New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, December 21, 2013

December (unofficial CBC) boat ride to Faulkner's Island

    Saturday, December 21, 2013- Faulkner's and Goose Rocks, off the Guilford, CT coast - My friend Tom Robben suggested and lead COA's Long Island Sound Bird Count       that has encouraged more bird counts in Long Island Sound in December with the participation from the birding community in CT and NY. Eleven CBCs (Christmas Bird Counts) which touch Long Island Sound will also be included. On an interesting side note to the CT shoreline CBC's, one of the richest birding locations in the State is Faulkner's Island, which is four and a half miles offshore from Guilford. The waters surrounding Faulkner's Island and Goose Rocks ( a small eroded island just west of Faulkner's) are rarely or never birded, and surprisingly, this area is not included in any CT-CBC circle.

     Tom and I discussed the new bird count and the number of birds around Faulkner's Island and we decided to combine the two ideas:  to access the birds surrounding the waters of Faulkner's Island, and include the numbers observed into COA's LIS Bird Count.....and to have a great time birding in this overlooked but bountiful area. After a few conversations, Tom and I thought it would be a great idea to charter a boat to go out to Faulkner's and investigate the birding possibilities. This would be a great opportunity for CT birders...providing it could be arranged. In a week of making phone calls and checking out a few contacts, my Father-in-Law came up with a name. Dad is on the board of the Faulkner's Island Brigade which Jen and I are also members. I first thought that a few members of the Brigade may still have their boats in the water....but they all pulled them out in late November. But Dad made a great contact with Capt. Bart Mansi, the owner of the Guilford Lobster Pound, located on the western bank of Guilford Harbor.

    Capt. Bart's vessel was a very seaworthy offshore 42 foot lobsterboat, very stable with plenty of room for a group of anxious birders. Tom arranged the charter with Capt, Bart, and after a few date changes the trip was set. The trip was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but the weather forecast was for icy conditions and heavy winds. The trip was re-scheduled for today and six CT birders signed on for the trip.

    The temperatures warmed up last night, With the water temps dropping from last weeks cold snap, the melting snow fed the morning air producing a modest shroud of fog! This is not and ideal condition for a group of birders heading out on a sea bird adventure. We were all going to meet at the docks at 7:15 am. I left early around 6:00 am. I was concerned by the fog but in my twenty minute ride to Guilford Harbor I noticed that the fog was only heavy in a few being near my home in Killingworth, and the other of course being in Guilford Harbor; what luck!

    Since I arrived early, I had time for a few Harbor photos. Here is the Guilford Lobster Pound and Capt. Bart's lobsterboat >

     Getting a little lighter.........

     .....and the fog was getting thicker!

     Looking out of the Harbor. Long Island Sound is out there somewhere??>

      The birding crew (from l to r)- Kathy VanDerAue, Tina Green, Tom Robben, Sara Zagorski, and Mark Danforth >

     Sara, Tom and Mark>

     The sun was trying to break through!>

    Capt Bart and his mate (his son- Bart IIII) arrived, fired up the diesels and we all boarded>

          Capt Bart, and Bart IIII ( on board right, and right- on the dock)>

     Withe everyone on board, its was time to get underway....but still time to check out a few Gulls coming out of the fog>

      On the way out of the Harbor>

    In the wheelhouse heading out in the very narrow channel in Guilford reach. The sun is tryng!>


      I had spent many of my earlier years fishing for Tautog and Stripers and Duck Hunting in the Guilford area from Half Acre Rock (east) to Lobster Rock, Outer White Top, Faulkner's Island and Goose Rocks (south and west). The most important buoy to me was "Can-5". I can remember many mornings coming out of the harbor in the fog looking for "can-5" knowing it would soon appear out of the heavy shroud. My compass heading would point due south/south east to reach this buoy. Once I found "5" I would turn due SW towards Outer White Top Rock to avoid all the rocks, reefs and "motor-eaters" that abound throughout the waters of Guilford. This morning as we headed out of the harbor and "can-5" appeared from out of the fog, it was like seeing an old friend!>

     The sun seemed like it was getting brighter, and the veil of fog that surrounded us, was getting lighter>

      Finally, the fog was burning off, and Faulkner's appeared in the distance>

      Goose Rocks, which is about a quarter mile due west of Faulkner's>

     Faulkner's was coming into focus>

     Let's start birding!!>

        Capt. Bart looks for birds>

    I posted my finished report from the day here, and the accompanying images with captions will follow below the report..
    The trip tallied good numbers and a good variety of waterbird species. First, the numbers of  Common Eider was the highest I have ever seen in this State, and in the Madison/Guilford/Faulkner's Island/Branford area. There was also a high ratio of adult drakes to hens and only a few juvenile males in the flock. In the past when I did see small flocks of Eider (dozen birds or less), these flocks contained higher numbers of hens and juvenile males, and very few adult drakes. I also watched them dive and feed and it appeared they were successful in retrieving food items (most likely blue mussels, brown periwinkles and crabs). I watched several birds (after returning to the surface) shake the food item vigorously which is a normal behavior when they have caught a crab of a  small cluster of mussels.

The majority of the Waterfowl(with the exception of Scaup, Oldsquaw and Bufflehead), Loons and Great Cormorants were seen in the area surrounding Goose Rocks (west of Faulkners) and in between Goose and Faulkners. Most of the Surf Scoters were loosely rafted in the rip to the NW of Faulkner's,
just off the northeast shore of Faulkner's and inbetween Faulkners and Goose Rocks. There were a few small scattered flocks closer to the shoreline off Sachem Head west of Vineyard Point. The few Black Scoters (mostly hens) were among the scattered Surf Scoters. Of the 3 White-winged Scoters, 1 drake was seen crossing the bow of the vessel in the fog going out the channel by "can 5", the other two (drake and hen) were seen off the SE corner of Goose Rocks on our return trip to port.

 There were nearly 100 Shorebirds (standing and flying) at Goose Rocks and least 50 Purple Sandpipers, with some Sanderling and the rest unidentified Sandpipers (just a bit too far to properly ID). My count of 50 Purple Sandpipers were identified by confident ID sightings of some
of the standing birds and the flying birds, and conversations with the others on board. Also 13 Black-bellied Plover standing with the Gulls on the NW tip of Faulkner's that forms the reef. Overall a good day around those two Islands.

Although there was a small flock of Scaup sitting off the SE corner of Goose Rocks, the majority of rafted Scaup were loosely scattered outside Great Harbor west of Goose Island (off Sachem Head) and east of the Thimble Islands. The second largest group was rafted outside Guilford Harbor just
east of Lobster Rock and east of the main channel outside "can 3". I didn't look for any Lesser Scaup, but did note 3 (2 hens and 1 moulting drake) in one of the flocks off Great Harbor (taking off- wing ID) when it was suggested that we try and locate Lesser Scaup. Otherwise I didn't look for Lesser Scaup.

Goldeneyes were split in two rafts: one off the NW reef of Faulkner's and the other half were seen in Falcon Cove just west of Vineyard Point. Bufflehead numbers were split between Falcon Cove and Great Harbor. The majority of Red-breasted Mergansers were seen off the NW rip of Faulkner's.

Oldsquaw were in sporadic clusters: small group off the SW corner of Goose Rocks, small group off Goose Island (Sachem Head), Outer Thimble Island, Great Harbor, and outside Branford Harbor, and a few trios, pairs and singles throughout the area.

All the Great Cormorants were in the area of Faulkner's and Goose Rocks. The majority of both species of Loons were also in this area, with a few scattered singles seen mostly off Sachem Head and outside Guilford Harbor.

Gulls were scattered throughout the area. The largest concentrations were in Guilford Harbor off Jacob's Beach, Grass Island, Grass Island Beach, Circle Beach and the shoreline of Sachem Head.

I never counted Canada Geese

We saw a dozen plus Harbor Seals mostly in the area of Faulkners and Goose Rocks and a few following a Lobster Boat off Branford. We also saw three Gray Seals in the area of Faulkners/Goose Rocks, with one individual a very large adult near Goose Rocks.

I didn't keep a count but I roughly estimated: 75 Common Eider, 100 Surf Scoter, 500 Scaup (conservative est), 60 Goldeneye, 65 R B Mergansers, 40 Bufflehead, 3 W W Scoter, 8 Black Scoter, 5 Red throated Loon, 16 Common Loon, 20 Great Cormorant, 36 OLdsquaw, 400 Gulls mostly Herring (all over). Goose Rocks was the hotspot!

My overview: With the exception of the high number of Common Eider and Purple Sandpipers which were notable, the overall numbers of waterfowl were very low for this time of year as I compare it to previous years. Certainly the numbers of Scaup and late season Scoters that are normally in this area
were much reduced from years past.....and Scaup numbers being the most reduced.  Goldeneye numbers were lower than expected, but that can be a reflection of the warmer weather for this time of year.

      Surf Scoters near Faulkner's Island>

     On the northwest point and reef of Faulkner's, a small Gull roost>

      Small Harbor Seal hauled out on a boulder on nw reef at Faulkner's>

     Surf Scoters were plentiful around Faulkner's>

     IN these Surf Scoters was one drake Black Scoter (4th from left)>

     This group of Surf Scoters joins one of the small scattered flocks near Faulkner's and close to the vessel>

    Resting Harbor Seal and Herring Gull>

     A female Black Scoter flies past my viewfinder>

     Striking drake Surf Scoter>

      Black Ducks fly over Faulkner's Island lighthouse>

      One of the many Great Cormorants standing on one of the "rocks" on the southwest corner of Faulkner's>

     Southwest side of Faulkner's Island>

     When we passed by the southwest side of Faulkner's, the number of Great Cormorants increased>

      A distant flock of Geese passes by the eastern side of Faulkner's>

     Part of a large flock of Red-breasted Mergansers landing behind the nw point of Faulkner's>

     A flock of Goldeneye land on the rips of the nw reef>

     Black-bellied Plover>

     Purple Sandpipers>

     Its always amusing to watch sleeping Harbor Seals. They just float by with their noses pointed to the sky!>

     More Canada Geese>

     Greater Scaup in the foreground, Surf Scoters in the background>

     As we approached Goose Rocks, Tina spotted a few Common Eiders....

     .....which turned into a large flock of Eiders>

      Great Cormorant>

     One of the small flocks of Oldsquaw. This flock of six was feeding near the outer boulders of Goose. There are two 1st year drakes in this flock (3rd from left, extreme right)>

     They take off and fly out ahead of the vessel>

     Three Greater Scaup>

      Another small group of Greater Scaup fly towards the western shore of Faulkner's>

      Common Eiders in the foreground, Oldsquaw in the background>

     More Eider>

     Another small group of Greater Scaup head towards Faulkner's>

     Two magnificent drake Common Eider>


      Great Cormorants>

      Purple Sandpipers>


      Greater Scaup>

     Tina spots another flock of Oldsquaw>

     Discussing the bird sightings>

     We left the Faulkner's/Goose Rocks area and headed north along the shoreline of Sachem Head. Part of a flock of Bufflehead and Goldeneye outside Falcon Cove>

     On the southwest tip of Sachem Head and the eastern pass into Great Harbor, my art studio! :^)

     More scattered Scaup in the mouth of Great Harbor just east of the Thimble Islands>

     And more Oldsquaw. I carve many Oldsquaw especially the drakes, they are among my favorite species of Waterfowl.....and very popular with my collectors.>

     One of the many Greater Black-backed Gulls from the day. I think this one was looking for a handout>

     The return trip brought us back to Goose Rocks and Faulkner's>

     Great Cormorant>

      Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers>

    Eiders, Scaup and Oldsquaw>

     One of only three White-winged Scoters of the day. Drake WW (left) hen Surf Scoter (right)>

     Pair Greater Scaup>

     One of three Grey Seals seen; this one a giant!>

      The Black-bellied Plovers never left the reef. But this flock of Dunlin was newly arrived>

     Nice close-up of this Common Loon. It just popped-up near the vessel>

     Eiders (background) Surf Scoters (foreground)>

     Part of another small raft of Scaup, this one outside Guilford Harbor>

     The only raptor of the day. This Harrier was fling around Guilford Point on out return to the Harbor. We had anticipated (hoped) finding a Snowy Owl on Faulkner's Island, but after extensive searching on the island and lighthouse, we didn't find one.

     A few shots on the way back in to port. We had a great day and had seen a respectable amount of birds.

     Goose Rocks>

     Faulkner's Island>

     Time for a little reflection>

     Tom's new binoculars!

     This is one huge pair of binoculars....but with the image stabilizing, perfect for pelagic birding!

     The Harbor>

      Thanks Tom for this GPS chart of our trip.>

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT