Wings and Prayers

Wings and Prayers

As the fall season begins, another one is taking off: the fall migration season. Beginning about now, countless birds will stop in our state to rest and regroup as they make their annual trip from as far north as the Arctic Circle to friendlier winter quarters.

Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison (map) is an especially popular waypoint on their journey. Call it a Flyatt, a Quillton, a Best Nestern. Bird experts credit the park’s sprawling marshland as an essential stopover on routes that can cover more than 4,000 miles.

I asked Russ Miller, an expert at Hammonasset’s Meigs Point Nature Center, which species stop here. “Everything,” he said, waving his arms with a broad grin. “At the start of the raptor migration we get hawks, peregrine falcons. Then in the beginning of October, we’ll see some northern harrier, a rare bird that summers in the Arctic tundra of northern Canada.” Warmer weather isn’t necessarily the objective, at least not directly. “In winter,” Miller says, “their food becomes scarce in the cold north, so they go south in search of a good meal.” The broad-winged hawk, however, is primarily motivated by heat. “They don’t like the cold,” Miller says. “They head south as soon as the temperature begins to drop.”

sponsored by

The Foote School

Part of what attracts so many migrating birds to Hammonasset is the variety of habitats. The park’s impressive salt marshes are part of a much larger network of fields, dunes, broad sandy beach and the Long Island Sound. The total is so extensive that birds can distance themselves from our prying eyes, so it’s entirely possible for bird-seekers to visit this time of year and only find the more familiar egrets, herons, Canadian geese and, of course, seagulls. In any case, once inside the park, it’s only a short walk to incredible views. The park’s southeastern corner, near Meigs Point, is especially magical. Sand ground shifts to shells and boulders on a strip of land that rises and falls between marsh and sea, its trail meandering through hardy brush feathered right now with yellow blooms. (At peak insect hours—early or late in the day—bug spray is a good idea.)

Another, more removed observation option is the nature center itself, where a wide, covered porch has several picnic tables overlooking part of the preserve. Inside the center, expansive exhibits describe the various animal populations of the park, categorized by their plane in the air, the water or the woods.

Speaking in the butterfly garden next to the center, Miller honed in on native-born ospreys, a type of hawk, to highlight the wonders of migration. Their mothers “are already gone as soon as the young learn how to fly. The males stick around awhile to teach the youngsters how to hunt. The youngsters eventually take off for Central America, where they may stay two or three years. And here’s the amazing part. After all that time, they fly back here to their birthplace. We can only speculate how they remember and how they navigate. Can they feel a pull of magnetic north, is it different light patterns marking their way? Stars? We don’t know.” He mentions an experiment in Europe that aimed to determine how birds know where to go. “They were placed in an enormous, solid, circular structure. On the inside there was no indication of any direction. When it came time to migrate, every one of them flew due south.”

Among the travelers expected at Hammonasset are hummingbirds who summer in northern Connecticut. They seem too small to fly very far, yet their migration takes them all the way to Central America as well. But perhaps the most extreme example of seemingly long migratory odds involves the Blackpoll Warbler, who Miller says weighs even less than a hummingbird. “It… flies out over the Atlantic, and when it’s about as far out as Bermuda, it takes a hard right turn and flies down to South America, where it winters in Brazil, Peru or Chile.” He says the bird “normally weighs about the same as one-and-a-half pennies. Before it takes off, it bulks up to three pennies—and by the time it arrives in South America, its weight is down to one penny.”

The birds passing through Hammonasset for the next several weeks may stay only a day or two, but as they do, they’ll offer a glimpse of one of nature’s most mysterious and miraculous abilities. And even if you don’t see them during your visit, or if they’re too far away to fully appreciate, well, you’ll still be at Hammonasset, whose natural beauty isn’t just for the birds.

Hammonasset Beach State Park (map)
Open daily from dawn to dusk…

Written by Jim Murphy. Photographed by Dan Mims.

More Stories