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We Didn’t Expect This!

Posted on Jan 11, 2015

Winter Birding Forecast #3 is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut in partnership with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.


Last time we told you to “Expect the Unexpected”, but we certainly didn’t expect this.  A Couch’s Kingbird was spotted for the first time ever in New York and it happens that this bird has been hanging out in the West Village on Lower Manhattan for several weeks before it was identified as this rare and spectacular flycatcher that should be in Texas or Mexico right now.  If a Couch’s Kingbird can hang out undiscovered for several weeks on Manhattan Island who knows what else could be lurking in your local patch of habitat!

This is just one of several western or southwestern vagrants that are being seen in the Northeast in recent weeks.  Relatively mild conditions and a predominant southwest flow extended the Thanksgiving rarity season into the New Year but that is all about to change.

The weather pattern will now be shifting to a colder one, and certainly at least in the short term this week, which will have a big impact on which birds remain in our area and what new arrivals we could expect.  Stay tuned to WXedge.com for the latest on the forecast and to the Winter Bird Forecast for what it means for birds and birding in our area.



Not the Only Game in Town

The Couch’s Kingbird isn’t the only game in town; a Cassin’s Kingbird has been seen across town in a community garden at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. This bird, only the second state record, has been present since November.  These rare kingbirds are just two examples of western or southwestern vagrants being seen in the Northeast.  A Townsend’s Warbler continues in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Townsend ’s solitaire and Western Tanager are being seen in Maine, Prairie Falcon and Harris’s Sparrow have been seen in Vermont and a Painted Bunting continues at Cove Island Park in Stamford, Connecticut.

How this arctic blast will affect these birds is unknown.  These insect eating birds can be surprisingly cold hardy if there is enough food to fuel their internal heat engines.  Some will switch over to berries in the coldest weather, but a good amount of insects are required to get them through the winter.  Urban parks and gardens can be warmer than the surrounding areas and can harbor insects, and even a small patch of habitat near a water treatment facility or a scrubby patch near a steam vent could provide conditions that could allow more insects to be active in colder weather. Such microclimates are a good place to look for such vagrants as weather turns colder.

East Shore Park in New Haven is a good place to search for late or vagrant birds in part because the nearby water treatment facility allows midges and other small insects to survive longer into the winter.  Audubon and our partners in the New Haven Urban Oasis Urban National Wildlife Refuge Partnership are working to enhance the habitats at East Shore Park and other urban parks in New Haven to build on the natural strength of these parks as oases of habitat for migrant birds and to provide better birdwatching opportunities for Connecticut’s residents: http://newhavenwildliferefuge.org/


Keep an Eye on Open Water

With the unseasonably mild weather we have been experiencing there has been an extraordinary amount of open water available for this time of year.  Our recent brief cold snap wasn’t enough to get rid of all of it in our area, but may have frozen out some areas to our north and west.   The current blast will likely be a different story and open water should close up quickly.  This could push more waterfowl and other water birds into our area and push some out.  It will pay to keep an eye on the last remaining patches of open water as there could be quite a waterfowl/waterbird shakeup as things start to freeze up.

The above Redhead, a type of diving duck that is quite uncommon in Connecticut, is one of two that has been frequenting Meriden’s Hannover Pond in recent weeks.


Eurasian Vagrants

In addition to the oddball western and southwestern vagrants, the Northeast is also getting a spate of Eurasian Vagrants such as Tufted Ducks and Black-headed Gull in Massachusetts, Eurasian Wigeons in Connecticut and other states and Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese in New York and New Jersey.  Remarkably, there was a recent sighting of a Eurasian Kestrel in Nova Scotia and a Northern Lapwing in New Brunswick.  Let’s find something like that in Connecticut!  (update, over the last weekend Nick Bonomo found a European Mew Gull in Southbury, AKA “Common Gull”, though this European vagrant is anything but common in Connecticut!)

The above gull was found by Mark Szantyr in February, 2013 in Windsor, CT and has been the subject of much debate as to its identity; but a paper soon to be published in Birding magazine is using it as an example of how to identify immature Slaty-backed Gulls out of range.  If accepted by the Avian Records Committee of Connecticut, this bird could be recorded as Connecticut’s third Slaty-backed Gull, a species normally found wintering along the Pacific coast of Asia.



Redpolls and other winter finches continue to frustrate.  There are scattered reports, even down to the coast, but they move around so much that you can’t track them down and just require some luck to even come across any.  This cold snap could again shake things up, particularly if we start getting snow or ice to our north.   Scott Kruitbosch from RTPI has provided this analysis on redpolls with in-depth coverage of their status at the end of 2014:

The above Common Redpoll was photographed in a past invasion, but some of us are not so patiently waiting for their arrival and have turned to photo editing to get our fix.


ruby-crowned-kingletHalf-Hardy Birds

There continue to be scattered pockets of birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Gray Catbirds for which we mark the northern and occasional wintering limit in their ranges.  In some winters they will hang around, in other winters they will be just to our south.  There are still lots of reports of such birds to our north, so the current cold snap could send some more of these birds our way.  This chilly Ruby-crowned Kinglet was photographed in Stratford.


Snowy Owl Update

So far, Snowy Owl sightings have been only scattered, and mostly around the mouth of the Housatonic River in Milford and Stratford, but many areas to our north and west are seeing much more than usual.  Snowy Owls often come south in search of waterfowl prey, as the open waters freeze to our north and west it could mean a fresh push of Snowy Owls into our area.

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