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.


  1. Hi Larry,

    That was a monster Gray Seal. I had no idea that they preyed upon waterfowl.
    The big scoter flocks (Surf and White-winged Scoters) which were off of Stratford Point on a daily basis last winter, are not so reliable this winter. I have no idea why they are now only there on an "on and off" basis. Numbers are not as high as last winter even when they are there. Last winter the flocks totalled more than 2000 birds, probably going over 3000 on some days.

  2. HI Charlie,

    Thanks for the comment, male gray seals grow to this size with the females being much smaller. I couldn't understand the lack of seabirds inside Norwalk Harbor, and the seal kept popping up in my mind, I don't know that they are gray seals favorite, but seabirds are on thier menu, I'm sure this had much to do with the birds vacating the area.
    I am currently doing more seal research and will be posting a few blogs on Norwalk Seals shortly, along with photos.
    Did you see the seal pup? on News12 today, they said it was a Harbor Seal, sure looked like a Gray to me. FYI, Gray's give birth this time of year.

  3. Larry,

    Yes, I saw that pup seal on TV, but I am not good enough at seal IDs to know what kind it was. Even the adult seals give me ID trouble sometimes. The coats vary so much and there are big size differences within the same species as well, as you mentioned.

  4. Charlie,

    The footage I thought showed a young gray seal, the head is very different (elongated) from harbor and other seals, when I checked News12 online, they showed a harbor seal (stock photo?)