Sunday, October 31, 2010

Le Conte's Sparrow at Milford Point

Tom Sayers found a Le Conte's Sparrow on Thursday, October 28, at the Coastal Center at Milford Point. He was photographing Nelson's Sparrows and a brief glimpse made him think it might be a Le Conte's, though he could only positively identify it as such on October 29. With it hopping in and out of the spartina along the beach it can be difficult to see. It is a tremendous find, so our thanks and congratulations to Tom. As of this morning it was still present and being somewhat cooperative for birders. The fantastic photos of it below are from Jim Zipp - thanks to him as well!

Le Conte's Sparrow at Milford Point! Photo by Jim Zipp

The Le Conte's Sparrow does look a bit like a Halloween bird. Photo by Jim Zipp

If you want to come see it, the bird can be reliably found on the Long Island Sound side of Milford Point. If you park and head to the Coastal Center take a left and follow the path down to the boardwalk on the beach. Once you reach the platform at the end take a left again. Walk only couple hundred feet down the beach - you will have spartina on your right and dune on your left. This area is where it feeds with Nelson's and Savannah Sparrow. It will stay in the marsh grasses until the tide rises enough to push it out when it goes to the dunes. It is difficult to find there as it can scurry anywhere. Your best bet is to come at a time while the tide is rising so it is visible in the spartina but not high enough that the water pushes it out. It likes to feed on the matted down grasses, and will go into these areas, pausing only shortly for the most part.

Additionally, you should keep your ears open for the high thin "seet" call it makes sometimes while moving about. As always, there are a few things to remember. First, please try not to chase this bird around too aggressively, or use audio repeatedly in order to flush it. It is a small area and does not need to be run down in order to be seen. Secondly, please do not walk in the spartina, or into the dunes, or on any of the grasses. Foot traffic will kill these grasses and allow storm surge and waves to wash the beach away. The best approach is to remember the behaviors it has displayed so far and wait it out a bit, visiting at opportune times and talking to staff or birders present at the Coastal Center. Also, bear in mind the low speed limits on the roads to Milford Point, and drive carefully. Lastly, hours and directions can be found by clicking here.

In this previous entry, I detailed the October Superstorm and mentioned how we would find some big rarities. This Le Conte's Sparrow is the most notable thus far after a few days of excellent finds. It was one of the species we thought would be discovered. Can this one stick around for 70 days like the White-tailed Kite? We shall see...

Photos © Jim Zipp

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 2010 Superstorm?

Satellite image from October 26 at 4:32PM CDT courtesy of NOAA-NASA GOES Project

No one knows what it will be called yet, but a historic and massive extra-tropical cyclone affected over half of the United States on October 26 and 27. It spawned everything from tornadoes to blizzard conditions, primarily across the Midwest. It was responsible for the warmth and rain in Connecticut over the past few days. Most significantly, this system may have set a new all-time record for low pressure recorded on land in the continental United States. That discounts hurricanes and other weather systems that have been over water.

Look at all that wind! Image courtesy of NWS Duluth

According to the National Weather Service, an automated weather station in Bigfork, Minnesota recorded a sea level pressure of 955.2 hPa, or 28.21 inches of mercury. This is equivalent to a category 3 hurricane (without the same magnitude of destruction). The pressure reading was reached at 5:13 CDT on the 26th while severe weather was flaring up across numerous states. Some spots in the Dakotas and Minnesota were buried in snow and dealing with near hurricane-force winds. Others, especially in Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, were dealing with severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. The SPC Storm Report from October 26 below depicts 373 severe events that day alone.

Image courtesy of the SPC

All of that is preliminary data that will have to be confirmed, but it certainly looks like it will be remembered as one of the most notable "superstorms". The system received surprisingly light coverage in the media especially compared to past events like the March 1993 Superstorm. We will have to see what it goes down in the history books as. What has been very evident is a sudden uptick in rare or mega-rare bird sightings across the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states. Many were pushed from the west because of this system, whether they were misdirected while heading south or brought up from the southern part of the country. November is typically a notable month in terms of vagrant birds. We seem to be getting started early this year. Connecticut has not uncovered a huge rarity from this event...yet. Be the one to find it!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Swarms of sparrows

The month of October is known for a variety of migrant sparrows. The Coastal Center at Milford Point and Stratford Point are fantastic spots to find multitudes of common, scarce, and rare species. Lately numerous Nelson's Sparrows have delighted visitors at the former, while of course on Sunday a rare Grasshopper Sparrow showed up at the latter. However, evidence of fall sparrow migration can often be found nearly anywhere.

A shy Lincoln's Sparrow trying to stay out of the light for me

A good example of this is the case of the three Vesper Sparrows I had in Stratford last week. This Connecticut endangered species can be tough to find even in some of the most well-known areas. I was not specifically looking for it at during any of my sightings. The first was at the Stratford community gardens, what has been a bit of a hot spot lately. Finding one feeding in the lawn at Boothe Memorial Park while at the hawk watch site the next day was a bit surprising. The third was in a weedy, gravel-filled open area by the Sikorsky Bridge. These are all essentially favorable habitats for the species, but they are a bit unconventional and off the beaten path for nearly all birders.

Vesper Sparrow by the Sikorsky Bridge in Stratford

A point I try to make to birders who ask me why we find so many rare or "good" birds in Stratford is that residents conscientiously spend time covering the town instead of going to well-known spots away from home. If you explore your own town, neighborhood, or even yard you may end up finding more than you expect. Yes, Stratford has a diverse range of habitats that makes it well suited to a large variety of birds. However, there is nothing particularly special about a patch of lawn in a park or a garden.

The same Vesper Sparrow still snacking

Any of those basic habitats can be found close to wherever you live in Connecticut. If you do not have time for a trip down to the CAS Center in Fairfield, take a walk down your street. If you cannot make it to the CAS Center at Pomfret for the morning try to go to a park in your town. I guarantee that at some point you will find a rare bird you did not expect and no one else would have ever seen - perhaps even a big one! Moreover, please remember to log all of these wonderful findings in eBird so they will be recorded for scientists and researchers across the world.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stratford Point Grasshopper Sparrow

Earlier this afternoon I was conducting a typical survey of Stratford Point when I found a Grasshopper Sparrow. It was hanging out with some Savannah and Song Sparrow, as well as an American Pipit, at the end of our driveway as it goes towards Long Island Sound. The spot has surplus rocks from repairing the damaged seawall. We left them here intentionally to attract birds, from Snow Bunting to something rare like Northern Wheatear. I snapped a couple poor photos of it.

They can be so elusive...even after you have discovered one. It seemed to like the rocks as well, hopping on them while feeding - for only a second when I was nearby, but of course pausing for a bit longer when I was further away. This was the second time I have had the Connecticut endangered species in Stratford this year. Perhaps, with southerly winds and a poor night of migration ahead, it will be at Stratford Point on Monday. Come visit us to see if you can spot it!

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Friday, October 22, 2010

CAS Big Sit! team ranked third in the country - 107 species at Milford Point Coastal Center!

The Big Sit! is an annual, international birding event hosted by Bird Watcher's Digest and founded by the New Haven Bird Club. The aim of this event is to get as many people worldwide outside looking for birds. It is a free, noncompetitive event open to anyone, but some people take it quite seriously. Here's how it works: First you find a great birding location, preferably one with a good, wide view. Next you establish a real or imaginary 17 foot-diameter circle and man that circle for 24 hours, recording every bird species that is visible from the circle. Participants can join a circle for any period of time within the 24 hour count period, but the real hardcore sitters are there for the duration - eyes on the sky for the full 24 hours while a support crew provides food and lots of coffee.

B.W. Surf Scopers in action on the outer observation platform at Milford Point during the 2010 Big Sit!

On October 10th, our Big Sit! team, the "B.W. Surf Scopers", captained by Frank Gallo, completed its 17th Big Sit! on the outer observation platform at Milford Point and the results are in! Not only did the team shatter its own record of 101 species, they also raised the bar for the state of Connecticut and came out third in the country with a total of 107 species! Since this is an international event and Big Sit! from various countries worldwide have submitted their count circle results, one could claim that the B.W. Surf Scopers came in third in the world! But that is somewhat beside the point - this is a noncompetitive event after all and it is all about the joy and appreciation of getting out with friends to birdwatch. Nevertheless, it is a very impressive feat that warrants a closer look:

Scoping the surf around the clock during the 2010 Big Sit! event

Of the 107 different bird species recorded during the 24 hour period, four were new for the event. Considering that the cumulative list of birds seen from the Milford Point platform during 17 Big Sit! events already numbered 165 species, the addition of no fewer than four (White-tailed Kite, Black-billed Cuckoo, Northern Parula and Eastern Bluebird) this year is no small feat!

Sometimes things get a little busy in front of the platform!

More details about the day and the event's sightings are summarized in the report below, provided by Frank Gallo and teammate Frank Mantlik:

2010 - Sunrise 7am; set 6:19pm. Part-time counters included Sara Zagorski, Wendy Knothe, Vanessa Mickan. Several visitors during the day. Temp 44-66 F. Skies Clear. Winds began light N/NW 5 mph, shifting W / WSW steady to 18 mph by 10:30 and through the day. Highlights: Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail (14), Green-winged Teal, all 3 Scoter species, both Loon species, Great Cormorant, American Bittern, both Night-Herons, 10 species of diurnal raptors including WHITE-TAILED KITE (early AM), Clapper Rail (seen-last species of day), American Golden-Plover, Red Knot (2-imm), White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper (imm), Bonaparte's Gull (2), Forster's Tern (3), Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift (3-late), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female-late), Red-breasted & White-breasted Nuthatches, Marsh Wren, both Kinglets, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, 4 warbler species including Northern Parula and Blackpoll, Field Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dickcissel, Rusty Blackbird (2), Purple Finch (2). Misses: Wild Turkey, Killdeer, Ruddy Turnstone, Least Sandpiper, Cedar Waxwing, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow.

Underlined and highlighted birds are new for the list this year. A Swamp Sparrow was seen nearby but from outside of the count circle and could therefore not be included in the final tally.

American Pipit, an uncommon species found relatively regularly in the area at this time of year

Savannah Sparrows are moving around in good numbers at the moment

A good species for the count, scoped from the platform: American Golden Plover!

To see the full species list, the up-to-date ranking of all participating teams worldwide, and for more background on the event, you can visit the Big Sit! website.

The B.W. Surf Scopers (from l. to r.): Frank Mantlik, Jim Dugan, Patrick Dugan, Frank Gallo and Tina Green

One more very important point to make, is that the B.W. Surf Scopers use this event as a fundraiser for Connecticut Audubon Society's bird and habitat conservation programs. This year the team raised over $750 in pledges! Thank you all - scopers and sponsors - for your efforts and contributions. Let's see what the 18th Big Sit! brings next year!
Photo credits: Vanessa Mickan (1,7), Frank Gallo (2, 3,6), Twan Leenders (4,5)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Name this migrant raptor

On Monday, I spent some time at the Boothe Park Hawk Watch. I got there at about 8AM despite the fact that the site performs poorly for raptors in the early morning hours. The few that move early are still low and therefore out of our sight, not able to climb in altitude because thermals (rising warm air) have not formed yet. I wanted to count migrant passerines species. For example, I had noted many Yellow-rumps coming in to the site lately from the east, flying through or stopping to feed. I had over 150 one morning last week.

While performing that count I was also watching the sky for any raptors, of course. A handful may go through even if there are not large numbers until later in the morning. The first raptor of the day looked quite odd to me. It was still overcast to the east, with blue sky overhead and back to the west. The bird came in from the east and was backlit by the small amount of sun there was. See if you can figure out what it is.

Any ideas? Do you know the family? That is a very tough view. As it moved a bit closer it continued to look abnormal, but I was relatively certain of what it was by the time I snapped the below photo. I was in disbelief, though.

From that point, I watched the bird until it was over my head, a good time to snap more photos. It was in the blue by now and moving between the sun and me. The photo below should be enough for some experienced birders.

Below is another overhead shot as it moved further away. It flew off to the southwest, continuing on a perfectly typical migrant raptor route for our site even if it was far from a typical raptor.

Do you know what it is? If you want to guess for a bit longer stop reading here for now..... is a Short-eared Owl! The Cornell All About Birds account has an excellent low flight photo for comparison to my overhead shots.

After instinctively thinking it was a Northern Harrier for a few seconds, I noticed it was coming in with too much of a floppy, floating, flight. It also had a thick body with a large, flat, head. From there it was simply a matter of figuring out what owl species was flying towards me. The large size dismissed small species like Northern Saw-whet Owl or Eastern Screech-Owl. The wing characteristics helped a bit. They were too narrow and long in proportion to the body for a Great Horned Owl or Barred Owl, and as is obvious even in the photos the plumage was much too light for either species. By the time it was overhead the only other realistic option in my mind was a Long-eared Owl. However, the size, placement, and size of the bars on the underside of the wings and streaking on the breast, as opposed to dark barring, make it a Short-eared Owl.

Another part of what lead me to thinking it was a Short-eared Owl rather quickly was the fact they are less nocturnal than most owls, often hunting in the early morning or late evening. Long-eared Owls are strictly nocturnal, while Great Horned and Barred are only rarely seen in the daylight hours. Seemingly little is known about Short-eared Owl migration, but this was clearly a migrant individual. It followed the typical Boothe Park raptor migrant pathway without any sort of deviation or pause at an altitude that, while low for most raptors, is much higher than typically seen in the species. I was happy to get the photos I did. I do not think I would have believed myself if I did not.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Blue Grosbeak

Last Monday I wrote about seeing a Grasshopper Sparrow in the community gardens on Connors Lane in Stratford. Today I was with another expert birder - Charles Barnard Jr. - in the same gardens. There were many sparrow migrants, mostly Savannah with some Swamp, Song, and Field. While we looked through them we quickly found a Blue Grosbeak, a rare species in Connecticut.

The photo was taken after it flew out of where we found it and went to a nearby yard. It then went back into the gardens, going out of sight and hiding from my camera. As we looked for it we noticed an Eastern Meadowlark sitting out in the open and flying about, providing very nice views. This Connecticut Special Concern species can also be found regularly in some times of the year at Stratford Point, even in the winter. You may be able to come and find one in the snow in a couple of months.

The community gardens illustrate the difference between a patch of lawn and an organic and uncut area of vegetation. The open lawn across the street held several Canada Geese and nothing else. The gardens are always full of a wonderful variety of birds, some obviously quite rare. If you wonder why your yard has only a handful of species try growing a garden with as many native flowers and vegetables as possible. Do not use pesticides of any sort. The birds can and will help you take care of it. Kudos to my hometown of Stratford for allowing residents to use this area for organic gardening. I hope it will stay that way forever.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

Saturday, October 16, 2010

American Pipit

The White-tailed Kite is gone...but there are many other wonderful species to find at Stratford Point on any given day. I filmed this American Pipit in the high-definition video below last Wednesday, October 13.

The species is only usually seen in migration in Connecticut, and is rather scarce even then. The coastal grasslands management area brings them in regularly. It is not quite a White Wagtail, but it is still a great bird. Come walk the perimeter trail and find one for yourself.

Video © Scott Kruitbosch

Friday, October 15, 2010

The creatures of the Croft preserve

Earlier this week I visited our Croft preserve in Goshen to evaluate some of our habitat management areas. The crisp 34 degree temperature at the start of my hike and the gorgeous fall colors made it very clear that summer is over.
Those of you who regularly read this blog may remember that sometime in mid-summer a group of summer campers from the Coastal Center at Milford Point, and their leader Frank Gallo, came out to help me with my surveys (you can read more about that here). One of the things we did that day was install an automatic wildlife tracking camera in a remote section of the 700-acre sanctuary. While I was out there this week, I decided to check on that camera to see if it had taken any pictures. It's LCD display told me that it had fired 98 times in the past 2.5 months, so it seemed worthwhile to swap out its memory card and take a look.

The first picture on the card showed Frank and his helpers as they walked through the camera's infrared beam so I could check that everything worked.

As I was reviewing the shots I was very happily surprised that out of the 63 images that actually had anything on it, no fewer than 47 clearly showed moose! I always see moose tracks and other signs of their presence all over the preserve, and occassionally it appeared that more than one individual were present, but only with these camera traps is it possible to get a better feel for the population size. Individual moose were photographed on 17 days and two photographs actually show two moose in the same frame!

When an animals breaks the infrared beam, the camera 'wakes up' and takes a picture. Because of the slight delay between the moment that the camera is tripped and the time the picture is taken, many shots show only the back end of an animal moving past the camera. This makes it a little more difficult to ascertain whether the animals in Croft are males or females. However, in all pictures where the animal's head is visible no antlers are seen, indicating that all those are females.

Every once in a while one of them poses nicely! Only few images on the card showed animals other than moose. Nearly all were White-tailed Deer (which are far less common in the large forest blocks of the northwest corner than they are in, say, Fairfield Co.).
The card held one more surprise....

If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can see a Barred Owl sitting on a fallen tree! These owls are quite common in the area where the camera is set up, but it is still neat to see one like this.
No owls were seen or heard during my survey this week and the local bird population was definitely shifting with the season. Most noteworthy was the presence of 2 Northern Pintails, 4 American Black Ducks, about 60 Wood Ducks and a few Hooded Mergansers on the wetland shown in the first picture. The latter two species breed there in significant numbers. Seven Rusty Blackbirds and a Gray-cheeked Thrush stood out otherwise from the 'regulars'.

All photos copyright Twan Leenders

Thursday, October 14, 2010

New American Kestrel nest box at Stratford Point

This afternoon, as our first noreaster of the season was ominously looming overhead, American Kestrel aficionado Tom Sayers dropped by to install a nest box in the coastal grassland management area at Stratford Point. Tom has placed numerous Kestrel boxes throughout the state in the past three years and his efforts are paying off. Last year alone, his boxes fledged over 40 young kestrels! As he learns more about the preferred placement of these artificial cavities, his success rate is going up and Tom is now a major contributor to the breeding success of this state threatened species!
Born out of his fear of heights, Tom now employs a low-tech telescoping pole design of his own making that allows him to lower a nest box for maintenance while otherwise leaving it perched at a height of about 13 feet, allowing its inhabitants a lofty view of their surroundings.

The coastal grassland at Stratford Point is a perfect open habitat for these small falcons and it provides ample resources in the form of small bird, mammal and dragonfly prey. In fact, American Kestrels are generally present here year-round, except for during the breeding season when they apparently go elsewhere.
We're hoping that with Tom's help we can change that next year! Thanks Tom!
For more information about Tom's work with Kestrels in Connecticut, including building plans to put together your own next box, visit:
All photographs copyright Twan Leenders

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

White-tailed Kite...gone?

It appears that the White-tailed Kite has left town. It has been well over 72 hours since it was seen by anyone. If you came by Stratford Point to see it, or even followed it closely on this blog, you know the kite is a very conspicuous raptor. It relied heavily on the coastal grasslands management area at Stratford Point to hunt rodents, its only source of food. For it not to be seen for more than a day is proof enough that it has left at least the immediate area.

The kite had recently finished its molt, all of the new feathers having grown in on the tail. It looked like it was in excellent shape to fly. It had also taken a few more of the extended high-altitude flights it had started over a month ago when I first thought it was about to leave. Temperatures over the past week finally fell to normal or below-average levels. Depending on where it came from, it more than likely had never felt quite so cold for such a "prolonged" (in relative terms) period. These tests apparently lead up to it taking off to warmer regions with the northerly winds after a cold front that came through early this weekend.

The White-tailed Kite remained for much longer than most of us would have imagined back on August 1. It has been a great experience - thank you to everyone who contributed photos (thanks to Kevin Doyle once again for these!), information, and sightings. We hope you enjoyed seeing it, reading about it, looking at pictures, and watching videos. I hope it is spotted somewhere else soon. You never know!

Photos © Kevin M. Doyle

Monday, October 11, 2010

Stratford BioBlitz - 829 species in 24 hours!

On Friday October 8, dozens of scientists, students, school children and volunteers descended on Stratford again for the 4th BioBlitz, organized by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Connecticut Audubon Society and Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo. The goal of a BioBlitz is to find as many species as possible, ranging from birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, plants and fungi to spiders, insects and all sorts of aquatic invertebrates, within the span of 24 hours.

On Friday afternoon at 3PM, Gregg Dancho - director of the Beardsley Zoo and president of Stratford's conservation committee - blows his conch to kick-start the 24 hours of frantic searching.
Dr. Larry Gall of the Yale Peabody Museum hunts for butterflies and other flying insects on Stratford Point...
...while across town, CAS Conservation Technician Scott Kruitbosch keeps his eyes to the sky at the Boothe Park hawkwatch. Leaders of so-called TWiGs (Taxonomic Working Groups), each experts in their own field, guide their assistants to specific sections of Stratford's open space to target the organisms they are looking for.

Meanwhile at our basecamp on Stratford Point others are identifying and cataloguing the findings.

No stone is left unturned and every available corner of town is carefully searched since things have a habit of showing up in places where you'd least expect them. The search continues throughout the night....

...when birders go owling, herpetologists look for frogs and salamanders and the blacklights hum in the coastal grasslands of Stratford Point to attract nocturnal insects. Some of us brave souls even venture into sketchy boiler rooms looking for roosting bats.

The view from basecamp was quite stunning in the wee hours of the morning - it is quite peaceful to look out over Short Beach park with the sound of hundreds of migrating Brant flying in the darkness overhead!

Eventually even the hardiest BioBlitzers get a few hours of sleep while camped out next to the Lordship light house...

...only to pick up the pieces at first light again. Saturday always marks the public component of the BioBlitz and anyone interested is welcome to swing by basecamp to see what has been found so far and to touch a scientist. Part of the mission of a BioBlitz is to educate local people on what lives in their backyard, while providing valuable baseline data for conservation.

Several TWiG leaders offered walks on Stratford Point in the morning. Here CAS Conservation Biologist Twan Leenders leads a birdwalk while in the background members of the Invertebrate Zoology TWiG are sampling tidepools.

Birding was a bit quiet on Saturday morning but several nice birds were seen, such as a Merlin finishing up breakfast...

...and a Northern Harrier still looking for something to eat.

Inside, the mycology TWiG has an impressive display of the different species of mushrooms collected thusfar and the collectors themselves are at hand to answer questions.

People of all ages pass through basecamp to get a glimpse of the action and learn about the species that call Stratford home.

Numerous insects are still added to the collection throughout the day. While some TWiGs collect samples that will be permanently preserved in the Yale Peabody Museum's collections, others rely entirely on photographs and observations for their data.

This American Kestrel posed nicely for a record shot to be included in the bird tally, and luckily even the White-tailed Kite made a very brief appearance on Friday night and Saturday morning. Even though it stuck around long enough to make the official BioBlitz town list, the photo below may very well be one of the last taken here in CT because there have been no reliable reports of the kite since Saturday morning. More on that in a later post...

All in all the 4th Stratford BioBlitz was a big success. This particular event was the first of its kind in the fall -- similar BioBlitzes covering Stratford during winter, spring and summer have taken place in previous years. Together they provide valuable information on the species that reside in town during the different seasons.
The preliminary final tally for this BioBlitz is as follows:
  • Mammals = 10 species
  • Amphibians and reptiles = 10 species
  • Fish = 27 species
  • Birds = 122 species (see here for the complete list)
  • Invertebrate Zoology (not counting insects and spiders) = 63 species
  • Fungi = 111 species
  • Plants = 229 species
  • Insects and spiders = 257 species

The total preliminary count is 829 species, but additional samples will be identified still in the next few weeks to add to the total. If you want to see the official final score and see what was found during previous seasonal BioBlitzes in Stratford, please check the website here.

All photographs copyright Twan Leenders, except for BioBlitz logo and photo 10 (copyright Brian Roach)