Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Big January And Big February Works For Me

 I've been doing a Big January for the last several years. It's a fun way to start the year and shorten the winter. For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, Big January is an annual tradition when birders make a list of all the species they see in the month of January. The basic goal of many who participate in Connecticut is to reach (or exceed) 100 species before January ends.  This year I've decided to add to my list until the end of February. By extending the time into February I won't be in such a rush to try to reach 100 species.  (top photo Snow Bunting).
  Listing is not at the top of my list when it comes to birding-related activities but somehow, it motivates me to get out of the house on those cold winter days.  (photo is a Bonaparte's Gull from last January)
 If I hadn't been out on a cold January morning looking to add to my list then I never would have had such a great view of this Eastern Screech Owl.

I know the tradition is for the month of January only but whose to say you can't make your own rules? I never end up submitting my January list anyway. As far as I'm concerned it's more about the journey than the destination. It's about livening up a cold Connecticut winter by seeing lots of great birds!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Connecticut River Is One Long Birding Trail

 I spend a larges percentage of my time birding areas along the Connecticut River throughout the year. I especially appreciate the variety of options the Connecticut River offers during the winter months.On extremely cold days there are a number of access points from which you can scan for birds from your car. I took this photo of a Red-shouldered Hawk in East Haddam from my driver's seat window.
Birding along the Connecticut River is a much different experience than birding at a shoreline site like Hammonasset where all the birds are concentrated in one big park. The river is spread out over many miles so you have to cover more ground if you want to see a larger variety of species. At this location in Portland I saw a distant Bald Eagle a few cormorants, and a few boats passing through so after a few minutes I moved on to another location.
 During the winter months Common Mergansers are commonly found on the river traveling in teams as they hunt for fish and other food. They have serrated bills which help them hold onto their prey.
 I find them entertaining to watch. They do a lot of diving and displaying. Common Mergansers are the largest of the 3 North American mergansers and are quite dramatic in the way they take off. I found  8 of them at Haddam Meadows State park but this one seemed to keep to itself.
Old rail lines run along side most of the river in Connecticut. Some of the trains are still active. This is one of the old trains at Essex Steam Train & and Riverboat where they offer passengers scenic rides.
Deep River Landing is another easily accessible sight along the lower part of the Connecticut. Last winter I had a great view of Bufflheads and other wintering ducks from this site. 
On this day I had to settle for Mute Swans that spent a lot of time trying to avoid floating ice chunks.
Great Blue Herons are found near the river year round but I only see a few during the winter months. There's been some rare sightings near the river as well including the recent Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Hadlyme and a White-faced Ibis in Portland a couple of years ago.
I took this photo of a Red-bellied Woodpecker at the town riverfront park which is just a short walk from my house. I also found a ragged looking Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on the same tree but the camera didn't like it. 

I remember fishing with my father for Northern Pike on the Connecticut River when I was a kid. The water smelled nasty and my fishing line would be covered with river slime every time I reeled it in. The water quality has improved dramatically since then. It has gone from a class D to class B river over the past 40 years. 

I've come to appreciate this river a lot more since I've started birding. There is a variety of habitat including large agricultural fields, wetland, ravines with tributaries running into the river. There are also numerous nature preserves with trails to explore but the Connecticut River itself is one long birding trail.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Don't Stress The Snowy Owl On My Windshield

Can You find the Snowy Owl hidden behind the tall marsh grass off in the distance? Before you pass judgement on what might be considered a lousy photo of a Snowy Owl let me explain something. I planned it that way because I didn't want to stress the bird.

I originally saw this owl when it landed on the hood of my car and proceeded to feast on a mole that it had captured. I watched in amazement for a few seconds but then something odd happened. The owl became aggressive. It tore the windshield wipers off my car with its powerful beak and talons then hissed at me. Maybe it was the song playing on my stereo that provoked it ("Who are you? who? who?" by The Who). I wanted to take a photo of it but have read that you should avoid "stressing" these owls. They have already journeyed a long way south because of a food shortage and are under a lot of stress. Just being in Connecticut is stressful enough but they also have to find enough food to survive. So instead of trying to get a photo, I turned off my radio and hid under the dashboard until the Snowy Owl was gone. 

Yes, I could have taken the photo of a lifetime but that would have been wrong. Instead, I followed the instructions that responsible birders have been preaching. I waited until the owl had flown off into the distance and was hidden safely behind grass before attempting a photo. It was the best I could do under the circumstances. I admire the expert birders/photographers who manage to take brilliant full- framed photos of the Snowy Owls without subjecting them to stress. How do they do it? Maybe I'll wait until they've had enough to eat and then try to get a wee bit closer. (I was only kidding about the part with the owl landing on my car and ripping off my windshield wipers)!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fork-tailed Flycatcher At Chester-Hadlyme Ferry

  I took a ride over to the Hadlyme side of the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry landing early Saturday morning. The ferry has been in service in 1769 and was used during the American Revolution. Another bit of trivia is that this ferry was featured in the 1970's low budget cult classic: "Let's Scare Jessica To Death" (imdb)

The people in the photo gathered in the parking lot with spotting scopes and binoculars are not there for  history appreciation or  trivia. They came here to see a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (whatbird) which should be in South America, not in Connecticut. 
The conditions were overcast at the start of the morning but it didn't take long before we had a glimpse at the target bird. The lighting conditions didn't allow for much of a photo but you can probably tell why it's called a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
Later that morning the skies began to clear a little. One of the fun parts of going to see a rare bird is that you get to meet and chat with other birders. I knew a few but there were also several that came from out of state to see this bird.

 Birders have different reasons for wanting to see a rare sighting of a bird such as this one. Some want to add to a particular list they are keeping. Others want to get a good photograph of one. I just wanted to see it because of the rarity of seeing one in Connecticut (only 3 previous records of sightings in CT.). I also think it's an interesting looking bird with that long forked tail. It's been on my short list of birds I'd like to see since I started birding several years ago.
Many of us waited around for a couple of hours hoping to get a better look at this bird and our patience finally paid off. It landed on a short post above an "Attention Anglers" sign.
It was exciting to get a chance to see such a unique species in Connecticut. I don't know why he ended up here. Maybe his internal GPS is out of whack. I just hope he finds his way back home. It has been surviving on what insects and berries it can find but Connecticut in the winter is no place for a flycatcher.
click to play
Here's a short video that shows the forked tail but don't blink because the video is only 4 seconds long.

(Congratulations to Jeff Feldman for such a great find!)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Birding Against The Wind

 I was enjoying my first cup of coffee as I looked out the window into my backyard. A strong wind was scattering the leaves in every direction. I was planning on taking an adventurous hike in the woods but I'm not a fan of cold, windy days so I wasn't sure if I wanted to deal with those conditions. Besides, my birders logic told me that wooded areas might not be the most productive habitat this time of the year. I might be better off taking a ride up to the Windsor area where I could find some less common species like Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, or Snow Buntings. I might even be able to watch them from inside my car with my heater on. 
I was backing out of my driveway when the soft rock classic "Against The Wind" came on the radio. Some of Bob Seger's music has a way of connecting with my spirit on an emotional level. Hearing this song inspired me to ignore the cold weather and head for the wooded trails of the Maromas in Middletown.
 One of the lines in the song Against The Wind is -Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then- I can relate to that line when it comes to birding. When you first start birding you don't know much.  Every place and every bird is an adventure. It doesn't matter where you go birding or why. Once you start to acquire birding knowledge it can cause you to analyze things too much. You start to think about where you can find the "best" or largest number of species instead of just taking things as they come. On this particular morning I found 4 Fox Sparrows scratching through the leaves for food near some old train tracks. They may have been the least common species of the day but not necessarily my favorite sighting.
 Beauty is not in the rarity of the bird you see but in the rarity of the moment itself. I've seen several birds over the years that could be considered rare but all of those birds still exist. Rare moments become extinct the as soon as they pass by you. They can only be recalled through memories, and even memories don't always last forever.
There were several highlights of the day for me. I had close encounters with deer stomping through the woods on 3 different occasions. A Bald Eagle raced over my head at high speed. I was startled by a Great Blue Heron  emerging from a swamp just a few feet from where I was walking. I came across a cluster of 20 Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadees squabbling loudly with each other for several minutes.This chickadee seemed fearless as I  watched it pick through some plant seeds. It even flew toward my camera lens a couple of times. 

Birding against the wind turned out to be the right decision after all.

Here is a link to a YouTube clip of  
"Against the Wind" by Bob Seger for those of you who aren't familiar with the song.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Close-up Deer & 1 Elf Village But No Snowy Owl

 I took a ride over to Great Island boat launch in Old Lyme to look for a Snowy Owl but I'm afraid I was a day late and a dollar short. I spent an hour searching the area and had my scope aimed at a white area on a distant deciduous tree. It looked like a possibility but it never moved so it was probably one of those mirage owls. I think the real one moved to a different area.
 I had a close encounter with a deer on the road leading to the boat launch.
 At first she was looking at me all doe-eyed, just as curious of me as I was of her.
But it didn't take long before the deer was off and running. 
 Just 50 yards from where I saw the deer was a very small nature preserve with a short trail. I walked a short distance into the woods. As I turned the corner there was a miniature welcome sign which led me to a clearing with dozens of miniature decorations on the ground and hanging from the trees. It looked like a little elf village or something. I appreciate someone took the time to decorate it because that and the view of the marsh were the highlights of the preserve.
The entire area was protected by a fierce dragon named Pyragordon. He tried to melt the soles on my hiking boots with his dragon breath when I walked by. I know when I'm not wanted so that was the end of my trip. Hopefully the Snowy Owls are still around next weekend so I can have a chance to see one.