Posts Tagged ‘Long Island Sound’


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

Northern Gannet: Bird Finder for December 2, 2016

Thursday, December 1st, 2016
Northern Gannet, Bonaventure Island, Near Perce, Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec

Northern Gannet, Bonaventure Island, Near Perce, Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec

Northern Gannet
Morus bassanus

by Andy Griswold, Director, Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel
Birders call the activity of scanning salt waters for birds a “sea watch” and the Connecticut coast can be a good place if the weather conditions are favorable. Hurricanes are best. When winds howl, storms brew, or winter sets in, the Northern Gannet can be found in Long Island Sound without too much effort.

What it looks like: The Northern Gannet is a large, soaring bird of sea and sound. On occasion during severe storms, it may be seen inland, briefly. The adult, with its primarily white plumage featuring black wingtips, exhibits a unique silhouette among northern east coast species. The long pointed wings (72-inch wingspan) and pointed beak and tail, are distinguishable from a far distance. At even greater distances, the gannet’s soaring, short, stiff wingbeats, and spectacular dive-feeding behavior from as high as 130 feet, make for an easy identification. Young birds are a mix of dark and light, brown and gray tones, taking three to four years to acquire the adult plumage.

How to find it: The best way to find this species is to monitor weather patterns and time your visit to the coast accordingly. Strong winds from the northeast to southeast are likely to drive this species into Long Island Sound, often in good numbers. Feeding flocks and parades of birds can sometimes number in the hundreds. Coastal areas with a 180 degree view are best. Traveling east in the Sound may sometime increase your chances at finding them.
Northern Gannets are often associated with gulls that may also be feeding on schools of fish just below the water surface or following a fishing vessel pulling up its catch. During storm conditions, gannets may be seen with shearwaters, Razorbills, storm-petrels, and other pelagic species.
Nesting in only a few large colonies along the North Atlantic, the Northern Gannet spends most months at sea. North American populations are stable with an estimated population of over 155,000 individuals.
Increase your chance at seeing these birds with a good spotting scope! Quality optics will enhance the experience, so call the Connecticut Audubon Society EcoTravel office for your binocular and scope needs. We offer Swarovski and Vortex quality equipment, a perfect gift for holidays! 860-767-0660.

Proceeds fund our conservation work here in Connecticut.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson,

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Top of Page