New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Late February Birding- February 18, 22, 25, 26, 28 March 3 and 4

Part 2, Late February Birding (continued from Part 1)

     Jen and I have been birding quite a bit lately, and the late winter/early spring birding has been exciting. Although the weather has been unseasonably warm, winter Gulls and  Waterfowl  have been abundant. However, with all of this birding, I find myself wwaaaayyy behind in my reports.

     To add to my already busy commission schedule augmented by our birding, I had to download, review and sort through over twenty-five thousand images that I had taken from our outings. With the last of the images edited and ready for my reports, I can now catch up on the blog. I am breaking down the reports into several one and two-part reports since I have so many images to include.

     Jen and I had planned a “come join us” birding adventure along the beautiful Rhode Island coast on February eleventh. The day would start at dawn and continue all day until dusk. We would go to all of our favorite spots along the coast and hopefully we would find plenty of interesting avian winter visitors.  Seventeen enthusiastic birders/photographers and others who just loved being outdoors signed on. The weather forecast (at long range) started out looking good, but slowly changed as the week grew long. By Friday afternoon, the outlook was quite ominous. What started out as a sunny day earlier in the week had changed to a winter storm complete with rain, snow and sleet. During email conversations, I decided to postpone the day until the following Saturday, rain and optics are not very compatible.

     Unfortunately, with the change of the date, many had to cancel because of previous plans, and others had informed me that that weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count, something I wasn’t aware of. But, eight hardy souls were in, and we would meet Saturday morning at dawn.

 Saturday Feb 18- Rhode Island – “Rhode Island birding group”

     The plan was that Jen and I would meet George Donahue and Marion Irizarry at Tower Hill on Rte 1 in Rhode Island.  Bill Thompson (, Ann Pacheco ( ), Laura and Jimmy Vear and Lori and Pat Labrecque would meet all of us at Beavertail Point, the starting location of our day.

     We arrived at Beavertail and everyone else was waiting just as the sun was breaking the horizon. The morning was crisp and chilly (maybe cold would be a better word) with a moderate westerly wind making it feel quite a bit colder as it skimmed across the cold sea.

     After introducing ourselves, I suggested that the photographers walk down the granite shore to the edge of the water on the very tip of the Point being careful of course. I walked down first suggesting good spots for the best photo ops. For the non-photographers, I positioned them at the top of the point next to the fog horn with their scopes ready. This is one of my favorite spots especially at dawn as the birds trading by the point are usually quite close (often within a few yards) as they fly around the point heading to their morning feeding grounds. With everyone set, and as if on cue, the first small bunches of sea ducks (mostly Common Eiders) started making their morning flights by the point; a really nice way to start the day!

     Just as I walked back to the top to where Jen, Marion and George were standing looking through their scopes, I saw a single Iceland Gull pass by the point about sixty yards out. I called out the Gull to everyone below, but between the wind and the crashing waves, they didn’t her me until the bird was farther away from the point.

     We searched through our scopes for a while. I suggested that we concentrate our efforts near the outer green buoy by Newton Ledge because this is a good spot to look for Alcids. Marion was pleased because she wanted to see a Razorbill that day. We couldn’t find any alcids around the buoy, but we did find several Red-throated Loons, Horned Grebes and Scoters. There were good numbers of dark-winged Scoters trading back and forth across the outer passage in the distance (extreme scope views).

     Bill captured this drake White-winged Scoter-

     Generally I like to give the point the first hour after dawn, than I move on. As we walked to our cars that were parked on the east side of the point, I noticed a small group of Harlequins swimming along the shore.  We all set up along the shore hoping for a few good shots of the Harlequins, but they continued swimming north along the shore. I noticed a good gathering of Gulls along the shore. I decided to try and coax the Gulls closer so I could possibly find possibly an Iceland Gull mixed in. Soon we had nearly a hundred Gulls in front of us, but nothing other than the usual species. As we were walking back to the car, two small flocks of brant flew by heading towards the point.

     Our next stop was Fort Getty and there were a few photographs taken of a small bunch of Red-breasted Mergansers swimming in the cove near where our vehicles were parked.

     Another Jamestown favorite location; Fort Wetherill turned up nothing. I was very surprised, since the harbor usually holds interesting birds like the Black Guillemot I photographed last year.

     As our small procession of cars crossed the Newport Bridge, I was thinking ahead to the coast road of Newport, wondering what would be waiting for us. Our first stop was Fort Adams, and again, the harbor was very quiet; very few birds. Along the harbor docks, I spotted a small flock of Common Goldeneyes and Red-breasted Mergansers. There was also a fair number of gathering Gulls as well. Again I wanted to see if any Iceland Gulls were hanging around the harbor, I began tossing the catfood into the water, and the Gulls came from just about every direction. After fifteen minutes, we had another one hundred plus Gulls around us, but unfortunately, no white wings.

     Moving down the road towards Brenton Point, I stopped on the road alongside Castle Hill Cove.  This Cove is always a good spot for  Sea Ducks, Loons, Brant, Black Ducks, Gadwall, and yet another Black Guillemot I photographed last year as well. When we stopped, Jen and I spotted small groups of Eiders (with one drake Black Scoter), Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Ducks and Brant. (interesting note- while we were watching the ducks, a friend from CT called me on my cell phone and told me that a Western Grebe was just reported at Beavertail. I told him that we had just left there fifteen minutes ago. I asked if anyone wanted to go back, but no one was interested).

      Ann in good position for some good shots!

     George, Lori and Pat watching the many sea ducks in the cove.

     Bill carefully walking back on the rocky shore.

     Laura and Jimmy heading back to the vehicles.

     Driving around Brenton Point there were small clusters of Sea Ducks and Loons along the shore. We drove down the bumpy dirt road to Kings Park Point. This is usually a good spot for Great Cormorants, Horned Grebes and good numbers of what George wanted to see; Harbor Seals. On the outer reaches of Brenton Reef there is a large rock that is appropriately named Seal Rock. This rock usually has many hauled out Seals on it, and this day there were over fifty! George commented, I only wanted to see one, Marion said, only fifty? :^)

     Marion ready to move on to our next spot. We also spotted fifteen Great Cormorants and a large raft of seventy-five Horned Grebe swimming inside Seal Rock.

     We stopped briefly at Goose Neck Cove, and Ann photographed a beautiful pair of Red-breasted Mergansers copulating. Here is one of her great images of  the “afterglow” courting postures of this beautiful pair of birds.

     Ann describing the Mergansers courtship and copulating behavior to Laura.

    We left Goose Neck Cove for our next stop Easton Beach. This beach has had a few interesting visitors this year: five Avocets, Little Gull, Royal Tern and a few other exciting migrants. There is just about always a good Gull roost here, along with winter shorebirds. But it also has good numbers of beach walkers, so I wasn’t sure if we would see much of anything. Fortunately when we arrived it was low tide, and the Gulls were stretched out along the beach at the waters edge, There was also a small gathering by the Easton Pond creek (where the avocets were). So we all walked out on the beach and I started enticing the Gulls to us. With the amount of Gulls in the area, maybe a winter Gull would be in the group. After a few minutes of looking through two hundred mostly Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, it was time for a bit of fun!

     Jen holding up a piece of bread letting the Gulls take it from her fingers.

     Jimmy joined in…….

     And Ann sure enjoyed it!

      We decided to go over to Sachuest and see if anyone was seeing the Snowy Owl. When we reached the parking lot of the Refuge, it was packed! We drove around the lot a few times to try and find parking spots which we eventually did. Inside the facility, the ladies heard that the Owl was just sighted, not on Island Rocks but on the old osprey pole near the Third Beach parking lot. I quickly set up my scope but couldn’t see the bird. It must have just flown in and left. We decided that the main Refuge was too crowded, so we all decided to go down to the Third Beach parking lot and have our late “tail gate” lunch. Just as we were preparing to leave, two deer , including this young buck walked up and began feeding on browse fairly close to the guardrail of the parking lot.

     Third Beach was quiet other than a few Sanderlings on the beach and a few Surf Scoters out in the bay. While we were having lunch, everyone asked me what the plan was for the afternoon. I told them my usual route.

     After leaving Newport, we would drive down along the Narragansett shore on Ocean Road
to make our first stop at south Scarborough Beach. This is the area where the three Black-headed Gulls were, and where I was able to take many good photographs of them. The bird was still being reported a week earlier in the area, maybe we would be lucky! Just as we passed Black Point, I stopped the truck along the side of the road to photograph this beautiful red-tailed Hawk that was on a branch over the road.

     When we arrived at Scarborough Beach, there wasn’t much there.  I spotted a Red-throated Loon swimming just offshore. Bill and Ann walked down the beach and Ann walked north up the beach to a small point where a small flock of Sanderlings were feeding along the tide line. Bill stayed by waiting for that Loon to come closer, which it did. Bill captured these stunning images-

     The Loon worked its way up the beach towards Ann, Laura and Lori, with Bill following close behind. The Loon eventually swam directly in front of the ladies, and Ann captured this awesome shot!

     I looked around and only saw three Gulls in the area. But I have learned over the years, once you get a few calling out their screeching  dinner bell, Gulls will come from all directions in a short time. And that is exactly what happened. First the Ring-billed Gulls than the Herring Gulls. As the swarm of Gulls swirled around our  heads, I was looking hard for the Black-headed Gulls, but they never came. I was even hopeful when all of the Ring-billed Gulls began to empty out of the Water Treatment Plant (where the Black-headed Gulls would usually go), but not that day.

     However, through the swarm of Gulls I spotted a single first winter Herring Gull with a single metal Federal band on its right tarsus. This was interesting to me, since all the banded Gulls I have seen have always had a matching colored and numbered leg marker on the other tarsus. I have several Gull Program Leaders looking to find the source of this banded bird. I am really curious about this one.

     Just a short ride down the road is Point Judith, a great location for  sea watching. As we drove into the parking lot, you could see the many rafts of Black and Surf Scoters on the rolling sea.

     A single Gannet flies over one of many raft of Scoters.

     A single Common Eider drake does the same.

    More images of the Scoters....

     It was now getting to be later in the afternoon. I always try and be at the Narrows in Galilee Harbor by 3:00 pm when the cod boats return to port. These cod boats (if they were successful for the day) will always have swarms of Gulls hanging off their sterns ready to pounce onto the fish remains that are tossed back into the sea. Within these Gull swarms, it is possible to spot an Iceland Gull or two or possibly a Glaucous Gull as the vessels pass by the parking lot. We all lined up along the rail on the edge parking lot, and now that we were standing directly in the late afternoon increasing wind, you could feel the temperature drop; it was getting much colder.

     As the distant cod boats slowly approached, large flocks of Scoters and Eiders began lifting off the water and flew west.

     While we were anxiously standing there, Bill looked over and said there is an Alcid in the middle of the narrows. It was a Razorbill. I looked over to Marion to tell her, but she went back to the car. George, a true gentleman went back to get her so she could enjoy the Razorbill. The alcid swam and dove nearby for over fifteen minutes.

     In the meantime, the Lady Frances passed by, but by that time, the large swarm of Gulls that had been trailing it, had thinned out to a few handfuls, and no Iceland Gulls were seen. But the Razorbill made the long cold wait worth it!    

     With little more than an hour left to the day, we said good-bye to George and Marion, it was great to have them come along that day. We decided that we would split up for the last light of the day. Laura and Lori were interested in photographing Loons, and Ann and Bill wanted to try for the “usually reliable” Lesser Black-backed Gull at Grassy Point in Ninigret Park. We drove over to the “Quonnie Canal” first and the Canal was quite, but there were two Loons feeding in the Canal hopefully offering Laura and Lori a few good shots to end the day. We also said our good-byes, and it was also a great pleasure having them join us for the day as well.

     Ann and Bill followed Jen and I on the short drive to Ninigret Park, and down the quarter mile path to Grassy Point. The light was slowly fading, but the afternoon colors were spectacular. If the Gull was there, the images would be spectacular. Unfortunately, the “usually reliable” Gull was a no-show. But there were plenty of other Gulls present to be captured on the memory cards highlighted by the soft orange glow of the setting afternoon sun.

     Greater Black-backed Gull-

     Plenty of Red-breasted Mergansers

     And the best shots of the day;  the gorgeous sunset over Ninigret.

 We said our good-byes and reflected a bit on the day. Jen and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting everyone having everyone join us that day. We are looking forward to the next birding adventure in the spring. At this point we are thinking about a day trip to Parker River NWR, Salisbury Plantation, and the lower New Hampshire coast/ or Gloucester. We will keep everyone posted.

Keith and Jen Mueller
Killingworth, CT.

Part 1 can be found by clicking on “Older Posts” below right or click on this link:

Here is a “rough estimate” list from the day-

(Most birds observed in extreme scope views)

Common Eider- 700+/-
Black/Surf Scoters- 1500 +/- (65% Surf)

White-winged Scoter- 23
Oldsquaw- 17
Harlequin Duck- 23
Red-breasted Merganser- 130
Bufflehead- 76
Common Goldeneye- 39
Black Ducks- 65
Canada Geese- 450 +/-
Brant- 350 +/-
Gannet- 3
Common Loon- 16
Red-throated Loon- 13
Iceland Gull- 1
Razorbill- 1
Great Cormorant- 17
Horned Grebe- 75+/-

Keep watching for continuing/upcoming reports:

-Wednesday  Feb 22- “Gulls you say”?- “Gloucester It Is”!
-Saturday Feb 25- “Pink-footed Goose”
-Sunday Feb  26- “A good place to meet”, another look at Larus glaurcoides” and New Haven Harbor banded Gulls”.
-Tuesday Feb 28- “Gloucester Again”!
-Saturday March 3/Sunday March 4- “White-winged Gulls in Three States in One Day”! New Hampshire coast/Gloucester/Madison, CT