Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Stratford-Milford CBC 2012

I took part in the Stratford-Milford Christmas Bird Count on December 22 joining expert birder and naturalist Frank Mantlik for his section of the circle which is appropriately Stratford Point. The actual area encompasses the airport in Stratford, all of Lordship including the seawall, Russian Beach and Cove Place, plus all of Stratford Point and Short Beach Park. From there it continues up the Housatonic River to the Washington Bridge leading into Milford, with notable points in between including the boat ramp, the Stratford greenway, Frash Pond, and more. As is usual for CBC circles, the area is far too large to cover as thoroughly as one would like if you have only a small team and aren't split up for the entire day. With some scouting and a strong knowledge of the area we are able to cover a lot of it and hit most of the expected species. Thankfully we also scored a few of the unexpected and rare ones this year, too.

The day was a little tough in the weather department, but as is always the case, the conditions giveth and the conditions taketh away, meaning some birds will be found only because of the odd weather and some will be not found because of it. On Friday, December 21, Connecticut was soaked with heavy rain for most of the morning in unseasonably warm air and a powerful easterly flow. This produced a lot of superb waterfowl and alcids on Atlantic coasts, but the rain would have been a real pain to work with in terms of acquiring expected species. While the low pressure system cleared out the pressure gradient between it and the ensuing high pressure tightened making for powerful winds on Saturday.

Under a wind advisory we were able to feel gusts well into the 40 MPH range at times on the immediate coastline. Snow squalls and showers intermittently darkened the sky and decreased visibility while whipping the winds into a further fury. Frank and Tina Green got out very early (too early for this night owl, no pun intended despite its accuracy) to try for owls and did not come across any. Howling winds make it tough to find owls outside of those seen roosting, and Stratford, while known for an incredibly rich array of avian goods, is often very weak for the nocturnal raptors as it lacks appropriate habitat and roosting areas. I decided to go for owls the night of the count, though that did not work very well with the winds continuing in the darkness. My local Great Horned stayed quiet too despite the fact it can even be frequently heard inside a house with the windows closed.

The day started off with a nice flock of Horned Larks, one of those hit or miss species, across from the airport. A Great Egret and a Great Blue Heron had already flown by. Frank decided we should make a run to check for any roosting shorebirds near the marina, and on the way we stopped at the Stratford greenway and checked that and the wet marshy area behind the animal shelter. There were no rails present, but we did scoop an American Kestrel as a nice highlight and a small number of passerines. The little birds would be conspicuously absent for much of the day in terms of both quantity and diversity. This has not gone unnoticed for over a month now, and the CBC provided ample evidence that between a poor natural food crop and the damage wrought by Sandy, there is simply unacceptable habitat along much of the waterways in Stratford (elsewhere too) for many birds to winter in. There are certainly pockets of activity, but the overall numbers are down for many basic birds, and other more uncommon species that depend on natural vegetation like the Yellow-rumped Warbler are not present.

When we arrived at the marina we did come up with a Greater Yellowlegs, but no other shorebirds. I spotted a Northern Harrier working the Wheeler Marsh, the first of several for the day. As the sun climbed slowly into the sky we decided it would be best to head for Stratford Point to try and spot any alcids or other rarities still left in Long Island Sound after the previous day's storm. Razorbills have been regulars even without storms as they are feeding very successfully in the Sound again this winter. As we arrived and walked to the shoreline the Common Eider from this post was just off the bluff with a few Red-breasted Merganser, a great pickup for the day. With our scopes bouncing around and feeling the chill at our backs Frank found a pair of Razorbills heading west, and I found a single Razorbill heading east a short time later - check for another great species! Tina spotted a Northern Gannet, the first of several we saw in the day, the third tough coastal bird we had been hoping for. Excellent!

From there it was on to Cove Place and Russian Beach on the opposite side of Lordship to watch for anything else offshore and check out the upland area along the beach. It has been changed by Sandy, too, and a paucity of birds was obvious. When pulling up I thought I saw the shape of an American Pipit, and sure enough one was in the grass feeding by itself.

All alone and a little shy

Otherwise there was nothing except the most common backyard birds, and at the seawall the story stayed the same with typical gulls and a handful of the usual waterfowl. We moved on to what we knew would be a good spot for ducks, Frash Pond, picking up this great male Northern Pintail along the way in a flooded area of the airport.

Beautifully distinctive even from so far away

You can almost always count on Canvasback at Frash Pond in the winter season and they were there, though only seven. The presence of at least 192 (!) Red-breasted Mergansers was one of the most shocking sights of the day. While the species is common at this time of year and frequently found in any decent coastal lookout, I cannot recall seeing more than a few in the pond, and nothing near that total. While we were counting ducks some cormorants flew in that included one Double-crested, a good addition to the Greats you can expect to tick. We also had a Belted Kingfisher rattle over as we were wrapping up.

The next stop would be one of the longer and more impressive ones as we entered Short Beach Park. Like it's neighbor Stratford Point, Short Beach benefits greatly from its geography at the mouth of a major river where it meets Long Island Sound. It also has some artificial help with an old dump located behind it that was responsible for holding many of the species we added to the day's list. First we found some Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in with a European Starling flock. Next we came upon a group of easily 20 Savannah Sparrow feeding in the grasses next to the tennis courts.

Spectacular camouflage

From there we went to the shore and added to our totals of waterfowl, finding some other goodies including Snow Buntings and Horned Grebes. Along the backside of the dump we used our eyes, ears, and pishing skills to call out all the birds we could. This was very successful in producing a few more new additions for the day including a Swamp Sparrow, a small group of Red-winged Blackbirds, and a Fox Sparrow. That Fox ended up singing a little on its own as they are prone to often even on cold days in the winter months.

We made the rest of the day into a divide and conquer strategy, covering other areas a little less frequently birded that could hold some very nice ones. I ended up adding yet more Great Egrets, Carolina Wrens that we had not had yet, and some more woodpeckers after a poor showing for all species along the immediate coastline.

Zoomed in from quite a distance but you can see this Great Egret resting in a quiet corner of Shakespeare Theater's pond (Selby's Pond)

I also found a Winter Wren, a seemingly abundant bird (in relative terms) for CBCs this season, a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets, and finally some White-breasted Nuthatch. One of the last species I added during the day were Monk Parakeets as they have seemingly dropped in number in some of their usually busy areas. Thanks to Frank and Tina for an enjoyable day and to everyone who participated in a Christmas Bird Count this season for helping enhance conservation. If you have yet to join a circle check out the list of count dates here as there are a few still to come.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

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