Things have been pretty busy the past two weeks, but it's only a taste of what the next month will bring. The peak of migration is temptingly close, and every day now new arrivals are being reported. But here in eastern Connecticut, particularly in the woodlands, it's still pretty quiet. It always seems that a bit of patience is required here, before the waves of migrants building around the state explode suddenly across the eastern woodlands. This chilly spring seems to be a bit slower getting started than the past couple years as well.
At Rocky Neck, things have quieted down in the Bride Brook marsh. Most of the Osprey have paired up and chosen nest sites. Many of the ducks have moved on, but a few still linger, mainly in the north end of the marsh. I have not seen the two sub-adult eagles lately, although there was a tattered looking juvenile flying over the park last week.
The egrets have also thinned out a bit, although both Great and Snowy Egrets still dot the salt marsh. So far no sign of the Little Blue Heron I've seen the past few springs in the park, but the Snowies are starting to morph into full breeding plumage.
Double-crested Cormorants continue to build along the shoreline, and large flocks can be seen flying overhead well inland as they head north. In many of the ponds in Niantic, flocks of cormorants gather to feed on the alewives that have made it to their spawning destinations. I spent an hour one day, patiently waiting for one to surface close enough to see the tiny crests on the head that they are named for. A few more shorebirds have arrived in coastal locations. The early nesting Killdeer are already on eggs, and seem to fly up from the strangest locations where they have chosen to nest (like the middle of a gravel parking lot), to distract innocent passers-by away. Noisy Willets have returned to marshes along the East River in Guilford, at Hammonasset, in Madison and Great Island in Old Lyme. Lesser Yellowlegs (pictured below) have joined their larger cousins both at Rocky Neck and Hammonasset.
Also at Hammonasset last week, I spent a morning on a wild bittern chase, waiting a couple hours to see an American Bittern that had been seen repeatedly in a small creek area across from the Nature Center. I couldn't locate it at first, but after getting tips from a couple different birders, I did get a brief look at it as it walked across a small pond before disappearing again into the reeds. Another photographer joined me and we spent a while talking, hoping it might pop into the open again. I was about to give up the quest, when we decided to walk back toward the creek to see if it had stealthed it's way back there. I trained my binoculars down the length of the creek but did not see it. Luckily my friend, sans binoculars, took the wider view and found it frozen at the edge of the creek, just a few feet below us. Scrambling to take off my teleconverter and back up a little, I was able to get some shots of it as it hunted and caught a fish. Again, a bit of patience was rewarded.
While taking a break from the bittern exercise, I took a detour to see the Purple Martins (top) and Tree Swallows (below) setting up shop near the Nature Center.
My main focus has been on migrant songbirds and I took several walks and drives through my favorite wooded spots in Lyme and East Haddam to look for warblers and other migrants that may have arrived. Towhees were the most often heard but seldom seen, except for the omnipresent Chipping Sparrow which could be seen and heard almost everywhere. In a few locations, a more musical version of the rapid fire Chipping Sparrow song signaled the presence of a Pine Warbler, one of the earliest arriving migrant warblers. In some locations, I found a few small pockets of warblers, including Yellow-rumped (the first this year as they have been unusually scarce this winter), Palm, a lone Ovenbird, Cerulean, Northern Parula and Blue-winged all foraging quietly, and a couple Louisiana Waterthrush singing sporadically. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were numerous, but overall the woods were still frustratingly quiet. Again, I'll have to be patient, as eventually the woods will come alive with their songs.
Since the wave of migrant songbirds hasn't hit my home turf yet, I shifted focus and tried to work on some of the wintering seabirds that would soon be departing. At Hole-in-the-Wall Beach in Niantic, a few Horned Grebes remained, some nearing full breeding plumage. I draw some strange looks from beach goers, lying prone of the breakwater rocks waiting for birds to surface close by. Again, patience required. None of the grebes were bold enough to approach too close to shore but this nice looking one came the closest.
A few Red-breasted Mergansers also lingered, with the females showing the less dramatic, but more recent transformation into breeding plumage (a black ring around their eyes).
The most dramatic transformation goes to the Common Loon, which turns from drab winter gray to striking black and white and irridescent green. I found that one loon would make a few passes close to shore in the afternoon diving for crabs. The pictures were taken over the last two weeks and show some the final phase of this dramatic transformation. I often assign myself specific subjects to work on each year, and sometimes I do not get around to it. Many years I've vowed to work on Common Loons in breeding plumage (one of the most beautiful birds in my opinion) but have never gotten to it. This is especially troubling since they are the closest of the loon species to reach, breeding in northern New England, yet I have many more photos of Pacific and Red-throated Loons which breed near the arctic. This year, they are again one of my targets, and hopefully I'll break through finally.
As for my Big Year, I'm up to 150 species of birds in Connecticut, and that should starts growing in leaps and bounds in the next few weeks. I'll need to see just about every expected migrant and breeding bird species in the state, and still get lucky with some rarities if I'm going to reach 300 though.