Thursday, July 28, 2011

Seaside Adventures with Birds in Siver Sands State Park

We live half an hour from the ocean (well, the Long Island Sound, more accurately), but we almost never go there. It's quite silly, actually. So yesterday Paul and I decided to remedy this situation, and we took a drive down to Silver Sands State Park, in Milford. This is a really great park, and we'd been there once before a couple of years ago, with great success. It has all the benefits of (free) sandy beaches and swimming, stretches of trails and boardwalks to explore, and, as it turns out, lots and lots of birds.

Right next to the strip of sand on the shoreline, and past some rocks, flat salty marshes like this one stretch on. The bird in the above picture is a Great Egret, an impressively big creature with a yellow beak and black legs. Wading birds like egrets and herons love this habitat.

Snowy Egrets -- the smaller cousins of Great Egrets -- abound here as well, hunting tiny fishes in the marches and wading among the tall grasses. This Snowy Egret was resting gracefully just off shore:

It even let me sneak close enough for a more detailed picture. Can you believe the glorious feathers on this bird?

Both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are listed as threatened species in Connecticut. They were hunted to extirpation or near-extirpation in the state in the early 20th century -- so their lovely plumes could decorate people's hats; blech -- and they didn't start breeding here again until the 1960s. As it turns out, Silver Sands State Park is an exceedingly important place for both of these threatened species, and here's why:

This is Charles Island, located about a half-mile from the park's shore. During low tide, a sandbar rises from the ocean to connect the island to land, but birds can easily fly across at any time. (You can just start to see the sandbar in that strip of light-colored ocean in the above picture.) In addition to being the supposed site of Captain Kidd's buried treasure, and reportedly haunted/cursed, the island serves as one of the three largest nesting sites in Connecticut for Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, as well as other bird species. Such sites are rare strongholds for these birds, so well protected by the ocean. The park closes access to the island during the summer to help keep people from disturbing the nesting birds, although we did still see several people venturing out onto the sandbar while we were there. It was really cool to be near a place of such importance -- I wish the birds on the island the best of luck and many happy, healthy babies this summer and in the years to come!

So those are the egrets. How about some more birds?

I know almost nothing about seashore birds, since I spend most (actually, all) of my time inland and around fresh water, and this trip really showed me how big the holes in my knowledge are. I can do the two major gulls (I think), with some confidence -- you've got your standard big Herring Gull:

And your smaller Ring-billed Gull (this fellow insisted on poking around in our bags whenever I moved away):

But this one had me stumped for a little while -- I'm pretty sure it's a Laughing Gull, albeit without its full breeding plumage:

This group of little dippy birds is still a puzzle for me:

They're some sort of sandpiper, either Western or Semipalmated (I think), in the middle of their southbound migration. I have no idea how people identify these birds, because I sure can't tell the difference between pictures of the two species! I guess this is where practice comes in handy, but for now, "sandpiper" will just have to do. :P

Update 7/29/11: As one of my readers pointed out (thanks, Joe!), these might actually be Sanderlings, a small type of sandpiper. Boy, do I not know ocean birds! So I'll withhold identification for now, and maybe someday I'll be able to figure out what these little creatures are.

There were many other types of birds flying around, too, including the familiar Barn Swallow. These two individuals were actually sitting still, perched on reeds near the path:

And here's another new one for me, a Glossy Ibis (a species of special concern in Connecticut), whose dark coloring kept it so well hidden in the tall grasses that I didn't even see it until it flew away:

It was a very enjoyable trip, and a great way to remind myself that beaches are fun!

I'll close this post with two final pictures. This Herring Gull must've found something delicious in this large shell-plus-rock-thing with a seaweed tail:

Something worth smashing open from up high! Bombs away!



  1. Most excellent! I didn't know that the egrets were endangered - makes me appreciate them all the more!

  2. Whoa! Those last two photos are amazing!

  3. Nothing like a trip to the seaside; my favourite place to be! I've just been to the sea myself and didn't get any photos like these. I did see some white egrets at Dungeness in Kent. So that island does contain treasure after all? Great blog. Mel