Saturday, September 29, 2012


The Merlin is not quite a coastal waterbird, but it utilizes much of the same habitat as all of our target species do. As Patrick Comins correctly mentioned while I was discussing them with him, they also use some of our target species for prey. The Merlin, like all falcons, is a bird of open spaces. This may include the coastline and beaches, grasslands, orchards, and farmland. Even while inland they often end up near water, and a forest opening is probably as close as you will find them to closed space. In Connecticut, this means that primarily they can be found on the coast of Long Island Sound. However, some end up in the prime pockets of inland habitat such as this captured individual at the Aspetuck Land Trust's Trout Brook Valley Preserve in Easton/Weston.

Another great location for them is Rocky Hill Meadows, and Timothy Thompson took this series of stunning shots for us.

Thank you Timothy! As mentioned earlier pertaining to our project, the Merlin is a very opportunistic hunter, but it focuses primarily on taking small and sometimes moderately sized birds. Terns and long-legged waders would be out of the question, but shorebirds of the appropriate size and the Horned Lark are targeted on a regular basis. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, Merlins do not stoop on birds from a distance or great height in most cases, preferring surprise attacks or quick runs from a perched position. Timothy's photo in the tree above is most likely where you'll find one prior to an attack.

Merlins are usually only migrant birds in Connecticut, but they can depart quite late in the season and arrive very early in the winter. Occasionally one may try to stick around if we have favorable weather. They are breeding further south each season now with Massachusetts having confirmed nesting birds, and our state is probably due for some soon. If you are out this fall season watching for shorebirds - perhaps conducting an International Shorebird Survey - watch to see these falcons in action as well.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Western Willet

Patrick Comins had a Western Willet yesterday afternoon at the Menunketesuck Island flats, highlighting a trip where he also spotted a dozen American Oystercatchers and the first of season Dunlin. Take a look at the very crisp photos he snapped of this individual.

This is a subspecies of the Willet, and there is no better explaination on it than this passage from The Birds of North America Online:

This species is composed of 2 disjunct breeding populations differing in ecology, in morphology, and subtly in vocalizations. Populations breeding in inland, primarily freshwater habitats of western states and provinces belong to the subspecies Catoptrophorus semipalmatus inornatus or Western Willet. Populations breeding in the marshes of the Atlantic coast, from New Brunswick to Tamaulipas, belong to the subspecies C. s. semipalmatus or Eastern Willet. The two breeding environments differ in several characteristics. Eastern Willets often have abundant food resources but limited nesting habitat, while Western Willets often have abundant nesting habitat but unpredictable food resources, depending on wetland availability and drought. Ambient sound also differs between the breeding areas of the 2 subspecies, and this has resulted in a divergence in “song” characteristics. The song (“pill-will-willet”) of the Eastern Willet is emitted at a higher frequency and more rapid repetition rate than that of the Western Willet. Calls of both subspecies sound very similar to human ears, but Eastern Willets do discriminate between male songs of the 2 subspecies, responding preferentially to Eastern song. Western Willets tend to be larger and paler than Eastern Willets, with less ornate barring in their breeding plumage. These are average differences, and the 2 races overlap in these morphological characteristics.

Patrick mentions on our Facebook page that he identified it by the long, two-toned bill and very pale color, as the overall body colorations are much lighter on Western Willets. He also mentioned the larger size which may not be apparent without a size reference but is always easy to see if you have experience looking at all of the Eastern Willets filling habitats like Stratford Great Meadows Marsh and associated areas each year, a great place to visit to examine "our" birds up close during the breeding season.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Horned Larks

After discussing the Sprague's Pipit turned Horned Lark back in this post I wanted to provide a little more information on the latter bird since it is one of the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds target species. Like so many of our coastal birds, the Horned Lark is a species of open habitats, from the dunes of a beach to mowed grasses of an airport to a weed-filled driveway to farm fields and dirt patches. These are probably the only places one would find them inland, and a location like Bradley Airport or Rocky Hill Meadows, like the bird above, is a great spot to watch. When you get to the coast you will be able to find them in nearly any beach or open (not forested) coastal preserve, like the Coastal Center at Milford Point, Stratford Point, Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Hammonasset State Park in Madison, Griswold Point in Old Lyme, Sandy and Morse Points in West Haven, and many more locations. Here are a few photos I've taken of them over the years.

However, you are very likely to find them in our state in only the late fall, winter, or early spring, and if you ever do find Horned Larks in or around the breeding season, we and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection would love to know as they are listed as endangered in the state. Nevertheless, from around October through March you can expect to see them occasionally in some of the mentioned areas. They will form flocks, often with Snow Buntings, and zip around the coastline in search of food that consists mostly of seeds from grasses and weeds. If we experience a heavy snowfall, watch for melted snow from the sun on pavement that exposes plants, or any patches made by snowplows, as these little spots will often draw in the birds.

Apart from finding food, these flocks also help to provide protection from would-be predators such as those pesky yet enthralling Peregrine Falcons that remain in the state year-round. They are seen hunting for birds on the beaches very frequently during the winter as they know the warmer areas near Long Island Sound will harbor many different species like this one. The bird below was a female at Long Beach in Stratford in January several years ago.

We would love to have any sightings of Horned Larks that you can find in the next several months. If you would share an eBird checklist with us that includes them that would be wonderful. Alternatively, you can send us an email and let us know about them and other lingering shorebirds or long-legged waders, a group of birds that seems to hang on in Connecticut throughout our increasingly warm winters more and more, and I'll discuss that further in an upcoming post.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

White Ibis

Earlier in September, John Oshlick found a juvenile White Ibis at Sandy/Morse Points in West Haven, one of our monitoring sites for the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds. It spent some time on the mudflats and in the nearby creek and marsh while many birders enjoyed good views of it. Keith Mueller took these great shots, thanks to him for letting us share them with you!

This is a long-legged wader we would not expect to record in Connecticut. The species is a resident of the southeastern U.S., and one you'd expect to find on the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic coast only possibly as far north as the Carolinas on a regular basis. Vagrants like this bird travel north on southwesterly winds for the most part, conditions we have seen a lot of lately and typically do in late summer as they precede some of the major cold fronts that bring us that first taste of fall. We have had particularly strong flows in place about four times in the last few weeks, and for the most part Connecticut has been quiet in terms of rare bird sightings. This bird will make its way back "home" on the northwest winds of those cold fronts, following the coast back the other direction and stopping at helpful sites like Sandy/Morse Points along the way.

Nevertheless, keep your eyes open for unexpected shorebirds, terns, and waders during your Intentional Shorebird Surveys and other birding, and please let us know if you find something intriguing.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Last call for information

We are in the beginning stages of data analysis and calculations of number of nests, young birds fledged, total pairs, and so forth for all four of our target species - Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Least Tern, and Common Tern. At this point, we would love to have all of the data and information submitted to us along with the number of hours you have volunteered for the project if you have yet to send it in to us. The more data we have the more accurately we can render these numbers. It also helps us to see which areas of the Connecticut coastline have sufficient (or even more than necessary) coverage in terms of survey efforts, what locations need more of our eyes next season, any beaches particularly affected by disturbances and when, and much more.

All of our numbers have been even better than we anticipated, and I do mean all of them, from the better than average year for Least Terns to the minimal tidal washouts to how many thousands of hours all of our generous and compassionate volunteers helped to make all of this possible. What we hope more than anything is that everyone returns to assist us in 2013 and that we are able to bring even more concerned Connecticut residents into the fold. Throughout the season, more and more people were signing up to become monitors, and presuming this trend continues we will soon have nearly constant coverage in some of the more populated municipalities and a very strong showing in even some of the traditionally quieter spots.

The 2013 schedule is going to be packed with names, and if you know of anyone else who would be interested in aiding coastal waterbirds please let them know to email us at ctwaterbirds@gmail.com at any time. Friends, relatives, colleagues, those you meet birding or while walking the beach, anyone and everyone of any age or birding skill level would be a great addition to the diverse and expanding ranks. This is a year-round effort and our work to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut will continue nonstop, even as the birds are resting at their wintering grounds.

If you are reading this and want more information about becoming a beach monitor and volunteering for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds please send us an email at ctwaterbirds@gmail.com now!

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Long-billed Dowitchers

If you attended our third shorebird seminar you would have heard quite a bit about picking out the Long-billed Dowitcher from the Short-billed Dowitcher. Keith Mueller has generously allowed the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds to use his photos, and here is a striking shot one a Long-billed Dowitcher.

That is a Short-billed Dowitcher in the foreground. Even in this photo you should be able to pick out some of the features that distinguish one from the other. I wanted to also post a photo that Sean Graesser had used in his presentation that was taken by Patrick Comins as it can perfectly illustrate some of the differences.

No, Patrick did not stage this or edit the photo - these two birds are sitting on the dock at the Stratford marina. Can you tell which bird is which in the above photo? Yes, in this instance it really is that easy, and the bird with the longer bill and slightly straighter on the right is the Long-billed Dowitcher while the bird on the left is the Short-billed Dowitcher. However, we all know birding and surveying is not as easy as staring at a frozen moment in time with two birds perfectly posed for you at a very close distance while they conveniently hold their heads in the same direction.

You can also notice that, at this point in the season, these Long-billed Dowitchers have a more gray and drab appearance with less of the buffy colors the Short-billeds do. The feather edges feature more golden on the Short-billed and brown on the Long-billed. The Short-billed has a steeper forehead with a more arched supercilium as opposed to the flatter, for both features, Long-billed. Body shape is a very good feature for these species, as the Long-billed appears to me to often have a longer and deeper back and thus a longer tail and rear, with the Short-billed having a flatter back and more stout rear. Many people say the Long-billed has a "humpback" appearance and it looks like it swallowed a grapefruit (being very rounded) as opposed to the more relaxed and natural curves of a Short-billed.

These are just some of the likely identification points for a tricky couple of species that will inevitably confuse even the best of us in the field on many occasions. Individual birds can vary a great deal, and when you have two such similar species and some may appear much like the other species even when they are not. It is best to use a wide array of features to really hone on in picking out the much more rare Long-billed Dowitchers from the many Short-billed Dowitchers you will see in Connecticut.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Final shorebird seminar

Our final shorebird identification seminar, the last of a series of three at the Coastal Center at Milford Point, took place this past Tuesday, highlighted by the Western Sandpiper seen and discussed in this entry. As mentioned, there we were able to see American Oystercatcher and Common Tern, two of our focal species, plus Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and much more.

While we scanned the Sound and the sand bars, a juvenile Peregrine Falcon decided to make a pass through and actually went after an American Oystercatcher and a small duck, possibly a Green-winged Teal. The latter dove underwater so fast that no one was able to identify it. Peregrines are a fixture at this time of the year as young from nearby nesting areas like the Milford power plant or the I-95 bridge in Bridgeport use the shorebird's coastal staging area as their own personal menu.

The Peregrine was unsuccessful tonight, at least while we viewed the birds, and after a little more than an hour of some fantastic looks and discussion we headed inside for Sean Graesser's advanced shorebird identification seminar. Sean provided the group with a handout discussing some of the identification points of nearly every expected and rare shorebird one could see in Connecticut. He grouped the birds by their size, large to medium to small, and went on to pick them apart from there.

Sean highlighted everything from basic plumage features and coloration, which he reported as being a sometimes subjective mark, to bill size and shape (while comparing it to the head size of some birds) to leg coloration and build to wing length and specific features on the feathering. He went into detail about behavior and movements while mentioning how much molt and seasonal appearance can play a role in identification.

It was an excellent presentation aided by wonderful and intelligent questions from the attendees, and we thank everyone for joining us that evening. Please keep an eye out for a tern identification workshop that we will be putting together along with other walks and talks in the fall and winter months.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Western Sandpiper at Milford Point

While I was planning to write about a few great shorebirds this week, I did not expect to have us find one during our third shorebird identification seminar at the Coastal Center at Milford Point last night. I'll write more about this seminar in an upcoming post, but those on hand were treated to a bunch of sights including Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and American Oystercatcher. Most of the more common shorebirds numbered only in the tens, and a hungry juvenile Peregrine Falcon, while providing awesome looks, did not help the shorebird situation.

However, this Western Sandpiper was located in a small group, poking around a bit for a snack and then pulling in its massive bill for a little nap. It is a juvenile bird that really fits the expected appearance perfectly. Patrick Comins was able to carefully approach the birds yet stay at a far enough distance using the zoom of his camera to snap off a bunch of cool photos. The shots below show the Western Sandpiper features well.

See the huge bill that is even longer than the head of the bird? It also droops just a bit towards the end. You can see how much the bill stands out especially in comparison to the Semipalmated Sandpipers that surrounded it. You can also clearly see the bright rufous coloration on the scapulars as well as the much more gray wing coverts as opposed to the darker gray and black of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Western Sandpipers are rare here in Connecticut mostly because of their name as they are found much more commonly on the western and central coasts of the country. However, they can be found regularly wintering from the Mid-Atlantic coast southward, so we are really one of the only areas in the continental United States where they are not often seen. You may be able to pick one out in a given fall from among the thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers that migrate through our state, and if you do you should be very happy with that! Thanks to everyone who attended and got to enjoy this stupendous bird, and more will be posted soon about the fantastic seminar.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Buff-breasted Sandpipers

This week I will be highlighting a few more of the tremendous shorebirds we have recorded during our International Shorebird Surveys or general monitoring of important shorebird staging and feeding areas. These may be odd to see in our state or rare in general because they are an imperiled species. One of the latter category is the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, a distinctive and unique shorebird that Patrick Comins photographed wonderfully below.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper was hunted by the thousands a little over 100 years ago. It is now classified as globally near-threatened by BirdLife International. The total global population is approximated at only 15,000 individuals according to the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Its continued decline is linked somewhat to breeding habitat contamination, wintering and stopover site degradation, and the loss of very specific features that it requires (short grasslands, meadows, flooded fields, and other agriculture-related land). Its migration pathway takes it primarily through the central U.S. from the breeding grounds in the arctic tundra to South America, but Connecticut picks up a bird or two here or there that stray too far to the east coast each fall season.

So far in 2012, the species has been seen at a grand total of two (very expected) Connecticut locations - Rocky Hill Meadows, where the above photos are from, and Sikorsky Airport in Stratford, with another possible couple flying by Stratford Point. The airport only held two birds for one day, but Rocky Hill Meadows has held them on several days hosting up to four birds as noted there yesterday. Even though we as a state may be off course for the species, having such habitat readily available greatly aids the handful of birds that pass through each year on their journey. This is especially important when perhaps 15 individuals constitute 1/1000 of the entire population.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sprague's Pipit? Horned Lark

Earlier this week there was quite an exciting commotion over a bird at Rocky Hill Meadows as tens of birders likely raced to their cars to see what appeared to be a Sprague's Pipit. After being found in the early morning, those who got to the site throughout the morning had also temporarily fallen prey to a vexing identification. This "pipit" was able to deceive many very experienced and knowledgeable birders...for a little while. It did not take too long for those on hand to determine that they were looking at a juvenile Horned Lark. Here are some photos taken by Patrick Comins.

The bird looks is going through a molt and still is rather "messy", with the streaky breast rather blotchy instead of finely streaked, and a dark patch under the eyes instead of being all pale. The bill is too large and the legs are too dark, plus it has that white edging on the tail as Horned Larks do. The pattern of the white coverts with some white spots and an overall drab (even with the dark photo) brown color stands in contrast to what should be a warmer and maybe more buffy brown for a Sprague's. This is very easy to sit here and write now, staring at photos and a couple books and having thought about it, rather than anxiously tracking it in the field hoping for a life bird. The problem is that we only exceptionally rarely get to see a Horned Lark that looks like this in our state, and I am sure 99% of us would not immediately think it was what it actually was initially.

Before you ask me why I am writing about this in the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds blog I should mention that Horned Lark is actually one of our target species. Most people in Connecticut think of them as a wintering bird, seen in sizable flocks feeding in open areas, sometimes mixed in with Snow Buntings. However, they do breed in Connecticut, and this breeding population is in fact a state-listed endangered species! They also nest in short grass and barren country, utilizing locations like airports, beaches, and associated dunes. One could expect them to be able to nest near a location like Rocky Hill Meadows, the Coastal Center at Milford Point or Stratford Point, or any of the large airports such as Sikorsky in Stratford or of course Bradley in Windsor Locks.

Check out this very cool fledged Horned Lark that Twan Leenders spotted at Stratford Point on one hot July day in 2009 on the Connecticut Audubon Society blog. We will be watching for Horned Larks year-round and hoping to see more of them in the summer months in the future.

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Fencing removal and requesting data

The Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds and a bunch of ever-intrepid volunteers recently joined the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in removing the string fencing and Piping Plover exclosures from Morse Point in West Haven. We also assisted CT DEEP and The Nature Conservancy with the effort at Griswold Point in Old Lyme. Both of these removals came late in the season for a very good reason as many Least Terns nested at both sites, and some of our waterbirds cleared out only a few days before. We seem to have had a wonderful year for Least Terns in particular.

Here are some of action shots from the work parties from Audubon Connecticut Director of Bird Conservation Patrick Comins and Connecticut Audubon Society Conservation Technician Scott Kruitbosch:

We had both young children and teens helping us out often this year, the next generation!

A beautiful day at Sandy and Morse Points

Packing it up for the season

Before we know it we will be taking the gear back out of the vehicles in 2013

Semipalmated Sandpipers at Griswold Point

Loads of Monarchs in Old Lyme! We watched for butterflies while working and saw some cool coastal vagrants like Cloudless Sulphurs while in West Haven

Fording the channel at Griswold Point

Michael Brooks carrying a bunch

Followed by Sean Graesser doing the same

A beautiful day in Old Lyme as well

The journey back

It certainly does not seem like six months has passed to us, but in another six months we will be well underway with monitoring the first-arriving coastal waterbirds, with Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers filtering in to beaches everywhere. Until that time we have a tremendous amount of work to do, with two more months in the field monitoring some of these species as they depart plus conducting International Shorebird Surveys before report writing, presentations, analysis, mapping, number-crunching, and more, all while planning for 2013!

If you have yet to submit some of your data or information from the 2012 field season please email it to us at ctwaterbirds@gmail.com as soon as you can. Additionally, if you would like to submit the hours you participated in the project you can do so as well. If you regularly submitted all of your surveys we can calculate this ourselves, but if you spent extra time on the beach or did not send us all of your data, we would like this hourly total as well please, thank you!

Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut and the Connecticut Audubon Society partnering to improve conditions for coastal waterbirds in Connecticut.