Friday, February 26, 2010

The "Little King"

I looked out the kitchen window this morning to a winter
wonderland of snow, I forgot to fill the bird feeders last
night, and I now have an army of hungry birds waiting
for me to get with it!

With shovel in hand, I first clear the snow off the ground beneath
the feeders for the White-throats, Juncos, Cardinals and other
terrestrial feeding birds.

Shoveling beneath the suet feeders I hear a bird vocalizing incredibly close to me,"gitit-gitit..." I look up and less then two feet from my face is one of the "Crowned Jewels" of birds.

Regulas calendula, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, singing up a storm, this barely four inch bird is always a wondrous sight, any time of year.
To have one vocalizing, inches away from me is even more spectacular.
I think about this for a bit, as I went outside to clear the grounds, I had scattered numbers of Starling, Grackles and Blue Jays, larger birds that this little guy could not compete with at the feeders, but less fearful with humans, this smurf found a moment alone, to take advantage of the vacated suet feeders.
I dropped the shovel and ran inside for the camera. yes upon my return he was still there.
Now anyone that has ever tried to photograph a Kinglet will tell you that they don't sit still for 1/100 of a second,(split second) this is why you must set your shutter speed for 1/1000 and still hope you can catch up with him. Just joking, but it is the truth, these guys just never sit still for just the slightest of moments. I did manage to salvage a couple of photos, I deleted hundreds along the way.
Click on the photos to enlarge, they are very cool!

1/1000 shutter speed to freeze the "Little King"

Having fun catching snow flakes? Zoom In!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Great Cormorant

Fishermen despise them, for they are in competition for the same food.

Regardless of that, lets take a close up look at these incredible fish catchers. A very northern species, the Great Cormorant is a winter over bird in the Norwalk Islands and the Connecticut Coast, during the warmer months this bird would be found in the Canadian Maritime and further north.

Lets take a up close look at this bird, first and foremost is the incredible hook at the end of it's upper mandible.

To think of this as a fish hook, is correct, these birds are fish eaters and this hook aids them in holding on to their catch, until they surface and than swallow their prey whole. Note the top of the upper mandible, above the hook, there appears to be fuzzy white shavings, this is the Rhamphotheca peeling off before renewing itself. (sort of like humans growing fingernails, this peeling and renewal would also explain seasonal bill coloration changes in many bird species)

Next, let's follow the white coloration from it's throat, through it's malar to it's cheek, following next to it's blue eyes and mosaic eye ring, Below the eyes is a spectacular orange area, giving way to a mirage of orange based colors where it reaches the lower mandible.

As we follow the back of the head (nape) note the crest that is showing in these pictures.

This crest is quite different than that of the Double-crested Cormorant
which displays two side by side V shaped crest on its crown during mating season.

These birds are very cautious and are not easily approached, in fact the half dozen winter over residents in the islands are totally unapproachable this winter, any closer than a few hundred yards and they are off.

Reading the CT BIRD postings the last week or so, it seems as though they have more to worry about than just fisherman shooting them, Bald Eagles have taken a liking to them. Their nestlings are being raided by juvenile Bald Eagles up north, and the eagles have been hitting the adults on the Connecticut River this winter. I'm sure this is also happening elsewhere.

Let's see how or if they adapt to these new pressure's.

Note: I was able to capture the above photos by boat from a very accommodating bird hanging out on a piling in one of the Norwalk Marinas most of last winter. This otherwise is not normal.

A good look at the white hip patch during take off

The birds body is almost underwater as it swims.

One small step for man, one giant step for a Cormorant!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Rocky Raccoon

"Well somewhere in them Black Mountain Hills of Dakota there
lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon..."
The Beatles, The White Album, one of my favorite all time albums and songs. Regardless of that, this is an animal that has fascinated me since childhood.
In the Boy scouts, to be in the Raccoon Patrol, meant you were Cool!
Today,this masked bandit is common on a few of the Norwalk Islands.
It is an extremely adaptable animal, that is as just at home with humans as it is comfortable in the wild. Whether you are a city or country dweller, I'm sure you have had an experience or two with these rascals.
The Norwalk Islands make a comfortable home for them, and they actually survive the harsh winters quite well out there. With there ability to forage and eat just about anything, they find plenty of food year round.
They don't truly hibernate, but rather sleep off the coldest and harshest of winter times. It only takes a sunny day in the thirties to get these bandito's off to the shoreline, panning for whatever gold the tides may have brought in.
One of their other favorite times to search for food is at low tide, why you ask? They love clams and crabs, low tide makes these food sources most accessible to them.
We also think of raccoons as being nocturnal, and have been taught that if you were to find a raccoon out in the daylight, it is rabid, out here this is not quite the case, on these islands where there are two low tides per day, with at least one being in the daylight, raccoons become diurnal, feeding along the inter-tidal zone, if there are some easy fixings in the middle of the daytime, and the temperature is right, they just step right on up to the table and snack away.
In the winter they are always fun to see, they may be as loners or there may be a family of a half dozen or so, either way on a warm winters day, they are always a treasure to watch.
These winter cuties are not so highly thought of in the spring and summer, as the islands become an oasis for nesting birds and turtles with their highly prized eggs.

More on this in the bird nesting season. For now enjoy the photos below!

Scouring the high tide line.

Is this a raccoon smile?

Chomping down on a clam

A family picnic on Chimmons Is.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Long-eared Ducks

It first happened a good number of years ago, I was returning from a late afternoon fishing trip from Long Island in early January. As I was making my way by boat through Middle Passage, ( a local term for the pass between Norwalk's Shea and Chimmons Islands) I notice something swimming in the water off my port bow. I slowed the boat to a crawl to see what was in the water.
My first thought was that it was four ducks swimming across my path, but there was something very different about these ducks,
they appeared to have ears. Long-eared ducks?
If you are a birder I'm sure your having a good chuckle at this point, since this would be a species never imagined in this area, no less the world. Anus aurismaximus perhaps?
In the diminishing light I slowly cruised closer to these mysterious creatures, the four ducks with long ears are now starting to resemble four deer, that are swimming from island to island.
This was the first time I had ever encountered deer swimming in winter around the islands, but the more time I spent in these wintry islands, the more frequent these sightings became.

The rest of this article is graphic, please do not read on if the sadder parts of nature bother you.

In time, I started thinking about why these deer are swimming from island to island in extremely cold water. Food, it has to be all about food.
Food is plentiful in the summer and autumn as vegetation abounds on the islands, but as winter takes hold, this abundance slowly recedes, to a point where there is little if anything for deer to eat. This is why they are on the move, the only problem is, is that the island they are swimming to has already been scoured of its last food sources and deer that were previously on this next island have moved on. It becomes disheartening to see deer passing each other, searching for food on a island the other has just left.
Sad as it is, this is a part of nature that plays out every day in the New England wild.
It's very hard to watch starving deer swimming against the tide, trying to make the mainland. Deer are incredible swimmers, but weakened by lack of food, freezing water temperatures and a tide they just cannot fight any longer, they turn back to the barren islands.
I often wonder; which are the lucky ones, the deer that safely swim back or those that don't ever make it?

After swimming against the tide for thirty minutes, this one makes it back to Sheffield Is.

Food is scarce in the snow.

Considering eating Phragmite?

He couldn't survive the swim to the mainland.

Neither could this one. Are they the lucky ones?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Norwalk's Gray Seals

Certainly not one of the most beautiful scientific
names ever given to a living species,

Halichoerus grypus, translates to "hook nosed pig of the sea"

We commonly know this mammal as the Gray seal in Connecticut, they are also nick named "horseheads"
Both spellings (gray and grey) are acceptable.

It wasn't many years back that this seal was sort of an oddity in South Western Long Island Sound, with virtually all seal sightings off the Norwalk Islands being solely Harbor seals.
These days the gray seal is a regular throughout the sound and can be seen wintering over as far south as New Jersey.

Recently News 12 Connecticut aired a story about a young pup harbor seal stranded along the rocky shoreline in Milford CT. Viewing this story I agree the seal was a fairly young pup, and that it was on a rocky shoreline, but it sure looked an awful lot like a gray, rather than harbor seal.
After doing a fair amount of research, I came up with something interesting, the western Atlantic population of the gray seal breed later then their eastern Atlantic cousins, and bear young later. In fact our western breed of seals give birth to their young from January through March.
Holy "sea pigs" Batman! Are we having gray seals giving birth to there young right here in Western Long Island Sound?
The News12 seal seems to give much credence to this fact, that at least a few are, what other young pup seal would be hanging around this area, especially pups with those long horse head looking traits.
Male seals mate with as many females as they possible can, this mating period occurs after the females have weened their pups (about 3 weeks after giving birth)
So armed with these facts, plus the photos below taken as evidence, lets start putting the scene together.

Gray seals return to LIS in late autumn to early winter and stay here until early April.
During this time slot, pregnant females should give birth, shortly followed by mating.
(A quick note, this seals gestation period is ten months to a year)
The bottom line here is, if these seals are wintering over in the western sound and if their natural reproduction period is encompassed into this time period, then yes they should be giving birth to their young, right here on our doorsteps. How cool is that?
Below are several of my pictures taken around the Norwalk Islands, from the last two winters.
These photos have been cropped so that close up views of the seals can be seen. Cut out of the scene in these pictures may be up to six more gray seals.Note the bull, hanging out with the ladies in all the shots. These pictures were taken from mid Febuary to mid March. Possible breeding time, as the male seem to be really warming up to the females and vice versa.
I will now end this episode, but will be back soon with Part II on the Norwalk Seals!
( If you click on the photos they should enlarge)

Male in front, female in rear.

Male to left, then two females and one harbor seal.

Bull keeping guard on mate?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

GBBC By Boat

Looking at the National Marine Weather Forecast this morning, I quickly realized that if I was going to get a boat count in for the Great Backyard Bird Count, it would have to be today with only 10-15 mph winds in the forecast, picking up this afternoon to 15-20, and worse on Sunday and Monday. With morning temps in the low twenties I was not a happy camper thinking about how uncomfortable it's going to be on the boat today.
I reluctantly make a phone call to a friend, Alvin and he agreed to meet me at the boat at 11am.

Our first stop in Norwalk Harbor was a rock jetty off of Shore and Country Club, at high tide ( it was) this small jetty can produce a few shorebirds year round, and not to be disappointed I could clearly see a few silhouettes as we approached, Black-bellied Plover (14) and a half dozen Dunlin.
Alright, a nice way to start the survey, I took a few pix (below) and wanting to explore the islands I headed south past the wooden breakwater at Norwalk Cove Marina, a large floating log was pointed out to me by Alvin, as we past it I saw a big semi-submerged object just twenty feet off my starboard bow, OMG it's a gray seal.
I can almost reach out and touch him, this was a large male, pushing ten feet in length and eight hundred or more pounds, I reach for the camera, the seal is lazily swimming on its side as I smash the cameras lens into the starboard windshield, oops, the seal slowly rolls and disappears below the water, oh well better luck next time with the camera.
As we entered the end of the harbor, past Round and Longbeach, I was mindfull of the lack of Long-tail ducks, as they are always plentiful in this area, in fact except for a dozen or so
Bufflehead the harbor was unusually quiet, as we passed Long Beach heading towards Shea Island there was not a bird in sight, really weird I explained to Alvin, I've had never seen it like this before.
We headed into Middle Passage, (the pass between Chimmons and Shea Islands) I could pick up bird life on the horizon, three Red-throated Loon buzz past the boat as we watch a group of six Common Loon a hundred feet away, Long-tail and a few Goldeneye rafts were out a bit further. At least we found some life out here.
I was most interested though, in getting out to the huge flocks of White-winged Scoter before the wind kicked up anymore, so we made our way east, towards buoy 24 off Cockenoe Island, this has been the area where three to four thousand scoter hang out for the winter months, one thing I know is the rougher the waves in the sound, the harder it is to find large numbers of birds.
First, there is no steady platform on a twenty-one ft open boat if the waves are rolling, looking though a set off 8x 42 bins is just about impossible, second as the wave heights grow, birds simply disappear behind the waves. The further we drove from shore, the rougher the seas became, it wasn't bad by any means, a two foot norwest chop, thirty four degree water temps and an air temps in the high twenties, a wind chill about zero. and we are traveling with the wind.
I'm thinking about the return trip into the wind when the wind chill will feel more like absolute zero.
A group of eighteen scoter, rise from the water, and pass off the bow. I feel a bit better, we are not alone out here after all, then a few minutes pass with no life, we are now almost a mile south of the buoy and the winds kicking up, I start heading towards Cockenoe Island, several miles to the north west, the wind is biting my face, but we are starting to pick up small flocks of Scoter along the way, slowly increasing in numbers, several hundred but not the thousands I know are there, with the weather being the way it is, the remainder of these birds will be left uncounted by me for the rest of this day.
We arrive close to the south shore of the island, out of the wind for a few moments, two Gadwall are very near the rocky shoreline, Gadwall are not a common birds out here, but like me the were enjoying the calmness of the area.
As we make our way around the eastern shore of Cockenoe, we are picking up good sized flocks between us and the Westport mainland, twenty Red-breasted Merganzers pass to our port side, Long-tail off the bow, and a raft of ducks with dark heads, white bodies, no cheek patch, its hundreds of Greater Scaup, they take flight a split east and west, we are on the north side of the island now, and back into the biting wind, we check out Cockenoe Bay, Herring and Great -Blacked back gulls are loafing on the shoreline, but on the most northern sand bar are three large black figures standing with a few gulls, Great Cormorants, we give them a wide berth and motor on, with my body becoming chilled to the bone I need to warm up soon and I know a spot that may produce a awesome little shorebird that may help me forget the cold.
We slowly search East White Rock, a tiny rock island east of Calf Pasture Island, nothing, but as we check out the last five feet of rock, a tiny head appears, than another, yeah, one of my favorites, Purple Sandpipers (the pix above was from today) we spend a few moments enjoying these little guys. One hops in the water and swims like a duck for a few feet to another rock,
I didn't know they could swim like that, those aren't exactly webbed feet they have.
Off to Goose Island, the shack is covered in snow, six more Great Corms on the shore, Long-tail everywhere, a quick ride through Betts Island bay and its time to head back to the boat slip.
We've been out over three hours and at the least I could use a warm car to sit in, but as we head up the harbor I can't help but think about the lack of winter diving ducks directly off Norwalk Harbor, I joke to Alvin, perhaps the gray seal is feeding on them, after all Leopard Seals feed on Penguins in the antarctic.
I come home, get a bite to eat, lay down on the couch and put on the TV, as I am laying there something is really bugging me about the lack of birds in Norwalk Harbor, I get up, turn on the computer and asked Google, What do Gray Seals eat?
I check out several sites, they all said the same thing, seabirds are on this seals menu!
At least now I'll be able to sleep tonight, knowing why the birds vacated this area.

Black-bellied Plover and One Dunlin

Greater Scaup and a few Long-tail passing by.
That is Sherwood Island State Park in the backround.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Norwalk Crow Roost

While returning from Danbury late afternoon this past Saturday, I was awed by the number of crows alongside the Route 7 Connector in Norwalk, even at 55 mph I could see at least a thousand birds.
I decided to check out this scene late afternoon the following day before the Superbowl kicked off. I did a good bit off searching into the dark, yes I found the roost, it is awesome, I decided to try again late this afternoon, here are the details.

At 4:45 I drove up to the top of Aiken St. and pulled into the parking lot at West Rocks Middle School, since this was a pre-roost staging area for the crows on Saturday. There weren't there, but after a few minutes I could hear a few caws behind me, they were coming from a small patch of woods across the street, this parcel is best viewed from All Saints School on West Rocks road, so I drove into this schools rear parking lot. This area is the highest place in Norwalk, and several mile from the shore this place has great views of Long Island Sound and a few of it's islands.

I could see fifty or so crows in a tall maple, but I could also now see small flocks of crows flying in from all directions. Many of these approaching flocks were quickly growing into the hundreds.

By 5:oo there were maybe one thousand crows in the immediate area, it was difficult to get an accurate count since many were hidden on the flat roof of the school building.

Soon a few hundred flew down to the old football field. (where I played in many games as a member of The Central Catholic Cavaliers, Class of '71) I watch these birds and it became quite interesting to see what they were doing in the middle of a playing field covered with eight inches of snow.

Most were doing simply nothing, a few dozen were taking a snow bath, even more were eating snow, a great way to hydrate as like M&M's it melts in your mouth, and a few others were squabbling, it was these birds I focused on. There were several battles going on during the next ten or so minutes, it was always a dominate bird going after a weaker one. They would face off, jump into the air a few feet, flash their feet and talons at each other, some times connecting for a moment. After a few duels like this the loser would just walk a few feet away, and all would be quiet until the stronger bird wanted to do it again, they would do battle, and walk away again.

I noted the dominate birds would walk up to the victim, possibly just wanting the six square inches that it was sitting on, and wanting that small piece of land now, regardless of how temporary it was. I did manage a few poor pictures of these squabbles.

It is now 5:20 and very slowly, a half dozen at a time these birds are leaving the area moving off to the southwest, a minute later they are leaving in larger numbers, but many have stopped in some tall trees and and all these birds were facing west, this was the exact moment the sun dipped below the horizon, leaving a beautiful sunset, I'm now thinking, are these birds actually watching the sunset? It sure appeared so, the breeze was blowing from the same direction, so I guess I'll never know, it was a warming thought anyway.

By 5:28 most the birds all flew off to the south west, I know just where they are going.

Back to the car, I'm off, driving south on the old Rt. 7, I watch a study line of a thousand crows flying to their nocturnal roost. I laugh as they remind me of the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz.

I drive past Ash Creek Saloon and into the parking lot of The Medical Center at 40 Cross St, here thousands of crows are gathering high in the trees in a very small patch of woods between this lot, Wilton Ave. and Horton St.

The Norwalk River flows between me and these woods. My guess is there are three, four thousand birds, not the biggest roost by far, but still very impressive. I stopped near the river and listened for a moment, quietly below the voices of the screaming crows I could hear it, the whispers of the river water making its way to Long Island Sound.

I can see why the crows have made these trees their winter roost site for the last few years, the calming sounds of the moving water below, and some very nice sunsets.
If your in the area, it's worth checking out this roost site.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let's go back a few years...

There were a few nice snow drifts on the boat, but I had it cleaned off in less then a hour, thanks to the bubbler system in the marina, there was no ice either.
I started thinking back in time...It was 1990, I decided to keep the boat in the water for the winter season, for I had heard of a some good Striped Bass fishing at the Northport Power Plant, on Long Island N.Y.. about ten miles away at 180 degrees due south from Norwalk Harbor. (The water outflows around power plants can keep the very close surrounding waters in the mid fourties and higher, even on the coldest winter nights.)
Fishing with ultra-light trout rods loaded with six pound test line, we cast half ounce white bucktails (a weighted head moulded onto a hook, then wrapped with hair from a deers tail, hence the word,bucktail) around the warm water outflow from the power plant, it was hard to believe but in mid January we were hooking up with striped bass on every cast, most weren't big but they were from sixteen inches to eight maybe ten pounds.
Rick Mola from Fishermans World, (who by the way taught me just about every thing I know about fishing, with the most important thought being, "think like a fish, imagine yourself seeing through the fish's eyes")
Rick was actually the driving force that pushed me to keep the boat in the water back then,
and to check out this power plant.
He also suggested that from his past winter fishing experiences at the Norwalk Power Plant, that black colored bucktails caught larger fish than white buck tails during the winter months.
We started experimenting. I can remember this day clearly, it was becoming late afternoon, early March, I decided to try a red bucktail, I cast and immediatly felt a very strong tug, I set the hook and the chase was on, we never anchored back then, we preferred to drift and cover ground, my friend and fishing buddy Paul Restuccia reeled in his line as fast as possible and started the engine, jamming it into reverse as my Penn 716 saw it's line spooling off the reel in record time. We caught up to the fish and it was in the high teens.
Subsequent cast with red bucktails found more larger fish, and we ended the day on a very high note.
For the next trip we loaded our reels with eight pound test line and a handfull of red and also black bucktails, wow! the darker the bucktail, the bigger the fish.
We now had to use ten pound lines since the stripers were getting into the thirty pound range and bigger, this scenario played out for a few years, and then one day...
While catching a striper on nearly every cast for a hour or so, they suddenly out of nowhere stopped feeding. This was odd, why would they suddenly shut down, and stop feeding?
The answer to this question popped it head up out of the water about fourty feet from the boat, it sure had a puppy dogs face, but I didn't think canines would want to swim underwater especially during the waning days of winter, OMG it's a seal! Very COOL!
Problem was all the fish split the area.
It became harder and harder to catch stripers during the winter months as years passed by.
I recall at the begining of the seal sightings catching a striper about twenty pounds, it's back was ripped appart below the dorsal, a huge gash, with the wound still bleeding I realised that there were no Great White Sharks or any other Shark species in the Sound to cause this wound as the water temps were in the low thirties.
The Striped Bass now have a new advisary, Seals!
Previously, in years back, returning to Norwalk from the Northport fishing trips, I would stop by Great Reef off Sheffield Island in Norwalk if it were around low tide, here we could see up to fifty to sixty seals hauled out on the off shore rock piles. Sometimes there were only a dozen, the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium caught on to this and started running winter cruises to show and educate people about these seals.
So lets take a moment and put ourselves behind a seals eyes, first and foremost is something that is most important to every living species, food.
Long Island Sound must have abundant food sources for these mammals to survive the winter here, perhaps the winter over striped bass population fits into this catagory for seals as do other native species of the sound such as tautog (blackfish) and winter flounder. Both these species have little migration from the sound and are depleted to no end,
Close seasons and size limit restrictions have made both these species a limited food source for the recreational fisherman, is it the seals fault? Of course not, they are just a small player competing amongst giants in a struggle to survive.
I like to think about Georges Banks, that vast fishery that could never end, but it did, totally wiped out by dragger and other types of fishing boats, to the point that it was totally closed down to fishing by the feds. It now has rebounded a bit, but has to be highly managed.
I'm sure there were vast numbers of seal using this area as a food sourse, we can't blame the seals for the lack of fish, they have been in balance with nature for many thousands of years.
In fact they have made quite a rebound themselves, with the vast slaughtering of seal pups having stopped, it made for increases in the seal population, but since humans compete with seals for food, other coutries have relaxed there regulations concerning seal harvest.
Let's see how it plays out.
Oh, the picture above, that is a much younger me holding a twentyfive or so pound striper, in front of the Northport Power Plant around 1992? We caught thousands and released every one of them unharmed.

Snow Birds

Feb 11 '10

Yesterdays eight inch snowstorm is long gone, now its time to head out and clear off the boat. The Great Backyard Bird Count starts tomorrow and runs through Monday the 15th.

In the past five or so years I have always managed a bird count by boat of the Norwalk Islands for the GBBC. The weather is suppose to stay in the low thirties for the weekend and if there is any wind it will make for a very uncomfortable bird count on a open boat.

Long-tailed Duck are perhaps my favorite species of winter diving ducks that migrate to the Norwalk Island chain each winter. This area is a great food source for these and many other sub-surface feeding birds, as each day commercial clamming boats work the many square miles of shallow bottom farming their oysters and clams.

These oyster boats do the ducks a big favor by stirring up the soft bottom, exposing worms, crabs, shrimp and more, making easy feeding for the ducks.

Situated off Norwalk Connecticut, in Long Island Sound, sit the Norwalk Island, these are a dozen or so small islands, most less than one mile from the mainland shore. Surrounded by relatively shallow waters, these islands and waters are a valuable area for many species of wildlife and fish. We will be exploring the islands, it's wildlife and fish in future blogs, along with plenty of photos.

But for now, it's time to clear off the boat and hope it's not iced in.