Richard Soffer’s Journal – Spring 2003

March 22, Spring migration

This morning was, technically speaking, my first spring visit to the park. Of course, “spring migration” actually begins long before the first day of spring. The first arrival that I noticed in the park this year was, as usual, a Red-winged Blackbird that I found on 7 February.

Amongst the early migrants, my favorite is the Woodcock and they have been much commoner than usual this year. I have seen two to four of them on each of five visits since 11 March through this morning. They are very difficult to see on the ground and one ordinarily encounters them when they flush up with a unique tinkling sound made by their wings from the underbrush adjacent to or in a woody area. This year they have been present in all such areas throughout the park and I understand from A. J. Hand that they have been performing their flight displays at sunset. I think a pair may occasionally breed in the park but most will have passed through by the end of the first week in April.

Another favorite of mine that has been present in higher numbers than usual is the Fox Sparrow, in my view the handsomest of the sparrows. They first appeared on 8 March and will not be around much longer. They have a song that resembles that of the Orchard Oriole, a bird that will not arrive until the first week in May.

It is always an interesting pastime to log in the first arrivals and migrants. This morning, I recorded my first Great Egret, a common summer resident and a breeder on the off-shore islands, as well the first migrating Pectoral Sandpiper of the spring. While several shore birds overwinter in the northeast, this species does not but is amongst the earliest migrants of its family. It is usually a rather scarce visitor to the park.

March 23, Shoveler

Both spring and fall migrations have their own special satisfactions for me. Fall migration is especially interesting for its raptors and for the virtual certainty that one really rare and unanticipated bird will make an appearance. Spring migration is exciting because of the likelihood for at least one big flight day in May and for the pleasure of logging in familiar birds in splendid, breeding plumage, which have been missing during a long, cold winter. Each day during the spring promises the arrival of a summer resident or migrant bird which has been absent for a considerable period.

This morning was a typical spring morning. Four Double-crested Cormorants were the vanguard of a very large number which will eventually be around; one, presumably the male, of the resident pair of Ospreys returned to its nesting platform; and a beautiful drake Shoveler showed up in the Mill Pond. This duck is quite uncommon in the park but one or two usually pass through during the last two weeks of March or the first week in April.

April 16, Fisher

This morning at 8:00 AM, I was standing at the overlook just at the turnoff for the park examining the northeast corner of the Mill Pond for ducks. The railroad tracks cross under I95 at this point and I was astounded to see, practically directly under me, a large (ca. three feet), dark brown Mustelid lope across these tracks heading north. The animal resembled a mink but looked about twice as big. The fur did not have the sleek shiny look of an otter and the animal behaved as though comfortable on land. Later in the morning, I spoke to Rick, the park ranger, and he told me that Connecticut recently had a restoration program for the fisher in which several were released in a wild part of the state. I believe that this animal was a fisher.

April 19, The first warbler of the Spring

A pleasant rite of spring for me at Sherwood Island is to record my first warbler. This family, whose members generally exhibit colorful plumages and conspicuous songs, seems to me the archetypal representative of spring migration. The arrival of the first one signals to me that many enjoyable birding days are imminent.

One might suppose that the first arrival would be the Yellow-rumped Warbler which overwinters in many Connecticut sites. However, at Sherwood Island while it arrives early, usually late April, it is not usually the first. That distinction belongs to the Pine Warbler which I have seen as early as late March. This has been a “late spring” and it was only today that I recorded my first Pine Warbler. I heard two of them and finally managed to see one singing at the top of a Spruce in the center of the park.

The Pine Warbler is common at Sherwood Island and probably breeds there but it is much more easily heard than seen. The song is a liquid trill or series of rapid chips, resembling somewhat that of the Chipping Sparrow but much more mellifluous. This song almost always comes from high in a conifer. While I know most warbler songs, I like to track down the first individual of each species that I hear singing in the spring just to refresh my memory. This can take a while with small birds in high leafy or coniferous trees. Sherwood Island is not a very good area in which to find warblers although during a major flight in May I once found 18 species. However, any day there with 10 or more species of warbler is very good.

April 25, Willet arrival

When the master list was compiled almost ten years ago, the Willet was a very uncommon visitor to the park during spring and fall migration. Its status has changed dramatically. For about the last five years, between one and three pairs have nested annually. They are usually to be found in the east marsh, north and east of the airplane field and I found a nest with four eggs in the tall grass that borders that marsh four years ago. They arrive ordinarily during the last week of April and fly about conspicuously and vociferously until the latter part of May when they settle down to serious matters. They depart from the park in August. They should be easy to see and hear just north of (behind) the model airplane flying field for the next three weeks. Today’s bird was precisely on time.

Another bird that nests in the park, the Barn Swallow, also arrived this morning, two weeks later than its relative, the Rough-winged Swallow, yet another park nester, had returned.

May 2, Early May minor flight day

The word “lister” has a very perjorative connotation amongst birders, yet that is exactly what all of us become during the much anticipated month of May. Our hobby becomes a numbers game with a personal agenda. Mine is to record as many birds as possible during a single day at Sherwood Island. Regardless of what our particular numbers agenda happens to be, we all hope for a major “flight day” by which we mean a day with a special surge of migrating birds.

One can’t predict which, if any day will be a flight day but a preceding night with calm or or light southerly winds is often a promising sign. Major flight days are limited to the period between approximately 7 and 24 May but there are often minor flight days near either extreme. Many more species can be observed during a May flight day than during a single day at any other time in the year.

Some of the criteria I use for a flight day at Sherwood Island are: total number of species; ratio of passerine to nonpasserine species; number of warbler species and individuals; and number of species that are recorded for the first time of the season. This latter criterion is biased toward the early part of the month when the first of what may be a large number of individuals of a species will make an appearance. Thus, a major flight in late May may yield fewer new species than a smaller flight in early May.

This morning represented the first minor flight day of May. I found a total of 69 species, my highest count, thus far, for this year. The ratio of passerine to nonpasserine species was 38/31 or 1.23. A ratio above one usually indicates an influx of passerine birds. There were seven species of warblers (one Black-and-White, one Yellow, one Pine, three Yellow-rumped, an Ovenbird, a Yellowthroat, and two Redstarts, one of which was a female) comprising 10 individuals.

And there were eight species that were new for the year, namely a Spotted Sandpiper, a Marsh Wren, a Warbling Vireo, the Black-and-White Warbler, the Yellowthroat, the two Redstarts, three Northern Orioles and a Seaside Sparrow.
It is interesting to compare these figures with those of the best flight day that I ever experienced at the park, 11 May, 1996. That day, I recorded 112 species. The ratio of passerine to nonpasserine birds was 70/42 or 1.67. There were 17 species of warblers comprising 90 individuals and there were 18 species that were new for the year.

Robert Winkler’s website contains an essay he has written which describes vividly the sense of excitement that he and I shared during that remarkable day. For me at least, the surge of adrenalin was based on the awesome volume of birds and the phenomenon of migration rather than on any single observation. Indeed, we did not observe any particular species of great rarity or significance that day. That’s what I mean when I say that birding in May is a numbers game. Of course, there are observations of much interest that are outside of this context. Today, for example, there were four Killdeer chicks dashing around the western section of the park with much elan and appeal.

May 7, Second minor flight day of May

A small surge of migrants pushed into the park this morning after three quiet days. I found 76 species including nine that were new for the year. These were: a Least Tern; a Semipalmated Plover; three Sanderlings; a Great-horned Owl; two Wood Thrushes; a White-eyed Vireo; a Chestnut-sided Warbler; a Black-throated Green Warbler and an Orchard Oriole. There were 42 passerines and 34 nonpasserines, a ratio of 1.24. Warblers barely participated. There were six species comprising only eight individuals.

I almost always need help to find an owl. This can be either another observer with keener eyesight than my own, or, as in the case today, a crow. Crows have special alarm calls that they give for birds of prey which, at Sherwood Island, are either a Red-tailed Hawk, or a Great-horned Owl. This morning I heard a single Crow giving its most hysterical alarm call, that designating an Owl. I went to the area with the action and found myself standing directly under a Great-horned Owl in an evergreen in the central grove. Ordinarily Owls flush long before one gets this close. Evidently this Owl found the Crow more intimidating than me! This is probably the same Owl that we first saw during the Christmas Count. It was subsequently seen on numerous occasions throughout the winter by various observers not including myself. It had not, however, been seen for quite some time. A few years ago, a pair of Owls fledging a single young in the park. I doubt that this bird was part of a family breeding in the park because when that occurred the Owls were conspicuous virtually every day and when the young fledged all three were easily seen.

Another observation that interested me today was the Glossy Ibis that I found in the drainage ditch just east of the airplane field. This bird exhibited a beautiful azure forehead as well as the area above and below the bill. This nuptial azure color of the naked facial skin is unusual and very striking. Its extension to the forehead is not usually shown in the various field guides.

Finally, so far at least, I’ve been struck by the relative paucity of Canada Goose chicks. I’ve only seen two whereas usually there are dozens by now. Perhaps this is because of the “late spring” but it may be that some population control mechanism has begun to affect fecundity.

May 8, Iceland Gull

Today’s northeast wind and intermittent rain suggested to me that perhaps some shorebirds might be enticed to the park so I went for a brief interval to examine the eastern half of the park and the area around the Nature Center. These spots have lots of standing fresh water after heavy rain and occasionally harbor considerable numbers of shorebirds under such conditions. I started by scanning the beach just east of the Pavilion Point and almost the first bird that I saw was a first-year Iceland Gull. Although this species is on the park list, I had not recorded it here so it became number 276 on my personal park list. New park birds are always exciting and surprising events for me and this was no exception.
However, this bird may well have been the same individual that spent much of the winter at Compo Beach but failed to heed my entreaties to make itself visible from the park. May 8th is a rather late date for this species, in fact one day later than Zeranski and Baptist list as the latest date of departure. One usually thinks of white-winged gulls as birds of extremely cold wintry days and it seems ironic that my only park sightings for both this bird and Glaucous Gull were in May. Also of interest today were four singing male Bobolinks, my first for the year here.

May 12, First mid-May wave day

There was the slightest breeze from the southeast on this cool, overcast morning during which a significant wave of passerine birds was passing through the park. I found a total of 86 species of which 54 were passerine yielding a ratio of passerine to nonpasserine species of 1.69. I consider a total species count of 80 or above to represent a significant wave. The number of such days during May has varied from zero to six in my experience.

Only five species were new for me this year in the park: a Least Flycatcher; a Wood Pewee; a Swainson’s Thrush; a Blackpoll Warbler; and a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrow, of which I saw three, are species that usually signal a wave in that they occur only on days where the total species count is relatively high. I logged 13 warbler species comprising 45 individuals. These figures are quite respectable for the park which has never been very good for warblers. None of the birds that I saw today were unexpected or unusual. The most impressive to me was the fine male Blackburnian Warbler, in my view, one of North America’s most beautiful birds.

May 18, King Rail

A King Rail walking conspicuously in the east marsh behind the model plane field this morning compensated for a dearth of land birds in the park this morning. This was only my fifth record, all in mid May, for this very uncommon species. Otherwise, the day was memorable in a negative sense. I could not find a single land bird that does not nest either in the park or in its close environs. I found only 59 species of which 31 were passerine including a mere three warblers. This date should represent the height of the spring migration with augmented numbers for early May arrivals supplemented by later migrants. I can’t recall a day in mid May with so few land birds. My list of passerines resembles that of a day in June. There is often a wave in late May so I am still hopeful.

May 20, late-May wave day

What a difference two days can make in May! On May 18th, I couldn’t find a single migrating land bird. This morning, two days later, the park was alive with them. Most striking was the high number of Yellowthroats, 25 compared with the usual 2-4. I found 82 species including 12 warblers comprising 57 individuals. There were 52 passerine species for a passerine/nonpasserine ratio of 1.73. Only one species, a Tennessee Warbler, was new for the year in the park, and I saw no particularly unusual birds. I did, however, have an exceptionally good look at a Seaside Sparrow which usually allows just glimpses. The park was also swarming with goslings, many hatched very recently. Their early absence was due to a “late spring” and not to decreased fecundity. A single Red-throated Loon has been lingering near the Mill Beach. It is still in basic plumage but should shortly develop its red throat which one almost never sees in the spring here.

May 27, an unusually late flight day

This morning I found 81 species in the park, an unusually high number for a date so late in May. In fact, I had never recorded more than 80 species in the park after 20 May. There was a great deal of standing water from yesterday’s deluge and the shore birds it attracted contributed 10 species so the flight was not completely dominated by land birds as is the case earlier in the month. This is reflected in the ratio of passerine to nonpasserine birds, 1.19, somewhat lower than earlier wave days. There were 12 warbler species, respectable for the place and date, but they comprised only 24 individuals.

There were two unusual birds that I will remember. There was a Knot in fine alternate plumage feeding with Black-bellied plovers on the airplane field. The Knot is abundant on the south shore of Long Island and not uncommon at many Connecticut coastal locations but is enigmatically very rare at Sherwood Island. This is only my second record the other also having been in late May.

Also of special interest to me was a Nighthawk that I watched flying and then settling horizontally on a bare branch. The Nighthawk is an abundant late afternoon and early evening fall migrant that one sees flying overhead in large numbers. I had never seen it in the park in the spring nor had I seen one settled horizontally on a branch although this is how it is classically represented in pictures.