New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Oct. Shorebirds & Seabirds; Seven days CT to Cape Cod

Sun, Clouds, Rain, Squalls, Fog and Wind Oct 12 - 16

     Day 1 (Oct 12) As October reaches mid month, there is still time for checking many favorite birding spots for a few lingering late migrating summer shorebird species. The beginning of the month offered a few uncommon shorebirds, and maybe a few more were still in the area.
My friend Tom Robben was asked to lead a birding trip for the Hartford Audubon Society and he put together a very comprehensive trip to Cape Cod for Sat. Oct 15. Tom asked me to co-lead the trip and Jen and I enthusiastically accepted.
Looking forward to the Cape trip, my schedule was full on either side of the trip. I had a few bird carving commissions to deliver to a friend and collector of mine before we left. I was also teaching a ten day private art seminar which started on Monday morning after our return home on Sunday. Jen and I planned on leaving early Thursday morning, work our way through Rhode Island, and then arrive on the Cape in the afternoon. We would spend all day Friday birding many of our favorite birding spots on the Cape in preparation for Saturday. Sunday morning a whale watch trip was planned and then we would head home in the afternoon.
Wednesday morning, I met my friend Al from Long Island at 9:00 am at the Bridgeport ferry. It was good to see him, as it had been a few months since we spent a day together. At nearby Seaside Park a few Shorebirds were hanging out on the beach at the western half of the Park by the Fairweather Island breakwater. By the base of the breakwater a small flock of Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings hunkered down in the wrack line escaping the strong east wind. The Plovers were all sporting transitional plumages each one different from one another.

 South of Lordship Blvd. in Stratford a pair of Red-tailed Hawks were perched in the trees overlooking the marshes below the airport about fifty yards from the road. I stopped briefly, and we admired the regal pair of raptors. The female was perched on a post and the female was holding some sort of prey. After a few minutes of watching the hawks, they jumped into the air, the female had a Norway Rat grasped firmly in her talons.

     Because of the windy conditions, I wanted to check the sandbars and flats at the mouth of the Housatonic River. Although the area is nearly inaccessible from the Stratford side, there are a few places to scope the river such as the parking lot of Knapp’s Landing Restaurant. The parking lot overlooks the mouth of the river with a clear view of Milford Point and the sandbars of the Milford flats. On the flats we could see a few shorebirds although hard to ID from that distance, although the Black-bellied Plovers were obvious. Two Harriers were hunting across the grassy point drifting effortlessly with the wind.
     A satisfying stop for Night-Herons and Shorebirds is the lagoon behind the Stratford Marina. This small lagoon is a reliable spot for Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers, including a very possible Long-billed Dowitcher and a large Night-Heron (both species) roost. Exceptional viewing can be found from the bridge that crosses the small lagoon at the corner of Broad St and Ferry Blvd. The old pilings in the lagoon are a magnet for roosting Night-Herons, and usually just about every post is “topped” by both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

      At low tide, the muddy flats along the diminished creek and among the many pilings are laced with feeding Shorebirds, mostly Yellowlegs (both species) sometimes numbering nearly two hundred birds. Accompanying the Yellowlegs are many other species including Short-billed Dowitchers, occasional Stilt Sandpipers, “peeps”, Snipe, rare Godwits, and a Long-billed Dowitcher or two. At high tide, the Shorebirds are gone from view in the creek, and they are usually one place; roosting on the old docks in the Marina. Since the docks are hidden from view from the lagoon bridge, there is a good location to view these docks and the roosting Shorebirds. Along Shore Road near Bonds Dock, there is a small bait shop with a small parking lot. This parking lot offers you good scope views of the docks behind the Stratford Marina and the concentrated roosting Shorebirds. I began looking through the concentrated Shorebirds, mostly Greater Yellowlegs. I identified a few Lesser Yellowlegs, and a small gathering of Semi-palmated Sandpipers. My interest that morning was to hopefully locate the Long-billed Dowitcher that I spotted there a few weeks earlier. There were a small bunch of Dowitchers mixed in with the Yellowlegs; all Short-billed. Sorting through the Dowitchers, I found the Long-billed; it was sleeping, tucked in behind a sleeping Greater Yellowlegs.

                               Sleeping Long-billed Dowitcher (second from the left)

    I wanted to photograph the Long-billed Dowitcher which required getting closer to the bird. The best location would be from the property of the Marina. I have stopped by there on numerous occasions and was granted permission to walk through their property to photograph, sketch, and/or just admire the Shorebirds. There were also times that permission was not given, based on yard activity (boats being hauled or moved). With permission granted from the marina office Al and I walked over to the docks and were greeted by decks full of Shorebirds. Many of the birds were resting, and many were hop-scotching from dock to dock. Other birds were arriving from Knells Island across the Housatonic River. The birds were quite contented, and allowed Al and I to get within ten yards of them. Because I told the marina office I would only be there for a half an hour, I wanted to find that Long-billed Dowitcher first, and hopefully it was still there. When Al and I spotted the Long-billed Dowitcher through my scope a few minutes earlier (from the parking lot) it was standing behind an isolated sleeping Yellowlegs. Thinking in reverse, and trying to imagine the two-bird scenario backwards, I located the two birds, and the Long-billed Dowitcher it was now in front of the Greater Yellowlegs and me. The bird was sleeping, and I took many images of it. Among the predominantly Greater Yellowlegs were: Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semi-palmated Sandpipers, a pair of Dunlin, a single Least Sandpiper, and the Long-billed Dowitcher.

                    Sleeping Long-billed Dowitcher (middle right-behind the Greater Yellowlegs)

Greater Yellowlegs (back row), Short-billed Dowitcher (extreme left and right) Semi-palmated Sandpipers

     From time to time the birds would fly from dock to dock and shift positions. Also a few more birds would arrive from the River, fly into the lagoon, and turn around heading into the easterly wind then landing on the docks.

        Lesser Yellowlegs (left) Greater Yellowlegs (center) and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

                      Short-billed Dowitcher (above and below) with a Greater Yellowlegs (below)

     As these birds settled in on the docks, a few more birds were arriving from the river following the same routine up the lagoon and then turning into the wind. I was watching and photographing one of these groups of incoming shorebirds, when I noticed that two of these birds were dowitchers; one Short-billed and one Long-billed. I thought at first that maybe the Long-billed on the dock that I was photographing had slipped away and joined the flocks. But when I looked back to the birds on the docks, the Long-billed was still there. The single bird in the flock with the Short-billed was a second Long-billed Dowitcher.

                            Short-billed Dowitcher (left) Long-billed Dowitcher (right)

     Many birders have a tough time distinguishing between a Short-billed and a Long-billed Dowitcher, and it can be challenging. There are many articles written on the subject, and often many Long-billed Dowitchers are mis-identified and are actually Short-billed Dowitchers. To complicate this even more plumage and subspecies variations can confound even the most seasoned shorebird viewer. Being an avian artist, and because I often have to re-create and reproduce birds in wood with critically realistic and measured anatomical features, I tend to look at bird anatomy differently than Ornithologists and birding experts. Many Shorebird experts may disagree with my thoughts on identifying and separating the two species, but these differences have worked for me. Again, I am not an expert, I just follow my observations and field studies being an artist. In the diagram, I outlined a few of these “features” between the Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers in plumages observed on October birds.


     The bill length of Dowitchers can’t always be used as a field mark to separate the two species as the bill of a Long-billed Dowitcher is not necessarily “long” by comparison to the Short-billed. Females of either species have longer bills than the males, and a female Short-billed can have the same length or a slightly longer bill length than a male Long-billed Dowitcher. I have found it better to examine two other features of the bills which help identify the species at first look. After closer scrutiny, examine the bill thickness and the thickness of the basal end of the bill (where it connects to the head). In general, a Short-billed Dowitchers bill is uniformly heavy from the tip to the basal end of the bill. The Long-billed Dowitchers bill is thinner and not as heavy at its basal end.
     Eye placement is important in separating the two species. The eye of the Short-billed is located slightly higher on the supercillium, where the eye of the Long-billed is located nearer the center of the head and in the middle of the eye line. The light supercillium feathers are slightly “curved” (where it parallels the dark pileum) on the Short-billed where this line is straighter (where it joins the pileum) on the Long-billed Dowitcher.

     Tertial colors and markings can also be used to help separate the two species. The tertials of the Short-billed are usually edged with a Tawny color and the inner vane of the tertials have additional markings. The tertials of the Long-billed are uniformly solid Greyish values with a thin edgeing of white of light Grey. Another good ID field mark on standing birds are the tail banding. A Short-billed Dowitchers tail barring is predomintaly white with narrower dark bands, while a Long-billed is the opposite: wider dark banding with less or narrower white banding.
On flying birds, the open wings offer good field marks to separating the two species. Short-billed Dowitchers have lighter secondaries with wider white edging, while a Long-billed Dowitchers wing shows darker secondaries and narrower white edging. I re-posted the images below to demonstrate these different field marks. I hope you find them helpful.

Additional images for comparisons:


                                                 Three Short-billed Dowitchers

                                                   Short-billed Dowitcher

T            wo Lesser Yellowlegs (left) Greater Yellowlegs (rear) Long-billed Dowitcher (right)

                                                    Two Short-billed Dowitchers

                       Short-billed Dowitcher (left) Long-billed Dowitcher (right)

                            Long-billed Dowitcher and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

                                                       Short-billed Dowitcher

                                                 Long-billed Dowitcher (center)

                                                          Long-billed Dowitcher

                       Lesser Yellowlegs (left) Dunlin (center) and Greater Yellowlegs (right)

                                                           Long-billed Dowitcher

                                  Short-billed Dowitcher and Least Sandpiper

Two Short-billed Dowitchers

   Turning our attention to the numerous Yellow-crowned night-Herons that were occupying nearly all the pilings, we were able to approach them at a very close distance. Just about every post had a roosting Night-Heron, most being Yellow-crowned and juveniles. The adults were in all stages of stunning plumages, complimented by their yellowish bandanas, white malar stripe, red eyes and striped body feathering. Across the lagoon, many of the Black-crowned Night-Herons utilized the overhanging trees for their roosts.

         A Greater Yellowlegs roosting on the piling tops with the Yellow-crowned night-Herons

     Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (bottom) Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron (above)

     After our short and successful Shorebird and Heron visit, we again Thanked the Marina for allowing us the opportunity to use their property, Al and I left for my studio to do a little business. After business and lunch, it was time to head back to the Ferry. After saying good-bye to Al, and watching the Park City steam out of the harbor, I stopped by a few favorite birding spots on my way home. Oyster River, West Haven Beaches, Guilford Shell Beach and Great Harbor didn‘t hold many birds other than the usual Herons and Yellowlegs. It was around 5:00 pm and I still had more packing to do, so I decided to make a quick run through Hammonasset Park. Searching the puddles in the western end of the park didn’t yeild anything other than a beautiful pair of Pectoral Sandpipers.


     I drove to the Nature Center parking lot, and found a large group of Black-bellied Plovers in the grassy parking lot where they are usually found. In the thirty plus Black-bellied Plovers were three Golden Plovers; a nice bonus.
                                                 Three Golden Plovers (right)

                                                        Golden Plover (right)


     After watching the Plovers for a few minutes, I wanted to see if there were any Shorebirds on the beach at Meigs. I saw a few Sanderlings flying to the beach on the western side of the breakwater. Walking over towards the birds, I immediately saw two shorebirds feeding in the wrack line. They were easy to ID: Golden Plovers.

     Along the waters edge on the beach, there were a dozen Black-bellied Plovers, three dozen Sanderlings, a dozen each of Semi-palmated Plovers and Sandpipers, and a few Dunlins. A small flock of Sanderlings approached the outside of the breakwater coming from the west, in this flock were two more Golden Plovers. This flock including the Golden Plovers landed on the end of the breakwater.

                                                      Two Golden Plovers (left)

     Walking back to my truck, three Plovers flew over my head flying towards the Nature Center parking lot: two Black-bellied and one Golden Plover. I stopped by the field for one last look, and the shorebird numbers were building, including the four Golden Plovers. Time to head for home and get ready for an early morning start for Cape Cod.

Stratford Marina- 60+ Greater Yellowlegs, 7 Lesser Yellowlegs, 11 Semi-palmated Sandpiper, 1 Least Sandpiper, 2 Dunlin, 9 Short-billed Dowitcher, 2 Long-billed Dowitcher, 36+ Night-Herons (mostly Yellow-Crowned), 1 Green heron, 2 Great Blue Heron.
Hammonasset (combined Nature Center lot and Meigs beach)- 40 +/- Black-bellied Plover, 8 Golden Plover, 40 Sanderlings, 7 Dunlin, 5 Ruddy Turnstones, 24 Semi-palmated Plovers and Sandpipers, 2 Pectoral Sandpipers.
Keith Mueller Killingworth, CT
Part 2 “Heading for the Cape” follows……TURN THE PAGE by clicking on "OLDER POSTS" just below this page on the right