Part 1 January and February>> March>>
January and February: Introduction
New Year’s Day is an exciting day for birders because every species seen that day is new for the year. On January first, there are probably more birders in the field in Connecticut than on any other day of the year. While most people are sleeping in after New Year’s Eve parties, birders are grabbing their coats and binoculars and heading out at the crack of dawn, or earlier.
There are typically fewer bird species present in Connecticut during January and February than at any other time of the year. While this is a lean time for diversity, it is an important time to try to find certain species. It is at this time that birders are seeking out such winter visitors as waterfowl, eagles, owls, and finches as well as a number of other cold weather birds. The shoreline and river valleys tend to be the most productive areas during January and February due to their inherently more moderate weather conditions and available food sources. However, upland areas can be good for irruptive species such as northern finches, Northern Shrike, or perhaps a wintering Golden Eagle.
January and February: General Strategy
These two months are essentially identical in the birding opportunities they afford. This allows you to search for the bulk of the species present over a period of weeks. Birds wintering in Connecticut tend to be most concentrated around open water and therefore the most productive birding strategy is one heavily involving water. Most of your trips should be to areas such as Long Island Sound, river valleys, open lakes and ponds, reservoirs, and coastal marshes. Habitats of secondary importance include agricultural land, weedy fields, tracts of coniferous trees, and birdfeeders. Birdfeeders can create bustling little mobs of hungry birds while the surrounding woodland is remarkably empty of birds and ominously silent.
The prime birding objective of these two months should be water birds. This includes loons, grebes, waterfowl, and other birds associated with water environment, such as gulls. Finding as many species of water birds as possible will require a few trips but you will be rewarded with different species each time, and there is always the possibility of finding something rare or unusual. Several different locations can be visited in a morning and repeated trips to one spot will often produce different birds. While making these trips to wet habitat, you will often be near productive land habitat and you will find many species of "land" birds by simply "bumping" into them.
While you can to some degree bird the shoreline with binoculars alone, the distances involved make a spotting scope an immense help, and at times essential.
Winter’s cold has settled in and so have the winter water birds. Nearly anywhere on the waters of Long Island Sound you should be able to find Red-throated and Common Loons, Horned Grebe, Common Goldeneye, and Red-breasted Merganser. Other common species of the open Sound you may see include Great Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant ( wintering more often in recent years ), Greater Scaup, Oldsquaw, Surf Scoter, and White-winged Scoter. Uncommonly you may find Red-necked Grebe, Northern Gannet, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Barrow’s Goldeneye, and Bonaparte’s Gull. Some of the water birds of the Connecticut shoreline at this time include, American Black Duck, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. Uncommon shoreline birds include Brant, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, American Wigeon (locally common), Canvasback (locally common), Lesser Scaup, American Coot, Sanderling, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin (locally common), and Iceland Gull (virtually all immature birds). The severity of the winter will have a direct affect on the species present and the number of birds. A severe winter will freeze more habitat to our north and drive more water birds into our area. A severe winter will drive some species out of our area as well. As an example, a hard winter will typically mean more Common Goldeneyes on Connecticut waters but fewer Green-winged Teal. Species that stay north in small numbers during mild winters but depart during hard winters are referred to as "half-hardy".
While searching coastal Connecticut it is important to explore any coastal marshes. These are now all too rare in our state. They offer a unique habitat and often harbor species of particular interest in winter. Species that may be found using coastal marshes include American Bittern (uncommon), Great Blue Heron, Northern Shoveler (rare), Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk (irruptive), Peregrine Falcon (rare), rails (uncommon), Dunlin, Snowy Owl (irruptive), Short-eared Owls (irruptive), Horned Lark (uncommon), Yellow-rumped Warbler, Savannah Sparrow (uncommon), Sharp-tailed Sparrows (rare), Swamp Sparrow, Lapland Longspur (rare), Snow Bunting, Eastern Meadowlark (uncommon), and Common Redpoll (irruptive). Brush, trees, and weedy fields adjacent to coastal marshes often harbor wintering sparrows and finches such as American Tree Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow (rare), Dark-eyed Junco, Common Redpoll (irruptive), and American Goldfinch.
Rivers and river valleys offer the combination of fresh water and shelter from the winter’s cold weather. Trees, brushy areas, and fields in these river valleys also often offer more food sources to wintering birds than upland areas. Fresh water marshes, when present, add to this attractive habitat. Species that can be found wintering in these areas include Common Merganser, Common Snipe (rare), Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Wren (uncommon), Eastern Bluebird (locally common), American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, wintering sparrows, Red-winged Blackbird (uncommon), and American Goldfinch. Eastern Screech-Owl is a permanent resident in Connecticut and it is often found near water. It can sometimes be seen roosting in holes in deciduous trees around water but may also be found in trees in parks and residential areas, particularly in the western half of the state. The recovery of the Bald Eagle from its brush with extinction has made the lower Connecticut River famous as an Eagle spotting area in recent years. During harsh winters when much of the inland waters to our north freeze these majestic birds can be almost common on stretches of the river. In addition to this, the lower Connecticut river valley tends to concentrate a number of wintering hawks and it can be very productive and enjoyable to spend a morning visiting the various lookouts along the river. Even a Golden Eagle or two has been discovered among the other raptors during recent years. The Housatonic River and its impoundments is another good area to search for Bald Eagles.
Fresh water ponds and lakes, when open, are also productive. A number of species have a strong preference for fresh water and when it freezes in our area will move further south. Species to look for on ponds and lakes include, Pied-billed Grebe (uncommon), Canvasback, Redhead (rare), Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck (locally common to rare), and American Coot (uncommon).
Gulls are found throughout Connecticut. In some areas they are found in large numbers. When you come across a roosting group of gulls it is well worth your time to have a look. The common species in Connecticut at this time will be Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull. In addition to these three you may find Iceland Gull (uncommon in the eastern end of the state and rare in the west), Lesser Black-backed Gull (rare), or Glaucous Gull (rare). On Long Island Sound you may find Bonaparte’s Gull (uncommon), or Black-headed Gull (a rarity from Europe). Gulls can concentrate in large numbers at landfills and at favored roosts such as the flat roofs of large buildings, grassy fields, frozen ponds, and ball fields. These large gatherings offer a real challenge to anyone willing to spend some time sifting through the ever moving throng. Some landfills allow birders in to look through the gulls. You must stay out of harm’s way and respect the right of way of the employees and users. There is nothing quite like standing on a foul smelling landfill on a bitterly cold and windy day!
Upland birding during the dead of winter, that is to say forests and interior areas of the state, can be mostly unproductive. It can however, be locally quite productive. Valleys and swales can harbor areas of natural food sources which attract such birds as Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush (uncommon), American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Shrike (irruptive), and Northern Cardinal. Coniferous stands deserve special attention. In these stands you may find such species as Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, Long-eared Owl (uncommon), Northern Saw-whet Owl (uncommon), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (rare), Red-breasted Nuthatch (irruptive), Brown Creeper (uncommon), Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush (uncommon), and finches. Perhaps the best known group of irruptive birds are the "winter finches". These finches irrupt into our area on an unpredictable cycle and in varying numbers. These species include Pine Grosbeak, Purple finch (an uncommon breeder), Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin, and Evening Grosbeak. The northwest corner of Connecticut is perhaps the best area to search for these species but they can be entirely absent or in very low numbers. The best habitats to look in for these are coniferous tracts, fruit bearing trees, and birdfeeders. The best way to actually find them is probably by word of mouth, the best birding information source going. Never be afraid to ask other birders what they’ve seen. Most birders are quite happy to share their sightings.
Where, When, and Weather
The most productive birders are the ones who really bird a location well. Taking the time to really look around a spot can really add to the days bird list. While the prime target of these two months are water birds, you should poke and peer into all the other habitats you are in and around. Some winter species continuously creep southward over the course of a winter searching out new food sources. This can bring some winter visitors into our area for the first time late in the season, such as Common Redpoll.
There are some locations that are nearly "must visit" sites for birding Connecticut in January and February. These are headed by Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, simply the single best birding site in Connecticut throughout the year. Hammonasset offers waterbirds, hawks, marsh birds, shorebirds, gulls, owls, sparrows, and more. Hammonasset is also one of our most reliable locations for Lapland Longspur and has been good for American Bittern and rails. Another location quite similar to Hammonasset is Sherwood Island State in Wesport which offers many of the same species. During the winter months Greenwich Point Park is open to the general public and offers excellent birding possibilities. Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford offers waterbirds, marsh birds, and fields. It also is perhaps the best location in the state for Common Eider. Though still rare, this species is becoming more and more common in southern New England waters. White Sands Beach (accessible to non-residents in the off season) and adjacent Griswold Point with the Great Island marshes offers varied habitat at the mouth of the Connecticut River. Such species as Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and Short-eared Owl have been found here. This area, together with North and South Coves across the river in Old Saybrook, create a unique complex of habitats in a relatively small area. It is perhaps the most productive habitat complex of the Connecticut shoreline. This area is best birded during the morning hours when the birds are more active and the human population is less active. North and South Cove Old Saybrook offer such birds as wintering Pintail, Canvasback, both Scaup, Ruddy Duck (uncommon), and gulls such as Iceland (uncommon), and Lesser-black Backed (rare). New Haven harbor and adjacent shoreline, particularly to the west, can be very productive. Large rafts of Greater Scaup highlight an area that may also produce American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon (rare), Canvasback, Redhead (rare), Oldsquaw, Common Goldeneye, and much more. Milford Point in Milford and Great Meadows Marsh in Stratford offer a good variety of waterbirds and the best salt marshes in Connecticut. You should explore any access to Long Island Sound you can find.
It is important to visit locations more than once and to visit it at different times of the day and at different tides. Coastal species’ life cycles are closely tied to tidal swings and different tides will often result in different birds being present. Any single site can seem very quite one day and be alive with birds the next.
Fresh water locations that deserve special attention include Bantam Lake in Litchfield, the Connecticut River at the confluence of the Salmon River (good for eagles), the Connecticut River Museum in Essex (good for eagles and hawks), Gulf Pond in Milford, and the Groton Reservoir in Groton (good for Ring-necked Duck, Ruddy Duck, Coot, and gulls). Any open fresh water near rivers or the shoreline deserves a look.
The best weather to search in is a dead calm under a cloudy sky. Under these conditions, every bird sitting on the water stands out in sharp relief, making finding them and studying them much easier. Windy conditions make it difficult to find the birds on the disturbed water or see them well. Bright sun often creates harsh glare. Prolonged cold spells freeze habitat to our north and drive more winter birds into Connecticut. If winter finches are visiting our area, it is well worth paying attention to bird feeders after a snow fall. Snow cover removes ground feeding opportunities from these birds, particularly Redpolls, and drives many of them to feeders.
Advanced Birding Tips
Long Island Sound offers a very real chance for rarities. This is particularly true during winter storms but even calm weather offers possibilities. A number of species rare or uncommon in Connecticut waters are found not very far away in the open waters of the Atlantic. Strong easterly winds may drive some of these more pelagic birds into Long Island Sound. This is particularly true if the winds blow for a prolonged period tiring the birds and interfering with their ability to feed. Species that may be affected include Northern Gannet, Common Eider, Eiders, Black-legged Kittiwake, and alcids, particularly Razorbill. Perhaps the best location to watch during these storms is in the eastern end of the sound, the area around the mouth of the Thames river and Harkness Memorial Park in Waterford. If you don’t want to brave the foul weather, which can be very unpleasant, it can be productive to search Long Island Sound immediately after the storm abates. This is when the birds blown into the sound will be working their way back out to open water again, sometimes through the western sound. Strong westerly winds at this season make for a good day to study field guides in the comfort of your home.
A note here, Pacific Loon has been recorded more and more on the east coast in recent years. This species prefers deeper water than Common Loon but still should be looked for in the sound. If seen well, this species can be specifically identified in basic plumage. It may well be missed when present if not looked for. As of this writing there is one sight record of Pacific Loon for Connecticut but a number of records for Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
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The grip of winter weakens during March and the first tangible signs of spring migration slowly come to Connecticut. Probably the first people to feel the approach of spring are birders. While other people are still bundled against the cold, birders are out searching for returning species and species preparing for the upcoming breeding season. While you are not likely to add a great many species to your year list this month, it is still an exciting time. The courtship of waterfowl, the voices of owls in the night, and the dramatic flights of Woodcock speak eloquently of things to come.
March: General Strategy
During March birders tend to seek out specific species. The strategy of finding as much as possible during January and February gives way to looking for birds missed during those months and looking for the early spring migrants. Waterfowl are beginning to gather at favored locations before heading on to their breeding grounds, this behavior is called staging. Since things are "shaking up", this is the time to look for the water birds of winter that you have missed so far. It is also a good time to look for some rare but regular visitors, such as Black-headed Gull.
Water habitat, sheltered valleys in the south, and coastal areas are still the most productive. Staging and migrating waterfowl offer an opportunity to find species missed during winter. Red-throated Loon numbers on the sound can be quite impressive this month. Red-necked Grebes are moving and may show up at various coastal locations. A few early herons and egrets usually pop up at this time and Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teals reappear. Scoters will be moving through the sound and can be seen flying in low strings eastward. Bonaparte’s Gulls gather in large numbers at favored staging areas and vagrant Little Gulls and Black-headed Gulls can sometimes be found with them.
In March, woodland owls will send their haunting voices into the night announcing their presence, woodpeckers will be drumming on hollow trees, and the one of the most important birding aids really begins in earnest, birdsong. A highly recommended way to make your birding much more productive is to learn some of the songs and calls you will hear in the field. With a number of commercial recordings on the market, such as Peterson’s Eastern Birds, it is quite easy. Your birding success, and enjoyment, will be greatly enhanced by knowing what unseen species you are hearing.
Large flocks of blackbirds start moving north through our area and can sometimes be seen like long black serpents along highways or rivers. These flocks will be a mixture of Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds but may contain a few Rusty Blackbirds.
Finally, Spring has truly sprung, when you hear the burry song of the first returning Eastern Phoebe.
Where, When, and Weather
In searching for missed wintering species you should search the same locations you visited in January and February. Northern Gannets will migrating north again so keep a wary eye out for the odd one out over Long Island Sound. Any location with a good panoramic view of the sound is worth watching for sea ducks such as scoters and Oldsquaw moving eastward to leave the sound before turning north. Wooded swamps and the brushy edges of ponds and lakes may turn up gaudily patterned male Wood Ducks and their mates. Some locations, such as Station 43 in South Windsor, can hold significant numbers of Wood Ducks. Blue-winged Teal are returning now and can often be found in the same areas as Green-winged Teal, though in much lower numbers. Milford Point in Milford, Station 43, and Watch Rock in Old Lyme are traditional locations for Blue-winged Teal but they might be found in any marshy, shallow waters. One of the true delights of March is the display flight of the American Woodcock. Usually a very shy and cryptically patterned denizen of woodlands, courtship makes this rotund little fellow quite demonstrative. The male flies upward in wide circle to a considerable height and then glides back to earth like a falling leaf while making loud twittering sounds. He then will sit and emit his nasal "peent" until he launches upward to repeat his performance. This bizarre display occurs at dusk and dawn and as a general rule is only done at temperatures of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Look for these performances where woodlots meet open areas such as fields or marshes.
The staging of north bound Bonaparte’s Gulls results in impressive flocks that often fly in unison like a school of fish. This staging is usually at traditionally favored locations. Two such locations are Oyster River Mouth in Woodmont and South Cove in Old Saybrook. When the tide is out at these location the gulls gather on the mudfalts in tight flocks to roost. Among these elegant little birds one can, with a little luck, find the Eurasian vagrants Little Gull, and Black-headed Gull. These gatherings begin around the beginning of March and continue into early April.
The month of March is a month of contrasts. While the northwestern part of Connecticut may still be locked in the frozen fist of winter, the coastline and lowlands of the south can be quite balmy by comparison. During march the first insect eaters start to return and by visiting sheltered warm habitat, particularly around ponds and marshes, birders can usually find the first few Tree Swallows and maybe an Eastern Phoebe or two. These early birds sometimes pay a heavy price when winter weather returns with a late snow storm or bitter temperatures.
Advanced Birding Tips
During the winter months alcids gradually move southward on the open waters of the Atlantic. They reach their most southerly extension about this time and then slowly head northward again. This southern extension and turnabout raises the possibility of a few birds entering Long Island Sound. The most likely candidate to do this of its own accord immature Razorbill. Careful and patient birders have observed alcids in Long Island Sound even during calm weather. It is likely that alcids enter Connecticut waters more often than we realize, though they remain quite rare here. These pelagic birds are rarely close to shore and require a working knowledge of alcid plumages to identify. The two most likely alcids to enter the sound are immature Razorbill and Thick-billed Murre. This pair offers a real identification challenge. March storms with easterly winds offer the best opportunity for finding alcids and the eastern sound may be the best area to search. Another rarity that should be watched for now is one of the most sought after species in North America, Ross’ Gull. This rarity almost always associates with Bonaparte’s Gulls during their migration and should be looked for at their staging sites. While there is only one record of this Asian species in our state, Ross’ Gulls have been seen in recent years among staging Bonaparte’s Gulls on Long Island New York.
As winter winds down, the promise of Spring migrants fills every birders mind. By the end of March you should have found almost 100 species in Connecticut, possibly more. It is possible to find over 100 species during the month of January alone but this takes a fair amount of experience and a fairly serious commitment. Whatever total you have achieved, the reward of seeking and finding new species is the same for everyone. A new birder has a big advantage over an experienced birder, he has many more species to experience for the first time!
As you go to bed on the last night of March, to our south there will be millions of birds of many species that will soon be heading our way. Get your rest, you’re going to need it.