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December may be a lean time of year for bird diversity, but it is the perfect time to find a few specific species of waterfowl and gulls. Coastal birding becomes even more exciting as we get into January and February.
The kinds of species you see this winter will have plenty to do with how severe or mild the winter weather really is. Thus far, the predictions continue to call for an unusually cold winter, so birders ought to be prepared for an influx of reluctant migrants such as common goldeneye.
Although the common goldeneye is frequently seen by many, not all birders know it by name. It is the handsome male duck with a large dark emerald head and a distinct bright white circular spot on the face that most recognize. Females have a flatter brown head with black wings just like the males. The sides, breast and belly of both sexes are white.
As persistent cold begins to freeze waterways to our north, these hardy ducks will come to our region. They will winter over as far north as open water can be found. While they can be seen nearly anywhere on the Sound, there are a few places convenient for viewing.
Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison is the best and most convenient site for this and several other winter species. Stonington Point in Stonington off of Route 1A is another good spot that will allow you to scan the waters from your car. In Old Saybrook, try North Cove boat launch, a great winter birding site that often yields Iceland and lesser black backed gulls. Harkness Park has easy access to the shore and may harbor goldeneyes and is known for sightings of common eider. A king eider was spotted there just last week.
There are several other sites to choose from, and some of the best are known only to locals. I like the small coves, inlets and tiny bays that give southeastern Connecticut its enchanting character. I have had results in birding places as obscure as the Jordan Cove area.
While birding the Sound, expect to see red-breasted mergansers, greater scaup, surf scoter, horned grebes and red-throated and common loons. These birds are reasonably common and fairly easy to identify. A spotting scope works best, but binoculars are often good enough. Knowing the behavioral habits of each will make the identification game more fun.
For instance, the long slender red-breasted mergansers can be best noted by their strong direct flight close to the water. In contrast, greater scaup fly very erratically in small tight groups. Surf scoters are easy to identify as they stream across the horizon in loose flocks like ribbons in the wind. Common eiders are large robust birds that alternate between sailing and flapping. The common goldeneyes give it away with their habit of diving in synchronized fashion.
Now that the cold weather is here, each day will bring in new discoveries with storms and tidal changes that will keep things exciting throughout the season. Whether it be a hunt for the assured common goldeneye or a chance for a rarity, the best winter birding is all around us out in the Sound.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author and he is available for lectures. Email questions to email@example.com.