Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Bird Count: Westport-Fairfield

On Sunday, I participated in the first of two Christmas Bird Counts, this one for the Westport-Fairfield count circle. Next weekend I will be going out for the Stratford-Milford circle. I was a part of the Fairfield shoreline sector. Charles Barnard Jr. is the captain of the area and graciously had myself and fellow birders Dave Zawisha, James Purcell, and Alex Burdo, who was named a L.L. Bean Outdoor Hero this past July, along for the day. Charlie is exceptionally knowledgeable about where to find what in all of Fairfield. The following is a nearly complete account of our day – I am sure I left out a stop or two and some birds. All of the photos were from the day, too.

We started out on the beach at the end of South Pine Creek Avenue in Fairfield at 7AM. As the group assembled, we ticked off a few of the more common species in the water and at the end of the road. Shortly after, we headed off to walk along Pine Creek Marsh. We saw American Black Duck, Hooded Merganser, Great Blue Heron, and heard a Belted Kingfisher.

Great Blue Heron

I heard the call of two Snow Buntings and we looked up just in time to see them fly by. We kept walking and headed down Old Dam Road to get to the road’s large open space area. We were stopped by a man in a car at one point who asked us what we were doing. Explaining that we were looking for birds he told us an owl was perched on a tree just up the road about a half hour earlier. We hurried up the street but unfortunately came up empty-handed. While I examined some spruce trees, the rest of the group looked through a large group of birds coming to some feeders right near the entrance to the open space. Nearly all of the common feeder species were seen. As the others moved on and I caught up, I looked at the feeders for a minute and saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch fly in.

We all got nice looks at the scarce wintering species as it went back and forth from the feeder to a nearby spruce. I am sure it is very content there. A walk through the Old Dam Road open space was relatively quiet. Going the same way in the other direction back to the starting point we found a bunch of White-throated and American Tree Sparrows, while James and Alex heard Golden-crowned Kinglets. Soon after we went to the Fairfield Beach again near Penfield Reef to scope out scoter species and more while the tide was still high enough. James had seen Black Scoter previous days, and sure enough, all three species were noted with more ducks and gulls. I binned around the area while they scoped through the waterfowl and saw a Northern Gannet plunge diving not far offshore, as I commonly see from Stratford Point.

American Tree Sparrow

From there we went to see two Redheads that Alex had found the day before in Ash Creek viewable from the Post Road. They were still there, a male and female with Canvasbacks. Other ducks included Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Hooded Merganser, American Black, and Mallard. Redhead was a great species to add to the list. Not much later in our journey, we were at Saint Mary’s By-The-Sea just across the border in Bridgeport. As we walked out of our cars, the others spotted four Savannah Sparrows and one “Ipswich” race Savannah Sparrow, a very nice find.

"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow

"Ipswich" Savannah Sparrow

While it is a subspecies it is definitely worth noting in its own right and rare on the Connecticut coast in fall and winter. Seven Killdeer ran, flew around, and called while we looked at some gulls and hundreds of scaup just offshore.
Heading back to Fairfield we walked through the Ash Creek open space finding many of the usual and expected species. For the most part, we only added to the totals of species we already had. We missed Field Sparrow, but saw another group of American Tree Sparrow, one of the species tallies that ended up on the higher-than-usual side for the day.

More American Tree Sparrows, a common bird for the day

On the way out, we saw two more Snow Buntings. This time they were on the ground, feeding on the grasses in and along the roadway.

A Snow Bunting feeding

A trip back to Pine Creek Marsh and the landfill beyond it was in order to look for Winter Wren and other species James had noted days before. Unfortunately, the landfill, while once a prime open habitat of grasses and small shrubs, has turned into a wasteland dominated by phragmites. The invasive plant has all but rendered the habitat useless in most areas. Our walk over the icy and frozen earth was rather quiet, but we did tick off Swamp Sparrow. We missed any Fox Sparrows despite the fact we got two of them here last year. You can see one of them in my photo below that was also included on the Christmas Bird Count photo gallery page from last year’s count.

Fox Sparrow from last year's count at Pine Creek Marsh

After a very refreshing lunch break we split up - the rest of the group went out to walk Penfield Reef while I first made a stop at the thick brush and tangles behind the Scandinavian Club. It was, finally, a "birdy" area. I added White-breasted Nuthatch, another Carolina Wren, more Northern Cardinals and Mockingbirds, and additional American Tree, Song, White-throated Sparrows.

Song Sparrow

The same Song Sparrow posing some more

I even called out a Fox Sparrow that popped up for about 30 seconds about 100 feet from me. It was a fantastic surprise. I was sorry everyone else missed it, though. What was even more of a shock was finding another Fox Sparrow about five minutes later near the entrance to Pine Creek Meadows. It was also quite far from me at a distance permitting only record-type photos, but it stayed in the open for a couple of minutes among many other sparrow species. As I walked in further I finally heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker - two, in fact. This area yielded Brown Thrasher for Charlie and me last year, but none were to be had this time. After combing over it thoroughly I went back to the Pine Creek Marsh to meet up with everyone. We watched unsuccessfully for any owls until sunset. I was drained after 10+ hours of birding and headed home.

It was certainly a fun day for everyone, and is exactly why all birders (and others!) should try their hand at the CBC experience. As previously mentioned next Sunday it is time for my hometown circle, the Stratford-Milford count. I will be out quite a bit starting on Thursday, the beginning of count week, to hopefully find a real big rarity and plenty of our usual species.

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch

1 comment:

  1. In fact while walking the night before the bird count, at Old Dam Road, we also spotted what we believe to be a Great Horned Owl. We could see the silhouette perched on a branch which overlooked the marsh and the path. More distinctly we heard its call and shrieks. Listening to sound clips--it would appear this owl is a female. An amazing experience!