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!!
Litchfield Country: home of rolling hills and farmlands, expansive freshwater marshes and unique waterways, pastures, and old growth forests. A place to take in the beauty of the outdoors while experiencing an amazing variety of birds. Growing up in this beautiful area has been a truly rewarding experience, an experience that has shaped me into who I am as a birder. As my last year of Highschool approached and it was time to start thinking about college, I knew that my last year here had to be amazing. So, as a last hurrah I decided at the end of 2019 to give it my all and compete against myself in a Litchfield County Big Year.
I didn’t realize till now that it wasn’t all about the number or total of species I saw. The most fulfilling thing about it was the experiences I had along the way. Birding through a global pandemic, a tropical storm that knocked out power for a week, endless rainstorms and massive snowfall, I saw birds that I never expected I would see. I gained lots of valuable information and now have plenty of amazing stories to tell.
I’ve only been a serious birdwatcher for the past three to four years, so my knowledge of the identifications of certain species was limited. I also needed to improve on learning what habitats birds frequent, along with visiting obscure spots in my county. Therefore I made sure to focus on these topics going into the challenge.
I started off the year spending my time in search for the tough overwintering species. One of the first “good finds” was a Field Sparrow buried deep in a cluster of bushes on the edge of a farm. Once I learned what specific habitat this bird frequented in the winter, I was able to find more individuals at other locations later in the month. Another tough January find was a small group of Savannah Sparrows feeding on seeds at Swendsen Farm. Common at coastal locations during winter, it’s actually quite the tough bird inland. I also managed an American Kestrel and a Gray Catbird along another farm’s edge. At the end of the first month of the year I had tallied a total of 68 species, which I was very proud of.
February started off great with a loud Northern Saw-whet Owl crashing into a roost on a cold early morning, foreshadowing a great irruption for this species towards the end of the year. Despite the great start, February proved to be a slow month regarding new additions. Adding only eight species, I was optimistic for some good birding in March. Little Pond Boardwalk Trail was my best friend during the start of spring. If you’re the first on the trail for the day, you will definitely be greeted with an amazing show from Wilson’s Snipe. On a foggy morning the trail can feel like some distant and foreign planet, making for an immaculate vibe.
Little Pond also held two early arrivals: both Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren hunkered down in the reeds. While easy to get during the breeding season, seeing these species was a nice taste of the upcoming spring. Tree Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Pine Warblers also joined in on the party. Closing out the month, Aton Forest yielded two Sandhill Cranes, which was a long sought after lifer.
The big year continued to be quite successful with plenty of goodies during the end of April. Bantam Lake being one of the largest inland bodies of water in the state it often holds quite the variety of birds, especially during migration. Rainstorms will often force many species out of the sky to get shelter and rest on the lake, which results in somewhat of a fallout. With a good storm on its way on April 27th, I decided to head to the lake. I was greeted with a flock of 15 Boneparte’s Gulls sitting on the water just off the tip of Point Folly. I’ve always been told that when you run into a flock of BOGU on an inland lake, start searching for terns. I knew I was up for a challenge as Terns can have a very similar flight style to BOGU. So everytime the flock picked up off the water, I made sure to thoroughly check every bird. With myself and my optics now drenched, I was elated to find a rare Common Tern! It is never expected in Litchfield County to find terns, so this was quite the treat. Little did I know that as the year progressed I’d come across two more species of tern. Another great surprise from the lake was yet another difficult species for Litchfield County. A Snowy Egret accompanied a Great Blue Heron for a brief moment before taking off and disappearing. The following day more rainy conditions yielded White-winged Scoter and Red-necked Grebe on Tyler and Bantam Lakes, respectively. A Eurasian Wigeon was also located at Jones Pond during April, which was a second county record! Aside from the rairites, certain migrants and breeders started to arrive. Bank Swallow, along with Cliff Swallow, passed over the lake. Warblers such as Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart and Black-and-white Warbler were in the area as well. By the end of the month my total for the big year now reached 122 species.
One similarity between the coast and inland Connecicut is the overwhelming amount of species diversity that May brings. Between the drive to get every migratory and breeding bird possible and endless scouting for my second annual Litchfield big day, May was a sleepless month. Deciding what day to execute my town big day is always challenging. Weather plays a huge part and with the help of Dave Tripp, May 15th was the day to pull the trigger. The night started off with heavy rains, making it difficult to look for rails, but I managed to stir up a Sora at Little Pond. Other than that, the night was drowned out with rain. But as dawn approached I heard a bird that was a sure sign the day was going to be a good one. As the chorus of Marsh Wrens, Gray Catbirds, American Robins started to pick up, a Long-eared Owl asserted its presence, giving 3 deeply chilling and separate calls off in the distance. After hours of time and energy put into finding this species, I was overcome with an amazing sense of both relief and accomplishment. This rewarding feeling, in part, is the reason I became a birder.
At daybreak I was meant with perfect fallout conditions. With rain starting at around 1 am and ending right at sunrise, I knew that whatever had been knocked down by the weather was still yet to take off. I figured it would be best to check Bantam Lake. I was greeted there by a flock of 15 White-winged Scoters, 7 Long-tailed Duck, and 4 lingering Buffleheads all emerging from the edge of Point Folly. Being as uncommon as they are in the county it was a great relief to be able to add these few additional species to my day list. Throughout the rest of the day I managed 19 warbler species including Cape May Warbler, 6 shorebird species including Lesser Yellowlegs, White-crowned Sparrow, as well as breeding Bobolinks and Field Sparrows. Passing my previous record of 103 species, I was ecstatic with my final total of 113.
Ending off a beautiful month, I found yet another new county bird. Birding during a rainstorm on inland lakes can be hit or miss. But on May 29th, I lucked out yet again. After checking the weather and seeing the distant thunderstorm coming in with the combination of southerly winds, I figured it would be good to check Tyler Lake. When I arrived at the boat launch I did a quick scan of the water with my scope. About 40 seconds into the scan, I had two small terns flying about 10 feet above the water. Watching them for about as long as it took to spot them, I eventually lost sight. Although the sun had set there was still good enough lighting to make the ID; Two Black Terns!! In total I was able to tally 58 new year birds during May, and observe over 146 species!
There were lots of other species from the month worth noting. One being Eastern Meadowlarks singing and giving unique call notes. Following the exciting year bird, Sharon Audubon held my first ever Common Gallinule, which was presenting itself quite nicely among the reeds. Greater Yellowlegs, American Bittern, Orchard Oriole, and Eastern Whip-poor-will were spread out through the county as well. The Russell Street Common Raven nest in Litchfield also returned this year; a pair with 5 offspring. They always put on a show!
June was the time to find whatever remaining breeders I needed. Although River Road in Kent was productive for many birders, I kept striking out on Cerulean Warbler. I decided that it was best to start looking in other areas. While scouting eBird, I saw a report of Ceruleans from a random dirt road in Cornwall. Deciding to check it out, I was discouraged by the lack of activity in the area. But, once the sun warmed up the trees and the insects started getting active, so did a bright blue male. Litchfield County is often known and birded for its Cerulean Warblers and with their striking appearance, I can understand the drive to see them! On the same day I also managed a Least Bittern singing deep in the reeds along an uncharted backroad. Giving a unique fast song it was a treat to hear, along with the fact that it was a potential breeder! Summer Counts were also another exciting part about the month. One count resulted in my lifer White-eyed Vireo, which did not want to pop up from the dense shrubbery. Eastern Screech Owls, Willow and Alder Flycatchers weresinging in the dead of night, along with both Yellow-billed and Black billed Cuckoos giving unheard of songs at 3 am. One other notable was a Black-crowned Night-Heron along Isaiah Smith Rd in Morris. Although somewhat expected this time of year in the county, it’s still very uncommon; only showing up about once every other year. A bird that I was expecting for sure to get during migration, and more specifically breeding was Magnolia Warbler. Although, to my surprise, this species gave me a hard time. All the spots I’ve had them on territory in the past were vacant. Evidently, though, I lucked out on a trip to Great Mountain Forest in North Canaan, and to my surprise, one popped out in some low shrubs on the side of the road. Shortly thereafter me and fellow young birders located another warbler. A male Nashville Warbler singing on great habitat! This was yet another migrant I had missed. By this point in 2020 I had seen/heard 189 species!
Again, being a relatively new birder, I have not gotten the chance to birdwatch in a storm any larger than a thunderstorm. I’ve heard the stories of Bantam Lake during Hurricane Irene plenty of times. Fran Zygmont finding a Leach’s Storm-Petrel along with other obscene rarities was mind-boggling to me. An area that I bird so often holding species that frequent the deep ocean. It sounds horrible to wish for a storm of this caliber to hit the Northeast, but from my birder perspective, it’s all I wanted. Then, to my excitement, I heard of Tropical Storm Isaias. Although I describe myself as a serious birder ready to take on any conditions, I bit off way more than I could chew with this storm.
Once the storm hit, Fran and I headed to the lake. After a brief phone call, Fran informed me that he was birding from the camp store near Point Folly and was considering hitting South Bay on the other side of the lake. I started at Litchfield Town Beach where Fran had his storm petrel back in 2011. Annoyed with my car fogging up and not being able to see through my wipers, I decided to quickly jump out of my car and scan. That decision was possibly one of the stupidest I’ve made. After scanning the water for about a minute I turned back to my car to dry off. But my car decided to lock itself while still running. With my phone in my car I was trapped in the horrible tropical storm conditions. Large branches and trees began to fall around me and, scared for my life, I made the tough decision to run half a mile to Fran. Fearful that he would head to the other side of the lake I had to move quickly. Covering my head as I ran, I eventually made it to Fran whose expression was priceless.
Now in the comfort of Fran’s truck, we headed back to Town Beach where he dropped me off and went to the nearest hardware store. Returning with a wire and a hammer I began to try to unlock my car. After several frustrating attempts to break in and almost managing to pull the latch up, I quickly dropped everything when Fran yelled “BIRDS!”. A total of FIVE SOOTY TERNS fell from the sky. This was a moment that I’d never forget: wind gusts up to 50 mph, heavy rain and the forest falling around us, my 300th lifer on Bantam Lake.
August and September continued to result in some exciting rarities. Lacking on the shorebird front at this point in the year, this was my time to get some more obscure species. The first and one the best was a Baird’s Sandpiper along Colebrook River Lake. This spot was very productive this year and with such little rainfall, there were plenty of mudflats. This made for a great feeding opportunity for birds on the move. I also managed to locate Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers at this location in the same week. A Eared Grebe also made an appearance on Bantam Lake at the end of August. A species that hasn’t been seen in the county since 2010! Furthermore in September, I found a Red-necked Phalarope which was avidly feeding in Cemetery Pond. It’s not often you find your own lifers, and this time was especially exciting as it has become way more difficult for me to get lifers in Litchfield. This time of year was also a chance to some additional species that I missed during May. The last warbler of the year ended up being a Tennessee Warbler. Which Fran and I located at at Lower Greenwoods Recreation Area in Barkhamsted towards the end of September. I also found the one remaining thrush I missed in May, Gray-cheeked Thrush in White Memorial.
Approaching the final few months of the year I frankly had no idea what other new additions to expect. 2020 had been such an amazing year for birding already, and it was going to be topped off with an irruption year of winter finches! Finch researchers were calling this winter a “superflight”. And they were right – many species irrupted, including both species of crossbill, siskins, purple finches, both species of redpolls and both species of grosbeaks. Due to a lack of food in the Boreal Forest all these species approached the Northeast in droves. The first finches species for me was a flyover flock of 20 Pine Siskins in my own backyard! But this flock was just the start of this species. For many birders in the middle to late parts of October, siskins became more common than American Goldfinches. Over the course of October and November I saw two different massive flocks. The first being at White Memorial Conservation Area, where a flock of 125 individuals were avidly feeding and covered practically the entire dirt road. The second flock being 110 at Mt. Riga in Salisbury. Over the course of these two months I saw a total of 557 individual siskins! The second irruptive finch I got was a lone male Evening Grosbeak calling atop a tree one morning on my way to school. I later had some flyover flocks and totaled 14 individuals for the year.
During the summer a few reports came in of Red Crossbills in more northern spots of the county. Unfortunately I struck out on finding these potentially breeding birds, however I was happy to see over 30 individuals later in the year. 10 of which were feeding around my yard! Common Redpolls also came in swinging. The largest flock being 25 at Mt. Riga where Caleb May and I got to watch them for about 5 minutes. Will Schenck, Preston Lust and I had some amazing finch extravaganza to Mt. Riga as well, which you can read about on CT Audubon’s website here: https://www.ctaudubon.org/2020/11/a-young-birders-exhortation-fellow-connecticut-birders-go-north-there-are-birds/
The most incredible finch experience the “finch crew” had was at Great Mountain Forest. While exploring a spruce stand in hopes for Boreal Chickadee, a flock of 5 White-winged Crossbills came crashing in above us. We all stood in awe while observing this flock, which took off after about 1 minute. With the irruption in full swing at this point we knew it was only a matter of time before they showed up in the state. All the time and effort we put into finding this species finally paid off, which warranted a celebratory dance, hugs, and high fives. Being the first flock in the state this year, it made for a very rewarding experience!
The species that was the most difficult to locate was Pine Grosbeak. With a few reports starting to trickle in we were hopeful that we would get lucky like we did with the WW Crossbills. Unfortunately Will, Preston, and I were unsuccessful in our attempts. Personally, I put in over 20 hours in the field searching for this species, and with the year quickly coming to a close I began to worry that I might miss the last possible finch. Thankfully though other birders managed to locate a flock of about 5 individuals at Great Mountain Forest in the last week of December. The following day, about 7 other birders and I put in over 3 hours of effort into finding this flock. At around 10am we heard one individual Pine Grosbeak respond to playback. Racing to where we heard the call, we found a male and female feeding in a spruce tree. While they were difficult to see at times, I was still happy with the experience and extremely thankful to finish off the year with an amazing lifer.
Outside of the winter finch explosion there were a few other species remaining to be added to my final total. A noteworthy species was a group of 5 adult Tundra Swan on Bantam Lake. In poor conditions this ID was definitely a tough one, but it ended up being a great learning experience. It was apparent that these swans had a longer more sloped head/bill compared to nearby Mute Swans, in which the head and bill dropped much more. I was also able to pick out a uniform black bill, along with a Canvasback-like head and bill shape. Adding to the rare waterfowl, I was able to pin down Surf Scoter and Red-throated Loon. During winter, Barkhamsted Reservoir tends to hold some unique and difficult birds for Litchfield County. Again many of the species that are frequent the coast are, in turn, a challenge in inland CT. While somewhat expected on inland bodies of water during migration, neither of these species are a guarantee.
Considering the small size of Connecticut, it’s surprising how some species are polar opposite on the coast and inland. For instance Common Merganser on the coast is very uncommon and Red-breasted Merganser is extremely common, and vice versa inland . Red-breasted Merganser gave me an extremely difficult time this year. On multiple occasions I got tripped up on the ID. But thankfully on the Lake Waramaug CBC birders found 3 female Red-breasted Mergansers. Successful in my chase, I finally realized the major pointers in the ID. A thin bill, dark throat and breast, and a dark eye stripe extending far past the eye to the back of the head. Aside from the waterfowl, a very exciting species showed up around this time , which many birders across the state got the chance to see. A juvenile Northern Shrike made an appearance on Anderson Road in Morris. A state bird for me!
All in all 2020, ended up being a stunning year for birding. In writing this summary of my Litchfield County Big Year, I hope to inspire and or challenge future young birders of Connecticut to get out and push themselves to become a better birder. Granted, while this year was full of ups and downs on the birding front and in my personal life, it was well worth the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into birding. While this competition was very list oriented, I really want to stress the importance of birding in the moment. I had so many fulfilling experiences: moments of pure joy when finding that one species I was looking for, and moments that were so fulfilling and rewarding that they drive me every day to get out and go birding.
The new standard for Big Years in Litchfield County is 215 species!
Salisbury, Sunday 11/11/20 — myself, Nicolas Main, and Preston Lust headed up to one of the highest and northwesternmost birding spots in Connecticut, Mount Riga in Salisbury, to search for northern specialties, as this winter is proving to be one of the best in decades for finches and other irruptive birds. We were amazed at what we found!
Finches were indeed extremely abundant. PINE SISKINS were the most numerous species, with a few flocks numbering over 30. Over 100 were observed in the course of the day. Many (15+) COMMON REDPOLLS were interspersed in these flocks; one stand of birches along Mt Washington Rd was especially productive, and flyovers were relatively frequent.
However, the clear finch highlight must have been the double-digit numbers (~18) of RED CROSSBILLS we encountered on the mountain. Our first finch of the day was a flyover flock 7 at South Pond; one other large flock followed, with scattered small numbers later. We were not able to see any of these birds perched (there are few large pine stands that we could see), but they afforded great flight views.
The non-finch highlight was a euphoric experience with a RUFFED GROUSE, a rarely seen northern specialty, feeding in the road in front of the car. Other notables included a very small number of EVENING GROSBEAKS, high numbers of FOX SPARROW, and one RUSTY BLACKBIRD flyover. There was a possible encounter with flyover White-winged Crossbill that sadly went unresolved.
I really must personally urge birders to get out to the northern (and especially northwestern) parts of the state, which are desperately underbirded, but during this winter, are sure to hold many truly exceptional experiences, beyond our own extravaganza. Reports of Pine Grosbeaks are starting to trickle in, and Bohemian Waxwing and White-winged Crossbill are already in Massachusetts. Mount Riga, much of the Appalachian Trail, Canaan Mountain (Great Mountain State Forest), Haystack Mountain, Aton Forest, around Colebrook River Lake, and Mohawk Mountain are all exceptional high-elevation northwestern spots that have low coverage. Who wouldn’t want to get the glory of finding a cooperative flock of White-winged Crossbills eating grit along a pine forest road, or an apple tree covered in Pine Grosbeaks? Or…. and with these birds present as rarities in MA, it’s not all pipedream fantasy… a Boreal Chickadee? First state record Canada Jay? Fellow CT birders: go north! There are birds!
Hi everyone! This is Eli Holton writing; I’ve been going on club trips for just under a year now, but I am very excited to be writing the Trip Reports for the YBC now! I hope this report is descriptive and fun to read, and that it makes you want to go birding! Our apologies for the lack of recent Trip Reports; 2019 has brought many changes, and the YBC is still working to establish a consistent flow of reports. However, we are slowly making progress on the website and will have everything updated soon!
Since the club hadn’t gone birding together in two months, we were all excited for the November club trip, which was focused on finding winter ducks and coastal birds. At 7:30, the club gathered outside the gates of Sherwood Island State Park, an excellent place to start the day! As soon as the gates were opened, we drove to the Model Airplane Field to look for sparrows and check the feeders for anything unusual. Before long, Nic heard a group of American Pipits flying over us and a few Horned Larks landed in the grass, providing us with great looks. Then, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew from the bushes and all the sparrows scattered immediately. Next, we drove over to the shoreline and pulled out our scopes. Soon, Nic had spotted a Horned Grebe, and we found multiple Common Loons and several flocks of Long-tailed Ducks. We scanned over all the gulls, hoping for the Iceland Gull that had been hanging around, but unfortunately, we could not find it. We did however find the resident Lesser Black-backed Gull, a lifer for one member! Moving on to the Mill Pond, we saw several Buffleheads, a few Gadwall, and a single Ruddy Duck. Sherwood ended up providing us with some great birds, and just under 40 species!
We then decided to go over to 14 Acre Pond, a great spot for wintering ducks. On our way there, we stopped off at the Fairfield County Hunt Club to look for the Greater White-fronted Goose that had been hanging around, but unfortunately, it wasn’t there. When we got to 14 Acre Pond, we walked down a small trail that led us to a good viewing spot. As soon as I set up my scope, a pair of Northern Pintail swam into view, giving me great looks at a long awaited lifer! Soon after, we saw a large group of Wood Ducks and few American Wigeons. But the real treat came when we spotted the rare Eurasian Wigeon, a bird that had been hanging out for a couple of weeks! This bird, (as the name suggests) lives across the ocean in Europe, and to see one in Connecticut is a nice surprise. A couple ofminutes later, a pair of Ring-necked Ducks popped into view, and a large group of American Black Ducks popped out of the reeds. Nic then spotted a late Eastern Phoebe hanging out on the other side of the pond, providing us with great views of this bird’s unique hunting style. After spending some time marveling at the Eurasian Wigeon, we decided that we had gotten some great birds there, and that it was time to move on.
The next place we decided to check was Frash Pond, a small spot known for it’s ducks. Nic quickly found the usual male Canvasbacks, another lifer for me! A couple of small flocks of Hooded Mergansers and Red-breasted Mergansers were also present. We searched the large flock of Canada Geese for a rare Cackling Goose, but none were to be found. We then sat down at a Dunkin’ Donuts to refuel and plan the next location. A Snowy Owl had been seen that morning on someone’s roof in Stratford, but all plans were dropped when we got the news. Jory Teltser, the previous President of the club, had seen a photo of a sparrow identified as Clay-colored sparrow and recognized it for what it really was: a MEGA Rare Brewer’s Sparrow! This was the First State Record for Connecticut, and only the 3rd for New England!
We immediately abandoned Dunkin’ and drove straight to Hammonasset Beach State Park, where it was seen. When we got there, a large group of birders were all surrounding a small area, so we rushed over to them. A pale gray sparrow with fine streaking on the back sat in the grass calmly. The First State Record Brewer’s Sparrow hopped in front of us, eating happily among the Song Sparrows. A lifer for all except Grace, we had trouble suppressing our joy. For fifteen minutes, we stood and stared at this small sparrow. This bird usually lives in sagebrush habitat in the Western United States, so to see one on the coast of Connecticut is astounding! Sadly, it marked the end of our club trip, but we sure ended with a bang! I look forward to the next club trip and hope that everyone is able to take part in one of the Christmas Bird Counts! Until next time!
Our apologies for the extended hiatus; due to the swarm of exams, college applications, and our overall busy lives, we haven’t had much of a chance to get on top of producing regular trip reports and updates to the website. Yet, with new changes to the club, I can assure you all that the website will, slowly but surely, get new and exciting updates such as new member profiles, an updated gallery with photos from club trips, and detailed visual reports that are appealing and fun to read. So stay tuned!
Saying that the club hadn’t gotten together in some time, we all were anxious to get back out into the field together. Thankfully, the New Haven Mega Bowl was coming up, and we all couldn’t be more excited for some fun competition. Although it is nice to have laid back club trips where we all have the freedom to bird at our own pace, we all were looking forward to a 12 hour day of birding, racing from location to location, and maintaining our winning streak. For the past two years, the Connecticut Young Birders have been reigning champions of this competition, so this year the pressure was on in order to keep our title. It seems as though that every year we face more of a challenge than we did the previous one. Last time we competed we were short staffed; this year, the amount of teams that we were facing had doubled. Hence why the preparation for the competition was just as important as our actual performance
The night before the big day, we all got together at our president Jory’s house down in Westport. We ordered some food, sat down and started planning out each and every location that could hold a possible bird. It was important that we planned this out because every species of bird we identified, would earn us a certain amount of points, and this ultimately decides the winner. The more uncommon or rare a bird is, the more points we would earn. However, we were out of luck because absolutely no rare birds were being in the county. Despite this, we were determined to find some rare birds on our own. These rare birds can sometimes be the deciding factor in the winner, so we were hoping to get lucky. Eventually, after a long few hours and much debate we finally had a route set in place. The agenda was open to change, of course, but we were happy with what we had.
When planning for a big day, dawn can play a very important role; that’s why it is vital that we choose a good first spot. First light is when birds are the most active, so what better place to start off than Silver Sands? This coastal state park holds open marsh, open ocean, abundant glasslands, dense vegetation, shrubs along with berries, and dense cedar groves, all of which make this site quite ideal. That’s why, despite the frostbite inducing temperatures, we were eager to try and start off the day strong. And that we did. birds such as American Tree Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and Song Sparrows were all in high numbers. Not only did we pick up on most of the common coastal birds, but we also found a few rare birds! Two White-Crowned Sparrows, which were pointed out by James, and the almighty Eastern Meadowlark who was hunkered down in the fields. Although we had spent a decent amount of time at this location, it was definitely worth it. We left with a a near total of 40 species!
While continuing on to our next spot, we had made a quick pit stop at a pond that hopefully would hold a Wood Duck. These birds can be hard to get in winter, so the possibility of getting on this species was a vital move. Disappointingly, however, the pond had frozen over, so we raced on to the next location. Thankfully, our next spot was a time saver. Not only was it close by, but we were also able to pull over and scan the water from the car. This made for a quick and speedy get away. We first started to scan the Greater Scaup flock and found the added bonus of a Lesser Scaup. We also got on Great Cormorants and Purple Sandpipers sitting on the gagid rocks, along with a pair of American Wigeon who responsively made an appearance from behind the rocks. Additionally, thanks to the birding gods, we came across a flock of Brant. Normally, Brant wouldn’t be a worry given how likely we are to get them, but last year we missed them. Just goes to show how unpredictable a big day can be!
Next came a quick stakeout at hidden pond behind an extremely overgrown fence. Upon arrival we were scared that it was all frozen, but fortunately the stream leading into the pond was open and filled with birds. A large flock of Ring-necked Ducks mingled with the Common Mergansers which was an exciting find, as they can be difficult to get along the coast. A skulking Great-blue Heron, and a flyover Pine Siskin were nice additions at this location, as well.
As we proceed further south along the coast, we had decided to stop at a location that Aidan had found last year while eBird scouting. Proto Drive has good marsh habitat that could hold Virginia Rails, and a known occasional resident, Marsh Wren. Last year we missed out, but thankfully this weird randomly placed marsh that was frozen over decided to produce a Marsh Wren for us! We were ecstatic because this bird gave us an extra five points. While exiting the strange ice path that lead into the marsh, a distant Common Raven gave us a nice parting call, along with a flyover Red-winged Blackbird.
Our first year of this competition we had great luck at Branford Dump; although, last year, due to the freeze, we missed out on a lot of the birds that we wanted from this location. Due to how productive this spot was our first year, we decided to give it another chance. However, to our surprise, the trial we had taken last year was overgrown, and unidentifiable. This trail in past years helped us a lot, because it gave us access straight into thick shrubbery, which made it easy for us to get on birds such as Fox Sparrows. Not only were we unsure of where to go, but also the sound of chainsaws rained though the dump, which made it challenging to hear anything. People were doing maintenance, cutting down trees, bushes, etc. We eventually found a way in, and lost the loud sounds from the machinery, but we were concerned about the new habitat loss, and how that would affect this spot in the future. Nonetheless, we did manage to get on some birds that could have very easily been missed, flyover Red-Tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Despite the lack of passerines, we luckily came across a flock of about 20 sparrows. This flock held mostly White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and, a saving grace, Fox Sparrow that quickly flew across the path. Although the site has now become disappointing and lacking, we were still happy leaving with the species we got on.
With the sun setting fast, we had to do our best to get on every possible species that Hammonasset State Park had to offer. This late in the day we were missing out on a lot of species so we had to do everything we could to catch up. Thankfully the open ocean, and dense woodlands provided us with a good chance of getting us on the birds we still needed. We first went to the section of the park that was holding some previous reported species such as Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird earlier in the day. Both birds are worth three points on the Mega Bowl so we first stopped in a section of the park, Willards Island, where they had been seen. Once we walked into the Spruce grove, we picked up a Yellow-rumped Warbler which was great find. After sticking around for awhile, we finally picked up the Gray Catbird, but unfortunately the Brown Thrasher who was nowhere to be seen. After wrapping up at Willards, we headed over to Meig’s Point in hopes of getting on some waterfowl and shorebirds. The point provided us with some new exciting additions, such as Common Eiders, a flock of Black-bellied Plovers, Common Loon and Surf Scoters. Wanting to save time for the inland birding, we raced to get to the final stop at Hammonasset. Although simple, the nature center parking lot can tend to hold some goodies. Sure enough we were able to get on to Horned Lark, and Lapland Longspur, which was a new bird for James.
After finishing up at the park, we started the journey to the upper parts of New Haven County. This was a chance for us to get on some passerine species that we would have otherwise missed down along the coast. We were missing some simple species like White-breasted Nuthatch which some might think is easy, but on rushed competitions like these, it is sometimes easy to miss the common stuff. Once we arrived we did some birding along the rolling inland fields and snagged, thankfully, White-breasted Nuthatch, along with Northern Flickers and a surprise Black Vulture. Eventually, the sun began to set and it started getting close to the end of the competition. We began reflecting back on the eventful day, with the windows rolled down, cold air in our faces and took a moment to enjoy the beauty scenery around us. While we were taking it all in, we stumbled across a beautiful Barred Owl sitting on a fence post. It was a great bird to end our day with.
Wrapping up, we headed back down to the coast to meet up with the other competitors for a lovely dinner and review of the results. The Connecticut Young Birders finished in 1st place for the third year in a row with a total of 74 species, and 150 points. A big thanks goes to everyone who participated and Chris Loscalzo who orchestrated the competition