Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Fall Migration - Taking Flight

Deep within a salt marsh beyond Meigs Point at Hammonasset Park, a Merlin sits atop a decaying wooden post. This regal, slate-brown falcon is well known for spectacular aerobatics as it seizes prey, birds and insects, in midair assaults. The tide retreats, and rivulets of sea water flow around the clumps of green and brown marsh grass, and eventually settle back into the Sound. Along the marsh’s fringe, a Snowy Egret wades through the viscous black muck. Frenetically searching for food, the white bird’s long beak roots through the mud and water dislodging fish and amphibians.

Standing on the shell laden beach, a group of thirteen birders and their instructor have gathered to observe the activity. Binoculars and tripod mounted spotting scopes allow the birders to spy on their aviary interests without intrusion. The class watches with delight for several minutes as the Merlin preens it feathers, and then takes flight. The instructor points to the egret and the White-Rumped Sandpipers that have joined it in the drying mud. The class repositions themselves for a better look. They are gushing with excitement at the good fortune to see two species listed as rare birds in CT within minutes of each other.

Falling air temperatures, decreasing daylight, and dwindling food supplies have started the natural cycle of fall migration for birds throughout the northeast. Thousands of birds are moving through the shoreline on their annual migration southward, using our coastline as their highway. This is a prime time for beginning birders to get exposed to this hobby, and an excellent opportunity for experienced birders to catch a glimpse of rare birds.

The group was lead by Gina Nichol, an accomplished birder and owner of Sunrise Birding. Today’s class was the first of a three part fall bird migration identification course that Nichol is offering at Hammonasset Park. After a brief introduction to fall migration patterns, Nichol walked with the group along the beach and the tidal marsh, always diligently scanning for birds. Whenever she spotted a new specimen, Nichol would stop, point, and then identify the bird. Often she would mimic the birds’ signature calls. The birds were found in the air, on the ground, perched in trees and bushes, and sitting on rocks amidst the water. Typical of fall migration, the birds seemed to be everywhere one stopped and took the time to look.

Birds migrate twice per year. Nichol points out, “The Fall migration is linked to their need for food, so they are traveling south to survive the winter. They travel north in the spring to find breeding sites.” While the spring migration is concentrated in a five to six week span, the fall migration is stretched out, and begins as early as July for shorebirds, and lasts through October for songbirds and raptors. September is generally regarded as the peak of migration season.

Migrating birds may travel thousands of miles before reaching their seasonal resting spots. Navigating across large expanses of water and mountain ranges is an aviary feat not easily rivaled in the animal world. Nichol states, “Birds use the shoreline’s topographic features, the Earth’s magnetic field, and a number of other techniques to find their way south.” Many species will make their voyage at night, though weather plays a significant role in determining when the birds take flight. “Bird migration is still a mystery in a lot of respects.” says Nichol.

A phenomenon known as “blocking weather” has been identified as a predictor for large scale bird movements. When a protracted stretch of inclement weather befalls an area, migrating birds gather in large numbers wherever they can find protection, and wait for calmer conditions. When the skies clear, atypical numbers of birds move en masse, providing an ideal condition for bird watchers.

The Avian Records Committee of Connecticut (www.ctbirding.org) includes 412 species of birds on its official checklist for birds found in Connecticut. By the end of the two hour field session, Nichol’s class identified twenty-nine different species of birds, including five which are listed as “rare in CT”: Little Blue Heron, Merlin, White-Rumped Sandpiper, Purple Martin and the Saltmarsh Sharp-Tailed Sparrow.

To learn more about bird identification, or to participate in a bird walk, contact Gina Nichol of Sunrise Birding at 203-453-6724 or at http:www.sunrisebirding.com