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Change in Seasons Brings Plenty of Birds

Posted on Mar 13, 2015

Winter Bird Forecast #7 is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut in partnership with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

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It is hard to believe that for some birds spring is already here. Waterfowl and diving birds like loons and grebes are already heading north and we are starting to get some northbound migrant shorebirds, including a Black-bellied Plover seen in Stratford last week.

Brant geese are piling into Long Island Sound with rapidly increasing numbers. Within a few short weeks some of our nesting shorebirds, such as Piping Plover and American Oystercatcher, will be back to patrolling our shores in search of insects and other small invertebrates. Soon afterwards they will be busy picking out their nesting sites on our beaches, islands, and dunes.

This year we need your help more than ever to ensure that people and birds can “Share the Shore” along the Connecticut coast.  To find out how you can help, please check out the Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds blog:

http://ctwaterbirds.blogspot.com/

On March 14th, we will be hosting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Shorebird Volunteer Training Session. For more information on how you can help, please see:

http://ctwaterbirds.blogspot.com/2015/02/volunteers-needed-for-shorebird.html

or email [email protected]

Winter Wrap-Up

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It is still officially winter and there are still plenty of winter birds to enjoy along the coast. On the last forecast we covered the Great Backyard Bird Count.

This year, 130 species were recorded in the state on 1,975 checklists; this is slightly below last year’s total of 133 species, which is not too surprising given the historically frigid conditions.

This year Snowy Owls were spotted in Stratford and Milford, as the Mouth of the Housatonic River continues to be the hot spot for them.

Some additional highlights of the count include: Eurasian Wigeon in Stratford, four Redheads in Greenwich, Black-crowned Night-Heron in Stratford, at least one Northern Goshawk in New Haven County, several Rough-legged Hawks, Wilson’s Snipe, Short-eared Owl in Morris, several Merlins, Brown Thrashers, Pine Warblers, and multiple reports of Common Redpolls.

Before We Know It

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It may look like a winter wonderland now, but before we know it we will be hearing the sound of American Woodcocks doing their spring display flight. Male woodcocks race the melting snow northwards and try to be the first guy to arrive on the prime display grounds. Sometimes they succeed and get the girl, but sometimes Mother Nature has other plans in store and a late season snowstorm can foil the plans.

Evenings in March, just after sunset, are the best times to hear and see the amazing aerial display flights of the American Woodcock. Open fields are the best place to find them, especially ones with wet meadows or marshes and scrubby thickets nearby.

Looking Good

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Regardless of the weather, the lengthening daylight brings on some welcome spring changes in the bird community.

The increasing daylight is key for birds to transition into breeding plumage.

Some birds molt their feathers to take on new garb intended to attract a mate. Others, like the Snow Bunting, “wear” into their breeding plumage. That is to say that as the winter drags on, the winter feathers start to wear away, losing the feather tips, which are often brownish, revealing brighter colors below. This male Snow Bunting was photographed in Stratford.

Tough Times for Some, Spring for Others

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Bald Eagles are getting pushed further towards the coast than they would in a typical winter. Even our major rivers are freezing up because of the record cold temperatures.  This is concentrating Bald Eagles into small areas where open water remains, and in some cases pushing them right to Long Island Sound. This immature Bald Eagle was photographed at the mouth of the Housatonic River in Stratford last week.

While times are still tough for these scavengers, our local adult Bald Eagles are already down to the business of nesting and reports of Bald Eagles sitting on eggs are already starting to come in from around the state.

Looking Good Part II

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This Lapland Longspur is also starting to transition into breeding plumage. Sometimes the best views of winter visitors can be had at the end of their stay, when their colors are most vibrant.

Pairing Up

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Waterfowl are also starting to pair up around the state. Even species that do not nest in our area, like these Bufflehead, can be observed courting at this time of year. Ducks begin their courtship process on the wintering grounds and are often observed in peak plumage and on full display in hopes of attracting a mate as they pass through our area in the late winter/early spring.

Winners and Losers

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Some birds are having a very tough time this winter. The cold temperatures and scarcity of open water seems to be taking an especially hard toll on ducks and geese.

Times are also tough for the hunters like the Northern Harrier, but some are able to turn the situation to their advantage. Harriers normally focus on hunting small rodents, such as the meadow vole, but that business isn’t very good when there is a deep snow pack covering the ground. Some Harriers have recently taken the unusual step of becoming scavengers and feasting on waterfowl carcasses. Whether these ducks succumbed to the elements or were perhaps captured by another predator, such as a fox or Snowy Owl, is unknown, but it is unlikely that the harriers captured the above Gadwall that they were feeding on in Stratford last week.

Redpolls!

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Flocks of Common Redpolls have been seen at several coastal locations in the past week. Sometimes flocks of Common Redpolls can contain the much rarer Hoary Redpoll, so check over any flocks you may see carefully.  Separation of Common and Hoary Redpolls can be extremely difficult and some ornithologists believe that they are simply two forms of the same variable species.  Regardless, having a good size flock of redpolls of any kind to sort through makes for a great day of birding!

The above Hoary Redpoll was observed in Barkhamsted in 2013.

Racing the Ice

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Another group of birds that races the ice as they travel north are the diving birds. Birds like loons and grebes require open water to catch their fish and aquatic invertebrate prey, but often nest far to our north in the wetlands of boreal Canada. March is a great time of year to see birds like Horned or Red-necked Grebes, or Common and Red-throated Loons as they being their spring journey to their northern nesting grounds.

Like woodcock, these birds are often eager to head north and secure the prime display areas and will race the receding ice of late winter as they attempt to press northwards along major rivers and coastal bays.

Gathering Up

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Late winter can also be a great time to find spectacular concentrations of birds as they stage together to take advantage of blooms of prey items, such as barnacles, mollusks, or plankton, or simply gather together to form migratory groups. The above is not proof of the presence of a large sea serpent in Long Island Sound, but rather a large gathering of several hundred Greater Scaup, a type of diving duck that gathers in huge numbers in the bays of Long Island Sound.

The Winter Bird Forecast is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Connecticut
Scott Kruitbosch, Conservation & Outreach Coordinator, Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History