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Cloudy with a Chance of Snowys

Posted on Dec 19, 2014

This is the first of a series of Winter Birds Forecasts focused on Connecticut and the surrounding region brought to you by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History and written by Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Connecticut with Scott Kruitbosch, Conservation & Outreach Coordinator, Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. Photos by Patrick Comins.

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This Snowy Owl was photographed at Roger Wheeler State Beach in Rhode Island last weekend.

A spate of early sightings of Snowy Owls in the Northeast has the birding community excited for a possible repeat of last year’s mega irruption that saw dozens of sightings of Snowy Owls in Connecticut and other Northeastern states. While there has been a respite in sightings in Connecticut in the last week, the potential to find these gorgeous Arctic predators is good, and they are often very talented at hiding for short periods. Check open country locations such as old landfills, farm fields, coastal marshes or even on buildings in urban/suburban environments. Snowy Owls have been reported from Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Long Island in the past week, and birds tend to move around quite a bit at this time of year, so the potential to find one should remain good.

Six Christmas Bird Counts occur this coming weekend (December 20th and 21st): New Haven, Storrs and Woodbury-Roxbury on the 20th and Barkhamsted, Stratford-Milford and Westport on the 21st. Participants should stay dry and relatively warm for the Saturday counts. The weather for Sunday could be less pleasant with a potential rain or snow showers looming. The precipitation should be mixed and travel could be tricky at times, particularly for the inland Barkhamsted Count, stay tuned to the local weather forecast for Sunday. Falling pressure ahead of the system should cause some birds to come in to feeders and any snow to our north could drive some birds south. The unseasonably mild temperatures are predicted to continue through the coming week, making conditions ripe for finding lingering “half-hardy” birds such as Baltimore Oriole, Pine Warbler, House Wren or something even better. Another storm may impact us late in the week, but for now that is forecast to track to our west, bringing mild and rainy conditions with it, which again could be good for half-hardy species noted above. Such conditions in the early winter can be a good opportunity to find a vagrant from the south!

For a complete list of Christmas Bird Counts in Connecticut, please click here!

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This Greater White-Fronted Goose was sighted in Wallingford last weekend.

It continues to be slow for waterfowl in Connecticut. Many observers are reporting reduced numbers of the common wintering waterfowl such as Ring-necked Duck and Common Merganser. The abundance of open water, both here and to our north, is impacting this. Birds are slow to move south unless forced to by icing over of water bodies and the abundance of open water here means that birds don’t have to be concentrated in traditional haunts. Some uncommon waterfowl have been sighted though, including Redheads in Meriden and Sharon, a Barrow’s Goldeneye in Enfield and Eurasian Wigeon in Litchfield, Norwalk and Milford. Keep an eye on open water bodies and you never know what you might find. One quick flash freeze and we could lose our open water though. Some uncommon geese continue in our area, with at least one Greater White-fronted Goose reported from Wallingford on last weekend’s count, another on the Hartford Count and Snow Geese reported from Simsbury, Meriden, Stratford and Durham. Some really good geese have been reported in the northeast recently, with Barnacle Geese on Long Island and New Jersey, Pink-footed Goose in New Jersey and a Ross’s Goose in Northern New Jersey until recently. The Barnacle Goose that was frequenting Broad Brook Mill Pond has not been sighted in a few weeks, but continue to check those goose flocks.

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Northern Saw-whet Owls are regular winter visitors to Connecticut, but can be tricky to find!

As noted earlier, a moderate Snowy Owl irruption appears to be underway. Keep checking those open habitats. In addition to Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks appear to be making a good showing in the Northeast and they have been reported from Suffield Wildlife Management Area in Suffield, Short Beach in Stratford and the old Meriden Landfill in Meriden. Remarkably, a wayward Prairie Falcon was sighted recently in northwest Vermont, an extremely unusual record for New England. This bird has not been seen since December 11th, so check any large falcons you see carefully. Speaking of large falcons, a dark morph Gyrfalcon was photographed on the New Hampshire seacoast this week. A great early sighting and hopefully a sign of more to come this winter!

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The Glaucous Gull is a rare to uncommon winter visitor to Connecticut. This bird was photographed several winters ago at Long Beach in Stratford.

Seabirding has been slow, but the Long Island Sound Bird Count is now underway and hopefully some alcids, gannets and other seabirds may show up with the storms that are forecast for the coming week. Some alcids are being reported now from traditional lookout points in Maine and Eastern Mass, which may be an indication that they are finally starting to move. Uncommon gulls seem to be hard to find this year. Some large flocks are being reported from near the Shepaug Dam in Southbury, but so far only one Iceland Gull has been found among the flock. Observers have noted a poor showing for uncommon winter gulls such as Iceland and Glaucous Gulls so far. A Thayer’s Gull has been reported in New York City recently, which is a good sign!

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This Common Loon was sighted last weekend in Rhode Island. They are a common sight along the Connecticut coast, but can be a very good find at an inland location in the winter.

Waders and Other Waterbirds
The relatively mild conditions have led to much open water and a good showing for wading birds. Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfisher should be relatively easy to find in inland haunts and keep an eye out for lingering egrets or Night-Herons along the coast. Two Snowy Egrets have been sighted in recent days along the coast in Stratford. Great Egrets have been seen infrequently in and around Stratford as well and one was sighted on Wednesday in Old Lyme. Remarkably, a juvenile Little Blue Heron was recorded at Hammonasset Beach State Park on Tuesday of this week and an American Bittern was seen there on Monday. Two Pied-billed Grebes were found in Branford on Monday and there seems to be a good showing of Red-necked Grebes at both coastal and inland locations in New England. A Common Loon was sighted last weekend on the Quinnipiac Valley Christmas Count. Keep checking those marshes, shorelines and areas of open water!

PUSA winter bird forecast

Purple Sandpipers are regular visitors to Connecticut in the fall through spring, but tend to move around quite a bit to find the best foraging areas at a given tide and/or to avoid predators.

It continues to be slow for lingering shorebirds this winter, but Greater Yellowlegs has been reported from coastal locations with one seen at Long Wharf in New Haven on the 14th and several more reports from Stratford, Milford, Madison, Guilford and Waterford in late November. The usual winter flocks of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone have been reported from coastal locations and Purple Sandpipers have been reported from Hammoansset Beach State Park, Menunketesuck Flats in Westbrook and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. Five Black-bellied Plovers were reported at Menunketesuck Flats on Tuesday, always a good find in the winter. Killdeer appear to be here in only sparse numbers this winter. No blockbuster rarities have been reported in the Northeast so far, save perhaps for the Long-billed Curlew reported in New Brunswick in late November and continuing at least through December 1st. A lingering Marbled Godwit has been reported at nearby Jones Beach on Long Island at least through December 4th. A remarkably late Hudsonian Godwit was observed at Sandy Hook in New Jersey recently. Check those shorebird flocks carefully!

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Gray Catbirds are among the more familiar birds found in Connecticut in the warmer months, but finding one on a Christmas Count makes for a great day.

Anecdotally, birders report that there are low numbers of sparrows and other regular visitors at many inland locations so far this winter. Perhaps the mild temperatures and lack of snow cover is allowing them to find food in a variety of wild habitats and they are not concentrated into typical winter haunts yet. Interestingly, some coastal observers are noting larger than normal numbers of sparrows and other common wintering birds. This has been the case since the peak of migration in mid-October for many feeder species like the Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow. There continues to be a good showing of “half-hardy” birds in the northeast, with Yellow-breasted Chats reported recently from Hammonasset Beach State Park and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Marine Headquarters in Old Lyme. Several Orange-crowned Warblers have been reported in the Northeast in recent weeks and it appears to be a good showing for this uncommon, cold-hardy warbler. At least two Rufous Hummingbirds have been recorded in coastal towns and at least two late Baltimore Orioles have been reported in Connecticut the last week, and some observers are reporting a good showing of Hermit Thrushes, Pine Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Common Yellowthroats. Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to be few and far between this year, especially at inland locations.

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Clay-colored Sparrows are common and familiar birds west of the Mississippi River, but are regular vagrants to the East Coast. This bird has been frequenting a private residence in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Western Vagrants
Western vagrants are putting on a good show throughout the Northeast this late fall, but so far Connecticut has not benefitted much from this incursion (aside from the above mentioned hummingbirds). A summary of highlights is given to encourage you to get out and find some birds like these in Connecticut! A Cassin’s Kingbird continues at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. Many Connecticut birders have made the trip there to see this bird and also the Common Ground Dove at nearby Jones Beach (not necessarily a western vagrant, but possibly a southern or western vagrant). A Townsend’s Warbler has been frequenting Marblehead Neck in Massachusetts in recent days. This would be a great bird to find in Connecticut and a long-desired first state record! A LeConte’s Sparrow has been seen at an abandoned driving range in Eastham on the Cape. The real showing has been a good incursion of Townsend’s Solitaires in the east, with reports from Maine, Massachusetts and central New York. Often cyclical in their vagrancy, it is a good sign that they are showing up in the east this year. They are often accompanied by other berry-eating vagrants from the west including Varied Thrush (two reports from Maine) and Mountain Bluebird (reports from Maine and Central New York). One Harris’s Sparrow has been seen in Vermont and a handful of Lark Sparrows have been reported, both in Connecticut and neighboring states. A Clay-colored Sparrow has been frequenting a feeder in Belchertown, Massachusetts for about two weeks. Keep an eye on any flocks of landbirds you encounter, particularly in scrubby areas rich with berries or abundant natural seeds.

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Common Redpolls are always a welcome sight at feeders. Some years they can be here in abundance, in other years you won’t find a single bird in Connecticut.

Irruptive Species
Each year, Ron Pittaway from the Ontario Field Ornithologists issues a “ Winter Finch Forecast.” This year he predicted a mild to moderate incursion of Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and Common Redpolls. This has come to pass, with a very good showing of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins in October. Reports are slowing of these two species in recent weeks. Locations that hosted dozens of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins in October and November are now reporting only small numbers if any at all. There are still some around, so keep your feeders full. Purple Finch reports are scattered about the state and a handful of Pine Siskins sightings continue into Christmas Counts. I walked out my door last Sunday to hear a siskin calling from the top of a tree in my yard in Meriden.

Sporadic reports of small flocks of Common Redpolls continue to trickle in from states to our north and there have been a handful of reports from Connecticut. Keep an eye on feeders, conifer stands, large stands of birch trees or weedy fields for this uncommon and irregular winter visitor. Redpolls can be late arrivals, often showing up after Christmas Counts, so don’t give up on them yet. Speaking of late arrivals, a moderate incursion of Red Crossbills is possible this year and recently a flock was noted flying overhead in western Massachusetts. Unfortunately, tropical storms Irene and Sandy, and a new invasive pest have taken their toll on Japanese black pine stands along the coast, which are traditionally the best place to look for Red (and when they are here White-winged) Crossbills.

At least one Pine Grosbeak and a few Bohemian Waxwings have been reported in Northern New England, including at least one report of Bohemian Waxwings from Andrew’s Point in northeastern Massachusetts, but so far there is no sign of a major invasion. Flocks of Cedar Waxwings or areas with an abundance of fruit such as crab apples should be checked carefully. Often incursions of these species to our area are a late winter phenomenon. Remarkably, a single Gray Jay was sighted for several weeks at Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, but it has not been reported since November 16th. Interestingly that is the day I went to see the bird with my son and missed it by five minutes.

Finally, there is a decent showing of Northern Shrikes in the Northeast, with at least three reports in Massachusetts and a continuing bird frequenting Haddam Meadows State Park. Shrikes like open country habitats with scattered trees and much scrubby cover. They often perch at the very top of a tree in the middle of an open field to hunt for their prey of small birds and rodents.

Audubon has produced a video on irruptive species and Christmas Counts, which can be found here:

The Winter Birds 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