets, pretty uncommon in Greenwich in these numbers at this time, walked the gritty edge, we set off on a tiny mud path that wended its way through the grass. Though we nearly got stuck in the deep sediment multiple times or cut ourselves on the Spartina’s sharp edge, some pishing and flushing got everyone on the team nice looks at an interior-subspecies Nelson’s Sparrow.

After all had had satisfactory looks, we headed up to the coastal forest and the Seaside Garden which rises above the beaches. While curving through the parkland that lies around the shore, the irritated jangle of a House Wren crossed our ears, almost immediately followed by a beautiful flyover American Kestrel heading out over the sound, my first for the Point and a generally uncommon bird in coastal Greenwich. While on a fruitless search for Hooded Mergansers at Eagle Pond, the machine-gun rattle of a Belted Kingfisher rang over the water, an additional lifer for James.

Unfortunately, the woods of the Seaside Garden were quiet as the dead. Only forest sparrows, chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and robins could be heard here. However, some new birds for the trip were encountered, including flyover flocks of both Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle. It was the actual garden garden that showed some good species, including nice looks at Yellow-rumped Warbler and Cedar Waxwings spotted by Nic in the tall ornamental trees, and multiple Golden-crowned Kinglets that perched and flitted flickering on the leafless branches. A White-breasted Nuthatch could be heard, calling a nasal yenk yenk from deep in the forest. All in all, however, the seaside woods were unimpressive, and we quickly decided to do a quick check of the sandy west beach.

There, we started at the little stand of marsh grass at the beach’s north end to find two more Nelson’s Sparrows, providing more looks at this interesting species. I didn’t really expect to see much in shorebird numbers today, but we were lucky in that a group of many Ruddy Turnstones, one of James’ favorite birds, were picking their way along some of the few scattered rocks on the beach. In addition, two Killdeers called loudly from upon the sand, which were digiscoped impressively by Nic. The most interesting sighting for my two fellow club members had to be the amazing looks at Brant, lifers for them both, which swam right on the surf. We discussed their identification and life history as they foraged nearly within reach. After taking some pictures and Snapchatting with Brendan Murtha, a former club member who I hadn’t talked to in a long while, we decided that it was time to go. We walked the marshy edge to see even more Nelson’s Sparrows (two to be exact) and ended up back at the parking lot.

At my house, we had fun eating some homecooked penne all’arrabiata (courtesy of yours truly) and testing our identification skills with our Sibley guides. We decided that the best place to bird next would be the nearby Cove Island Park in Stamford, as forest birds were few and Rosa Hartman Park, our other option, was solid beech woodland and would likely not provide much.

At Cove Island, we headed out into the grassland to attempt to find some interesting sparrows for the day. As we were in a time limit for James, we decided that it was probably best if we stuck to the inland part of the park as we had gotten most of our available coastal species previously. In the dry meadows, we immediately encountered several species of sparrows, including great looks at several Savannah Sparrows – a long-awaited lifer for Nic, and Swamp Sparrows, a similar lifer for James. The woods were quiet but for the huge, noisy flocks of Fish Crows patrolling overhead and the rollicking chant of a Carolina Wren, new for the day. When we emerged to once again walk the rustling yellow grasslands, we were treating to awesome looks at Monk Parakeets – a gorgeous species, one of every member’s favorites and yet another lifer for James! Soon, however, the trip ended as the sun began its slow descent over the park, framing new Mute Swans foraging gracefully in Holly Pond.

After all of my fellow members had departed, I made my way back home. It wasn’t a huge day for bird numbers or diversity, but we fleshed out a good number of species, over 60, on a generally dreary day. But more important than my numbers were James’s and Nic’s, who both got lots of life birds today, James in the double digits! It’s hard to beat leading trips to cool locations alongside young people who have just gotten interested in the endlessly awesome world of birding.

 

-Will Schenck

August 2017 Trip Report – 3rd Annual Shorebird Day

For starters: hi everyone! Will Schenck writing. I’ve been coming on CTYBC trips since January of 2017-  this is my 6th club trip. However, this is my first time writing on the site, something I hope will become a more regular occurrence. For many of you reading this post, this is your first time hearing about me. I hope I will get to meet (and bird with) those of you whom I haven’t yet had the opportunity to.

I was really excited to take part in one of the biggest annual club trips this year; a day of intense shorebirding in its peak season, guided by one of Connecticut’s top birders, Nick Bonomo. In reminiscences past, these littoral extravaganzas are never painted in a light falling short of extraordinary but it really took a first-hand experience to understand why.

The day started very early for myself and fellow members Jory Teltser, Preston Lust, and Aidan Kiley with a rendezvous at Jory’s house at 4:40 AM. Despite our early-morning (late night?) daze, the birding began almost immediately with Preston and I listening for Nocturnal Flight Calls on Jory’s porch. With almost indetectable chips and buzzes, Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, and Bobolinks were among the birds we heard migrating in the night, as well as a local Barred Owl.

After an hour of driving, we arrived in Old Lyme to meet other CTYBC members Nick Main and John Correia, as well as the trip leader Nick Bonomo.

The first spot on the roster, infrequently-birded Griswold Point of Old Lyme, immediately began to produce cool birds in the form of overhead migrants which included Common Loon, Northern Waterthrush, and large movements of both Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Bobolink. The mudflats were also good, giving expected species such as Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, and side-by-side comparisons of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers that were very interesting. However, it was the marsh that really showed up. It started with over 15 Ospreys, the highest nesting concentration in the state. While looking at these lively birds, Jory picked out another marsh raptor – a beautiful cattail-colored Northern Harrier gliding shakily over the green horizon. As we proceeded further into the wetlands, the shorebird numbers were low but diversity was high; quick flybys of Pectoral Sandpiper and Solitary Sandpiper were real highlights but “on-the-ground” Willet, Spotted Sandpiper and both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were another bonus. Saltmarsh Sparrow, a personally long-awaited lifer, really took the cake with killer views of both adults and juveniles on bare mudflats and pallid driftwood rising smoothly above the Spartina

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Our next stop was Watch Rock, another under-birded site. These marshes gave super interesting birds as well. A White-rumped Sandpiper among a flock of Semis was a great sighting, accompanied by more shorebirds such as Short-billed Dowitchers. A Cooper’s Hawk, later accompanied by yet another belligerent Northern Harrier, was a non-shorebird highlight and a massive flock of Tree Swallows – over 1,200 birds! – was a true spectacle.

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Our run in New London County was done, and Hammonasset Beach SP in New Haven County was next. Sadly, Hammo was not as productive as expected, and continuing rarities such as Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpiper were nowhere to be found. The long-staying Little Blue x Tricolored Heron hybrid was a notable sighting, a 350+ flock of Tree Swallows was impressive, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird whizzing across the sound was an interesting migrant but shorebird numbers and diversity were completely lacking,

However, the trip was far from over. A stop at the Long Wharf for lunch- thanks again for the tacos, Nick B! – with a Bald Eagle preceded our stop at Sandy Point. Sandy Point has been lit up over the past week with birds like Caspian Tern, Baird’s Sandpiper, Sora, and Bonaparte’s Gull.

Almost as soon as we stepped out onto the point, the shorebirds were on our side. Two White-rumped Sandpipers, the second sighting of this uncommon migrant today, were one of the first shorebirds we saw, as well as great looks at an adorable juvenile Piping Plover and our first beachside views of some clean-cut Sanderlings. While scoping out a rock jetty, Nick found side-by-side views of Common and Forster’s Terns for all the members. Preceding down the beach, we reached the mudflats where two fantastic species found us – a beautiful juvenile Red Knot and a Baird’s Sandpiper, a lifer for Preston and Nick M. We got to watch these wonderful birds for a long time, discussing identification characteristics right alongside their confusion species, ie Least Sandpiper with the Baird’s.

 

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At long last, it was time to leave Sandy Point. As we cut through the marsh, birds like a flyover Glossy Ibis and a close Spotted Sandpiper were good closing species at this productive spot.

Our next location, Milford Point, did not disappoint either. Waterbird numbers in all respects were high; and the marsh was full with both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night Herons. The sandbar we walked across abounded with both the “Semi’s”, Sandpipers and Plovers. But the real reward came when we reached the very end; in a large flock of over 50 Black-bellied Plovers was a gorgeous, fresh juvenile American Golden-Plover, a lifer for myself, Nick, and Preston. This uncommon species was dazzling in the afternoon sunlight, and the sighting was even more remarkable considering the birds surrounding it, including over 60 (!) American Oystercatchers and 5 Brant, unusual considering that only 4 of these rare summering visitors have been seen in the past months. Despite the plethora of species, our run at Milford Point was not over yet. Returning from the golden-plover, we once again scoped the large flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers. This time around, our careful searching gave us another gem – a classic juvenile Western Sandpiper. All of us got fantastic looks at this oft-confused species, noting its bright rufous scapulars and long bill. Another peep in the flock was a possible second Western, but Nick’s careful analysis proved it only a bright Semipalmated, showing how valuable a comparison between the two species really is.

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Two great shorebirds, but Milford Point hadn’t had its last word yet! After taking our fair share of the Western, we ascended the tall Wheeler Marsh viewing platform. As four gull species and a Belted Kingfisher circled over the cordgrass, a very distant shorebird was spotted on a sandbar, backlit by the descending sun. After much consideration due to its difficult position, it was eventually agreed that the bird was a Whimbrel. Though it took some members, myself included, a long time to spot it through the glare, distance, and heatwaves, we all eventually saw the bird as it picked its way slowly across the shore.

A few short pre-point stops in Stratford gave us some interesting species, including an opportunity to differentiate the calls of both night-herons as well as over eighty Greater Yellowlegs at the marina. Stratford Point was productive in songbird species; a pale peach light gave a cast to the coastal meadow where Tree, Barn, and Bank Swallows all flew overhead, giving a good identification lesson, along with “on-the-ground” Indigo Buntings and Bobolinks giving their calls from the wildflowers. Preston and I snatched a couple of the delicious wild blackberries growing along the path as we left our final shorebirding stop.

We ended the day at Sikorsky Memorial Airport once again, watching a smoldering red sun set over Stratford through the chain-links. 21 shorebird species was our final total for the our big day – a new record for this annual trip! As a Field Sparrow juvenile fluttered along the fenceline we said our goodbyes, thanking Nick Bonomo, our wonderful leader, and Jory, our club president, for organizing yet another mythical day of birding alongside our peers.

– Will Schenck

July 2017 Trip Report – 7/22/17

It’s been just about a year since I’ve been able to be a part of a CTYBC trip, so I was really excited when everything worked out for me to make it down to the shore for the July trip this year. This trip would be centered around shorebirds, and Jory Teltser would be leading this day-long quest for rare fall migrants. We would begin in New Haven and move west, ending around Westport where Jory lives. Jory, Preston Lust and I arrived at Sandy Point at 6:30 to meet Grace Bartunek, a new club member. Grace got into birding recently but she has spent lots of time working with falconers and raptor rehabbers, making that group of birds her favorite.

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Mute Swans were found in many locations today. Photo by Michael Aronson.

Sandy Point immediately began to produce cool birds, as a Clapper Rail poked its head out of the marsh near the parking lot. We walked out onto the beaches where we hoped to see some migratory shorebirds, and we ended up seeing some breeders as well. Piping Plovers were quite abundant on the beaches, and these adorable little birds seemed to have had a good summer at Sandy Point. We got good views of a mudflat that in this morning’s low tide was full of shorebirds. Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers dominated the flocks, as they almost always do this time of year. The search for a Western Sandpiper was on, but nothing jumped out at any of us. One of the highlights of our time at Sandy Point was when Grace spotted a young Clapper Rail in the back of this mudflat near some marsh grass! The four of us all got great looks at another one of these elusive birds before it quickly retreated to the safety of the marsh. Other notable birds in the marsh included good looks at a Saltmarsh Sparrow, a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers, and a good number of Semipalmated Plovers.

Moving down the beach we kept running in with more Piping Plovers. Some Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings were on the beach as well, and since it is still quite early in the migration period, these birds had preserved most of their lovely breeding plumage. A bunch of swallows, including a few Bank Swallows, were feeding on the beach as well. Ospreys and Common Terns flew out over the ocean, and we also noticed a Least Tern faintly calling out over the water. Sandy Point had not disappointed at all this morning! We made our way back to the parking lot, as a few more yellowlegs and dowitchers flew over, to wait for the arrival of some other club members. A distant Peregrine Falcon was spotted from the parking lot, sparring with some terns in midair over the ocean.

A couple other members, Will Schenck and Michael Aronson, arrived, and now that we had everyone, we were clear to leave for Milford Point. This is a spot I have been to numerous times in my time as a birder, so I was not surprised to have a hoard of Purple Martins surrounding me as soon as we got out of the car. A quick scan of Wheeler Marsh revealed that the tide was just too high behind the Audubon Center for any shorebirds. This pushed us out to the main attraction at Milford Point, the expansive sandbars.

With recent reports tallying hundreds of shorebirds, we knew we would be faced with some ID challenges when we reached the Milford Point sandbars. We immediately got our scopes out, but before we did, a Bank Swallow (a lifer for Will!) flew over. Once we peered into our scopes at the sandbars, we realized that the reports showing hundreds of peeps were very accurate. Along with some Brants and American Oystercatchers, the beaches were draped with Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, with a sprinkling of Semipalmated Plovers as well. Scanning through these birds proved to be difficult, especially when people walking out on the beach flushed hundreds of birds at once. We decided that a relocation was in order, and we moved farther to the left, where we could see the other side of the beach. Even more shorebirds were here, but we still couldn’t find anything special hidden in the flocks. As we left, our overall Semi-Sand count totaled up to about 400 birds.

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Yellow-crowned Night-Heron by Michael Aronson

We crossed the county line in to Fairfield County shortly after leaving Milford Point, where we would spend the rest of the day. This part of the trip would be mostly composed of shorter stops of variable birdiness. The Stratford Marina, a small area that usually hosts good shorebird numbers, was our first of these many stops. Yellowlegs and dowitchers filled up the docks, standing near the water. Both species of night-herons were also quite abundant here, and differentiating the juveniles of both species was a great learning opportunity for Grace. We then checked the Birdseye Boat Ramp, Stratford Greenway and the Animal Control Marsh, all of which were fairly quiet. Probably the most interesting part of those locations was a distant tire that we though was a large snake! Our next stop, Stratford Point, would hopefully be a little more profitable, as we planned to spend more time there.

Upon arrival at Stratford Point, we immediately encountered a medley of swallow species on some powerlines near the parking lot. This included Barn, Bank, Northern Rough-winged and Purple Martin. As far as shorebirds went, it was the same as everywhere else; massive quantities of Semipalmated Sandpipers and little else. One of the other main attractions at Stratford Point though, was the terns. Recent reports of Gull-billed, Royal and Caspian had our hopes up for this spot, and when Preston began waving his arms at Jory and I from a distance, we got a good feeling that a rare tern was moving over the water. Our predictions were confirmed when we got our eyes on a pale, beautifully clean tern. This was a Roseate Tern! It was only my second time ever seeing this rare bird, and it was a great find for the trip.

After Stratford Point, we took a little break to hang out at Jory’s house in Westport, get some food and beverages, and talk about birds. It was a fun time to bond with the new members that had joined in the year that I had been gone. I also enjoyed hanging out with Jory and Preston, who I had not seen in such a long time. A few short stops in Westport followed, highlighted by Gorham Island. Here we got great looks at an adult Bald Eagle, which I’m sure Grace was happy to see. We also began to hear a lot of Marsh Wrens, and a bout of pishing brought them in for some brief views. Our trip ended not long after that, and we parted ways by discussing everybody’s favorite bird and favorite moment of the day. From Bald Eagle to Clapper Rail, the choices were very diverse. It’s certainly great to be birding with other young people who have the same interest as you.

– Peter Thompson

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Snowy Egret in flight, by Michael Aronson

Coventry Big Day 2017

Wow, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted on this blog! I was away at school but I did a big day in my home town of Coventry a couple weeks ago as soon as I got home. Jory’s amazing post inspired me to share my own Big Day experience, even though I didn’t do as well. I also don’t have any pictures since my camera died, but I’ll try to make up for that with imagery to describe my day.

I got home from college on Thursday, May 18 around 2:00 PM. It was a couple hours after that when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do my big day that weekend, and I decided to do it the next day. It was a lot all at once, but I decided to scout some areas that afternoon before going to bed extra-early Thursday night. My goal for Friday would be 90 species.

I woke up on Friday at 3:00 AM, excited and ready to go. I planned to begin my day by checking off the easy Barred Owls outside my house, but nothing was calling. I had to move on to Creaser Park, where I would try for Great Horned. In an ironic twist, I heard no Great Horned there but a couple Barred Owls began calling. After striking out on owls at a couple more spots, I headed to a marsh on South Street Extension to search for rails. When I got there Swamp Sparrows (a big miss from last year) and Yellow Warblers were already calling, and when I played the grunt calls of the rail it didn’t take me long to get a response. I officially got Virginia Rail – and I was already on a roll. My next stop was Brigham Road, where I would listen for owls as some songbirds began to wake up and sing. Once again Barred was the only owl calling here, but Louisiana Waterthrushes, Veeries, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Scarlet Tanagers had begun to sing. After spending so much time on a college campus, hearing the natural chorus of breeding birds was very refreshing. Unfortunately, I was too early for the Black-throated Green Warblers and Blue-headed Vireos that breed here, so I had to come back later.

A large chunk of my morning would be spent at Hop River Road, where the lovely trails there offer for some great migrants. The beginning of the trail was somewhat annoying, as I had trouble finding anything interesting. As I headed back to the parking lot, I heard and saw a Northern Parula singing – a bird I didn’t get last year. After that I was in the zone. I got great looks at a Worm-eating Warbler singing, chased down a male Blackpoll Warbler in the treetops, and picked out a Belted Kingfisher flying over. I also saw another Barred Owl, along with nabbing Pine Warbler and Canada Goose at the end of the trail. Really the only thing I missed there was Field Sparrow, which I could deal with. This success at Hop River set the tone for most of the morning, as I quickly got Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder Flycatcher and Canada Warbler at Creaser Park. I was amped to be getting tons of birds I missed last year, and felt that 90 or 95 would be in reach.

However, I felt that it was already time to alter my plan. Missing Black-throated Green Warbler was an unprecedented problem, and I had not added another visit to Brigham Road in my itinerary. But I figured that I would have time for it, so I stopped home to get some breakfast (adding Hairy Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird in the process) and moved on to Brigham for the second time that day. The BT Greens were singing now, but I still couldn’t hear any Blue-headed Vireos. Maybe they just weren’t there this year? Whatever the case, it was time to check on some waterbirds. This was a horrible shortcoming last year, as I had not seen a single gull, cormorant or sandpiper during my entire 2016 Big Day. I would check off the sandpiper, getting a Spotted Sandpiper at Eagleville Lake. Missing Mute Swan was annoying, but hopefully Coventry Lake would add some species I didn’t get last year.

That would not happen. Checking from multiple viewpoints, I found that Coventry Lake had one Mallard on it and nothing else. I realized that Ring-billed Gull may have been less of a terrible miss and more of a bird that doesn’t show up here in May. I headed back to the Virginia Rail marsh to see if any marsh birds were around. Wood Duck and Green Heron were two other birds I didn’t see last year, but they both had a chance to be seen now. Unfortunately neither of them were around, but a singing Northern Waterthrush and two dozen Bank Swallows made up for it. The Bank Swallow numbers were truly impressive; they were the most abundant bird there! I think they’re coming from a colony a few miles south in Columbia, but I didn’t see nearly as many here last year.

Heading into the dreaded mid-day nap period, I was still doing pretty well. As the temperature climbed into the 80s, I stopped at the Babcock Hill Road powerline cut in search of Prairie Warbler. I heard it before I even got out of the car, and a bonus Field Sparrow put my total up to 76. As I watched a Black Vulture fly over the landscape below me, I began to hear a weird sequence of calls coming from a bush. It sounded like some sort of mimid, but did not resemble a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird. These raspy calls intrigued me, but in the back of my head I realized that it may just be a catbird messing with me. Nevertheless, I pished a little bit and waited for a few minutes as this bird eventually revealed itself, and when it finally did, I gasped.

Yellow-breasted Chat. Holy sh*t.

I assumed I would see some good birds on my big day, but I never thought I would get a life bird. I never thought I would see a bird that hasn’t been recorded in the spring in northeastern CT since 2012. But here I was, eyeing a lovely Yellow-breasted Chat that quickly disappeared into the brush once again. As it continued to call, I stood there speechless; this was one of the rarest birds I’d ever found by myself. This was one of the defining moments of a great morning of birding, and as I headed to Silver Street with utmost confidence my day list was already above 80.

Silver Street was another defining moment of my morning; I had four targets there that I got within one minute of leaving the car. Before I even got out I noticed a Bobolink on the power line, and once I opened my door, I could hear Northern Mockingbirds and a Willow Flycatcher calling. Shortly after that, a Killdeer flew over the car, announcing its presence with a loud call. It was about 11:30 AM, and it was time for lunch. I headed to my mom’s house and ate my lunch outside, hoping a raptor would fly over. I only had 3 hawks on the day (Turkey and Black Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk), and I got my Red-shouldered Hawk last year at my mom’s house. Sitting at 84 species, I was already only 3 birds short of last year’s total, and I felt pretty safe about beating it. However, the afternoon would be very slow.

The long, hot afternoon saw me work at a pace of roughly one bird per hour, and I was working hard. Beginning to feel the effects of waking up at 3:00 AM, I headed to Creaser Park to do a thorough examination of all the trails. I earned a Pileated Woodpecker, Ring-necked Pheasant and Yellow-billed Cuckoo from this, but it took nearly two hours. I was excited about the cuckoo, which was my biggest miss from last year. They’re honestly hard to find in Coventry, but with all the great habitat I’m really surprised we don’t see more. After that I returned to Babcock Hill, where the chat was still calling. I also heard a Magnolia Warbler singing (bird number 88!) but I was really looking for hawks. Babcock Hill is a great place to hawkwatch as it overlooks a huge portion of south Coventry, but nothing was in the air.

After moving around a little bit more, I realized that it was pointless to actually look for hawks. I don’t know where these birds are nesting, so if I’m going to see them I just have to let it happen. I moved to Hop River to check on migrants there as it had cooled down a little. It was dead, so I stood on the bridge by the river to kill some time. I remember patience being a virtue for me last year, but standing on this bridge for 20 minutes got me nothing of note. I moved on to Brigham Road, in my final search for the Blue-headed Vireo. Sitting in the forest for a good amount of time got me nothing, and when I reached the end of the road I was annoyed. I decided to turn around and go back up, and this would prove to be influential. Just as I turned around a Broad-winged Hawk flew across the road and into the woods! My total now stood at 89. I picked up my dad so he could see the chat, and we got looks at it once again at Babcock Hill.

After that we drove to Creaser, when on the way there I heard a probable Blue-headed Vireo. With a car tailgating us, we couldn’t stop or turn around easily, and we would never encounter the bird again. I didn’t count it at the time, but listening to more recordings later that night made me realize that no Red-eyed Vireo sounded like that. So I had got to 90 but I didn’t know it at that point. Anyways, Creaser Park itself was boring and we headed back to my house to drop my dad off before the second night shift began. Going into that night, my worst misses were both raptors: Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawk, along with Green Heron and Ring-billed Gull.

I planned to spend my twilight at the Virginia Rail marsh, where hopefully some marsh birds would begin to call. But before that, I noticed a duck flying over the marsh. This bird was too small and chunky for a Mallard – it was a Wood Duck! Exited to get my 90th bird and meet my goal, I couldn’t believe I had finally got this bird that had eluded me for all of last year and most of this one. As the swallows and blackbirds quieted down, I played the tape for Marsh Wren, Least Bittern, Sora and Eastern Screech-Owl. Unfortunately, none of them responded. But in the 45 minutes I spent there, I noticed that the Virginia Rail numbers there were truly impressive. Some of these birds were doing grunt duets, a strong indication that they may breed there. I was excited to see breeding Virginia Rails in my town, as this bird had not been reported in Coventry before.

After striking out on those rare marsh birds, I headed to some other marshy spots in search of them. It soon became clear to me that these places were all too populated, as cars driving by made it difficult to call in a Sora or a Marsh Wren. I decided to focus on Great Horned Owl, a bird I had seen many times in Coventry, for the last part of my big day. I drove around North Coventry for a while, but nothing but Barred Owl was calling. Heading back to Nathan Hale State Forest seemed promising, but I couldn’t get anything but Barred there either. (Barred Owl was very common in case you couldn’t tell.) At around 10:45 PM, I decided to call it a day, finishing my total at 90 species. The total would actually become 92; the Blue-headed Vireo I added on later as well as a counting error in my list gave me two extra ticks.

Highlighted by a chat and an amazing morning, this was one of the best birding days I’ve ever had. I had some regrettable misses (Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Ring-billed Gull) but the good birds I found definitely outweighed the misses. I’m particularly excited about the possibility of Virginia Rails nesting in Coventry, as well as finding a rarity in my own town. If I can get home around May next year, I figure 95 is a good goal, but I still think 100 is a possibility. It’d require a nearly perfect day, but I’ve seen 98 species in the last two years, so I don’t see why not. More scouting will be done and improvements will be made to the plan, and I think it’s definitely possible to get to the century mark.

-Peter Thompson