It was 10:00 at night on February 5th, and I was just finishing double checking my route to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important. Tomorrow would be the annual Mega Bowl competition and the Great Horned Holtons had big plans this year. Although the rules had been adjusted to accommodate everyone during the pandemic, we had decided to stick to our home turf in New Haven County and I had a good feeling that tomorrow would be an excellent day. It was hard to fall asleep with everything on my mind, but eventually my thoughts began to wander and my dreams were filled with great flocks of birds and seven point rarities making their way into my binoculars.
The next morning I woke already energized and ready for the day. We quickly gathered our things and ate breakfast, and then headed down to the marsh at the north end of Quonnipaug Lake. To my surprise, the frigid air was filled with birdsong and activity levels were high. Eastern Bluebirds sat on our snow covered roof and I could hear a Pileated Woodpecker calling in the woods, a good sign of the day ahead. Reaching the marsh, I listened for my target bird, and within a minute I heard it’s grunt calls. Yes! We had already gotten Virginia Rail and the day had just begun! I quickly birded for a few more minutes, picking up Swamp Sparrow, Cedar Waxwing, and Wood Duck among many others. Heading to the south end, we scanned the gigantic flock of geese that were resting on the ice for any rarities, but unfortunately all the geese had their heads tucked and I didn’t notice any smaller Branta type geese that were suggestive of Cackling Goose or something even rarer like Barnacle Goose. However, we were able to pick up a Belted Kingfisher that called from across the pond, which made the stop well worth it. Finished with the lake, we quickly headed south to the coast to bird at Hammonasset Beach State Park. Heading out on the Moraine Trail, the wind blew viciously and the waves were choppy, making it hard to see anything out on the water. Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls were in abundance and an unexpected flock of Horned Larks fed in the marsh on some of the shorter grass. We continued on and upon reaching the end of the trail the wind died down a little and we were able to pick out several specks on the water, including both species of Loon, a flock of Greater and Lesser Scaup, a couple of Common Eider, several Surf Scoters, and a single Black Scoter, which was a good find. Scanning the rocks brought a large flock of Dunlin and a few Ruddy Turnstones that were huddled up together. Turning around, we made our way to Willard’s Island which was extremely quiet except for a few sparrows and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers. We also had extremely good views of a Red-tailed Hawk that didn’t seem bothered by our presence at all, and did not flush as we walked past it. Although we were expecting
better conditions and a little bit more activity, we decided that it was best to move on and head to our next spot in order to save time. This ended up being an important decision later in the day when the sun began to set. Stopping off on Leetes Island Road, we scanned the water and quickly got Hooded and Common Mergansers, several Bufflehead, and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers that we suspected might be early in establishing territory, as they were making quite a fuss and calling frequently in good habitat. Moving on, we swiftly stopped at Shell Beach but were disappointed to find nothing but a couple of Red-breasted Mergansers, as the large pond had completely frozen over. Getting back in our car, we drove to Proto Drive, a slightly lesser known spot that in good years can contain several marsh species. At the beginning of the trail, we met several other birders who didn’t have much luck, but we gave it a try anyway and were completely surprised when a Marsh Wren popped out of the reeds after I heard a strange chip note. Checking the rest of the trail, we didn’t find anything else but made sure to alert the other birders of where we had seen the Marsh Wren before we left. At this point, it was around 11:00 and we were still on schedule; we decided to make our way up to Lake Whitney, my old stomping ground where I knew we could get some more inland species and passerines. On our way there, we drove past the cliffs of East Rock and I was able to spot a Peregrine Falcon flying above them, adding to our list. Hitting Lake Whitney, everything was frozen over but I still had a couple spots left in mind. Walking the Johnson’s Pond Trail, we picked up both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, which was excellent. Heading to Gordon Street, we quickly found Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pine Siskin, and Winter Wren along with several other needed species. Finishing up, we drove to Beavers Pond Park to eat and plan our next steps. At this point, we needed to start chasing species, so when I got the bird alert that Northern Pintail and Wilson’s Snipe were at Crosby’s Pond in Orange, we decided to go there. Reaching the pond, we got out quickly to scan and quickly picked up the Pintails. But in our haste to leave for the next spot to conserve time, we completely forgot that a Wilson’s Snipe had been seen there and instead moved on! This was really a costly mistake as Wilson’s Snipe was a 5 Point bird and would have been an excellent species to get, but unfortunately, our brains were too frazzled to remember it! Oh well, you can’t get them all I suppose. Driving to Sandy Point next, this ended up being a gold mine. We easily picked up Brant on the shoreline, and flushed a Savannah Sparrow from the marsh grass along the trail. Scanning the gulls I picked out an Iceland Gull, which was a good find and a high point bird. Reaching the end of the sandbar, a couple flocks of Sanderling crowded the jetty, and several Long-tailed Ducks rested on the rough waves. About to leave, another duck flew towards the point and landed in the water besides the jetty next to some Common Goldeneyes. Setting up my scope again, I got eyes on it and realized that it was an American Wigeon, a bird I hadn’t
expected to get considering there weren’t too many reliable spots that I knew about. We made good time back to the car and quickly headed to Merwin Point, which brought a couple of lonely Purple Sandpipers standing on the sharp rocks that peaked above the waves. At this point it was getting close to 4:00 so we decided to hit our last spot, Silver Sands. We arrived quickly and immediately hit the boardwalk, scanning the waters and marshes for any new species. Unfortunately for us the wind picked up and the bird activity died down. We left the coast and headed up the trail that brought us to the large field. A large flock of Field Sparrows sat waiting for us in the exact same spot as last year, giving us another high point bird. Hoping to flush a snipe or come across a Northern Harrier, we walked the deer trails but didn’t find anything. At this point we had about 30 minutes before 5:00, so we made a decision. Silver Sands wasn’t looking very good and we had walked most of the area, so we decided to try and make it to another spot to see if we could pick up some ducks and then head back for the Wilson’s Snipe. Getting in the car as fast as possible, we sped to a pond we had heard about from a couple of other birders and were rewarded with Gadwall, a species that we had been unable to find the entire day. Quickly hightailing it to Crosby Pond, we searched the entire area for the Snipe but sadly it had disappeared for the night. Even though we had missed the bird, we still got to enjoy a great view of the Northern Pintails, which came very close and allowed us to stare at the beautifully colored males, their chocolate brown heads and extremely long tails wowing us. Overall it had been a fantastic day and we had seen a lot of species despite the windy conditions. Reaching the warmth of our home, we counted up our points and attended the zoom meeting the next day. Coming in with 79 species and 162 points, the Great Horned Holtons won first place in New Haven County!!