Rare bird visits Milford and Stratford

Roseate Spoonbill near the mouth of the Housatonic River. — Connecticut Audubon photo courtesy of Bruce Finnan

UPDATED: Folks at the Connecticut Audubon are excited about a bird that showed up near the mouth of the Housatonic River last week, and birders have been hanging out at the Audubon, and areas in Milford and Stratford, hoping to catch a glimpse of it.

The roseate spoonbill, a pink sub-tropical bird, has been seen a number of times over the past week or more in Stratford and Milford.

This is the third time this summer that a species new to the state has been spotted in the area, according to Tom Anderson, director of communications for the Audubon.

“This one has been particularly vexatious because it likes to move around, sending birders on the spoonbill version of a wild goose chase,” Anderson wrote in an email last week announcing the sighting of the roseate spoonbill. “This morning alone birders found it in the marsh at Connecticut Audubon’s Milford Point Coastal Center only to see it fly north and out of sight. For now, anyway.”

Genevieve Nuttall, a bird conservation programs associate for Audubon Connecticut, published a piece on the Audubon website in which she described her excitement at hearing that the bird had been spotted in Stratford.

“I left my office at Stratford Point for a quick drive north to Brookside Drive where the bird had been reported,” Nuttal wrote. “I did not have the exact location for the sighting, but I figured there would be a large group of birders as a landmark.”

She found the birders as she expected near the marsh on Brookside Drive in Stratford and she and the other birders took turns searching for it.

“It had just flown into the marsh as I pulled in, so we had to wait a few minutes for it to pop up, fly a short distance, and tuck back into the marsh,” Nuttal wrote. “It repeated this behavior a couple of times, only wanting to show itself for a moment before hiding in the grasses. It was not the best of looks at the bird, but good enough to see the light pink, flamingo-like pigmentation and oddly shaped bill.”

The Audubon Guide to Northeastern Birds describes the bird as “gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close.”

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute says the roseate spoonbill is a large wading bird distinguished by its pink plumage and spoon-shaped bill. “Its upper neck and back are colored white, while the wings and feathers underneath display the more recognizable light shade of pink,” according to the Smithsonian website.
The birds can reach a height of 2.5 feet, and its wingspan can spread up to four feet.
It breeds in most of South America and through Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. In the United States, the roseate spoonbill is reportedly common in coastal Florida, Texas and southwest Louisiana, where it feeds in shallow waters.

The birds were very common in parts of the Southeast until the 1860s, according to the Audubon, but were nearly wiped out in the United States when wading birds were hunted for their feathers. They began to re-colonize in Texas and Florida early in 20th century, the Audubon reports.

Nuttal wrote that while the roseate spoonbill can be found in places like the Everglades, and that they occasionally fly as far as southern New Jersey, seeing them this far up the coast is rare.
“Like flamingos, roseate spoonbills get their pink coloration from the foods they eat,” Nuttal wrote. “Pigments in the shrimp and other crustaceans that spoonbills eat transfer to the feathers. To capture food, they sway their heads in shallow water and use their spoonlike bill to feel around for prey.”

Anderson said the roseate spoonbill seen here is the same one that was seen in New York and Maine, identified because it has a distinguishing hole in its bill. He thinks the bird will stay in this area while there is still food to be found, before heading south for the winter.

“It’s an interesting natural phenomenon that the bird showed up here,” Anderson said, “but it’s also interesting that people are getting so excited: It has caused quite a lot of stir here.”

According to an article by Nick Minor called “The Real Reason Behind This Year’s Bizarre Spoonbill Sightings,” published Sept 21 by the Audubon, the spoonbills are being seen in areas they do not normally frequent because of increased breeding.

“They represent an ongoing pattern in North American breeding cycles,” Minor wrote. “Wading birds such as Wood Storks, Reddish Egrets, and spoonbills are occurring farther and wider than they have in years following an exceptional breeding season, thanks to the strongest rains the Gulf Coast has seen in 80-some-odd years. It’s a phenomenon that mirrors what we see in Snowy Owls and winter finches, when a summer-breeding boom is followed by unexpected records outside the species’ ranges.”

Reported sightings

The Connecticut Audubon in Milford has been posting updates on the sightings on its website:

Sept. 19, 12:25 p.m: The spoonbill was located in Stratford in late morning, perched along the Housatonic River opposite the Devon power plant.

Sept. 19, 7:45 p.m.: The spoonbill flew in to roost for the night near the marsh at the Milford Point Coastal Center. It and a large crowd of birders are likely to be there first thing tomorrow.

Sept. 20, 7:15 a.m.: The spoonbill is visible from the platform at the Coastal Center parking lot, 1 Milford Point Road, Milford.

Sept. 20, 11:30 a.m. The spoonbill was in the marsh, near the parking lot observation platform at the Coastal Center.

Sept. 21, 7:30 a.m.: Coastal Center board member Frank Mantlik reported on the Connecticut Ornithological Association site that the roseate spoonbill “just flew in and landed in saltmarsh visible from lot platform.”

Sept. 22, 8:22 a.m: Milford Coastal Center Platform, the roseate spoonbill was spotted by Fran Zygmont flying in from the west and landing in the west side of the marsh and out of sight. Seen by about 25 birders.

September 22: 8:35 p.m.: More than a dozen people waited through the late afternoon and then until sunset at the Coastal Center today but, alas, the spoonbill did not make an appearance.

Sept. 24, 7:30 a.m.: The roseate spoonbill continues to attract great interest from birders throughout Connecticut and beyond. Dozens of people have seen it at the Milford Point Coastal Center or across the Housatonic River in Stratford. But as often happens when a rarity arrives, many people missed it as well.

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