Unless you're an avid skier or plow snow for a living, by now you're probably ready for winter to end. The cold and snow have grown tiresome and the promise of spring is temptingly just around the corner. The first flowers poking up from the drab landscape are a sign of hope, but the transition from winter can seem painfully slow.
This time of year can try the patience of many birders, as well, who are weary of winter's drabness and are looking forward to spring migration and the wealth of new species it brings, and the return of their songs to the woods. I've always found March to be a frustrating time for my photography for similar reasons, but had the distraction, both for work and for entertainment, of college basketball's March Madness to fill the void. The present state of college basketball, and college sports in general, with the musical chairs of schools and leagues has spoiled a lot of the fun, especially for us in Connecticut. But that's another story altogether. So, without the basketball tournaments to look forward to, this promised to be a long month.
There are always birdy things to look forward to in March, like the growing flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls, the evening flight displays of the American Woodcock and the comical courtship antics of mergansers and goldeneyes. So with that in mind, I keep my ear to the grindstone (an obscure reference to one of my all-time favorite movie scenes - Google "Ya suspect"). Anyway, when the ice melts, I often check Dodge Pond in Niantic, where I've photographed Hooded Mergansers close to shore in the past. I checked the pond early this week and found no mergansers, but did see two Pied-billed Grebes and four American Coots. The grebes quickly moved farther out, but the coots stuck nervously to the shore in a corner of the pond.
I was able to get very close to the coots, lying on my belly, photographing them from just a few yards away. It did not appear that I was the one making them act nervously.
Occasionally, they would swim briefly out into the open water, ...... dive beneath the surface ..... ....... then pop up with plant stalks, which they hurriedly tried to gobble down before the others tried to steal the prize away .......
...... then they quickly retreated back to shore, sometime with plants in tow.
I couldn't figure out why they kept swimming back to the shore with me there, but was happy enough photographing them at such close range. I noticed they often eyed the sky, and after about a half an hour I discovered why. A large bird flew out from the wooded shore, where it was hidden from my view, and flew across the pond letting out a sharp chirp. The coots hustled back into their secluded corner.
The large bird that had the coots acting so anxiously was an Osprey, the first of the season! It landed on a branch at the edge of the pond. Then after a few minutes flew out over the pond and circled a couple times, occasionally stopping to hover. As the Osprey circled, the coots stayed tucked under an overhanging branch (despite it's exclusive fish diet, Osprey must be similar enough to an eagle to cause the coots panic). On the other side of the pond, the Osprey dove and came up with a large fish (it looked like a trout) then flew back into the wooded shore, where it once again became invisible.
I have lived in Niantic for the past 25 years, longer than I have been interested in birds. For me, the return of the Osprey each March is the true sign that spring has arrived. It's usually when I'm out in the yard, doing spring clean-up, that I hear that high pitched chirk-chirk call and look up to see the familiar wing beats. Osprey often follow the Pattagansett Brook that winds behind my house, following the spring herring runs as the fish make their way up into the ponds to spawn. Seeing the Osprey hovering over my yard is an annual rite, probably since before my birding days, and it's difficult to describe how and why it instantly lifts my spirits. I associate the timing of the first Osprey sighting with the college basketball tournaments, linked mentally because they both usually come in mid-March. This year's first sighting was March fourth, certainly a week or two earlier than usual.
I grew up in Niantic and Old Lyme, and even at the Osprey's nadir in the 1970's, those were the last two strongholds for the birds in the state. When I moved back to Niantic in 1988, Osprey were still scarce in the state. There were only a handful of nests outside of those two towns, none west of the Connecticut River, but it seems I always remember seeing them. I started my career in photojournalism at a small weekly paper, and one of the first picture stories I did was about the efforts to help the Osprey recovery in the state. My first foray into nature photography was on grainy black and white Tri-X film.
That was in 1990, two years before I became interested in birds. Since then, Osprey have made a remarkable recovery and are commonly seen throughout the state. It's fair to say they're back. I've taken thousands of pictures of Osprey in the ensuing years, but I still never get tired of seeing and photographing them. If there is any one bird that I can call my favorite or feel some kind of psychological or spiritual connection with, it's the Osprey.
There is a disturbing recent development that could hurt the Osprey population, in Connecticut and beyond. In the last decade or more there's been a drastic decline in the numbers of anadromous herring returning from the ocean each spring to spawn in the streams, ponds and and lakes. These once bountiful runs of alewives and blueback herring (we called them buckeyes) are a major food source for Osprey, but they are dying out at an alarming rate in Connecticut. If the decline continues, I may no longer see Osprey following the brook that runs behind my house each spring.
After the lift of seeing my first Osprey, I went out that evening to see if I could experience another rite of spring, the courtship display of the American Woodcock. I'd checked a few locations in Lyme and Salem recently without luck, but at dusk, right on queue, I heard a loud peeent, then another more distant one. I heard a total of four different birds, but only one took flight in an aerial display, barely visible against the deepening blue sky. Perhaps it's a bit early for the big show.
So March kicked off with two new birds for the year, Osprey and American Woodcock. Common birds, but still a joy to see. And, as I went down to my basement to find a copy of my old Osprey story I looked out at my bird feeders and saw a male cardinal, four bluebirds, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Carolina Wren all together. Not a bad week.