Fog and rain made the heron colony on Charles Island invisible from the boardwalk at Silver Sands State Park, Milford. From left, are Jim Dugan, Dave Tripp, Patrick Dugan and Fran Zygmont (looking the other way). Connecticut Audubon Society photo by Frank Gallo
There is nothing I like better than standing in a swamp listening to the myriad mutterings of the night. Midnight, the morning of May 21, was no exception; it was the start of our 2012 Big Day run to raise money for the Connecticut Audubon Society’s Coastal Center, and I was standing with three teammates, Patrick Dugan, Dave Tripp, and Fran Zygmont, in a swamp in central Connecticut.
At a minute to midnight, Fran had trilled like an Eastern Screech-Owl. We were hoping and waiting for one to respond while listening to the musings of Virginia Rails “kicking” in the background to the accompaniment of “twanging” green frogs. Seconds after midnight, two screech-owls started whinnying together, a Marsh Wren sang and, just minutes later, a Green Heron gave its harsh squawk. Of the Least Bittern, there was no sign, not a single peep did it utter.
We raced back along the waterlogged trail in high spirits, with hopes of soon finding Sora, Whip-poor-will, singing Grasshopper Sparrows, and a plentitude of owls, secure in the knowledge that there were still other stops for Least Bittern.
The Soras were silent, and our foray for grassland birds was a bust, but an American Woodcock, along with Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, had all chimed in at one stop, and we discovered, at random, a Barn Owl. It was calling while it was going in and out of a barn — at first, loud, then muffled, loud, then muffled. Bizarre.
One horned lark, and a back-up Grasshopper Sparrow, put us back on track and we raced west through the night, picking up our Whip-poor-wills and Cliff Swallows, and bagging four more species of owls. Our stop to listen for migrants produced only one, a Swainson’s Thrush. But, ahead of schedule, we tried for a moorhen and picked up American Bittern. Sweet!
Dawn found us listening to the warbles of Canada Warblers and Northern Waterthrushes in the northwest corner of Connecticut. Our well-planned north route (thanks to Fran and Dave) had us picking off species after species: Magnolia Warbler, Nashville, Worm-eating, and Blackburnian Warblers in a single stop; Purple Finch, Dark-eyed Junco, and Winter Wren all sang at the scouted sites. Our staked-out pheasant was sauntering through a field when we arrived, so we sped off to find Belted Kingfisher and Willow Flycatcher, before heading to our Acadian Flycatcher spot.
As we drove up, the Acadian sang, so we spun around, snagged a Cerulean Warbler from the roadside, and made a swing through an area for brush-loving species: Brown Thrasher, check; Orchard Oriole, check; Field Sparrow, check; Prairie Warbler, check, and we were off.
During the rest of the morning, we would add species such as Broad-winged and Red-shouldered Hawks, Black Vulture, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Hooded Warbler. Our total was building nicely; we were right on track, a little behind schedule, but quickly approaching last year’s record-setting total for the north.
The American Coot was right were I left it the day before (I mean, saw it) and it was time to shoot for the coast – with 130 species and high hopes that days of scouting would pay off. Our bright morning sky was clouding quickly and our arrival in Stratford was accompanied by strong east winds and rain. Binoculars became microscopes, as visibility shrank. We increased the pace, trying to outrun the rain, and picked up Boat-tailed Grackle, Short-billed Dowitcher, Ruddy Turnstone, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and a few other targets, but little else. We decided to cut our losses and head east. At our first stop, scouting rewarded us with a female Bufflehead, found the day before, and a bonus Common Loon.
Spirits lightened, but the weather worsened. By the time we reached the Branford coast visibility was down to 100 yards. All the scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and Red-throated Loons I had scouted during the week had vanished in the fog. It was maddening. We did manage to find a single Purple Sandpiper on a rock near shore, and made a last-minute save on the Black Scoter that flew in and landed on “his” island as we were leaving.
Well, two were better than none, and there was lots of daylight left. If the weather would just clear, we might still have a chance. We had scouted 191 species, with many others possible, so we crossed our fingers, and flew off to Hammonasset Beach.
I’ve never tried birding by feel, but the fog was so thick when we arrived, that we nearly had to, trying to identify the Little Blue Heron in the Meig’s Point Pond. The Park was an eerie landscape of surreal shapes and brief glimpses of birds materializing softly from the gloom, only to vanish again, like ghosts, engulfed in silence. Fortunately, Seaside Sparrows sang, and a lone Saltmarsh Sparrow walked within sight beside the board walk. The search for our other target species was in vain. No Tri-colored Heron; no Lesser Yellowlegs; no loons, or waterfowl – just white, rain, and wind. The atmosphere was palpable; the visibility nonexistent.
We decided to try farther to the west in hopes that the storm cell would pass to our east. It didn’t, and Milford Point was shrouded in fog. It’s a good thing that birds make noise. Two of our next three species were found by ear: a Piping Plover called near its nest, and the shadows of six Sanderling rocketed past us on the beach uttering their “plick, plick, plick” calls. As we were preparing to leave, Patrick finally found a White-rumped Sandpiper that had wandered out of the fog just close enough for us to see.
A last ditch stop at Silver Sands turned up more fog rather than the scouted Lesser Yellowlegs. Poor Charles Island and its heron colony just offshore, was only a memory, invisible in an impenetrable bank of white.
As we stood there among the clouds, peering east into mist and drizzle, we pondered what to do. Our tally was 171. Two or three more species were possible, if the weather gods cooperated, but given their track record, we opted to call it a day and let everyone drive home safely. No sense pushing the envelope when people had long drives home; better to do it early then late, when we’d be more tired. There would be other days. We did our best, and I’m proud of our results given the hand we were dealt. It was a good day. After all, we started in a swamp enjoying the nightlife, so how bad could it be? – Frank Gallo, director of the Connecticut Audubon Society Coastal Center at Milford Point
The Big Day is over but it’s not too late to make a pledge to support the Coastal Center at Milford Point. You can find a link to a pledge form on this page.