Have you ever seen tern chicks learning to fly and fish? You don't have to go on safari to watch a seabird colony nesting and raising its young. This and other sights are right in your backyard, on Long Island Sound. Fairfield County's shoreline is a naturalist's paradise.
You can paddle to the chicks right now on Cockenoe Island off Westport. They’re least and common terns, two of the species that are suffering from a loss of nesting habitat and nesting failure, because of climate change. That's because they nest on beaches that now endure huge storm surges, such as those we have seen recently.
On Great Captains Island off Greenwich, you'll find large nesting colonies of snowy egrets and great egrets, whose habitats are similarly under attack.
To get out to the Norwalk Islands, rent a boat or kayak from places such as the Small Boat Shop in Norwalk or Downunder Kayaking in Rowayton and Westport. The best beaches to leave from are Calf Pasture in Norwalk and Five Mile River in Rowayton. There's also a public boat launch on the Saugatuck River at Westport. The Stamford and Greenwich islands are accessible via their towns' marinas and beaches but expect to pay fees if you are an out-of-towner.
As you come upon islands or rock outcroppings, cut the engine or drop your paddle and let the boat sit for a few minutes. Birds and wildlife will come to you. Don't try to land on these islands during nesting season because this truly disturbs the nesting colonies and, in the case of terns, will provoke them to attack. Just watching from 20 or 40 feet offshore will give you an amazing view of avian colony nesting and feeding.
Did you know that more than 20 active osprey nests are between Norwalk and Greenwich? They're huge stick nests high on poles or buoys along the waterfront. If you're near them, you'll hear a high-pitched warning sign from an osprey adult. You can scan the sky to watch the young learning to fly and hunt. They give spectacular aerial displays as they try to steal food from their siblings.
On the beaches and rocks, you'll find spotted sandpipers, small brown-and-white birds that can be recognized by their constantly bobbing tails. The gregarious American oystercatchers flash showy orange bills. Right now, migrating ruddy turnstones are pausing here on their way south for the winter. They're beautiful crimson, black and white shorebirds who got their name from their habit of turning stones on the shoreline looking for food.
Soon a plethora of other species will join these early migrants. So pack a pair binoculars and put a bird field guide in the boat bag and you too will see the best sights the Sound has to offer.
John Hannan is Audubon's director of development for Audubon in Connecticut. For more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What's your favorite birding spot in Fairfield County? Leave us a comment below.