By Emily Weyrauch
Unlike the majority of visitors to Sherwood Island State Park this summer, Michele Sorensen isn’t there for the sun and the sea. Instead, her sights are set higher—in the sky and up in the trees, on the myriad bird species drawn to the park to breed or feed.
Michele Sorensen keeps watch for birds on the beaches at Sherwood Island State Park. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Weyrauch for WestportNow.com
Sorensen, the Sherwood Island Nature Center’s liaison, knows it’s more than just gulls when it comes to life on the beach, and is passionate about the park’s ecosystems and avian diversity.
“The longer you hang out,” she said, “the more you see.”
On a recent walk on the park’s East Beach, Sorensen pointed out the wrack line—a green and brown kelp fringe found when the tide recedes. It is where shorebirds pick for washed up crabs and clams. They have to move fast though, as park staff routinely remove the seaweed, grooming the beach for visitors.
Sorensen is an educator and monitors nests of osprey—the high-nesting birds often accommodated by plywood platforms above utility poles—for the Connecticut Audubon Society.
She also works as a kayak instructor and considers herself primarily a naturalist. That is, she knows a lot about birds, but is also compelled by the relationship between all organisms in the park’s ecosystem.
“I’m interested in diversity,” said Sorensen. “And seeing who’s living out here on the rocky beach.”
Westporter Tina Green goes birding every day, usually at sunrise. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Weyrauch for WestportNow.com
Another local bird enthusiast, Westporter Tina Green, began birdwatching in the summer of 2008 at Cape Cod. She saw a notice for a bird walk for beginners in the newspaper and tagged along, without a pair of binoculars or any real knowledge about birds.
“I looked through the [docent’s] scope at the shore birds—sandpipers. I was just totally amazed,” said Green. “I thought, ‘I’ve been missing this my whole life?’”
Now, eight years later, she leads walks for the New Haven Birding Club and serves on the board of the Connecticut Ornithological Association, where she has also served as vice president and president.
Green is currently the only woman on the Avian Records Committee of Connecticut, which maintains the official list of the state’s bird species including a checklist of rarities.
Green considers Sherwood Island her “patch”—a term birders use to describe a favorite area that they cover regularly. She is a state lister, which means that she tries to see every bird species that flies into the state each year.
At Sherwood Island, Green was instrumental in acquiring the purple martin gourds—the strange ceramic cartoonish birdhouses that hang outside the nature center.
She said these birdhouses are made specifically to the purple martin’s size and shape. The bird’s population plummeted in the 20th century due to invasive bird species and habitat loss.
At Sherwood Island, purple martins reside in specially made gourd housing moved three years ago from the nearby home of Phil Donahue when he sold his Beachside Avenue residence. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for WestportNow.com
Green, along with local birder AJ Hand, monitored the nesting of these birds in the cavities of 32 gourds starting when the purple martins arrived early this April. This year, there were 78 fledglings, she said.
Although Green initially got into birding slowly—at first going out only once every few weeks—she now goes birding every day, usually at sunrise.
“That was one of the best things I ever decided to do,” said Green. “When you go out every day, and if you go out alone, you have to really study the birds, you have to look in your field guide, and you have to [identify them yourself]. You start really seeing the details on the birds.”
Although Green’s love of birding takes her most frequently to Sherwood Island, she said she has also enjoyed going on out-of-state adventures with fellow birders to spot rare birds.
Green often goes birding with Jory Teltser, a student at Staples High School who credits her with turning him into a “serious birder.”
When he first started birding in 2010, Jory was only 9. Now 15, he is a member of the Connecticut Young Birders Club and spends most of his free time outside birding around Connecticut when not in class.
Despite his age, Jory sounds like a seasoned ornithologist, describing how bird populations began shifting long before he picked up a pair of binoculars.
Staples High School student Jory Teltser, 15, spends most of his free time birding in Connecticut. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Weyrauch for WestportNow.com
“You may see flocks of shorebirds in the thousands, but 20 years ago they were probably in the millions,” he said. “So you think that because there’s a ton here, they’re doing fine. But if you look back, a lot of birds are just not here.”
Jory said that birding has taken him to all 169 towns in Connecticut and has opened his eyes to ecosystems right in his backyard. Sherwood Island is only a five-minute drive from his home, and he spends hours each weekend there.
“I usually try to get my homework done Friday night and then bird Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
Last year, Jory set a goal of seeing 300 unique bird species in the state, which he accomplished, even if it meant skipping school a couple of times to drive across the state to find a rare bird.
“It’s more of an obsession,” he said, adding that his passion goes beyond the hobby stage. “For 99 percent of people, once you start birding, you can’t or won’t stop.”
Jory and Green both use eBird, a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in which bird watchers share their observations with the scientific community.
Each time they go birding, they add a list of species they spotted to the website or app.
An app that you won’t find on Jory’s phone is PokémonGo, although he sees definite parallels between the search for Pokémon and bird watching.
AJ Hand in the garden of his Westport home with an owl sculpture. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Weyrauch for WestportNow.com
“It’s definitely similar in the sense that people are actually getting out and going places that they’ve never been before, which I do a lot in birding,” he said.
Jory said that when he was just starting out, Green and Hand took him under their wings, so to speak.
Hand, who watches as well as photographs birds, first got into birding on an Audubon trip to Block Island with his wife Sue. To him, learning to identify birds is a gradual and intimate process.
“When you first get a field guide and look at sparrows, they all look the same,” he said. “Then—just by how the way they move or what size they are or how they operate—it’s like how you can recognize a person.”
“And then you start wondering why you could never tell them apart before,” said Hand.
The Hands’ backyard in Westport is a kaleidoscope of colors, a breathtaking garden of flowers and plants that attract birds and butterflies of all shapes and sizes.
Hand’s avian sculptures stand amidst the plants, and others punctuate the walls of the inside of their house near his bird photography.
“It’s a jungle out there,” said Hand. “We get all kinds of nests in the yard, and with a fairly high percentage of them, something gets them, and we come back and it’s empty or on the ground.”
“You don’t want to invest too much of yourself in them because you know it’s likely not going to work out,” he said.
Like the other birders, Hand lamented the changing of bird populations due to human-caused destruction of habitats.
Hand appreciates the wildlife in his backyard and most frequently birds at Sherwood Island, but likes exploring a bit farther from his house, too.
He makes rounds at the Christmas Tree Farm and Burying Hill Beach in Westport, and goes out around the Norwalk Islands in Long Island Sound in his small motorboat.
To Hand, who doesn’t use eBird, birding is not about accounting but rather about the everyday encounters he has with the birds.
He cares deeply about the local bird populations, and it shows. Birding with him is a mellow, quiet experience focused on straining eyes for movement far away among rocks and leaves and listening for high-pitched sounds carried in the wind.
“It’s amazing the stuff that’s around here that people don’t know about,” he said.
Tips for Beginner Birders
Although there are CDs and apps of bird songs and calls, Green finds on-site learning much more valuable than trying to learn a bird from recordings.
She suggests beginners start with what they see in their backyards.
“It’s really good even just learning the common birds you see and hear every day like robins and house sparrows and goldfinches and cardinals—they all have very distinct calls and songs,” said Green.
In addition to field guides, apps such as Birdseye North America and the Sibley eGuide can be helpful for fledgling birders who would like to identify birds by sight or sound.
Jory recommends finding a community of birders nearby.
“The best way to start is finding a local Audubon chapter and going on walks,” he said, adding that the most important thing is for people to keep their eyes open and to be aware of the incredible diversity of birds around them.
“A non-birder would never consider 300 birds in the built up, industrialized town of Westport,” he said.
Sorensen added, “Birds have more going on than we know about.”
More about the monthly nature walks at http://friendsofsherwoodisland.org/
Connecticut Audubon Society programs at http://www.ctaudubon.org/adults/