Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Birding By Bike On Farmington Canal Trail

I took a ride up to Simsbury to check out the Farmington Canal Trail over the weekend. The original canal was constructed between 1825 and 1835 to help facilitate trade. In 1847 the canal was converted to a railroad line that was still active until the 1980's. These days, it is used as a trail for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles. It covers a total distance of 88 miles from New Haven to Massachusetts. Over half of the trail is now paved.

This trail is also part of a larger project called the East Coast Greenway with plans of building a non-motorized trail from  Florida to Canada.
I parked my truck in a lot on route 10 in Simsbury where there was direct access to the trail. The trail started out behind restaurants and businesses but it wasn't long before I was treated to some natural scenery. This little pond is called Lake Basile.
I couldn't believe how nice and flat this paved trail was.  I wanted to stop to look for birds but my bike wouldn't let me. I was barely pedaling but the bike seemed to keep going and going!
I've noticed that there are more bicycles on the roads these days than ever before. The law states that bikes have the same right of way as motor vehicles on most of the roads in Connecticut. Many serious bicyclists are using these laws to their advantage by what they refer to as "taking back the roads". I'm wary of riding my bike on roads that are filled with drivers talking on their cell phones. A trail like the Farmington canal trail eliminates that danger. They even provide marked cross ways where the rail crosses busy roads.
I didn't have much success taking pictures of birds. Even the Mallards "ducked" away from the camera when I tried to take their photo.
There were American Robins by the dozen quietly chattering to each other as they ate berries and picked through the leaves on the ground.
I passed by some scenic fields on my way to Massachusetts. There were Red-tailed Hawks and plenty of bluebirds in the area.
For the most part I would say that I encountered bird species I would expect to find during the winter. I had a nice look at some Pileated Woodpeckers and saw a Raven preparing that appeared to be scoping out a nest sight up in some ledges. I'm looking forward to coming back here during Spring Migration.
I ended my ride in Southwick Massachusetts near Congamond Lakes.. It only felt like I rode my bike a few miles but according to mapquest my total round trip was about 30 miles. I think I'd better invest in a tire patch kit before going on this trail again. It wouldn't be much fun walking my bike 15 miles back to the truck with a flat tire!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Have You Ever Tried Birding By Bus?

One of the things I've wanted to try for a while is birding by bus. I thought it would be a good way to reduce my fuel consumption while at the same time adding a new twist to the birding experience.

Connecticut has several individual busing transit systems in different regions throughout the state. Traveling around within one of these regions by bus is simple enough but trying to get around the entire state can be difficult. There are buses that connect one transit area to another but they run on limited schedules and many of them don't run on weekends.
   After studying several route maps I came up with a plan for my first birding by bus trip. I took the 55 bus from Middletown to Hartford at 7:30 am. In Hartford, I transferred to the 88 bus which arrived at Center Street in Manchester CT at 8:45am. From there it was just a short walk to the Laurel Marsh portion of the Hockanum River Trail. This looked like a place with good birding potential so I was eager to get started.
I walked 30 feet into the trail and could not believe my eyes when I saw this sign. The trail was closed! All that planning down the drain! I took a brief moment to feel sorry for myself before moving on to plan B.
I figured out that was able to gain access to the trail further down the road. It was a well maintained trail with boardwalks and bridges provided where necessary.
The river itself is slow running in this area and flows through tall grassy areas lined by small trees and thickets. I didn't see any unusual species but there was plenty of bird activity to keep me entertained for a couple of hours. I saw sparrows, finches, woodpeckers, Mallard Ducks, and Red-tailed Hawks patrolling the area. I'm guessing this would be a good place to visit from late March into the summer months.
The area is bordered by the Manchester landfill, a highway and other urban blight but within those borders is a natural oasis.  The deer in the photo didn't show any fear of me at all. We just stared at each other for several minutes before we both wandered off in different directions.
I returned to Middletown in the early afternoon and ended the day by walking across the bridge into Portland. Along the way, I found two Peregrine Falcons sunning themselves on the underside of the bridge.

  I didn't have high expectations for m first birding by bus trip. It was more like a practice run but I'm looking forward to the possibilities as the arrival of spring grows closer. I've already picked out other birding by bus locations to try including Cedar Hill Cemetery and Station 43. These are both popular birding spots in Connecticut.

Birding by bus requires planning and flexibility but I found the experience rewarding. Oh, by the way. The cost of my 50 mile round trip birding adventure? $2.60 in bus fare.

Here are a few tips if you are planning a birding by bus trip:
  • Study the route maps and schedules on bus transit websites. It may be easier to pick a place to go birding that is along an existing route rather than trying to find a bus route that will bring you to a specific destination. This is where it helps to be flexible.
  • Call the customer service number on the websites and ask questions. They can provide detailed information about the routes  and can also send you free route schedules by mail.
  • Pack only what you need and if possible, use smaller binoculars. There are many high quality mid-sized roof prism binoculars on the market these days for less than $500 that offer a good compromise between portability and performance. (I still prefer 8x42 sized binoculars for most situations because they offer a better depth of field).   I used Vortex 8x 32 HD for the trip. I'd give them a solid B+ overall. The Meopta Meostar 8x32 I tried a while ago were better (but more expensive). 
  • Make sure to keep your equipment on you at all times! It's one thing to lose a pair of gloves but you wouldn't want to leave behind your camera or binoculars.
  • Don't pick a day when you're on a strict time schedule. There are many benefits to birding by bus but time efficiency is not one of them.
  • Don't forget to carry exact change.
 Have you ever attempted birding by bus before? If not, then why not give it a try? It can be a fun and economical way to add variety to your birding experience. 

Note: Here are a few bus links to get you started if you live in Connecticut: Connecticut Transit , Middletown Area Transit, 9 Town Transit . I was also recently told about a service called Megabus by a driver. From what I understand, you can travel out of state at at ridiculously cheap rates (as low as $1.00) using this service.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

5 Reasons I Was 2 Birds Short Of My Goal

  I spent the last Sunday in January at Machimoodus Park in East Haddam. I hoped to add a few new birds to my list but the only new species I found was a Common Raven. It was being chased around by a handful of American Crows.
   It was a pleasant winter morning with plenty of sunshine. There was a slight breeze which the Bald eagles soon took advantage of. I saw two young eagles and two adults. They were playing a few aerial games with each other which was interesting to watch.

 Later that morning I  took a ride to Lebanon to look for a Harris Sparrow which had been reported several times over the past couple of weeks ( thanks to Annie & Mike Perko for finding it). I met two other birders at the sight where it had been reported most recently. We waited patiently as we watched White-throated, Song, and American Tree Sparrows ground feeding under a bush. After about 20 minutes the Harris Sparrow showed up. That turned out to be the last new species I added to my January list. I kept looking for species that I thought would be relatively easy to find like Brown-headed Cowbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Brown Creeper but it just wasn't to be.

 My personal goal for this year was to try to find 90 species in January and to use less gasoline than I had in previous years. I knew that I had missed the mark but didn't realize how close I came until I did the final tally. My final species count for the month was 88, just 2 short! The whole big January thing is only a game for me but missing it by just 2 does bother me just a little bit. That should give me added motivation for next year.  

5 Reasons I Missed My Mark In Big January:

  1. Too much talking not enough birding: Four of the species on my Big January list were birds that had been reported on the rare bird report. I met other listers at each site that were looking for the same bird and spent several hours conversing with them after already finding the target species. I enjoyed the conversations but If I had spent that time birding I might have added two more species to the list.
  2. False Sense Of Security: I hit 70 species in the first week so I figured it would be a breeze adding 20 more to my lisy by the end of the month. Wrong!
  3. Self imposed gas cap: I don't regret this one. I set a limit as to how many gallons of gas I was willing to use which probably meant fewer birds
  4. Not teaming up with other birders: In past years I teamed up with other birders who were very determined January listers. I missed the motivation and experience they provided.
  5. The birds were different this year: Each year I take it for granted that I'm going to find certain species in particular areas. Some of the species I was counting on weren't around this January. At least not where I would expect to find them.
Oh well, there's always next year!