New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Friday, November 2, 2012

Part 3-"Post Hurricane Sandy"- "Escaping Long Island Sound"

     Tuesday, October 30, 2012, Weaver Beach, Madison, CT-  Well Superstorm Sandy blasted the Northeast, and as expected, we lost our power right on time! At 5:00 pm on Monday the winds had just picked up to well over 50 mph. I started thinking that maybe we would be lucky and not lose our power this time. Ha-ha! But reality set in quickly when the lights flickered a few times, and then off they went. We had prepared well again with all the necessary items: flashlights, batteries, candles, radio, water, etc.  The generator was primed and tank filled, gas cans filled, sump pump ready, plenty of extension cords, half a dozen bags of charcoal, the Dodge and the Jeeps' tanks filled, and unfortunately; plenty of down-time! Jen and I anticipated that it would be a week before our power was restored. Like many of us living in rural towns in CT, we are usually the last ones to have our power turned back on, so we had to make sure we were supplied for the week.

   Jen's parents live right on the coast and would have to deal with the triad of Hurricane handouts: wind, tidal surge and crushing waves. All three elements meant two things: flooding and damage! Jen's parents also have a beach cottage in front of their home that is right on the beach just above the high tide line. Irene nearly devastated their cottage, but it managed to survive. The cottage was engulfed in heavy surf with waves breaking over the roof. Although sustaining major damage, it was repaired and restored in great shape. It was hard to believe that it was still standing! Sandy however was being called a "Superstorm" and was predicted to be worse than the Hurricane of '38!  Everyone feared that the cottage would not be able to withstand this storm. Jen's parent's house is fourteen feet above the high water line. The National Weather Service was predicting a tidal surge of eleven to sixteen feet caused by the Force 12 easterly winds occurring right at the highest tide of the year. Everyone on the coast would be in great danger!

    Sandy came and went, and the coast from Mass. to New Jersey was devastated. We were unable to get out (again) because of trees down over the roads. Sandy was a more intense triple storm. Although Irene seemed to hand out more inland tree damage. Our street was only blocked by a single fallen tree (which of course) took the lines down with it! My mother in Meriden still had power and was doing fine. Jen's parents were out of power, and although the tidal surge was nearly knocking on their front door, it never made it! The water came within a few feet from the house. Even while being severely engulfed by the raging sea, the cottage made it again; we can't believe it! We managed to get out of our area by driving west on our street and getting to Jen's parents house with a few side street maneuvers and detours.

     The wind had changed to Southwest and was blowing hard at forty-five to fifty. The Sound was violently churned-up like I hadn't seen it but only a few times in my life. Just like with Irene, Madison, wasn't spared! After a quick inspection of the cottage, I decided to do a little "Sound-watching" knowing that there would be many seabirds leaving the Sound after being pushed in by Sandy. My vantage point was at sea level so it made scoping difficult. I knew that most of the birds would be out in the distance and hard to spot from my low vantage point. I ducked in just behind the corner of the cottage to escape the wind which would make the seawatching a little easier....(and of course so I didn't get soaked from the constant sea spray)!

     My main landmark area that I would be focusing my attention on would be Faulkner's Island. There are many reefs and ledges throughout the area from the beach all the way to the Island. There is also a deep drop-off near Faulkners that has always been a good area for birds. This is the area that I figured the birds would be using to escape the Sound.

     Sandy may have left, but her hold on the Sound was clear!-

      Tunxis Island off West Wharf, Madison-

     Faulkner's Island-

       My view through my scope-

     This small jetty is always out of the water......

     Just as I was ready to start "watching", a few small flocks of Brant came flying along the shore heading East. The flocks were very close flying near or right over the cottages and houses on the beach-

     I set the scope to the water just East of Faulkner's and immediately I spotted birds flying just over the surface of the Sound. As I looked close I saw Gulls, Gannets and SHEARWATERS!! The Shearwaters came in a continual stream from around Faulkners. They were all heading Southeast, and would appear for only a few seconds, disappearing in and out of the troughs of the huge waves! Unfortunately, the birds were very far out in the Sound, coupled by my low vantage point, and adding the quick views, it was almost impossible to photograph them. The image below illustrates this. Can you find the bird?.......

      An enlarged view......

     More examples-


    Because of my very low vantage point, it was almost impossible to photograph any birds out in the distance. What I ended up doing was from time to time to focus on the distance and take a rapid succession of images and hopefully I would capture something in the images. That wasn't too successful! After downloading nearly seven hundred fifty images, I didn't find too many birds in the images. But I did find a few.


     Many flocks of migrating Double-crested Cormorants-


     Red-breasted Mergansers-

     (In the background- more migrating Cormorants)-

     While my eyes grew tired looking through a scope into the sun's broken glare, this Great Egret flew over highlighted beautifully by the blue sky-

     The last few Gannets-

     Overall, I had a very successful "Soundwatch" with many birds seen, including a few uncommon seabirds such as both Cory's and Greater Shearwaters, Black-legged Kittiwake, and two large unidentified dark plumaged Terns. From higher vantage points in the eastern and western sections of the State, many uncommon and rare Long Island Sound seabird species were recorded by other CT birders that day. These birds included, both Shearwater species, Parasitic and Pomarine Jaeger, Kittiwakes, Bridled and Sooty Tern, and the best species of the day (in my opinion) Red Phalaropes!

    Here are the highlights from my two hour Soundwatch:

Madison, CT. Private Beach off Neck Road- Watching towards Faulkners Island (Southwest). Immediately saw a few large Shearwaters coming from behind the Island and heading east/southeast. Unfortunately I was at sealevel and my views were from 5 to 10 seconds before getting lost in the large troughs. This lasted for an hour from 10 to 11am. Then I only saw only one after that.. Judging by the overall shape and flight patterns I would say the majority were Greater with a third Corys. Appox. 31 Shearwaters passed  by Faulkner at extreme scope range.

3 Kittiwakes seen together and 1 later as I was leaving at 1:30. . Gannets  throughout the time 35 to 50 total many plunging by Charles Reef due east of half acre reef. Many W W Scoter, Common Loon and Brant. Large flocks  of D C Cormorants heading west.

5 Common Terns heading east, 5 Laughing Gulls and two large very dark Terns heading west

     Wednesday, October 31, 2012-

     The Sound had finally settled down with a light wind, something we hadn't seen for a few days. I went back down to the cottage to take Insurance pictures, (and a bit of Soundwatching)....which didn't produce anything!

     Because I was taking damage shots, I only had my camera with the 50mm lens. As I walked around the cottage, I looked up and spotted four Swallows (three Barn and a single Tree) flying past heading west. I instinctively raised my camera and took two quick shots of the departing birds. As you can see the images are horrible, but I thought they would apply here. A few minutes later an alert came over my Blackberry that four Swallows (three Barn and one Tree) were spotted in Old Saybrook heading West-

      Post Sandy sky-

      The same small jetty from the image above showing excessive sand pile-up-

     Part 4- Thursday, November 1, 2012- "An unexpected Encounter with a Rare Gull"- Wednesday evening continued with unexpected and unwanted post-storm gifts and surprises. My Mother had a heart attack and was in Meriden Hospital (she's fine- Thank You)! On my way to Meriden to visit her, I stopped by North Farms Resevoir (as I usually do) to check for birds and make a few phone calls.

     That day my Mother was being transported to Hartford Hospital, so I chose to leave my cameras at home since I didn't want to leave them in my truck. As I pulled into the small parking area near the boat ramp I made a phone call. During the conversation, I looked in front of me at a small group of feeding Ring-billed Gulls on the shore about eight feet from my truck. Ring-billed Gulls are very common at North Farms and many spend the winter there. During the winter many people stop by with stale bread and leave it for the Gulls and Ducks, and these Gulls were happily feeding on a few half eaten loaves on the shore. Suddenly  a single Bonaparte's Gull appeared mixed in with the feeding Gulls. Funny thing was that this Bonaparte's Gull had a bright red bill and legs, and had dark primaries on its underwing!

     I suddenly realized that this was a Black-headed Gull. What was it doing here? I couldn't believe it, and it just dawned on me that I didn't have my camera with me!! I watched the Gull for fifteen minutes as it walked along the shore and flew in small circles in front of me. I posted an alert on the CT LIstserv and tossed over in my mind whether I should go home to get my camera....I only lived fifteen minutes away. I called the Hospital, and my Mother was tied up taking a few tests before she would be moved, so I made a quick dash home. I returned in thirty-five minutes and ran into Nick B. The Gull unfortunately was gone! I couldn't believe it! I stayed for fifteen minutes, tossed a bit of bread in the water (hoping this Gull would appear out of thin air) but it didn't show up. It looks like this Gull may have been a one-hit-wonder, perhaps a returning Storm bird? Or maybe just a migrant that chose this area to take a break.

    Although I missed a great photo opportunity, the image of this spectacular Gull is fondly painted in my brain!-

          Note-  This Gull was seen again by another birder later in the day at 1:30 pm, and was reported to EBird.   

 Friday, Nov 2,  2012- "Try Again"- On my way to the Hospital in the morning, I decided to try for the Black-headed Gull again. I met Mark Szantyr at the pull-off where I spotted the Gull the day before. North Farms was fairly quiet, with only a handful of Ring-billed Gulls present. Well, the Black-headed Gull never showed up. Mark and I passed the time trading stories and "birding stuff" while Coots were entertaining us. While we were photographing the Coots, we were joined by Anthony Zemba who was also looking for the Gull. Here are a few shots of the coot. To see Mark's spectacular shots of the Coots:

     While we were there, Mark spotted a hen Gadwall mixed in with the Mallards-

     To see Mark's stunning Gadwall shots:

  "Here We Go Again!!"- "From the Perfect Superstorm to the Perfect Nor'Easter!"  Apparently Mother Nature wasn't through with us yet! The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast was immeasurable, now we were getting a Nor'easter nightcap!! Our power was just restored...will we lose it again?!

    Sunday, November 4, 2012- Great Harbor, Guilford, CT-  Jen and I took a few hours and drove along the coast. There wasn't much around, but we did find a few birds in Great Harbor including a dozen Laughing Gulls, small flocks of Dunlin and Greater Yellowlegs, Double-crested Cormorant and a pair of Great Blue Herons-

     Monday, November 5, 2012- New Haven, CT.- Sandy Point and East Shore Park- Sandy Point was very disappointing....other than a handful of Gulls and a few Brant, the entire sandbar was empty. The only highlights being a single Oystercatcher seeking shelter from the wind behind this small grass tuft in the lagoon....

     .....two small flocks of Snow Buntings that came and went.....

    .....and this single dark billed first winter Ring-billed Gull-

     East Shore Park however was very birdy! Since Crossbills have been showing up in the State, I wanted to search  the pines along the fence of the WTP for them. The area was busy with bird activity with clusters of Sparrows, mostly Song and White-throated, with one White-crowned and a possible Vesper scattered on the ground near the parking area. The pine trees were alive with Pine, Palm, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Goldfinches, a few Pine Siskens, Chickadees, Juncos, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a single female White-winged Crossbill. The bird was in the first pine tree by the beginning of the walking path. I hadn't walked twenty feet when I saw the bird. It stayed mostly on the back side of the tree, Hoping it would come around the tree into the open, it flew off to the north to the middle of the WTP complex. Other birds included a pair of Downy Woodpeckers and a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I spotted landing in a tree by the entrance to the Park on my way out. 


     Red-breasted Nuthatchs-



     Pine Warbler- 

     Golden-crowned Kinglets-

     Palm Warbler-


     Yellow-rumped Warbler-

     Yellow-bellied Sapsucker-

     Wednesday, November 7- "the birth of a Nor'Easter"! Having our power restored only a few days earlier, Jen and I were not looking forward to the very real possibility that we would most likely lose it again! So we prepared once again which meant going through the process all over, something we had just finished by putting everything away  a few days earlier.  The weather forecast stated strong northeasterly winds and  only a dusting of snow turning to rain! The winds were estimated to be up to 60 mph with higher would that be different than Hurricane Sandy?

     What was frustrating me the most was that Jen and I were signed on to the Brookline Bird Club's November pelagic trip on Saturday, something that I had been looking forward to all year! Last years trip was cancelled due to high winds, I really didn't want to miss this years trip because we lost our power (again)!

     The trees that morning were waving a bit to the moderate northeast wind. Judging by the slow movement of the branches it was hard to believe that a strong New England winter storm was chugging into the area. I decided a spirited "Sound-watch" would be a great way to spend a few hours since it would be possible that we could be stranded for a few days. It would also be interesting to watch the storm develop since it was scheduled to arrive around 11:00 am that morning.

     I drove into Hammonasset SP just after 9:00 am. The west end of the Park was still closed since the area was set aside as a staging area for all the power company trucks that had assembled there. The only area of the Park that was open was the Eastern end from Middle Beach to Meigs Point. Thankfully....since the trucks were still in the area, that would be helpful for all of us that might lose our power.

     Off Meigs Point, the wind was picking up to over 20 knots. A steady procession of Gannets were coming from the east. I watched them for fifteen minutes, then decided to take a walk out to Willard's Island to look for Owls. In the Nature Center parking lot, a small group of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks were feeding voraciously in the grass.


     The peacfully feeding birds suddenly burst out of the grass and took flight.......

     ....and the reason suddenly became clear. A low flying Harrier was hunting the parking lot-


     I started walking down the road to Willard's Island (which was now littered with storm debris). I heard the familiar calls of barking Snow Geese. I looked up and saw five Snow Geese (2 adults- three juveniles) circling the marsh very high. They appeared to be interested in the marsh bordering Clinton Harbor and circled it three times. Eventually they drifted east with cupped wings and appeared to set in somewhere in the area of Kelsey Point just east of the Kelsey Point breakwater-

     As I was watching the Geese, I caught a glimpse of a large bird passing to my left. I turned just in time to see this big adult female Redtail sweeping over the marsh-

     The huge Hawk seemed to stall in flight for a moment....

     ......then suddenly dropped to the marsh. I was hidden behind a cedar tree and had a front row seat. The bird stood there motionless for a few minutes; did it successfully grab its Vole quarry?-

      The Hawk began to shift its position seemingly to get a better grip on the Vole; or maybe it never had the prey?-

    The Redtail continued to shuffle around and change its position for an additional ten minutes-

     The moment of truth came when the Redtail lifted its wings and readied itself for a take-off flight. Now it would reveal its prey. I was a bit anxious to find out, and I was still betting on a Vole!-

     Didn't look like she was too successful!

     After a walk through of Willards without finding any Owl whitewash or a single pellet, I drove back to Meigs and the Gannets were still moving. I decided to walk out on the jetty for a closer look. It began to snow lightly, quickly mixing with a cold steady rain and the wind had increased. This combination of rain and wind meant that I was wet by the time I made it back to my truck. From the open window in my truck, I watched and started counting Gannets that were streaming westward in a steady procession.-

      There were a few Common Terns buzzing the rips outside Meigs, as well as a few Forster's Terns-

     Other highlights: Laughing Gull-

     Flock of Dunlin with a single Purple Sandpiper-

     Pair of Oystercatchers-


     And Yellow-rumped Warblers trying to get out of the wind-

     On the way out of the Park, the female Redtail seemed to have picked up an unwated escort; a Peregrine-

     Sharp-shinned Hawk-

     Coopers Hawk-

    Summary- From Meigs Point 10:00 am to 12:30 pm, Started on the jetty, then from the car when the rain and snow started. Excellent Gannet flight which occurred all the time I was there with only a few slow intervals when visibilty was limited by the snow showers. The Gannets were all flying west in a continual stream often with a dozen at the same time arriving together. Most passed just outside the jetty, many flew close to the beach passing over the jetty, and a few groups fished and plunge-dived within a hundred yards from the beach.

The majority of the Gannets were adults, with a handful of second and third winter, and three in first winter plumage.

GANNETS- over 350 in the time period I was there
Red-throated Loon- 7
Common Loon- 3
Horned Grebe- 1 (swimming at the end of the jetty)
Common Terns- 7
Forster's Terns- 6
Laughing Gulls- 3

KITTIWAKE- 1 (Very probable) seen well off shore following the Gannets displaying typical flight behaviour. Just too far with binoculars to get a positive look, but it apperaed to be a first winter with black 'M' visible on wings.

SNOW GEESE- 5 (2 adults- 3 juvenile) The first birds that I saw when I arrived at Meigs. The five Geese came from over the Sound heading North. They dropped their wings and appeared to be wanting to land in the marsh outside of Cedar Island. They circled the marsh once and then continued towards Clinton where they dropped down near Kelsey's Point.

Scoters (dark winged) 17 (too far to ID)
Red-breasted Mergansers- 7
Black Ducks- 65
Scaup- 125 (three flocks appeared to be mostly Greater)
Bufflehead- 2
Greater Yellowlegs- 3
Semi-palmated Plover- 3
Black-bellied Plover- 5
American Oystercatcher- 2
Dunlin- 23
Purple Sandpiper- 1
Ruddy Turnstone- 2

Red-tailed Hawk- 2
Coopers Hawk- 3
Sharp-shinned Hawk- 2
Merlin- 1
Peregrine- 1 (harassing a female Redtail)

Snow Buntings- 13 (started in the Nature Center parking lot, than flew to Meigs Beach)
Horned Larks- 9
Yellow-rumped Warblers- 11 (on the beach getting out of the wind)

     Thursday, November 8- "Nor'easter Ari is here"!!!  Well right on schedule, the stronger winds started yesterday in the early afternoon, just as it did for Sandy. By 5:00 pm, the winds were gusting to 60 mph! This is the exact time we lost our power during Sandy....I was sure we wouldn't make it through the night! The snow started, and I thought it would be changing over to rain at any minute. But the snow kept falling being driven sideways by the northeast express! All night we kept hoping with every flicker of the lights that we would keep our power....and the snow kept falling. Morning came and we had made it through the night. Our power was still on, but outside our yard was cloaked with a foot of snow!


     The wind was still blowing modestly with gusts still reaching 40 mph. As long as the weather looks good for this weekend, we will be onboard on Saturday!

Keith Mueller