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Expect the Unexpected

Posted on Dec 26, 2014

Winter Birding Forecast #2 is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut in partnership with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

The relatively mild December is making for great birding opportunities as we close out 2014. So called “half-hardy” birds such as Gray Catbird, Pine Warbler and Common Yellowthroat are putting in appearances on Christmas Bird Count (CBC) checklists and birds like Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren and Eastern Bluebird are being found in good numbers as are Yellow-rumped Warblers at some coastal locations.  One of the biggest surprises of the week was the discovery (or perhaps rediscovery) of a male Painted Bunting at Stamford’s Cove Island Park.  A male Painted Bunting had been seen in the park in late October, but the last sighting was October 29th.  That is until local birder Patrick Dugan found one again in the park on December 22nd.


If there is an opposite of a Snowy Owl, the Painted Bunting would be a good candidate.  Anything but large, white or arctic, this small and colorful songbird should be in Texas right now, not Connecticut.  Cove Island Park is one of the best birding spots in the state and always seems to attract a few really great birds each year.  The park is recognized as an Important Bird Area by Audubon Connecticut because of its importance to migrating and wintering birds.  You can learn more about this birding gem here.

Mild conditions are forecast to continue into the weekend, making for continued opportunities to find lingering migrants, “half-hardy” birds or vagrants from the south or west and conditions should be relatively pleasant for observers on this weekend’s one count, the Napatree Circle (which includes parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York).  This year New Year’s Day also hosts a count for the Pawling/Hidden Valley Circle, which straddles the Connecticut and New York border and includes the Danbury area.  Things may turn chilly between now and that count!  To learn more about upcoming Christmas Bird Counts, please see: http://www.ctbirding.org/count.htm

Thank you to David Winston of the Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary for the use of his photo of the Painted Bunting.


Wild Goose Chasing

The mild conditions mean that there is much open water and so far there is little to no snow cover through much of Southern New England.  This is making for perfect conditions for rare geese to show up in our area.  This adult Ross’s Goose was found in Gill, Massachusetts last weekend among a flock of Canada Geese.  Unfortunately, it appears that this bird, along with the two Snow Geese and most of the Canadas it was hanging out with left the area the next day.  Who knows, it could still be in New England, so check those flocks of Canada Geese carefully and you might be rewarded with a very rare find.  (update, the bird was relocated on the 24th) There is actually one species of bird that Connecticut has the only record for in the Lower 48 states, a wild Graylag Goose that was seen in Wallingford 2009. (See photo below)


A Greater White-fronted Goose and a Cackling Goose have been seen frequenting Goodwin Park in Hartford and four wayward Snow Geese have been frequenting an old corn field at Lyman Orchards in Middlefield and a Greater White-fronted Goose continues in Wallingford.  There are still some good geese to our north, with a Pink-footed Goose being reported in Maine (another species for which Connecticut had the first record for the Lower 48 states).  The transition to colder weather could cause a shakeup in the goose flocks, so what is here today could be gone next week (or even tomorrow).


Eurasian Vagrants

A male Tufted Duck has been frequenting Salt Pond in Falmouth, Massachusetts since December 13th.  It has been nearly 15 years since one has been reported in Connecticut, but this species is one of the world’s great vagabonds.  Normally a resident of Europe and Asia there are Tufted Ducks currently being reported in the Marshall Islands, Hawaii, Oregon and Massachusetts.  The only place in North America where they are regular is in Newfoundland, where as many as 30 have been reported in recent weeks.  Whether or not weather plays a role in the presence of Eurasian vagrants such as Tufted Duck, Northern Lapwing Black-headed Gull or Slaty-backed Gull isn’t fully understood, but the abundant open water and snowless conditions make for good foraging grounds for any wayward vagrants that may find themselves over the Northeast.

In addition to this exciting find, Eurasian Wigeon (below) are putting in a good showing in Connecticut.  These relatives of our American Wigeon are a more regular visitor from the Old World and usually show up in the Northeast every winter.  The below drake Eurasian Wigeon was seen at Short Beach in Stratford last winter.  There are some good waterfowl about with scattered reports of Redheads and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Two Redheads continue on Meriden’s Hannover Pond through the 24th.



Western Vagrants

A Cassin’s Kingbird, a western vagrant that is so rare here that it has never been recorded in Connecticut, has been frequenting Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York since November 15th, only the second record ever for this bird in New York.  Remarkably, it was absent on the day of the local Christmas Bird Count, but has been seen nearly every other day from its discovery until at least December 23rd.  Our mild conditions mean unexpected birds that should be elsewhere can survive in unexpected places.  For example, a Townsend’s Solitaire has been frequenting a small cemetery in Marion, Massachusetts.  As this week’s Painted Bunting in Stamford has shown, we should expect the unexpected this December!


Other Big White Birds

The above photo of American White Pelicans was taken this summer in Minnesota, but one could have snapped a photo of one of these huge white birds in Connecticut last weekend if they were looking up at the right time.  A single American White Pelican was seen in Westport last weekend as part of the Westport CBC…certainly one of the best count birds of the year!  A white pelican was seen in SE Massachusetts and in Rhode Island earlier in the week and this could have been the same bird, meaning it would have traversed much of the state between the Rhode Island border and Westport.  I wonder how many people saw this bird and wondered why there was a big white pelican flying over Connecticut airspace!

Speaking of huge white birds, Northern Gannets (below) are currently being seen in the Sound.  It will be interesting to see how many are picked up on this weekend’s Napatree CBC.




Our relatively snowless winter is making for good conditions for some raptors and not so good for others.  Merlins seem to be around in good numbers, as do Northern Harriers, Red-shouldered Hawks and our usual Red-tailed Hawks.  The same factors are likely keeping many northern raptors to our north and west for now.  So far there have been no reports of Northern Hawk or Boreal Owl in New England and I have not seen any reports of wintering Golden Eagles in Southern New England, but there are at least two reports of Gyrfalcon (New Hampshire and western New York) in the Northeast and Rough-legged Hawks are around in modest numbers.  There have been a few Northern Goshawks reported in Connecticut and points south.  A few good troughs and snowier and colder conditions could push some more birds to our neck of the woods.

This Merlin was photographed at Hammonasset Beach State Park last week.


Lots of Blue

Inland locations are still holding good numbers of Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins and Hermit Thrushes, while some coastal locations are seeing less of these than normal.  Check areas with abundant berry crops as these birds all feed on fruit in the winter months.  Berry eaters often form mixed flocks, so check over the birds carefully when you run into a pocket of birds.  Bohemian Waxwings have been reported from southeast Massachusetts and other spots in New England and Pine Grosbeaks are showing up in far northern New England.   Sometimes rare birds like Yellow-breasted Chat, or very rare birds like Fieldfare from Europe, or Mountain Bluebirds, Varied Thrush or Townsend’s Solitaire can be found in such flocks.

This Eastern Bluebird was photographed at the Audubon Center at Bent of the River on last week’s Christmas Bird Count.


Winter Wren

Not so long ago if you saw a wren in the winter in Connecticut it was almost certainly a Winter Wren.  In recent decades the Carolina Wren has extended its range northwards and is now a common year-round resident in Connecticut and now greatly outnumbers Winter Wrens here in all seasons.  Despite their name, Winter Wrens can be tough to find in the winter.  They can be found scattered about the state in all seasons, but are most common in spring and fall migration.  Some birds appear to stay on their nesting grounds all year long, but wintering birds are often found foraging along riverbanks, or other wet areas with lots of fallen woody debris.  Winter Wren numbers can fluctuate dramatically from year to year and there seem to be good numbers of them around this winter.  This could lead to good numbers of nesting birds in the spring, as I suspect this species is nomadic in its nesting behavior and birds won’t necessarily return to the area they nested in last year if they find some habitat to their liking along their migratory travels.

Snowy Egret Christmas Bird Count Stratford water-0209

More White Birds

Some other white birds are putting in an appearance this winter, as the mild and ice-free conditions have allowed some wading birds to linger later than they normally would.  At least two Snowy Egrets have been seen in Stratford in recent days, and at least one Great Egret.  A juvenile Little Blue Heron has been seen at Hammonasset Beach State Park.  These birds are white at first and transition over to adult plumage when they are ready to breed themselves.

This Little Blue Heron was photographed at Hammonasset in late October, a notably late date even then.



Winter Finch Report

Finches continue to frustrate so far this winter.  Common Redpolls are around, but scattered widely enough where some luck is needed just to find them, and Purple Finches and Pine Siskins have thinned out considerably, with so far no reinforcements from the north.  Red Crossbills continue to be mostly absent, but a White-winged Crossbill seen in Goshen by Kevin Finnan was quite a surprise, as they were not expected to be in our area this winter.


Snow Hole

As is often the case with winter storms, Connecticut appears to be in a bit of a dry slot in the current Snowy Owl storm.  As you can see in this post by Scott Kruitbosch from RTPI, there are Snowy Owls all around us, but only one sighting that we know of in Connecticut in the last week, on at Seaside Park in Bridgeport.  These birds move around a lot and there have been reports from as close as Springfield Massachusetts and Napatree Point, Rhode Island.

The above photo is a two for one white bird special, and two of my favorite birds at that!  A small flock of Snow Buntings briefly landed between me and this Snowy Owl recently at Roger Wheeler State Beach in Rhode Island recently.

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