Posts Tagged ‘Greg Hanisek’


Forster’s Tern

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

August 23, 2017
Forster’s Tern
Sterna forsteri

by Greg Hanisek
Where To Find It: Forster’s Terns, one of four medium-sized terns that occur in Connecticut, can be found at any coastal location, as well as the lower Connecticut River, at the appropriate season. They turn up rarely inland, not unexpected since a large portion of their population breeds in the prairie potholes region of the U.S. and Canada.

In the east, Forster’s Tern is a regular breeder as close by as southern New Jersey, favoring saltmarsh habitat. It has nested rarely on Long Island and at least once in Massachusetts, but never in Connecticut. 

When To Find It: Of the four mid-sized species, we’re preparing for our two breeders – Common and Roseate Tern – to clear out. But at this stage of the year we’re just entering prime time for Forster’s Terns. The other three species, our breeders plus Arctic Tern, are long-distance migrants that make an early exit from North America.

Arctics migrate far offshore, and as a result are extremely rare at any time in our state. Forster’s are different. They winter as far north as the southeast coast of the United States, and in most years some remain in Connecticut waters into November.

Mid-summer through autumn produce the most records, but occasional spring appearances are noted. Late dates most years are early to mid-November. An example of occasional triple-digit counts is 150 off Cornfield Point, Old Saybrook, on Oct. 4, 2015, by Nick Bonomo, one of our other Bird Finder authors.

What It Looks Like: The medium-sized terns all look very much alike. They present one of Connecticut’s real identification challenges. Forster’s Tern  is a welcomed exception, because at the time that it’s most numerous in Connecticut, it has molted its look-alike black cap and acquired a distinctively shaped black mask. 

Identifying spring birds requires close attention to overall plumage tones, and the characteristics of the wings and tail. Variability in bill color makes this a less reliable character than older field guides suggested.

Conservation Status: Only populations around the Great Lakes have federal designations – Special Concern in Michigan and Minnesota, and Endangered in Wisconsin and Illinois. Management plans in Wisconsin have included placement of 60 × 64-cm wooden platforms to serve as artificial nesting sites (Birds of North America Online).

Photo by Dick Daniels,

Cliff Swallow

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

June 29, 2017
Cliff Swallow

Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler
Where To Find It: The six species of swallows breeding in eastern North America all occur in Connecticut. Three of them – including Cliff Swallow – have specialized niches and as a result are scattered and uncommon as breeders. (The other two are Purple Martin and Bank Swallow).

Cliff Swallows attach their mud nests to vertical surfaces such as the walls of buildings and the sides of bridge girders, usually beneath some kind of overhang or covering. Most of the nesting occurs in the western part of the state, including on several bridges over the Housatonic River in Litchfield County.

But a well-known one is at Stevenson Dam between Oxford (New Haven County) and Monroe (Fairfield County). There are also scattered small colonies on barns and some commercial buildings at various places west of the Connecticut River.

When To Find It: Northbound migrants arrive in April and the last birds of the season usually depart by mid-September. A few straggle through in early October. Prime southbound migration occurs in late July and August. Nesting sites are most active from May through early July. Cliff Swallows winter in South America.

What It Looks Like: Key field marks include the buffy rump, the pale patch (like a headlight) on the forehead and the dark throat contrasting with otherwise white underparts.

The very similar Cave Swallow, a rare fall and extremely rare spring migrant, is most likely to be seen from late October to early December, when Cliff Swallows have departed our region.

To be sure about an identification, look for the smaller Cave Swallow’s buffy (rather than dark) throat. They also have a darker forehead than eastern Cliff Swallows.

Conservation Status: Cliff Swallow nests are sometimes usurped or destroyed by House Sparrows. Some people ignorantly – and illegally – remove the nests of Cliff Swallows because of concern about droppings or unsightliness, depriving themselves of the insect-eaters’ ability to help control local mosquito populations.Cliff Swallows occupy large colonies on cliffs in parts of the West. They were probably not widespread in the East prior to European colonization, but quickly adapted to nesting on barns and bridges by the mid-1800s.

Their decline to uncommon status in the East began with introduction of House Sparrows in late 1800s. When I lived in rural New Jersey, long-time birders believed that the increased practice of painting wooden barns, along with the use of metal structures, made it harder for the mud nests to adhere to those surfaces. While numbers have declined in the Northeast, a significant range expansion has occurred in the Southeast.

Of Special Interest: Birds of North America Online says: With House Sparrow control, local colony size can increase substantially; annual increases at one North Dakota site averaged 97% when House Sparrows were trapped. Removal of ectoparasites via nest fumigation can also result in colony size increases at some sites. Local increases in the number of birds nesting on barns in Massachusetts have occurred following installation of clay ledges on potential nesting substrates. However, whether any of the conservation measures actually increase total population size over time, instead of causing mostly redistribution of birds among sites, is unknown. Attempts to entice Cliff Swallows to nest in plaster nests at Mission San Juan Capistrano, southern California, have been unsuccessful to date.

Photo: Top, Don DeBold, and Ingrid Taylar,

White-rumped Sandpiper

Friday, May 26th, 2017

White-rumped Sandpiper
Calidris fuscicollis

by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler
Where To Find It: This is an uncommon species in Connecticut, but one that can be found with some reliability. It favors coastal shorelines and mudflats at the state’s top shorebird stopovers such as Milford Point, Sandy Point in West Haven and Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison.

When To Find It: White-rumpeds are regular in both spring and fall migrations going to and from their Arctic breeding grounds. In spring they arrive during peak shorebird migration in mid-May and often linger til the end of the month and into early June.

In southbound migration they occur over a broad time frame, from mid-July to well into the fall season, some lingering into November. They follow the typical fall shorebird scenario, with molting adults arriving first, followed later by the fresh-plumaged juveniles.

What It Looks Like: The White-rumped Sandpiper is one of nearly 20 species in the genus Calidris that have been found in North America. These include notoriously tricky identification problems such as the five small North American species known as “peep” and their small Eurasian counterparts known as stints. The White-rumped, one of the “peeps,” fits the basic sandpiper plumage pattern, but in spring it’s the largest “peep,” with long primary flight feathers that give the species an elongated look. In fall, the size and shape are matched by Baird’s Sandpiper, but the White-rumped is unique in the presence of the eponymous white rump (a feature best seen when the birds are in flight).

Conservation Status: Birds of North America Online offers this:

Loss of wetland feeding and resting areas along migratory routes and in wintering areas detrimental to this and other shorebirds. For example, Castro et al. (Castro et al. 1990 ) show how drying of Cheyenne Bottoms, KS, limits ability of shorebirds to fatten before spring migration to Arctic. This and other Great Plains wetlands struggle to maintain water levels as agriculture (deep well irrigation) diminishes supply. Long term solution tied to shift to more traditional forms of agriculture based on natural precipitation, stopping further depletion of aquifers. Short term solution tied to purchase of extra land reserves and more water. Preservation of wetland staging areas in Latin America equally critical.

Of Special Interest: This small Nearctic sandpiper migrates from its principal breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic to the southern extremities of South America, one of the longest animal migrations in the Western Hemisphere.

Much of its migration is made in a few, long, non-stop flights, each of which can last as long as 60 hours and transport these birds up to 4,000 kilometers, powered by extensive body fat. Such fat reserves are laid down at key migration staging areas — wetlands where food is especially abundant — making this bird particularly vulnerable to loss of strategic habitat.

Southbound migrants fly over the Atlantic Ocean from northeastern North America to northern South America, and then gradually move southeast along the coast before turning inland in trans-Amazonian travel of about one month. Northward migration from Patagonia is apparently similar, at least through South America; the birds then move across the Caribbean and through interior North America to arctic breeding grounds (Birds of North America Online).

Photo by Nick Athanas,

Pectoral Sandpiper

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

April 6, 2017
Pectoral Sandpiper
Calidris melanotos

by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler, the journal of the Connecticut Ornithological Association

Where To Find It: This is an uncommon species in Connecticut, but also a wide-ranging one. I found a Pectoral Sandpiper this morning in the muddy cow pastures on Sand Bank Road, in Watertown (also a good place for Wilson’s Snipe, the Bird Finder subject from a couple of weeks ago), and a few have been seen regularly this week at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

Pectoral Sandpiper favors short-grass habitats, both inland and on the coast, but it also occurs in saltmarsh and on beaches. In addition to the two locations above, the sod farms at Rocky Hill Meadows and the gravel bars at Connecticut Audubon’s Milford Point Coastal Center can all attract Pectorals.

When To Find It: In spring, April is the key month. The astute shorebird aficionado will be looking in late March, and the Big Day planner knows it will probably be gone by the sweet spot in mid-May. This spring the Hammo birds arrived on March 29. In fall they can be found across the breadth of the migration season, from July (or even late June) to November, usually singly or in small numbers. The range of reports in eBird for fall 2016 was June 26 to Nov. 14. The high count was 11.

What It Looks Like: The Pectoral Sandpiper is one of nearly 20 species in the genus Calidris that have been found found in North America. These include notoriously tricky identification problems such as the five small North American species known as “peep” and their small Eurasian counterparts known as stints.

The Pectoral fits the basic plumage pattern, but it’s larger with yellow legs and a distinctive brown-streaked breast pattern that cuts off sharply to create a sharp demarcation between breast and belly. Least Sandpipers are mainly brown with yellow legs, but they’re the smallest of the “peeps,” six inches to the Pectoral’s eight-plus. In spring migration the largest “peep” — White-rumped Sandpiper — can show a similar breast pattern, but it is most common mid-May to early June while the Pectorals are mostly gone by early May. Of course other features such as the rump pattern easily separate them.

Conservation Status: Birds of North America Online offers this: No measurable effect of tundra disturbance at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, during oil exploration in late 1960s on breeding abundances or nest densities 20 years later (1988-1989), or of tundra fragmentation on breeding abundance, nest density, or nest success. However, abundance of breeding adults was lower in the vicinity of recently constructed roadways near oil fields. Losses of wetland feeding and roosting areas, especially along migratory routes, and probably on wintering grounds, is undoubtedly important. Little information from South American wintering areas, but not considered to need high conservation priority there.

Of Special Interest: Pectoral Sandpipers migrate southward from Arctic breeding areas in largest numbers through central North America to winter primarily on the pampas of south-central and southern South America. Most individuals that breed in Siberia migrate east, or perhaps even along the Great Circle route over the Arctic Ocean, to Alaska or Canada and then on to South American wintering areas.

Individuals at the extremes of this range potentially make a total return-trip migration of more than 30,000 kilometers, a distance comparable to that flown by the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) and other migratory champions. Small numbers winter regularly in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, mainly Australia and New Zealand (Birds of North America Online).

Photo by Dick Daniels,

Eared Grebe: Bird Finder for February 1, 2017

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017
Eared Grebe
Podiceps nigricollis
by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler, the quarterly publication of the Connecticut Ornithological Association

Where To Find It:
This is a rare species in Connecticut, but during the past few weeks one (or maybe two different ones) have been seen at Stratford Point and Fort Nathan Hale in New Haven harbor. Eared Grebe (left) also can be found in almost any wetland habitat. It has occurred here at larger lakes such as Bantam Lake in Litchfield, in small ponds such as Cemetery Pond in Litchfield, and anywhere along the coast.

When To Find It: Some rarities, such as Northern Wheatear and Ash-throated Flycatcher, have narrow windows of occurrence. Eared Grebe is just the opposite. Connecticut has records for spring, late summer, fall and winter.

What It Looks Like: A compact diving bird, Eared Grebe is most easily confused with the Horned Grebe (right), a fairly common migrant and winterer in Connecticut.

When pondering an identification, it pays to keep in mind its British name — Black-necked Grebe. In breeding season it has a black neck, while the Horned Grebe has a rufous neck. You’re much more likely to see an Eared Grebe in non-breeding plumage, but neck color remains a key feature. Non-breeding Horned Grebes exhibit highly contrasting plumage — very dark above and white below, including a white foreneck. Eared Grebe is a bird of low contrast, with a dusky (or “dirty”) neck and cheek.
Shape is also important. Horned Grebes have flat, squared-off heads, while Eared Grebes typically show a peaked head. Eareds also often fluff up their rear ends and show a high posterior on the water. The two species can be tricky to separate in March and early April as they undergo molt into breeding garb. At that time blotchy plumage and irregular head shapes often cause confusion.

Conservation Status:
Least Concern. Birds of North America Online says: By far the most abundant member of its family in North America and, indeed, in the world, the Eared Grebe breeds widely through the interior of the western United States and Canada, preferring shallow alkaline lakes and ponds, where it feeds primarily on small invertebrates. Highly social, its colonies may number into the low thousands. Its breeding range includes Europe, Asia and Africa.

Photos by Mike Pazzani (Eared) and Mike Baird (Horned),
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Bird Finder for December 10: Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup & how to tell the difference

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Greater Scaup, male in foreground.

Greater Scaup
Aythya marila

Lesser Scaup
Aythya affinis

by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler
Where To Find Them: Both species can be found in saltwater and freshwater, although neither is numerous on freshwater in Connecticut.

On Long Island Sound, Greater Scaup form four- and rarely five-figure flocks on open water and in the larger harbors, mostly westward, from New Haven to Greenwich at places such as Sandy Point and the boat launch, both in West Haven; Penfield Reef in Fairfield, and the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.

The best places for Lesser Scaup are more protected. They include the Long Wharf section of New Haven Harbor and Captain’s Cove Marina in Bridgeport, where flocks usually top out in the low 3 figures. Any of these flocks can hold a few of the less numerous species.

When To Find Them: Both species migrate through Connecticut as well as spend the winter here. Prime time would be late October to late April, with highest numbers bracketed within those periods. A few, especially Greater Scaup, sometimes summer on Long Island Sound.

Lesser Scaup, male in foreground.

What They Look Like: Ah, here is the rub. These species are very similar and require patient scrutiny to separate them. The firmest character, the long white wing stripe on Greater and shorter stripe on Lesser, is usually concealed on swimming birds. The once-touted color of the head gloss has now been so widely dismissed that I won’t muddy the waters with further discussion.

Other plumage features are subtle enough that it’s best to concentrate on shape. Here are 4 points for study: 1) Overall size. 2) Bill size. 3) Head shape in profile. 4) Head shape from behind.

1) Not surprisingly, Greater is the bigger and especially the bulkier of the two. This of little use on lone birds, but side-by-side the Lesser is clearly the more delicate.

2) The size difference is reflected in the bills — slender in the Lesser and more formidable in the Greater. Again this works best in direct comparison.

3) When swimming in profile with relaxed posture (no stretching, slumping etc.), the Lesser Scaup has a distinct knot or knob at the rear of the crown, so that the highest point in the head is behind the eye. This knob is sometimes apparent when the Lesser’s head is tucked. The Greater has a more smoothly rounded head, sloping backwards so that the highest point (which isn’t very high) is just above or ahead of the eye. But it’s important to note that head shape can change markedly when the birds are active.

4) The rear view is very helpful, but it requires patience to get things lined up properly. Look for the spot where the head pinches in at the eyes. Then look at the area above the pinch. It’s narrower and higher on Lesser; lower and wider on Greater.

Conservation Status: Birds of North America Online says Lesser Scaup is one of the most abundant and widespread of North American ducks. Its core nesting habitats are in boreal forests and parklands from central Alaska through Manitoba, and numbers of this species breeding in the Prairie Pothole Region have increased over the past several decades. Breeders favor large seasonal and small semi-permanent wetlands and lakes with emergent vegetation.

BNAO says Greater Scaup is the only circumpolar Aythya, and one of few circumpolar duck species. Less is known about its biology than other North American Aythya, in part because of its relatively isolated breeding grounds but also because of difficulty distinguishing it from the Lesser Scaup. In North America, most Greater Scaup nest in coastal tundra of the Arctic and Subarctic, especially western Alaska. Threats are minimal in the breeding area but more troubling in some of the urban areas where they winter, including Long Island Sound.

The Connecticut Warbler is the journal of the Connecticut Ornithological Association.
Photos by Len Blumin (top) and Rich Leche.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dickcissel: Bird Finder for October 5, 2016

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Spiza americana

By Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler
Where To Find It: If you want to see a lot of them, you probably should take a summer trip to somewhere like, say, Iowa. However, enough of these birds occur east of their prime nesting range on the prairies and farmlands of the Midwest that they can turn up anywhere in weedy places in Connecticut. In fact, one was observed at Harkness State Park, in Waterford, earlier this week.

When To Find It: Although Dickcissels have occurred during every month of the year, fall migration offers the best time to encounter one. A few also winter here, like one that spent months at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport in 2015-16. They readily visit feeders. They’re rather scarce in spring, but there has been at least one nesting attempt in late May 1996 at Northwest Park in Windsor.
What It Looks Like: The adult males are quite handsome with yellow underparts, black bibs and chestnut wing patches in breeding season. The same pattern is drabber in winter. The females lack the black bib, and colors are more muted overall. Immatures are more sparrow-like, with some showing little if any yellow or chestnut.

dickcissel_maggiesmithHow To Find It: Any search for sparrows in autumn could turn up a Dickcissel. They seem to have a special affinity for House Sparrows, with which the one at Sherwood Island associated last winter. They occur in large flocks on their main migration routes, but in the East they’re almost always found as singles. Their loud and distinctive call notes, likened to an electric buzzer or even a whoopee cushion, often direct attention to the bird’s presence. These calls are regularly given in flight, where they advertise their passage at hawk watches such as Lighthouse Point in New Haven or Bluff Point in Groton.

The name Dickcissel derives from its song, which you can hear on Cornell’s AllAboutBirds website.

Conservation Status: No special conservation status has been accorded to this species. Because the species is so concentrated on its winter range, a minimum estimate of the entire population can be made, according to Birds of North America Online. Based on total number of Dickcissels counted between January 24 and February 20, 1993, at all known winter roosts in their core winter range in Venezuela, where most Dickcissels congregate, the total world population was at least 6 million; almost 40 percent of those birds were in one roost of 2,370,000. Unknown smaller numbers of additional birds were outside the core wintering area at the time.
Photos: Rebel AT (top) and Maggie Smith,
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Bird Finder for March 29: California Gull

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
California Gull at Hammonasset. Photograph by Stefan Martin

California Gull at Hammonasset. Photograph by Stefan Martin

California Gull
Larus californicus

by Greg Hanisek, editor of The Connecticut Warbler
I don’t think Stefan Martin will have a statue of himself erected at Hammonasset Beach State Park for finding Connecticut’s first California Gull on March 21 (at least not during the current state fiscal crisis), but the species he found has one erected in its honor — in Salt Lake City. The California Gull Monument recognizes Utah’s state bird for devouring hordes of Rocky Mountain crickets that threatened crops in 1848. The California Gull that Stefan was the first to see was certainly less dramatic, but it excited Connecticut birders for days.

What It Looks Like: For better or for worse, it looks like a gull. This fills a dedicated minority of birders with glee and many others with dismay. Age-group differences add to the complexity of gull identification, and the California Gull present here since March 21 is a first-cycle bird, one hatched during summer 2015. It is similar to brown first-cycle Herring Gulls, but it is a more rakish, long-winged  bird with all dark primary flight feathers. It is intermediate in size between Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. Other features include brown eyes and a distinctive bill – relatively long and thin with a pale pinkish base and a sharply defined black tip.

Where To Find It: This individual was found at Hammonasset, but after a few days it relocated about 20 miles west to the public boat ramp in West Haven. It was seen there at least through March 27. If you want to see a lot of them, go west. Their combined breeding and wintering ranges extend from the Prairie States and Provinces to southern Alaska and the coast of Mexico.
How To Find It: Gulls can appear at waterways throughout the state, but in March and April substantial action centers on Long Island Sound. With the closure of all major state landfills, which were gull magnets from late fall through early spring, gull variety and volume now centers on spring staging in the Sound.

The gulls form large but very mobile flocks that surface-feed on zooplankton such as barnacle larvae. These flocks, best sought in the western and central parts of the Sound, have historically produced Little and Black-headed Gulls (along with one Ross’s Gull), associating with Bonaparte’s Gull flocks. Increasingly Ring-billed and Herring Gulls (with a few Iceland Gulls) are involved, and during the springs of 2015 and 2016 they’ve been joined by three subspecies of Mew Gulls and Thayer’s Gull as well as the California Gull. It seems that almost anything is possible.

Search for flocks feeding on the water’s surface or roosting at places such as the mouth of the Oyster River in Milford/West Haven or at Southport Beach in Fairfield. It’s wise to check the Connecticut Ornithological Association’s archives or E-Bird before heading out.

Conservation Status: Least Concern
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Top of Page