For birders in the Northeast, much of April is spent waiting for the madness that is May. Yet, the oft-neglected month of April is still a terrific time for birding, and is equally a great time to be outdoors.
I often find April passerine migrants to be akin to the appetizer course of a three-course meal. While they aren’t as explosive and abundant as our main course, they do give us a taste of what’s to come, just like an appetizer. Furthermore, an appetizer can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the meal, with its small size allowing you to savor every bite. The same holds true for early spring migrants. While there aren’t as many as those that come after them, their lack of sheer abundance allows you to enjoy and savor every bird.
With this in mind, and a rare free day on my hands, I took to the field yesterday, hoping to find some of the early migrants that characterize the month of April.
My first stop was at Hoydens Hill Open Space, one of my favorite places for birding in all of Fairfield. Hoydens’ mixture of shrubland and edge habitat, in contrast with the typically forested sites throughout the rest of Fairfield, makes it unique.
With this special array of habitats comes a special group of breeders. Annual breeding bird surveys have detected birds such as Brown Thrasher, Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler and Eastern Bluebird, species that are uncommon to absent as breeders throughout the rest of Fairfield.
Although many of these birds have yet to arrive, I still enjoyed a fantastic couple of hours at this location. Species such as Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrow were all back on territory and singing. The bluebirds were also observed bringing nesting material into one of the boxes, which is always a treat to see.
The female Eastern Bluebird bringing nesting material into the box, while the male keeps an eye on the surroundings.
Surprises such as FOUR Pileated Woodpeckers (a high count for me in Fairfield) and two singing Field Sparrows (hoping they’ll stick around and breed!) were also noted. Some of our early spring migrant friends, such as, Barn Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hermit Thrush.
A crummy look at one of the singing Field Sparrows.
Other highlights included my first-ever Fish Crow at Hoydens, as well as a brief look at a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk.
After a nice couple of hours at Hoydens, and 34 species to show for it, I headed south to the Grace Richardson Conservation Area, near the intersection of Congress Street and Moreheouse Highway.
Despite all of the years that I have been birding Fairfield, I’ve never made it to Grace Richardson, a location with tons of potential. Birds noted as possible breeders in the past include Blue-winged Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush and Field Sparrow.
With a exciting list of possible goodies, but a lack of confusing foliage and overwhelming numbers of migrants, this was a good a time as any to get my feet wet at this location.
I spent a couple of really enjoyable hours covering nearly every trail at Grace Richardson, and came away with 30 species to show for my effort. I found the open areas such as Bluebird Meadow to be especially birdy, as well as the wet area to the north of North Pond.
A number of our quintessential April migrants were present, including an absolutely stunning male Yellow-rumped Warbler as well as Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Hermit Thrush.
Stunning male Yellow-rumped Warbler. Now I know how birders in the UK and the rest of the Palearctic must feel when they notch their first one
Likely breeders already on territory included Eastern Phoebe, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Towhee.
A Turkey Vulture was seen soaring above the powerline cut at the entrance, and a male American Goldfinch, with his odd, patchy April plumage, halfway between nonbreeding and breeding, was singing in Bluebird Meadow.
All in all, Grace Richardson looks like a fantastic location. Breeding Louisiana Waterthrushes seem a definite possibility along the stream, as do Worm-eating Warblers along the sloped areas, especially at the western edge of the property.
My last stop of the morning was Hemlock Reservoir in order to follow up on the status of the area after hearing concerning reports following the passing of Hurricane Sandy.
People mentioned to me that the whole area appeared “devastated” and “all of the pines were split into pieces” and that it “looked like a tornado went through there.” Needless to say, all of this got me incredibly concerned about the future potential of this place as a birding spot, including for the Pine Warblers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Cooper’s Hawks that nest in the pines (the latter two not every year).
Upon entering the area, I was quite relived to see that many of the pines (including those that were best for Pine Warblers) were still standing, with the exception of a few truly devastated areas, where there wasn’t a standing pine for yards around.
My feeling of relief was furthered when I connected with a gorgeous singing Pine Warbler, moving about low in some of the nearby trees. My first Pine of the year and second warbler of the day, this bird was a real treat.
Pine with lunch.
Also noted at Hemlock were five Common Merganser on the reservoir. The nesting Cliff Swallows seem not to have returned yet, as there was no action near their typical nesting spot near the dam.
After my investigation at Hemlock, I returned home to relax and catch the second game of the Red Sox-Rays series. A 5-0 blanking of the Rays (including 7 innings of no-hit ball by Clay Buchholz) had me pumped for going back out into the field late in the afternoon.
The first Eastern Towhee of the year for the yard.
I had planned on spending a couple of hours owling that evening at Larsen Sanctuary, and decided to arrive with some daylight in order to hopefully catch up with a few more migrants.
A shortened version of my normal Larsen route yielded numerous highlights, including breeders such as Wood Duck, Cooper’s Hawk, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird and Chipping Sparrow.
Numerous passerine migrants were in evidence, including Winter Wren (possible wintering bird), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (possible breeder calling near Wildlife Pond), Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, NINE Hermit Thrushes, Pine Warbler and Swamp Sparrow. I also notched my third and fourth warbler species of the day, in the form of a nice group of Palm Warblers along Streamside Trail, and a surprise Louisiana Watherthrush just before sunset.
Palm Warbler (hypochrysea)
Louisiana Waterthrush had been on my mind all day, and was likely the highlight of this day’s effort. I noted this bird just at the start of the boardwalk through the wet woodland, on the final push to Deer Meadow. Making my way through the forest, I was surprised to hear a loud boat of song, seemingly from right behind me. Being the huge warbler fan that I am, I knew who the source of the singing was almost instantly, and it didn’t take me long to find it, perched around ten feet off the ground in a tall shrub. The bird provided terrific looks and photos before it disappeared, leaving me with my first LOWA of the season, and the bird of the day.
I’m sure it’s probably pretty apparent to the followers of this blog that Wood-Warblers are my no-doubt favorite family of birds. Seeing four warbler species (my first multi-Parulid day in Connecticut of the year) was a huge treat, and had me incredibly excited for what’s in store. It also made me appreciate those often under-appreciated early warblers, who give us a taste of the “main course” that’s to come.
In addendum: my sorry attempt at owling ended up being pretty unsuccessful, with the only owl species heard being the resident pair of Barred Owls, who truly sounded like they were having a blast responding to my recordings, no matter which owl species they were of.
Also, I’ve posted a new poll pertaining to our favorite early spring migrants, the results of which can be viewed by clicking on ‘View Results’.