By Alex Lees
A week's break from University in late March seemed like a good time to visit family in New England and hopefully catch up with some of the northern specialties associated with this area. After a minimal nights sleep I met local birder Larry Tripp (who would give me a lift to LAX) at an inhumane hour in the morning and bid goodbye to blue skies, temperatures in the 80s and the overwintering Black-throated Gray Warbler in the car park. After a 6-hour flight I arrived in Hartford Connecticut around 4.50 to meet the US contingent of my family who live near Trumbull.
Up and out at 7.00am I was soon outside ticking BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE, TUFTED TITMOUSE, BLUE JAY and NORTHERN CARDINAL - this being my first visit to the Eastern half of the Continent. A big flock of Cedar Waxwings failed to yield any Bohemian and I was later to find that it was a poor year for winter finches too, so any thoughts of grosbeaks and White-winged crossbills were soon dispelled. After breakfast we headed south for New York where I ticked the Empire State Building/Statue of Liberty/World Trade Center etc.
Returning home we stopped on the coast near the town of St Mary's where I was able to reacquaint myself with Black Duck, Light-bellied Brent Geese, Northern Gannets, Great-black backed Gulls and countable Mute Swans along with a small flock of COMMON GRACKLES.
Up early again local birder and RBA co-ordinater Dori Sosensky picked me up from Trumbull and we headed for the Wheeler Marsh at Milford. Here we quickly located CAROLINA WRENS, RED-BELLIED WOODPECKERS and the staked out overwintering GRAY CATBIRD. White-throated Sparrows were common and I was able to see my first white-striped bird; both the Lincolnshire (England) bird of 1992 and the single in California I had seen had been tan-striped. Monk Parakeets appeared to be widespread up and down the coast and we were able to watch birds at one of their huge stick nests. Heading North we called in at Hammonaset State Beach, the Lapland Longspurs here proved elusive but we were able to find small numbers of Horned Larks. Shortly afterwards Dori located the wintering juvenile female Northern Goshawk which gave spectacular views perched up on the edge of the marsh and later whilst being respectfully tailed by a group of American Crows. A single Yellow-rumped Warbler here provoked thoughts of how this site would be crawling in wood warblers in 50 days time. A single "Red" Fox Sparrow was a useful insurance tick considering the possibility of an impending split.
Next we drove down to Middle Beach in Westbrook where the adult Kumlien's Gull was perched up on rooftops and subsequently lured off with bread. This was the first time I had seen this sub species but this individual was at the pale extreme of the scale and was very close to pure Iceland, having only a hint of darker marking on the primaries. We then made a dash inland (picking up Nick Bonomo en route) in a failed attempt to find Black Vulture along Route 8, before heading back down to Sandy Beach on the coast. We drew a blank for Piping Plover here but were able to locate a single AMERICAN TREE SPARROW in the car park. The Black-headed Gull had returned to the Oyster River at Westhaven by the time we had arrived and was sat with a large flock of Bonaparte's Gulls but the Laughing and Little gulls were not around. Another stop for small gulls at nearby Burwell's Beach was unproductive but a few Long-tailed Ducks were present offshore along with my first ABA area Great Cormorants.
At Milford Point AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS were very obvious and noisy and Nick found a single newly arrived PIPING PLOVER along the foreshore. At Seaside near Bridgeport we paid respects to the site where the Snowy owl had been present a fortnight earlier, a species I hadn't seen in 10 years. A single early Great Egret moving north up the coast was a year tick for the locals.
Dori picked me up the following morning and we tried again for the vultures along Route 8. We succeeded in finding two BLACK VULTURES with Turkey Vultures close to Naugatuck but the police informed us that stopping on the side of the Highway was illegal so we were moved on. Stopping for breakfast at Southbury we immediately located two FISH CROWS in the car park at McDonalds a species we had failed to find all day yesterday! The final port of call would be the Audubon Society property at Bent of the River. Four stunning EASTERN BLUEBIRDS were prospecting the local nest boxes and a Pileated Woodpecker frustratingly called distantly. Two Wood Ducks inspected nest boxes along the river and several Golden-crowned Kinglets worked the trees near here. Arriving at the balcony of the center we were able to enjoy good views of all the common "yard birds" at feeders including White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-bellied Woodpecker and a single Chipmunk.
Better was the newly arrived EASTERN PHOEBE flycatching around the garden. A Woodchuck feeding by the side of the highway was another mammalian lifer.
A brief walk in the afternoon around the village produced my first eastern race Red-shouldered Hawk, a single Cooper's Hawk and a very early emerging Mourning Cloak.
Snowed all today and consequently spent the whole day in bed.
A visit to Holly Pond in the morning was fairly quiet; "Chester" the long staying Lesser black-backed Gull was in its usual place and a walk round the nearby park produced a little group of Savannah Sparrows, unfortunately not princeps and a few more Long-tailed Ducks, Common Loons and Horned Grebes offshore. A walk round the golf course near my aunt's house produced my first "Yellow-shafted" Flicker, Hairy Woodpeckers (declining locally) more Fox Sparrows and a pair of Eastern Bluebirds.
After convincing my long-suffering aunt (on her day off) to drive me to Rhode Island we were on the road by 8.00am and crossed the state line in an hour and a half. Ospreys were particularly visible en route and I picked up a few Tree Swallows too. We arrived at Sachuest Point (near Newport) at 10.40. A Northern Harrier quartered the ground around the carpark and I hurried down to the east side of the peninsula. As predicted at least 7 HARLEQUIN DUCKS were immediately visible on the water and sat on the rocks
(I later counted at least 30 on the peninsula as a whole. Also present were a couple of Common Eiders and lots of Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads. Foraging on the rocks was a mixed flock of about 100 Ruddy Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers. About 10 Common Loons, 4 Red-throated Loons, 40 Common Goldeneyes, 30 Buffleheads and an equal number of Red-breasted Mergansers were present in the western bay and after 10 minutes of searching I located one of the two male BARROW'S GOLDENEYES known to be present.
Calling in at Point Judith on the way back I couldn't find the reported King Eider and had to make do with a single male Common Eider off the point. The lack of alcids was noteworthy - Point Montauk was visible in the distance where a Thick-billed murre was known to be present.
After a morning spent playing golf I caught an evening flight back to California and after some horrific public transport shenanigans around LA, I was back in Costa Mesa for 10.00pm.
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