Saturday, May 5, 2012

Chuck-will's-widow at Stratford Point

I had a sensational morning at Stratford Point yesterday, the highlight being a very rare and state review list species, a Chuck-will's-widow! That was one of the last birds I was expecting to find during a busy migration morning, but here is how everything played out.

I arrived at Stratford Point around 8:30 a.m. yesterday, and hearing Wood Thrush while coming in told me that many migrant birds had been dumped here, obviously out of place in regards to their normal habitat, with the rain hours earlier. I did a sweep of the perimeter of the site, finding some first of year for me shorebirds like dozens of Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper, before moving on to searching through the perimeter. I intended to look through the limited amount of woody vegetation on and along the site including the surrounding neighborhood and Coast Guard property. This area can be searched well on Stratford Point property, walking roughly from the lighthouse to our main entrance, while checking the small pine trees along the driveway. I found many migrants that I will list out at the end of this summary.

While walking and looking for little birds, I flushed a large one that was obviously roosting in one of these small pines. After my shock and the first flush, I flushed it again unintentionally a few seconds later and it flew around me, calling twice (a grunt or croaking kind of noise, rough and low). It then went back into the thick shrubs, brush, and trees on the adjacent Coast Guard property. Subsequent extensive searches of the immediate area and playback with Twan Leenders, Sean Graesser, and Frank Mantlik came up empty, which was not a shock. This was like looking for a very camouflaged needle in a haystack, and it was likely not to flush again unless one of us were nearly on top of it. The views I had in those brief glimpses in decent light directly in front of me were relatively good. It was large, with long wings, a moderate brown overall with a little tawny towards the tail. I felt strongly enough that it was a Chuck-will's-widow, not a Whip-poor-will, based primarily on size and coloration. I hoped we'd have success later that evening with it coming out to fly off, or simply calling from wherever it was, but I doubted we would be that fortunate.

This evening a small group of experts waited in the area I had discovered it, and at about 8:15 p.m. I spotted it fly out from just about the same pine it was in that morning. It landed perfectly on the fence in front of us, sitting on it in plain view in decent enough light for a minute. We were absolutely astonished and flabbergasted, delighted but also trying to make sure my initial thought of a Chuck was correct. The large size and head combined with good looks at the body showing some of the brown, then subsequent flight and hunting showing long and pointed wings, all said Chuck. Every identification marker we were able to come up with kept pointing to it and those on hand with experience watching Whips fly around really felt strongly it was not one. It had no white and the tail and did not sing, thus making this a female.

It kept making that grunting rough call I described earlier when it flushed basically the entire time, and by the end of the night everyone had heard it and seen every aspect of it, locking in the identification as a Chuck-will's-widow. It would occasionally land on the fence again or a tree branch, sometimes going out of sight for a few minutes. It was out of our view for a while after 9 but was hunting again as of 9:45 when the last of us departed. Photos were not obtained (well, none of real use despite effort), but several of Connecticut's best were on hand who all had excellent views and continual looks. Fortunately we were able to have this bird in a situation where we could confirm the identity without photos or video, something all of us probably rely on too much at times, myself certainly included.

I will open up Stratford Point tonight and we can take a shot at this bird once again. Feel free to come on down - 1207 Prospect Drive, White-tailed Kite country. Since I anticipate many visitors please drive in the driveway, slowly because this is where the bird will be if it is there, and head up it until you take a left and get near some buildings. Park here wherever and then you can walk back down towards the entrance where the bird was seen and continued to hunt all night. Email me at if you have any questions.

And here is the list from the day at Stratford Point alone, many species first of the year for myself and the site:

73 species
Brant  23
Canada Goose  10
Mute Swan  3
American Black Duck  1
White-winged Scoter  4
Red-breasted Merganser  4
Red-throated Loon  14
Common Loon  4
Double-crested Cormorant  11
Great Egret  2
Black-crowned Night-Heron  1
Osprey  1
Sharp-shinned Hawk  1
American Kestrel  1
Black-bellied Plover  13
Semipalmated Plover  51
Piping Plover  1
Killdeer  1
American Oystercatcher  2
Willet (Eastern)  1
Least Sandpiper  8
Dunlin  1
Ring-billed Gull  20
Herring Gull (American)  31
Great Black-backed Gull  3
Common Tern  16
Rock Pigeon  3
Mourning Dove  3
Chuck-will's-widow  1
Chimney Swift  3
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted)  1
Least Flycatcher  1
Eastern Kingbird  1
Blue-headed Vireo  1
Blue Jay  242
Fish Crow  8
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  1
Tree Swallow  8
Barn Swallow  9
Carolina Wren  1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Wood Thrush  1
American Robin  12
Gray Catbird  2
Northern Mockingbird  3
Brown Thrasher  1
European Starling  4
American Pipit  1
Cedar Waxwing  8
Black-and-white Warbler  2
Common Yellowthroat  1
Magnolia Warbler  1
Yellow Warbler  3
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle)  1
Black-throated Green Warbler  1
Chipping Sparrow  2
Field Sparrow  1
Savannah Sparrow  6
Song Sparrow  8
Swamp Sparrow  1
White-throated Sparrow  1
White-crowned Sparrow  2
Scarlet Tanager  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Red-winged Blackbird  14
Common Grackle  26
Brown-headed Cowbird  2
Baltimore Oriole  1
House Finch  6
American Goldfinch  12
House Sparrow  2

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

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