Richard Soffer’s Journal – Fall 2002

August 20 Yellow-breasted Chat

Today I had a fine look at a Chat in the brush surrounding the first pond (now dry) just northwest of the nature center. This is the same area where A. J. Hand and I saw one on several occasions last fall and as late as 28 January of this year. The Chat is a rare bird at Sherwood Island and this is the first time I have seen it there during the summer. One can’t help but think that this is the same individual that probably overwintered and its persistent presence certainly makes me wonder whether it might have bred in the park.

August 21 Baird’s Sandpiper

This morning I saw a Baird’s Sandpiper foraging amongst the tidal detritus near the jetty at the eastern end of the park. The bird was amongst a mixed flock that also comprised Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers. All of the birds were quite tame and I studied them at my leisure from about 50 feet. The circumstances provided a superb clinic for field identification. The Baird’s Sandpiper was noticeably larger than the other two species of peep, about the same size as the Semipalmated Plovers. Its most obvious field marks were the warm buffy finely streaked breast and head and the conspicuously scalloped back, the latter caused by clearly visible light edgings to the feathers. When the bird obligingly bowed in front of me, I could see the primaries extending beyond the edge of the tail but this is a much less conspicuous point. Baird’s Sandpiper is a very rare bird at Sherwood Island. In more than 25 years of intensive birding there, this is only the second one I have seen. [See photo by A.J. Hand]

August 27 Bald Eagle

Fifteen years ago, one could not hope to see a Bald Eagle at Sherwood Island. Nowadays, however, the species is a regular fall migrant in small numbers, usually in September. I still get a thrill when I see it. The immature that I watched migrating southwest along the shore this morning was involved in, what to me at least, was a very unlikely incident. It was being harassed by an Osprey, during the entire several minutes that I observed it. The Osprey would dive at it and at, at the last moment, swerve as the Eagle turned upon its attacker. It was an extraordinary spectacle resembling, on a grand scale, that provided by Crows attacking large buteos. It was interesting to see the Osprey from an entirely different perspective. In this scenario, it was small, nimble, quick and audacious, qualities that I had not previously associated with the Osprey. One reads frequently of Eagles harassing Ospreys and forcing them to drop fish which the larger bird then seizes. I have never, however, heard of this contrary scenario.

September 3 Raptors

September and October are the exciting raptor migration months and this morning I saw seven raptor species at Sherwood Island. They included three Ospreys, two Red-tailed Hawks and single examples of Harrier, Bald Eagle (immature), Cooper’s Hawk, Kestrel and Merlin.
I watched an adult Red-tailed Hawk on the ground about 50 feet away as it tore at a rabbit it had just killed. I examined the dead animal and found that it was relatively intact save for the intestines which had been ripped out so I gather that the hawk is a particular devotee of entrails. While I was examining its prey, the hawk perched quietly low in a nearby tree awaiting my departure. I’ve previously seen Red-tails here with squirrel prey on the ground.

There is certainly no lack of these two animal species in the park so one would think that it would be very attractive site for Red-tails and their nocturnal niche colleague, the Great Horned Owl. There has been a resident pair of Red-tails the past few years that must have nested in the vicinity. Great Horned Owl did nest here and did fledge one young owl several years ago but they are ordinarily quite scarce.
The Bald Eagle that I saw today was following the shoreline closely from northeast to southwest and was flying quite low as is usually the case with eagles here. Since I watched an Osprey harassing a Bald Eagle a few days ago, I have read the Osprey account in Bent’s “Life Histories….” and found a similar incident recounted there.

September 9 Sora

This morning I flushed a Sora in the east marsh just northwest of the model airplane field. The bird flew weakly about 30 yards and then settled into the marsh. Of course, I could not find it again. I’ve never flushed a rail and then found the same individual again. I always experience special excitement from seeing a rail because it inevitably represents a substantial expenditure of effort. These are not birds that can be seen in the park from well worn paths or during occasional visits. One must walk the marshes regularly and systematically if one is to see them.

One species, the Clapper, is a vociferous breeder in the park and is quite common some years. The other three species on the park list are more problematic. The Sora is an uncommon but regular spring and fall migrant. Today’s bird was my first this year and the sighting was typical. Sometimes one can be lucky and happen on a feeding bird without flushing it. Under that fortunate circumstance, one can occasionally obtain superb looks because the species, though very secretive, can also be quite tame.

September 13 Yellow Rail

Each birder has certain elements of the hobby that he or she particularly relishes. I especially enjoy finding unexpected birds. I’ve been to Sherwood Island more than 1000 times and I have a pretty good idea what birds I am likely to see there. Occasionally, I am surprised and proportionally excited. This morning I had the most surprising and exciting observation that I’ve ever had in the park.

I was walking in the overgrown meadow just northwest of the model airplane flying field. This is an area where I have often flushed interesting birds including Snipes, American Bittern, and, once, a Sora. As I meandered slowly amongst the high grass and bushes, a grayish brown bird resembling in size and configuration a small quail, flushed and flew across my path landing about 75 feet ahead of me. I saw it only briefly but it had a very conspicuous field mark. There was a striking white area on the inner aspect (secondaries) of the trailing edge of each wing.

The Yellow Rail is immediately obvious and unmistakable if one is fortunate enough to see it in flight. I was tremendously excited. I immediately became obsessed that I must have imagined the whole incident. I walked slowly to where it had landed, knowing that I stood no chance of seeing it a second time, and, miracle of miracles, it flushed again. Its wing patches could not have been more obvious. I was neither imagining nor dreaming!!
The Yellow Rail is a new bird for the Sherwood Island list. It is my 274th species for the park. I know of no recent records in Connecticut. I’ve seen the bird once before, 20 years ago, in a reserve in Anahuac, Texas where the warden, for a small sum, took birders out on a tractor to flush the wintering rails. My looks today, brief though they were, were far more gratifying than the glimpses I had from the tractor.

The Yellow Rail is arguably the North American bird most difficult to observe in the wild. This is probably more because of its secretive nature than its rarity although it is certainly an uncommon bird. It was formerly hunted using dogs and drag ropes. Serious bird listers now use tapes and flash lights and try to locate the bird in known breeding areas in the Canadian prairie provinces. I remember reading in John Bull’s “Birds of the New York Area” how he saw one crossing a road in Lawrence, Long Island, and thinking how fortunate he had been. I was even luckier this morning. I saw it fly, which is the best way to see it, and not once but twice. Incredible!!!

September 18 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

I’ve never understood the way the sluices work at the Mill Pond but occasionally they allow almost all of its water to drain with resulting exposure of the muddy bottom. This results in a kind of heron heaven and it occurred early this morning. Amongst the many Great Blues, Egrets and Black-crowned Nights, I found a fine adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

The status of this bird in the park is curious. Although it breeds locally and is easily and regularly seen within a couple of miles, its appearance in the park is erratic. This individual was the first I have seen there this year. There were quite a few migrating birds today and my total of 70 species was rather respectable for the early fall. Amongst others were my second Chat of the season, or at least my second sighting, and ditto for a Sora which I flushed at the edge of the second freshwater pool near the nature center. Sherwood Island is rarely good for warblers and this year has been no exception. Amongst the eight species I saw this morning, only Yellowthroats were present in reasonable number (15).

September 27 Another interesting Rail

When I look for birds at Sherwood Island, I usually begin early in the morning by examining the meadow and salt marsh near the airplane field and the main drainage ditch just to the east. I get to these spots before there are any noisy model airplanes and, in so doing, imagine that I have a better chance of seeing secretive shy birds.

Two days ago, however, on 25 September, I changed my routine and started in a woodier section of the park because I thought there might be a good flight of land birds. I didn’t get to the drainage ditch until 11:00 AM. The tide was roughly midway between low and high and I walked along the ditch from north to south, that is, from the salt marsh to the area where the ditch widens out before flowing under the wooden bridge. I didn’t see anything of interest and I turned back and stopped about 25 feet from where the ditch widens out and stood quietly for a couple of minutes. At this point the ditch is perhaps 12 feet wide and the tidal stream in its center is a mere sliver.

I stood at the edge of the sliver looking west and decided to try and elicit land birds by “pishing” (a hissing noise wishful birders make hoping that it will lure curious birds into the open). As I did so, I heard a sound in the sliver of water just in front of me and I looked down. To my utter astonishment, a small rail clambered from the water into the adjacent marsh grass not more than two or three feet from where I was standing and scurried to the bordering phragmites where it became immediately invisible. The entire period that I saw it lasted only the briefest of instants.

When such an unexpected observation occurs for such a short period, it becomes difficult, at least for me, to separate what I actually saw from what I was thinking. I was looking directly down on the back of the bird as it hurried west. Here is what I’m quite certain I saw: a small predominantly black, unstreaked bird with a rich rufous upper back, black and white barred sides, and disproportionately large toes. I did not see the bill and I think I would have, had it been long. My first thought was that the bird was an immature Virginia Rail which does exhibit considerable black and rufous. Then, I said to myself “it’s too small”. Next, the image of a flufftail flashed through my mind. Flufftails are a group of subsaharan rails that are small, very secretive and usually black and rufous with white spots. At this point, for the first time, I said to myself “Black Rail !!!”

I think it’s very likely that the bird was, indeed, a Black Rail. However, with such a brief and unanticipated look, it is really quite impossible to be absolutely positive. How incredible to see this bird less than two weeks after finding a Yellow Rail. The next morning, I returned to the drainage ditch with two birding friends, A. J. Hand and Frank Mantlik. It would have been a miracle to see the bird again and it didn’t happen. However, we did glimpse two Soras making a total of four Soras that I have already seen in the park this fall.

I think there are two reasons why I have such good luck with rails in the park. The first is that I wear Wellington boots and I try to be systematic and regular in stomping through the marsh. The second is that the park is probably a good place to see rails because it has ideal habitat, but not too much of it. For example, the main drainage ditch is an ideal trap for migrating rails and most of it is accessible and reasonably easy to traverse in a short period of time.

September 30 Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Sharp-tailed Sparrows are much less secretive during migration than during their breeding season and this is a good time to look for them. Their favorite spot in the park is the patch of bushes that separates the model airplane field from the salt marsh. This morning I saw at least six of them there and I was able to examine them quite closely as they perched in the bushes or near the top of the phragmites.

When I learned my birds, a Sharp-tailed Sparrow was a Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Now, in my view unfortunately, a Sharp-tailed Sparrow can be either a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow or a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. When a single species is divided, it is by decision of a committee of professional ornithologists, and is called “splitting”. The opposite is called “lumping” and the history of ornithology comprises alternating movements in one or the other direction. We are now in a “splitting” era.

In the event, one must now scrutinize each individual Sharp-tailed Sparrow to identify it with respect to species. The Saltmarsh species breeds in the park but both species are possible during fall migration and they are quite similar in appearance. Moreover, to add to the confusion, the immatures of each differ significantly from their parents. Fortunately, this is a handsome sparrow and fun to look at. I think those I saw this morning were all adult and immature Saltmarsh Sharptails but anyone planning to study them should probably arrive with a modern field guide in hand.

Migrants continue to pass through in rather small numbers. Some of the interesting ones I encountered this morning were Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Meadowlark and a female Indigo Bunting. Each of these was the first of the species I have seen in the park this year. The movements of raptors and warblers continues to be somewhat disappointing although the park has never been particularly good for either of these families.

October 3 More Sharp-tailed Sparrows

This morning I saw at least 12 Sharp-tailed Sparrows in the bushes bordering the marsh near the airplane field. Unlike the other day, both species were represented. Most, at least eight, were adult examples of the Atlantic population of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. They exhibit a good deal of gray on the nape and back and a sharply demarcated ochre breast which contains blurred streaking. The intensity of the breast ochre is similar to that on the face. There were also a few clear cut examples of adult Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows with well defined streaking and just a faint tinge of poorly demarcated ochre on the breast. This population of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow is a regular October migrant in the park but is absent from the Master List because it had not been well delineated in contemporary field guides at the time that the list was compiled. I also saw another Sora this morning, at least my sixth in the park during this “year of the rail.”

October 9 American Bittern – Winter Wren

This morning I flushed an American Bittern from the reeds surrounding the second pond northwest of the Nature Center and I heard and saw two Winter Wrens. The Bittern is uncommon, usually a once-a-season bird in the park, and this was my first autumn example this year. Late September and early October provide the possibility of four species of wren in the park, namely House, Carolina, Marsh and Winter. I recorded the latter three today. [Photo by A.J. Hand]

The Winter Wren is the least common but is a regular fall migrant. It can be hard to find unless one knows its call note which resembles that of a Song Sparrow but is repeated two or three times. There was also a substantial flight this morning of Song, Savannah, Swamp and White-throated Sparrows as well as a single Saltmarsh Sharptailed Sparrow and two Nelson’s.

October 15 Yellow-billed Cuckoo

I had the best look I’ve ever had at a Yellow-billed Cuckoo this morning in the dune shrubbery adjacent to the west bathhouse. Both cuckoos are secretive, heard much more often than they are seen, and extremely difficult to find in the park. This was a rather late date for a cuckoo in Connecticut. Our two cuckoos are amongst the species most difficult for foreign birders to find when they come to North America for the purpose of augmenting their lists. This is because there is no itinerary that can guarantee the sight of a cuckoo. Some luck is required even though neither species is particularly rare.

October 31 Gannets

One of the birds I like most to see at this time of the year is the Gannet. This morning I saw 16 of them, by far the most I’ve ever seen at one time from the park. They were quite far out over the Sound yet well within binocular range. These large birds are quite spectacular. The adults are a very aggressive white with striking black wing tips. The flight is very distinctive and once seen will not be forgotten. The birds appear large headed, probably because of their formidable bills. They flap several times and then glide on seemingly very stiff wings. Not infrequently, they can be seen to plummet head first and tumultuously into the sea. They were formerly considered quite unusual in the Sound, particularly in its western portion. However, now that more observers are looking for them, it has become apparent that they are fairly common early spring and late fall migrants and they often turn up on the various coastal Christmas Counts.

The fall migration continues although it is in its later phase. This morning I saw single examples of late Broad-winged Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper and Brown Thrasher. I flushed a Bittern, probably the same one I have seen off and on since 9 October. Five Buffleheads in the Mill Pond were a new arrival. Two Nelson’s Sharp-tailed and three White-crowns were among the numerous sparrows.

November 2 Goshawk

I have been disappointed by the small number of raptors that I have seen at Sherwood Island this fall. It has never been a particularly good spot for concentrations of migrating hawks but this year I haven’t seen more than 15 raptors on any given day and, amongst the family, Bald Eagle has been the only species that I have seen more frequently than usual.

An immature Goshawk this morning was something of a salve for my frustration. I first saw the initially rather tame individual about 8:15 AM as it perched in a small sapling adjacent to the path that leads by the nature center. It is a large, fierce looking hawk and a female passerby did quite a double take when she noticed it perhaps 15 feet from her as she walked by it.

Later, I spent some time trying to find it again with A. J. Hand so he could photograph it. Unfortunately, it was no longer as accommodating as it had been early and we got only fleeting looks. Later, however, A. J. did manage to get a picture.

The Goshawk is quite an uncommon bird in the park, usually, as today, a late fall migrant. I saw the Bittern yet again today by the more distant of the two pools near the nature center. I’m beginning to hope that it might stay around long enough to be recorded on the annual Christmas Count in December. Six Red-breasted Mergansers were a new arrival for the season.

December 15 Christmas Count

The Westport Christmas Count was held Sunday, December 15th. This means that the “Count Period” is 12-18 December i.e. any observation made during that period can be included in the official report of the Count. The notion of a Christmas Bird Count was first elaborated about 1900 by Frank M. Chapman, later to become the Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. The count can be carried out in any area that can be comprised by a circle with a diameter of 15 miles and must be done on a given day within a period that usually encompasses the latter half of December and the first few days in January. The reports are published in the journal American Birds which has also been known as Audubon Magazine and Bird Lore at various times in the past. Hundreds of areas are now covered including several from countries outside the United States.

The Westport Count has special significance for me because I participated, with four schoolmates, on what I think were the first two in 1945 and 1946. I still have my notes covering those two counts and I also have a copy of the published results from one of them that another of the participants sent me last year. At least three of the five of us are still doing Christmas Counts. In 1946, the five of us found 48 species. We walked from quite far out on Easton Road across Bayberry Lane to Long Lots, then down to Compo Road and Compo Beach and finally to Sherwood Island, where, if memory serves me, we were retrieved by a parent.

The Westport Counts now are organized like a military battle plan. There are about 80 observers and 8-10 separate sections of which Sherwood Island is one. Jim Hunter is the compiler of the data this year for the first time. Frank Mantlik had been selflessly performing that onerous task for many years. The complete count usually records 110-120 species.

On December 13th, I did a preliminary canvas of the park to give me some idea of what might be around. The two most interesting birds were a Redhead and a Brown Thrasher. The Redhead is very uncommon in southwestern Connecticut and I had only seen it once previously in the park. I also found four Snow Buntings, unsurprising but to have an unexpected significance (vida infra). I had seen a Chat on 6 December after the snowstorm and made a mental note to try hard to see it on Count day.

The actual Count was carried out on December 15th. Fred Purnell and A. J. Hand joined me at the Sherwood Island section. We were all very eager but as soon as I felt the brisk northwest breeze, I knew the day would be difficult. Wind is death for seeing birds in the park during the winter because the sound is too roiled to pick out sitting seabirds. Fred and I started out at the Mill Beach and also examined Grove Point, a good place for the Chat, before we got into the park proper. A. J. started out in the park and saw two species we were not to see later, namely Kestrel and Japanese Green Pheasant. A. J. had also seen the latter the day before and it was presumably released into the park within the very recent past. It’s not on the official list for North America.

With much effort, we managed to find 53 species including a male Redhead. However, two more were seen in other sections of the Count, a veritable flood of this uncommon duck. We also briefly glimpsed a Great-horned Owl that we flushed from the grove of large Cedars and White Pines in the center of the park. But we were unable to find either Thrasher or Chat nor were these found in any other section of the count. The only birds from Sherwood Island that were not found elsewhere on the Count were the Thrasher and Snow Buntings that I saw during “Count Period” but not on “Count Day”. We did, of course, augment the numbers of certain species that have become more or less park specialties for the Christmas Count. These include Canvasback, Pipit and Horned Lark.