From All Walks of Life

Amongst my busy schedule, it is rare that I ever have a weekend where I bird continuously (maybe that’s a good thing?), but this past weekend was an exception.  The weekend kicking off my spring break is always a blast, as I’m filled with optimism and eager to get outside.  This weekend did not disappoint.  It started out with some local birding on Saturday morning, trying to kick up some early migrants around my town’s limited open space. Here in CT, we’re only just starting to see the beginnings of “warm” weather; today actually climbed above the 60 degree mark.

It became clear early on that Wood Duck was the bird of the weekend.  This normally secretive bird was seen in nearly every spot we covered (both Sat and Sun), providing good looks on several occasions.

A Male WODU at Wood's Pond, Norwalk, CT
A Male WODU at Wood’s Pond, Norwalk, CT

Other highlights around town included Common Merganser, Common Raven and my FOY Palm Warblers, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Spring was in the air as the day warmed up.

A Palm Warbler forages in the leaves.
A Palm Warbler forages in the leaves.
Common Raven overhead
Common Raven overhead
A Drake and Hen Common Merganser fly by.
A Drake and Hen Common Merganser fly by.

It was early on that I got word via the CT list serve that a Little Gull was being seen at a beach not 20 minutes away, a beach famous for its huge Bonaparte’s Gull concentrations and a place Little Gull has turned up in the past; but never reliably.  Little Gull is one of those birds that melts into a roosting flock, and although I had covered the area many times in the past I had yet to find one there.  The chance was too good to pass up, and we had time.  We hightailed it over to the beach, where immediately upon arriving the vast flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls carpeting the mudflats was apparent.  A group of birders had gathered on the end of the jetty extending out onto the mud, and we marched out to join them as Bonies swirled through the air around us, none exhibiting the diagnostic dark underwing of Little Gull.  However, no worries; we hadn’t even reached the group of birders when “It’s in the Scope” was announced out loud, “it” not even needing to be specified.  Pretty much anywhere in the US, Little Gull is a good bird.  Reliable in very few places, they are certainly worthy of the mythical tone that this “it” bird had been rewarded.

It didn’t exactly fill the frame, but there, tucked in amongst a sea of Bonaparte’s Gulls, was a adorable little Little Gull, looking happy to see me.  Even on the ground, it stood out distinctly.  Little Gull are indeed significantly smaller than Bonies, not a good field mark when they are at a distance or by themselves, but with a direct, side-by-side comparison the difference was striking.  In fact, the glowing white primaries of the LIGU (as opposed to the dark of the BOGU), stubby bill and light mantle shade made the bird pop out.  However, it didn’t stay that way.  A few minutes later the flock shifted, and BOOM; the bird vanished.  Over the next hour or so we stayed with the flock, and the Little Gull played trick after trick on us, appearing one minute and disappearing the next, weaving in and out of it’s larger cousins.  On one or two occasions the flock lifted up, and all of a sudden the Little Gull would appear out of the swirling white cloud with a flash of black underwing.  Although not a life bird for me, I considered this bird a “half-lifer”, meaning it was a second but more satisfying view of a bird I had seen only once before.

A terrible picture of the Little Gull (back center, in the water) on one of the few occasions it peeled off from the larger flock.  This was phonescoped with my iPhone.
A terrible picture of the Little Gull (back center, in the water) on one of the few occasions it peeled off from the larger flock. This was phonescoped with my iPhone.

The rarities had only just begun to materialize, however.  The second half of the day held an even greater prize.  A Crested Caracara, a unique relative of vultures from Latin America (reaching into south Texas and FL, where I have seen them previously) had somehow wandered  north to the seemingly insignificant town of Montgomery, NY, a quiet town of farm fields and woodland an hour and a half north of me across the Hudson River.

Now, normally I would not have chased this bird.  I don’t like to chase birds further than an hour away, especially because I cannot drive and I depend upon my Dad as a chaffeur (convenient seeing that he too is a birder).  However, like one of my previous posts described. some birds are just too convenient to pass up.  We had to go up to a nearby town that afternoon for one of my Dad’s art openings (he’s a critically acclaimed bird artist- find his work at http://www.seanmurthaart.com), and the Caracara was just 20 minutes out of our way.

With a little back and forth between a NY birder friend of ours, we found out that the bird had moved to a different location then where it had previously been discovered, now occupying the wooded edge of a small golf course in town.  When we arrived we found flocks of birders converged upon the entrance road, but most of them were leaving.  “It just flew off!”  one of them told us, the kiss of death in birder tongue, “but not far.”  Many of the birders had already seen the bird and were now leaving after watching it fly, leaving only a few remaining.  My Dad and I parked and walked down to the area where it had last been seen, and waited.  Within only 5 minutes, my dad spotted a weird bird flying back over the tree line.  There’s really nothing else like it- it was a Crested Caracara.  The bird, crazy looking with its broad, blocky wings, large white wing patches and long yellow legs, came right over and landed in a tree right above the entrance road.  Wow!  The birders remaining all converged upon us, and the bird showed off beautifully, making everyone happy.  After a few minutes it flew up to another tree, providing even better views, but eventually retreated back into the woods where it still perched up visibly.  For the next 45 minutes or so we stayed with the bird, long enough for our friend (the birder from NY) to arrive and get on it.  The mission had been accomplished, and I got to spend a good amount of time studying and marveling at a bird that I had, like the Little Gull, never had truly satisfactory looks at before.  The prehistoric looking raptor looked incredibly out of place in the bare, spindly trees of a New York April.  Strangely enough, however, Caracara sightings are becoming increasingly ‘common’ along the east coast, with multiple birds showing up over the past year or so.  Just last week, a Caracara flew over on Cape Cod, and there have been a spattering of sightings in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.  No one really knows what has caused the influx, but it will certainly be interesting to see if the trend continues.  It would be sweet if Caracara became the next Black Vulture, the carrion eater out on a northward conquest…..

A CRESTED CARACARA appears over the trees.
A CRESTED CARACARA appears over the trees.
You could see the bird with the naked eye above the road.
You could see the bird with the naked eye above the road. 

By Sunday morning I was back home, and out bright and early with my close friend and fellow young birder Alex Burdo who also lives in my area, at the Little Gull beach.  I wanted longer looks at the bird, and Alex had yet to see it, so we put in a total of almost 3 hours scanning the gull flocks from the jetty.  Our time was incredibly successful, as carefully scanning the gulls we found not 1, not 2, but 4 Little Gulls, a seriously impressive number.  At times, the 4 could be seen within feet of each other, providing even better views.  Opportunities to closely study a species such as this are really hard to come by, and it is entirely possible that throughout all my future years of birding I will never get to see 4 Little Gulls in the same place again.  It was also really nice to be able to get the word out of the perfect conditions and have other birders arrive and get on the birds.

Even without the Little Gulls, the area was alive with birds, many of which were waterbirds on the move.  Migrating flocks of Great Blue Heron and Wood Duck passed by inland, and the coast was teeming with large numbers of Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-throated Loon, and Common Goldeneye, many of which were moving out.  The beach itself also had good waterfowl present in the tidal channels, highlights being Eurasian Wigeon (the resident drake), American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged Teal.  Other good birds along the shore included Little Blue Heron (As far as I know the first seen in the state of CT this year), Greater Yellowlegs, Belted Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night Heron, Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, both Egrets, and good numbers of Double-crested Cormorant and Osprey.  Overall, we had just over 50 species in our 3 hour vigil.

Greater Yellowle
Greater Yellowlegs along the beach.

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We spend the rest of the day birding leisurely around the area, hitting a couple of local spots.  It was a gorgeous spring day, and we even ventured out in only a t-shirt a couple of times (a big leap at this time of year), and ate lunch at an outdoor seating area.  Springs mad optimism is contagious.  The birds weren’t shabby either, highlights being drop-dead looks at 2(!) gorgeous American Bittern at a local Audubon chapter’s wetland, Ring-necked Duck, Wilson’s Snipe, Palm and Pine Warblers, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Pileated Woodpecker, and a few lingering Pine Siskins.  Even Painted Turtles were out basking, and my first Mourning Cloak of the year drifted by through the leafless woodlands.  Spring, you are welcome here any time.

Brown Creepers are incredibly hard to photograph.
Brown Creepers are incredibly hard to photograph.
It really doesn't get any better then this- American Bittern.
It really doesn’t get any better than this- American Bittern.

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– Brendan

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