Sunday, February 20, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count by Boat

The Great Backyard Bird Count started today, and what a day they picked to start this event.
At least in Long island Sound that is.
My friend Alvin join me on this trip, we left the dock at 08:20 2/18/11
with calm winds and above freezing temperatures.
We started today's count on the western side of the islands at Greens Ledge Lighthouse, this reflective photo shows the calmness in the air, what it doesn't show is the temperature.
The thermometer was rising rapidly on the mainland, yet out here I doubt we ever felt anything more than high thirties at best, the sound is still an ice box and does not warm as well as land. 
We drove out to this Light house for a reason.

Great Cormorants use these rocks that surround the Lighthouse as a perching area during the winter.
A look at the massive amount of white-wash shows that this is a popular resting place for these birds.
In total there were seven Great Cormorants here when we arrived.
Before I forget, left click on any of the photo's to enlarge.

 Leaving Greens Ledge we headed eastward, not but a mile past the the lighthouse, cruising at 25mph I passed very close by to what I though was a lobster pot.
Alvin yelled OMG thats a seal!
I turned and looked, yes it was.
My problem here is why didn't it move or submerge?
They don't do this, I figured it was sick or injured.
I turned the boat around and pulled out my cell to dial either Norwalk or Mystic Aquariums,
for help.
The seal, head out of water never moved or flinched, as you can see from the above photo he appeared to be just sleeping, eyes are closed. This is something they do, just tread water and zone out.
Apparently this is what was happening here, as we came closer to this Grey Seal, it's huge eyes slowly opened, seemingly without a care in the world, he lazily looked at us and slowly turned, arching it's back and giving us a whale roll disappeared below the surface. 

At first this looks like a rock in the water, but it is the rump of our almost 800 pound 10 foot long Grey Seal, submerging into the depths.
Check out how the water never leaves contact with the seals skin.

Just beyond the seal is Norwalk Seaport Association's Sheffield Island Lighthouse, in winter plumage.
The windows are buttoned up, plus there is still a good bit of snow on the ground.
This Lighthouse and Sheffield Island can be visited during the summer months via the Seaport's Ferry service on the C.J. Toth. 
Visit their site here:
While your there, check out the Bird Cruise info.
Come onboard and join the Seaport and I for a great trip and some awesome views of the Norwalk Islands and its incredible wildlife this coming spring and summer.

Bird Counting was the reason for this trip, we had great numbers of several species.
Almost 600 Long-tail

800 greater Scaup (above photo)

Brant numbered close to 900.
The Seaducks, Brant, Goldeneye, Scaup, Scoter, plus Black Duck and others are expected around the Norwalk Islands and Long Island Sound during the winter.
What I never expected, showed up on Cockenoe Island.
From the boat I picked out one small finch/sparrow like bird that flittering on the shoreline.
I maneuvered the bow of the boat onto the shoreline, where I saw a number of small birds moving about.
Song Sparrows? Horned Larks? Snow Bunting? Savannah?
Lapland Longspurs?
All these were calculating in my head, what could they be?
Then I saw my first good look thru the bins.

Common Redpoll on Cockenoe Island, no way!
Here they were, on Cockenoe Island, one mile offshore, feeding on seed heads from this past years
seashore plants.

They were in numbers, a minimum of forty five, maybe fifty.
Redpolls feeding along the slipper shells?
On a island in LIS?

This is Oystercatcher and Tern nesting ground. The last bird I would expect out here is the Redpoll, a arctic/sub arctic nesting bird of the conifers and scrublands.
They are never common in Connecticut, yet during occasional winters they will erupt in this State.
So far this winter, there have been a few reports in Connecticut, but mostly in areas inland from here.
They do show on rare occasion at Sherwood Island State Park, not but a few miles from here, but that is on the mainland. I guess they have no issue about flying a distance over water?

East White Rock came through again with ten Purple Sandpipers.
After big time search efforts, no other shorebird species were found.
Although we had a Killdeer on Chimmons this past Wednesday.

Great Cormorant numbers were at 14.
Status Quo for them around the islands this time of year.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Great Black-backed Gulls have moved back to their nesting islands, these birds are hanging out on the northern bar at Goose Island.
That is Peck's Ledge Lighthouse in the back round

Same lighthouse and same sandbar from a few years ago.
When Goose Island played host to this Snowy Owl for a few days.

I know its mid February, these gulls were not here a week ago, now there are almost 200 on the two nesting islands, looks like they are setting up shop to me.

This is the salt marsh behind the Norwalk Power Plant.
With the extra high tide this place was alive with water fowl.
Besides the Geese and Black Duck that are seen in the photo, Wood Duck, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged Teal and others were abundant in the area

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fishing and Clamming Gulls

With a touch of spring fever almost in the air this afternoon, I called my old friend Towny Dickinson to join me on the boat to do some seaduck photography.
Of course Long-tail were just about everywhere, never easy to get close to, but we were able to catch a few decent shots.
On the way in, we saw a few raccoons feeding along the shore of Chimmons Island, as we followed the shoreline around the corner we came across a Great Black-backed Gull feeding on something significant at the waters edge.
This bird had a fresh winter flounder that it was trying to swallow whole, the flounder was of decent size, probably a pound and a half, just a tad to large for an easy gulp.
As we aproached, the gull flew off with the fish, but dispite the gulls size it could not carry this prey for long and dropped it on the beach.

It returned for the fish, we then left the gull alone to feed in peace.
Another note, many Black-backs are back on their nesting grounds at Goose and Long Beach Islands in Norwalk, we noted a number of them in bright breeding plumage, staking claim to their nest sites.
Sounds crazy, this early right? In another month Double-crested Cormorants will be setting up shop in these same areas.
First come, first serve.

We watched a few Herring Gulls feeding on mussels along the expose shore at White Rock,
but as we entered Norwalk Harbor, I stopped the boat at Round Beach, the small hummock type island a few hundred yards south of the western side of Calf Pasture Beach.
I was in particular looking out for any plankton feeding gulls in the area, non of these gulls were doing that.
Instead what we found were Herring Gulls along the shoreline in just inches of water, many were tipping over, head submerged below the surface, what were they feeding on?

Hard Shell Clams!
I shouted "Wow! Towny, look at that he caught a clam"
We then watched in amasement as these gulls were coming up with Little Necks and Cherrystones Clams, with seemingly no effort.
 After studying this behavior for a bit, I joked to Towny that this reminds me of when I was a kid, when we would walk the shallow waters at low tide and feel for clams with are feet....

Guess What?

This is exactly what these gulls were doing, they were feeling for clams with their feet.
They would almost never dip their heads below water with out coming up with a clam.

I mentioned to Towny that these gulls must be of different DNA than the ones found in trash dumps.

A nice look at a Bufflehead in the harbor.

Although there are a good number of deer on the islands, this is the first winter that I have seen them on Cockenoe Island, these four were from there today.
This area here is Oystercatcher nesting zone, eggs could be trampled in the up coming months.
How is the heron colony going to deal with these guys?
Once they eat out all the undergrowth, as they have on all the other islands,
(some that were major heron rookeries in the past)
will these birds still find it hospitible to nest here?
The heron/egrets stopped nesting on Chimmons Island soon after the deer and raccoons moved in.
I thought Cockenoe was these birds last safe haven out here.
I don't like this, stay tuned.
I didn't forget Part Two of Scoter Feeding grounds, I just have not completed my homework, it's coming.
Please don't forget this upcoming weekend is
The Great Back Yard Bird Count
It's free and easy to participant, plus being very important to the future welfare of our many bird species.
If you only saw one cardinal in your travels, it's still important to scientist.
Have some fun and report your sightings!
This is also a great way to get kids involved first hand with nature
Give it a try!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

White-wing Scoter Feeding Grounds Part 1

Several winters ago we came upon a flock of over one thousand White-winged Scoter, one mile or so south of Cockenoe Island, during the Christmas Bird Count, while doing the boat survey of the Norwalk Islands for the Westport Circle.
This species has been a wonder to me ever since.
What I have noticed over the past three winters, is that these flocks, which can range anywhere from several hundred to five thousand plus have one thing in common.
They are constantly feeding in the same area, a strip about two miles long and a mile wide
My friend, Biologist Dennis Varza suggested that it would be interesting to get bottom samples from this area, to try to get an idea as to what food species they are using in here.
How were we going to get benthic samples from 30-40 feet of water in the middle of the winter?
Enter Norm Bloom, owner of Norm Bloom and Son L.L.C.
Norm very kindly volunteered to take us out on one of his oyster boats, to the areas that the Scoter have been feeding.
Fortunately a number of his oyster beds were in this zone, so we would be able to work some of that bottom.
These beds are large, the parcels in this area are 100 acres each, they are surveyed and divided up into farming lots of different sizes, the same way land parcels are. Some are small and others large.
These lots are then leased from the State, for Aquaculture, a fancy name for oyster, clam and other underwater related  farming.    

A small raft of scoter appears off the bow, this photo was taken from the wheel house of the 
Grace P. Lowndes a classic wooden oyster boat, built in South Norwalk by
William Caniff Bedell in 1931, and still going strong today

These rake baskets are big, roughly four feet across, then 30x30 inches.
This one is about to be lowered into the depths, there are two of these, one on each side of the vessel.
They are made of iron and weigh hundreds of pounds each.

After a quick several second drag along the bottom, the rake is pulled back to the surface. 

The boom that is holding the rake is 3" Galvanized pipe, with about 1" steel cable attached.

The mate has to manually swing the boom and basket into the deck.

As you can see there are tons to sample through,
Almost all of that is shell that they are bring back to the dock, to clean and dry.
Our samples are in front of Dennis, with the orange bucket.

Here is some of the life we found on the Scoter feeding grounds.
Please don't crucify me if I misidentify any of these.
Above is a Transverse Ark, a bivalve closely related to Cockles and Scallops

The vertical shell is a young oyster that has attached itself to another oyster shell.

A Cunner, locally known as a bergall. They are bottom dwellers and grow to about five or so inches in the sound, but can reach longer lengths.

Sorry, one of the sponges, help me here if you can.

After doing two dredges on maintained lots we did one on a dormant lot.
It was loaded with Asterliid Sea Stars, starfish as we commonly know them.
These bad boys are deadly to oysters, clams and many other species.

Turning one over, we see a live slipper shell being devoured.

A purple Sea Urchin

A Channeled Whelk, but when we turned it over...

A Flat Clawed Hermit Crab had taken up residence in the shell.

The most famous bivalve of them all, the common oyster.
This was the most impressive specimen of the trip.
Click on the photo to enlarge, this oyster is a living condominium  for an assortment of other species.
Check out the crab to the left middle.

Close ups show some interesting worms, these are tiny about 1/2 inch at best.

A different worm, same size hiding in a crevice on the shell

Smaller mollusk, attached to the oysters shell, these are about the size of a pencil's eraser

On the bottom of the shell was this (tunicate?) a live organism that was incredible under a small microscope
Captain Jim Bloom in the wheel house of the Grace P. Lowndes
I wish to send a big thank you to Jim and his dad Norm for going way out of their way to accommodate us and our research.
Check them out here:

Next week I will try to make sense of what we found.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ice Stormed in Orioles

Everything was frozen this groundhogs day, including these holly berries that were coated with ice.
The two Baltimore Orioles are still doing fine, even with the harsh winter that we have been having in Connecticut.
I made a short video of them feeding on meal worms this morning.
This is the first time that I have seen them on the same feeder together, since they don't seem to care much for each other. 
For whatever reason I could not download the video on this site but it is here on You Tube.

Arborvitae covered in ice.

Red Cedar the same.

I can only imagine what the boat looks like?