The transition of the seasons is progressing, albeit slowly, in a one step forward two steps back pattern. Early last week temperatures warmed into the 50's, and the previously frozen ponds, pools and streams came to life. In a small vernal pool in Lyme, I saw my first Wood Frog of the year, soaking up the warm afternoon sun. In the evenings, the wetlands echoed with the chorus of Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers. Soon the pools with be filled with their egg clusters.
On many ponds, including this one in Old Lyme, Painted Turtles could be seen sunning themselves on logs, rocks and clumps of reeds.
A small creek in Lyme was teaming with small fish, so many that when they darted back and forth the water looked like it was boiling.
Bird life is in transition, too. Grackles and blackbirds have taken over at my bird feeders, emptying them at an alarming rate. Osprey sightings are increasing every day now, and I just saw one right over my house shaking the water from its feathers, with a fish in its talons that it apparently just plucked from the brook in the back yard. Other spring arrivals I've seen with more frequency in the past couple weeks are Tree Swallows and Savannah Sparrows. A few winter wanderers remain, though, and last week I stopped into Hammonasset Beach State Park and saw fellow photographer Mark Szantyr http://birddog55.zenfolio.com/ hard at work on the ground beneath the pines at the West Beach parking lot. I got out to see what the attraction was and saw an incredibly tame pair of White-winged Crossbills feeding on the cones, amid the tangled mass of fallen branches, just a few feet away from him. Several Red-breasted Nuthatches flitted fearlessly from tree to ground, also landing right next to him. I went back to get my camera and when I returned, the male crossbill had walked right up to Mark. Too close to be photographed, he looked down in amusement as the bird walked right past his knee. I asked Mark if he'd mind if I joined him (photographer etiquette) and was able to get in on the fun. I got some pictures of the male as it worked (and I mean worked) on a cone for several minutes. At one point it just stopped and sat there, as if it was exhausted and needed to take a breather. Early one morning I took a drive through Rocky Neck and saw a dark shape moving at the edge of the salt marsh. One of the benefits of getting out early is the chance to catch a glimpse of the animal life in Connecticut that is mostly nocturnal and secretive, like the American Mink. I watched as it walked to the edge of the water and disappeared beneath. A few seconds later it resurfaced with a fish in its jaws and walked back up into the grass ........
where it shook the water off and then dispatched the fish. Then back to the water, the mink acted just like an otter. Although too distant for good photos, I was thrilled to watch as it repeated the process five times before scurrying away.
A few days later, I got another treat when an adult Bald Eagle flew into an Old Lyme salt marsh and landed on an unknown object in the water. Again, too distant for really good photos, I watched as the eagle began tearing into the object it landed on. It continued to work on the object as the tide receded, exposing it as some small creature with big ears. The eagle kept on scavenging .....
for more than half an hour until it had taken a big chunk out of the creature and the tide had completely receded, leaving the exposed mud flat that the creature must have been stuck in.
Waterfowl are in transition and made up most of the bird activity I witnessed the past two weeks. In Niantic Bay I saw a Common Loon that had almost fully molted into breeding plumage and on a small pond a pair of Mute Swans' courtship dance led to mating. On Long Island Sound, sea ducks are also wrapped up in courtship activity. This Red-breasted Merganser in Waterford was looking a bit like Don King in its effort to look attractive to the females. Great Cormorants on the Connecticut River are still around, although their numbers seem down this year, and are showing the striking white throat patch and feathering on the head and neck of breeding plumage. Along the coast, Double-crested Cormorant numbers are building, exhibiting a more subtle breeding plumage, with small crests of feathers barely visible behind their vivd green eyes. Pied-billed Grebes, like these in Niantic, have paired up and are also showing their breeding plumage ........ a white beak with a black band and a black throat patch.
Ducks are on the move, and can show up just about anywhere. I've seen small flocks of Green-winged Teal at Harkness, Rocky Neck, and Hammonasset State Parks and at Great Island in Old Lyme the past two weeks. At Harkness Park in Waterford, a drake Northern Shoveler was reported last week and continues as of March 20th.
It's now paired up with a hen shoveler. The ducks are not easy to get close to but can be easily seen from the entrance road.
Also in the same pond at Harkness, are a small flock of American Wigeon and Gadwall (pictured below) along with the more common Mallards and American Black Ducks and Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers.
Another unexpected and pleasant surprise was a flock of Lesser Scaup showing up on small pond in Niantic. At first they were out in the middle ... but as the wind picked up, a small group made its way slowly toward the shore in my direction.
It's always great when they are close enough to easily see the field marks that distinguish them from Greater Scaup, including the heavier barring on the back, thinner nail on the bill and the point or corner on the back of the head.
It's an even greater treat when they are relaxed and behaving calmly and naturally right in front of you .......
stretching, preening and even sleeping, even if it's with one eye open.