As January came to a close, I found myself scrambling to add a few final birds to my list. Each year there's an informal "Big January" competition among birders in Connecticut, who try to record as many species in the first month as they can (sort of a mini-Big Year). Beside some of the rarities I struck out on, I was still hoping to add a few pretty common birds that I had not yet seen this year. I didn't have time to travel very far either, so they would have to be found locally.
I thought I might be in luck with the dramatic storm and high winds forecasted last week. Maybe some good birds might be blown in just in time for the end of the month. The wind lived up to its hype, and with the power out I couldn't work on my computer, so I headed out to the coast to see if any seabirds had been deposited there. I made several stops from Niantic to Stonington, leaving the camera behind as the gale whipped up a steady stream of salt spray, Kryptonite for photo gear. With few birds close to shore, I found myself staring through my binoculars trying to pick out distant specks that appeared on the rolling waves and then disappeared just as quickly, never to be seen again. I don't own a scope (and I don't imagine one would be much use in such buffeting winds) so my viewing range was limited, and the waves made identifying birds on the water nearly impossible. After scanning the Sound from Harkness State Park in Waterford for more than a half hour I finally saw a few birds take flight from near the mouth of the Thames River that I could identify as alcids by their shape. Most flew straight out into the sound and remained unidentified, but one flew west around the point. Even at quite a distance, I was able to identify it as a Razorbill by its head and wing shape. These flight pictures I took a few years ago show the distinctive shape (although much closer than my actual view).
Razorbills have been fairly abundant this year, and I had already seen several at close range. Later the same day, though, a birder reported 16 Common Murres, which I have never seen in the state, from the same spot at Harkness Park. Although Razorbill sightings in Connecticut seem to be on the rise in recent years, they were not always so common. One of my earliest birding memories from the early 1990's happened at Meig's Point in Hammonasset Beach State Park. While scanning Long Island Sound from the hilltop lookout after an autumn storm, I got a distant view of what I thought could be a Razorbill. It flew off to the west just before another man with binoculars joined me. He asked what I'd seen so I told him about my possible Razorbill, and he back down the hill, jumped in his car and sped off through the park to the west. We met up a while later in the park and he said he was able to relocate the bird and that it was a Razorbill. The man turned out to be Noble Proctor. After we reported the sighting to the bird hotline (back then there were no websites to report sightings) there was some controversy. As a novice, my recollection is that I faced an intimidating barrage of questions from experienced birders (maybe the rare records committee) about the head shape, color pattern and so on. I guess my answers were not satisfactory and I'm not sure the report was ever accepted. Twenty years later, experience has taught me to use all these different field marks, shape, patterns, behavior etc. to make an identification with much more certainty. The funny thing is there are still situations when I feel like a novice, not confident to make a positive ID. I'm pretty conservative about calling something I'm not sure of.
Anyway, moving on to Stonington Point, the wind-whipped wave slammed into the sea wall creating a curtain of salt spray. I couldn't get out of my car without getting soaked, so I could only scan to the east through the car window (the west facing windows were covered with spray). Other than a few common birds, not much was seen. Returning home, power had been restored so it was back to the computer. My only late pickup was a Great Horned Owl at dusk, so I finished the month with a respectable 110 birds. The Big January rankings (I didn't send mine in) were compiled and the top birder reported 144 birds. Wow! My list would have finished in the top ten, although I'm sure there are many avid birders who don't keep a list or didn't report their sightings either.
After the storm, and the "Big January" commotion, February started quietly, with no new sightings, so far. I continue to have plenty of opportunities to photograph waterfowl, like loons, mergansers and even a tiny Pied-billed Grebe, below. Though the waterfowl are plentiful, I'm getting antsy to photograph some more exciting subjects. Barred Owls continue to be easily spotted, although I have not really worked to get good pictures, not wanting to push them as they continue to appear stressed. Raptors seem a bit scarce along the shoreline this winter, but I did spot a Merlin perched on a snag near Great Island in Old Lyme over the weekend. The bird was silhouetted against the cloudy sky, but seeing some breaks in the clouds, I waited, hoping for the sun to break through. Luckily, the Merlin stayed put, and my patience was rewarded as a little weak sunlight broke through briefly and illuminated the bird. I also saw a female Northern Harrier hunting in the same area of salt marsh at Hammonasset and got several chances at it, although the direction of the wind in relation to my vantage point gave me mostly a tail view.
I've been seeing some spectacular shots of Great Grey Owls taken recently by photographers in Ottawa and Montreal, and was considering a trip north to join the fun. This week a Great Gray was found in New Hampshire and there was another possible report from Naugatuck, which so far has not panned out. As the sightings get closer, who knows, maybe seeing a Great Gray Owl in Connecticut won't be a once in a lifetime event as I predicted. It would certainly spice up the winter doldrums.
I continue to check Great Island frequently in the late afternoon to look for Short-eared Owls, which hunt at dawn and dusk, so far without luck. While there, I often see people gathered at the boat launch to watch the sunset from their cars. With the clouds breaking up at just the right time Sunday evening, I shot this tranquil view of the sun setting over the Connecticut River, South Cove and the empty Old Saybrook causeway. It's never seems to be empty when I'm driving on it and see something out on the cove that I want to stop and take a quick picture of from my car. Maybe everyone was at home, waiting for the Super Bowl to start.