Sunday, April 27, 2008

Camping And Birding In Kent Connecticut

This weekend did some camping at Macedonia State Park in Kent, Connecticut. Kent is located on the Western border of Connecticut right next to the State of New York. Like many of the towns in rural Litchfield County, it is known for its scenic beauty. Everywhere you look there are steep hills, green fields, rushing streams and waterfalls like the one seen above. It is also well known by birders for having one of the best Spring Migration birding spots. River Road follows a portion of the Housatonic River and serves as a natural corridor for migrant birds during the spring. Birders have been known to see as many as 25 warbler species in one day during the peak of migration season. The campground I stayed at was conveniently only a couple of miles down the road from River Road.

I arrived in Kent at about 8am on Friday morning. Apparently, President Bush was scheduled to visit Henry Kissinger at 11:30 am just a few miles down the road. Surprisingly, I had no problems getting to where I wanted to go. It wasn't until 10 am that I had a chance to check out River Road. My first stop was at a bridge located right across from a school. The first two birds I saw were Eastern Bluebirds which were perched on the telephone wire. Then I saw a pair of swallows a pair of swallows which were flying underneath and around the vicinity of the bridge itself. This had my interest since I had read that Cliff Swallows used to nest on the support beams under the bridge. I took a look underneath and sure enough there were Cliff Swallow nests there. As it turns out , these must have been old nests. The two swallows that I had spotted turned out to be Rough-winged Swallows.
I followed Skiff Mountain Road until I saw a sign which read Appalachian Scenic Trail. I think this is where River Road officially starts but I was never really clear on that point. The road came to an end at a metal gate. From there, I walked a small portion of the riverside trail. The birds were really quiet at this time.
I was hoping to see an interesting bird or two before going back to set up camp. There were Tree Swallows flying back and forth across the river. A flock of Cedar Waxwings made a short stop in a tree above me before flying off. Then I heard a bird singing an odd song. I song sounded a little familiar but I couldn't quite remember what it might be. I finally figured out that it was some kind of vireo but I wasn't sure which one. Red-eyed?-no, too burry sounding- Then I had a great view of the mystery bird. It was the Yellow-throated Vireo -(seen in the above photo). That made my morning! It's not a rare bird but I was excited to see it.The Camping- After checking in at the Macedonia Campground office, I went to locate my campsite. I reserved site 24 which appeared to offer some privacy from what I saw on the reservation map. I usually camp on a weekday during the off season when no reservations are required but being that it was a weekend in April, I thought it would be the smart thing to do. As I drove up into the camping circle, I saw one site with no number followed by site 25. One other site across from me was occupied. I figured that the blank site must have been number 24. After I was all done setting up my tent and equipment, I noticed a small faded number on the opposite end of the picnic table. It was number 26- Oh No! I checked all the other sites around me but saw no 24. Finally, I asked the campers at the site across from me what site number they had. They told me that they had reserved number 24 but when they checked their papers, they discovered they had actually reserved 23. I didn't want to make both of us move so we were able to work it out with the campground managers that we could stay where we were.

My favorite time at the campsite are always when night falls. The camp fire is blazing and something good is cooking on the stove. I sit and listen to the sound of the water rushing over rocks in the stream below. One evening, I saw Wild Turkeys crossing the brook right at dusk and at the same time the mysterious calls of Barred Owls could be heard echoing in the woods. Its nights like that when I think: Life is good.
I went back to River Road early Saturday morning. I saw this pair of Common Mergansers standing facing in opposite directions on a rock in the Housatonic River. It almost looks like they might have had an argument.
click button to playThe warbler most commonly heard singing in the area was definitely the Louisiana Waterthrush. Every time I passed over a brook, I would hear one singing. In previous years I only saw a couple of waterthrushes all season. I would usually see them in the summer and Fall when they weren't singing. Have I just been overlooking them in the spring or are there more of them this year? I'm not sure. When you watch these videos, notice how the birds like to change positions and bob their tail when singing. This waterthrush sang throughout the day near the brook where at my campsite. It was very hard to locate though. The first few notes seem fairly even which was typical of the many waterthrushes I heard throughout the weekend.
click button to play
This one particular bird which I encountered along River Road had a different beginning to its song. the first few notes alternated up and down. I wondered if this was a Northern Waterthrush whose song I was unfamiliar with. After much searching, I found the bird and identified it as another Louisiana Waterthrush. I asked another birder who had a Birdpod to play a comparison between the Northern Waterthrush and Lousiana Waterthrush. I found out that the northern's song was quite different. This particular Louisiana Waterthrush stuck with the same beginning to its song every time while all the others in the area sounded like the one in the first video. I wonder why?

I parked my car at the end of the road and walked along the trail. I heard a bird singing a peculiar song that seemed totally unfamiliar to me. It turned out to be a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I had only heard one sing once before in northern New Hampshire. It was a real treat to able to see his red crest and listen to him singing. It started out slow with the warblers but became increasingly active as the morning went on. First I saw a Yellow Warbler in a shrubby area. As entered the wooded path, I began to hear a couple of Black & White Warblers. I had a brief look at a Northern Parula. I walked further down the trail past some pines. I could hear the thin, nasal call of Red-breasted Nuthatch. I could hear a Pine Warbler but could only catch a glimpse of its yellow. I saw a Winter Wren on the opposite side of the path. I came to an area where there was a patch of some younger trees.I noticed several Yellow-rumped Warblers. I watched them closely for several minutes as they moved from branch to branch and tree to tree. I noticed one acting differently. It crawled along the top of a horizontal branch. it was an tannish-olive colored bird with distinct stripes on its head. It was a Worm-eating warbler. I heard its buzzing song not long after. Several Palm Warblers moved into the area. I recorded another warbler which I was unable to identify (terrible lighting) . After playing it back, I believe it was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. That would make 9 species of warbler for the day. That is a far cry from the 25 advertised but pretty good for an April morning! It wouldn't surprise me if I missed something too.
I was heading back to camp late Saturday afternoon when I spotted a Great Blue Heron trying its luck at fishing in Macedonia Brook. There was something special about seeing this bird near a brook as opposed to the muddy little field ponds that I'm used to seeing them in.
Then there was this thrush. During the winter its usually an easy call for me. The vast majority of Catharus thrushes are Hermit Thrushes in Connecticut during winter. I knew this guy wasn't a Hermit Thrush because they always have a reddish color variation to the tail area. My first thought was-It's a Veery. I didn't have my binoculars with me and never got to see the front of the bird. Later when I looked back at the photo and compared it to a field guide, I noticed something strange. Aren't Veeries somewhat reddish in color. This bird is so washed out looking. maybe its just a variation in plumage or a product of bad lighting. I still think Veery but other possibilities did cross my mind. What do you think?
Other species that I saw during my stay included: Numerous Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Belted Kingfisher, Red-tailed Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Phoebes, Bald Eagle, and Eastern Towhee. I also saw five species of woodpecker: Downy, Red-bellied, Northern Flicker, Pileated, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In area like this it isn't surprising to find five species of woodpeckers. What is surprising was that the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers seemed to be the most numerous or at least the most noticeable. They are quite uncommon in my part of the state. Throughout each day, I could hear their squeaky calls. Several times I was able to view 3 sapsuckers squabbling with each other. I could hear them drumming a loud sequence of knocks on hollow wood throughout the day. It has a rapid-fire start and then slows down at the end. It sounds as if the sapsuckers are imitating the rhythm of the wheel spinning on Wheel Of Fortune. I saw about 60 species in total . If my goal was to build a big species list, I probably could have seen more.
click button to playI was exploring a back road in a different area when I came to a group of cars that were blocking the road. There were some people were wandering around with cameras and talking as though they were making plans to shoot a movie. While I was waiting for the scene to clear, I looked up and I saw a nest about 30 feet up in some ledges. I wondered what sort of nest it was. As I got back into my truck , a Raven came swooping down into the nest. I shot the video from my truck window. Seeing the baby ravens begging for food was quite a site. I didn't stay for long because I didn't want to disturb them.
In the future, I think that I would prefer to visit the Kent area during the week in order to avoid the weekend recreation crowds. Next year I hope to visit during the peak of Spring migration. I was pleased with my first real birding experiences in Kent. Now, I'm anxious to see what next weekend brings. This time of year there is so much to see!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Trying To Complete The Puzzle

Identifying warblers and other spring migrants is like trying to put a puzzle together. Each year I'm able to add a couple of pieces but the puzzle is never completed. There are a few warbler songs that stick with me like the Black and White Warbler that does a nice imitation of George Jefferson-(Weezy, Weezy, Weezy). I'm also familiar with the songs of the Common Yellowthroat, Black-throated Green Warbler, Ovenbird, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler and Worm-eating Warbler. There are some that I have to hear each year before I remember them again, and the rest I haven't learned at all. Visually identifying the warblers isn't too bad, with a couple of exceptions, as long as I can get a good look at them; which doesn't always happen. Some of the vireos and Epidonax flycatchers can be a real pain to identify. Anyway, it's an ongoing battle for me-how about for you?

On Saturday, I made a short visit to Hurd State Park to see if I could find any warblers. As I was driving into the park on the main entrance road, I noticed a small marshy area on the left. I could hear a warbler singing but could not identify its song. I have noticed in recent list-serve reports that waterthrushes have been seen in Connecticut for the last week. Judging by the song, reports, and habitat, I thought one of the waterthrushes was a possibility. I spent a good fifteen minutes looking for this one bird before finally catching a decent glimpse of it. It was streaked underneath and the breast had an overall yellowish tint. I recognized it as a Northern Waterthrush. The song description in my field guide helped me confirm what I was hearing. I remembered that the Northern Waterthrushes are the ones more likely to be found near slow-running or still water. One more piece to the puzzle.

I had a few other interesting sightings of note at this park. An adult Bald Eagle flew right past me, just clearing the tree tops! "Where you going?" I was thinking. The river was in the opposite direction. I also spooked a bird or should I say the bird spooked me. I think it was a Turkey Vulture that had been perched in a tree above me. It took off quite fast for a Turkey Vulture and made plenty of noise doing so. Other birds of interest included Brown Creeper, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Hermit Thrush. I was hearing a lot more birds than I actually saw. It's nice to get a visual confirmation of what you're hearing but a lot of times it just doesn't work out that way. I guess that's just the nature of the game in the game of nature.

On my way out, I stopped at some power lines that are just down the road from the park. There was a bird perched on the top of a tall dead tree in a small swamp that looked kind of falconish. It turned out to be an American Kestrel! Nice bird for me, I don't get to see them very often.

Here some flowers that I found in the woods this weekend. Can you identify them?
I visited Hartman Park off of Gungy Road in Lyme on Sunday. This was the first time that I've ever been there and I was really impressed. In fact, that whole area of the state is very scenic. Whoever marked the trails at Hartman Park did a great job. Every trail was clearly marked with a different color. Sometimes when I walk the blue trails, they venture off into several different directions. It can be very frustrating for the directionally challenged. Here, there was never any doubt about which trail I was on.
The photo above is of a Prairie Warbler that I saw near the power line area. I realize that it isn't much of a photo but this is my first Prairie Warbler of the year. When it comes to warbler photos, I can't afford to be too picky! I had to hide in a patch of Mountain Laurel just to capture this meager shot. I felt like Artie Johnson from the old comedy show "Laugh-In."
The Field Sparrow is a very washed out looking sparrow with a pinkish bill. You can see that it has a bit of an eye ring too. It might not be the most exciting looking bird but I like them. It was one of the first challenging LBJ's -(little brown jobs)- that I was able to distinguish from the other LBJ's. Up until this year, I've really only seen them occasionally; mostly in the Fall. This Spring I have come across droves of them for some reason. They have quite an interesting song that I hadn't heard before. The song had me baffled until I was able to match the voice with a face. -One more piece to the puzzle!
I had a single White-throated Sparrow visiting my backyard this weekend. I realized that I had not taken a single picture of a White-throated Sparrow this year. As Elvis would say, "It's Now Or Never" because I would imagine this little guy will be heading up north pretty soon. I will miss seeing this winter sparrow with its striped head and bright yellow lores.

I've actually been lucky enough to see several Pileated Woodpeckers this year but I haven't been lucky to get a good photo of one. This time I tried a video. I saw this one on my way out of Hartman Park. The view was shielded by some branches but I uploaded it anyway. In this video, the bird seems to be preening it's feathers and that about covers my birding for last weekend. I will be making my first-ever visit to River Road in Kent this upcoming weekend. I might be a little early but hopefully I'll come across some interesting birds. -Wish Me Luck!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Medley Of Topics

Taking Advantage Of Opportunities

I was traveling up route 66 Sunday when I noticed an Osprey perched in a tree overlooking Wrights Cove, a freshwater tidal pond off of the Connecticut River. Ospreys are quite abundant along the shoreline right now but seeing them here in Portland is much more exciting for me. This photo was taken at 7am in the morning with partly cloudy conditions. I had to point the camera in the direction of the sun to take a photo. In this case the cloud cover helped. This Osprey was cooperative but as you can see some branches got in the way-dratts!! -always something! I'm glad that I stopped to take this photo because it turned out to be the only bird I photographed on Sunday.

Click to play Carolina Wren singing

I was getting ready to leave when I heard a Carolina Wren singing. Ounce for ounce, those perky little birds have to be one of the loudest species! First I took a hand-held video of the bird but it looked pretty shaky during playback. I decided to set the camera up on a tripod, something I've been making a concerted effort to do lately. This wren continued to sing from the branch as I set the camera up. I guess he really wanted to be in a movie!

After I took the video, I continued on to Machimoudus Park in East Haddam. I met up with Adrian and Beth who were surveying the area for an upcoming field trip. Some of the more interesting species we saw included: 2 immature Bald Eagles, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Bluebirds, several Palm Warblers, a female Purple Finch, Brown Creeper, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebes, Field Sparrows, and one mystery bird which we guessed might have been a Northern Waterthrush . We didn't get a good enough look at that one to be sure though so it didn't make the list. This should make for a nice field trip on Saturday May 3rd.

Conservation Piece

Over the last couple of years, I've been trying to look for little ways to reduce my impact on the environment. Carpooling, not using bags for to-go food , and drinking shade-grown coffee are three examples of changes I've made. It's all about changing habits which can be a slow process. Recently I discovered that you can use your own travel mug when you buy a cup of coffee- to -go from a restaurant or coffee shop. This way you don't have to add another styrofoam or paper cup to the trash bin. One coffee shop even made me a single serving of organic shade grown coffee using a french press at no extra charge!-($1.65 for a tall cup at Starbucks).

Other Blogs

  • First of all, I want to say thank Ruthie J at Nature Knitter for giving me an "E" blogging award. It was a nice gesture and I appreciate it.-thanks Ruthie!
  • The Birdfreak bloggers deserve credit for their constant devotion to conservation issues. Although I don't follow all of their suggestions, reading their blog does make me more environmentally aware.
  • I've enjoyed reading Sandpiper's Place for the last couple of months. It features excellent nature photography right here in Connecticut.
  • Conservacity is a blog that features interesting articles about places and events in Middletown, Connecticut.

If you haven't visited any of these blogs, be sure to visit them when you have a chance.

Pink Flamingos
These pink flamingos caught my attention on my way to work. Apparently, these people were "flocked" for giving a donation to The Portland High School athletics program. I found this to be amusing so I asked my wife to take a photo for me. Maybe I can start a new life list of artificial birds seen in Connecticut! I'll bet there's a lister out there who already thought of that idea.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Northern Rough-winged Swallows At Portland Reservoir

There is a big difference between an average hike in the woods and an extraordinary outdoor experience. Nature is always beautiful but the degree to which you can appreciate it can vary. For me, in order to fully appreciate nature, my mind needs to be clear of distractions. If I can achieve this, I feel as though I'm a part of my surroundings. If I am distracted in some way, my view of nature seems more two-dimensional. I would say today's walk was a good start both in terms of birding and achieving a clear mind. Hopefully this just a start of more great days to come.
I walked along a trail that took me through the woods of Meshomasic forest and around the Portland Reservoir. The entrance to the reservoir is at the end of Old Marlborough Turnpike in Portland. I was glad that I chose to ignore the forecast that was calling for periods of rain. It turned out to be a sunny morning that reached a temperature of seventy degrees. I came across several flooded streams but managed to get across them without giving my hiking boots an unwanted bath. As I walked further along the trail, I could hear the call of a Barred Owl echoing through the woods.
I found these plants growing along the banks of a stream. At first I thought it was Skunk Cabbage but it doesn't seem to fit the description of what skunk cabbage looks like in the spring. if you know what it is please tell me.
The path eventually circled around the opposite side of the reservoir. There was a wonderful smell of fallen pine needles that had been dampened from the heavy overnight showers. I saw several interesting species of birds during my walk including: Pine Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, Wood Ducks, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfishers, Wild Turkey, Hooded Mergansers, Pileated Woodpecker, and Red-tailed Hawk. There were still some Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows around but not as many as there had been in previous weeks. Eastern Phoebes seem to be abundant this spring. I've been seeing them everywhere I turn. I also saw two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers for the first time since last year's Christmas Count.
The birds that I had the most fun observing today were Northern Rough-winged Swallows. They are the only swallow in Connecticut noted for nesting in drain pipes. This species also lacks the distinct breast band seen in the similar looking Bank Swallow. Rough-winged Swallows nest singly as compared to the Bank Swallows which nest in colonies. Here are a couple of "Cool Facts" about the Northern Rough-winged Swallow from Cornell's All About Birds:
  • The barbs on the primary feathers of the male Northern Rough-winged Swallow are distinctly hooked; those of the female are smaller and straighter. Running a finger from base to tip along the barbed wing edge yields a sensation similar to that of touching a rough file.
  • The function of the rough wing edge of the Northern Rough-winged Swallow is not known.
  • In one documented case, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow pair nested inside a Civil War cannon.
click to play
It looks as though one swallow is bringing nesting material to the other. I also enjoyed watching these birds skimming the top of the water to catch small insects-(not visible in this video).
How is Spring Migration progressing in your area?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Snowy Egrets Have Arrived In Connecticut

I guess that I could say that I was more of a bird watcher than a birder this weekend. I didn't keep a list. Instead, I just sauntered around the state and focused on viewing a few species. Here is a photo of a male Red-winged Blackbird. It's nice that the photo actually shows its eye for a change. Do you know how many times I've taken photos of this bird only to find out that the eye isn't visible in the photo? This is a photo of the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry (viewed from Hadlyme side)-which has been operating in some form or another since 1769. This is a good area from which to spot eagles in the winter and is also an excellent place to spot the ferry boat after April 1st.

My wife, Joan, joined me for some casual birding on Saturday. She was impressed with the 8 Wilson's Snipe and several Killdeer that we saw at The Portland Fairgrounds. I pulled my truck up so that she would have a good view of the flooded grassy area. I enjoyed listening to her descriptions of the field marks as she called them out. She noted the stripes on the head and back of the snipe, as well as the long bill. Durham Meadows was our next stop. Joan was thrilled by the sight of several Great Blue Herons, which she saw in the trees through a spotting scope. She didn't know right away what they were and I wasn't going to tell her. "An egret?" - "No, not an egret." - "Great Blue Herons, right?" - "Now you're getting the hang of it!" Unfortunately, I didn't manage to capture any photos on Saturday. On Sunday I went to have a look at a place called Pease Wildlife Management Area in Lebanon, Connecticut. It looks like a decent place but I think that I went there about a month too early. I realized my mistake and moved on quickly before wasting any more time there.

I took a ride to the Old Lyme area to see how the Osprey were coming along. I made a short stop at
Great Island Wildlife Management Area. This area was dedicated to Roger Tory Peterson, a resident of Old Lyme. There are a lot of Osprey nesting platforms out there and every one I could see was occupied (too far away to take any pictures). The Osprey in the above photo is actually from a place called the Four Mile River Boat Launch, also in Old Lyme. This place isn't particularly known for its birding but I've had good luck spotting herons and egrets there in the past.
I was not disappointed today. Apparently, there was a Snowy Egret convention going on. I saw my first Snowy Egrets of the year, a total of sixteen of them! There was a large group across the small river. They were flying from one side to the other. I found out that they are a threatened species in Connecticut, so this was an encouraging sight. An interesting habit of the Snowy Egret is that they use one foot to stir up food from the bottom in order to flush prey into view. I took a nice video of them but blogger is not cooperating. Fortunately, the birds were. Now bring on the warblers!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Little Piece Of "God's Country" In Connecticut

Over the years I've been on numerous fishing trips in the most remote regions of northern Maine and New Hampshire. During each trip there is a point where buildings, people, and stores seem to disappear. We find ourselves suddenly surrounded by mountains, woods, huge green fields filled with wildflowers, lakes, and clear flowing rivers. The air is noticeably cooler and cleaner. The feeling I get when entering these areas can be so overwhelming that it's difficult to put into words. My father has always referred to these areas as "God's Country". I never had to ask for an explanation of this term. When you are there, you just know it. No explanation is needed.

There are many scenic areas in the state of Connecticut. None of them can compete with the Great North Woods, but once in a while I feel as though I've found a little piece of "God's Country". That is what I was hoping to find this weekend. I hiked through wooded trails in several areas. The above photo is of a little stream called Bible Rock Brook located in Haddam. It runs along Route 81. As I was sitting on a rock in the middle of the brook , I saw several trout darting through the water.

click play to watch and listen

This video was taken in a portion of the brook called Seven Falls. There are many miles of hiking trails surrounding it. Although it is close to the road, all you can hear is the soothing sound of rushing water when you're near it.

On Fridays there is a column in the Hartford Courant that I like to read called "Nature's Path" by Peter Marteka. He recently wrote about a preserve called "The King Property" which borders Lake Beseck in Middlefield. I decided this would be a nice place to go for a hike.
I'm not that familiar with the area surrounding Lake Beseck. I do remember there used to be a tavern near the lake called "Bucket Of Blood". If that name isn't asking for trouble, I don't know what is. The preserve is located on the south end of Mattabeseck Road next to the lake. As it turns out, I parked on the wrong end of the road. Instead of hiking on The King Property, I ended up hiking on the Blue Trail . I didn't have any complaints about that though. The views of Black Pond and the surrounding traprock ridge were stunning!
I was so impressed with the scenery, I almost forgot about the birds this weekend-but not quite. I decided not to take any bird photos unless they posed right in front of me. After all, there will soon be droves of migrant warblers and other birds heading our way. I might as well take a little breather from birding now while I still have the chance.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the birds that I did see. Looking down at Black Pond I had distant views of eight Great Blue Herons on the opposite shore, as well as three Double-crested Cormorants. I enjoyed watching several Golden-crowned Kinglets as they moved from tree to tree searching for food. I watched as three Hermit Thrushes followed each other through the woods. I got the impression that one of them would soon be packing his bags. I spooked a couple of Wood Ducks from a swampy puddle that I passed along the entrance trail. I enjoyed seeing a Hairy Woodpecker doing what they do best-pecking wood. There were many other birds to see as well, but my favorite bird sightings of this weekend took place in Durham and Portland.
This bird is a Yellowlegs. Unless I see them side by side it is difficult for me to tell whether it is a lesser or greater. This one seems to have a very long bill which might be slightly upturned. It was also very active in chasing down food at the fairgrounds. Because of those two clues, I'm going to call this one a Greater Yellowlegs. Lesser Yellowlegs have a smaller bill and are a little bit more laid back with their feeding habits.

I stopped by the Brookfield Game Club Pond on Route 68 in Durham and was pleased to find two male Northern Shovelers. I saw my first two ever Northern Shovelers just about a week ago. It goes along with my theory that once you see a species the first time, they're a lot easier to find again. There was plenty of other ducks in the pond, including Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead and what was probably a Common Goldeneye but the little bugger kept hiding around the corner.

click to play

Also on Route 68 is a skating pond. This is where I saw my first Great Egret of the year. Traffic didn't seem to bother it as it searched for food along the edge. I took several pictures of it but I'm afraid you would have a case of snow blindness if you saw them. The video seemed to work out a little bit better. Listen for the Belted Kingfisher in the background.

What does the term "God's Country" mean to you?