Flight Spectrum

Flight Spectrum

Through her binoculars, Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe spots what she and I have been looking for: three adult piping plovers and three tiny chicks skittering up the beach. Folsom-O’Keefe, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, is taking me for a bird walk along the shoreline at the Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary, a pair of fingers that extend from West Haven’s recreational beaches into the waters of New Haven Harbor. It’s nesting season, and there are plenty of birds to see if you know where to look.

The sanctuary is within view of Fort Nathan Hale Park and New Haven’s busy port, but it could be a world away. We pass only one or two fellow walkers as we make our way along the beach toward Morse Point, the tip of the longer, wider finger. Under a humid umbrella of dark clouds, long-winged, orange-beaked oystercatchers soar as common and least terns with pointy wings swoop and dive. Folsom-O’Keefe points out an American willet, a cedar waxwing, a song sparrow. A great egret standing at the edge of Old Field Creek, which runs through the sanctuary and into the harbor, is probably visiting from a nest at Charles Island in Milford, she says.

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“The reason the birds like it is because they don’t like having vegetation around… They’re kind of keeping an eye out for predators,” Folsom-O’Keefe explains. This year there are at least three oystercatcher nests, six piping plover nests and 41 confirmed least tern nests at Sandy Point. Unlike the first two, least terns are colonial rather than territorial, Folsom-O’Keefe says. That makes it possible for them to build many more nests in a shared area—so many that you have to be attentive. “If you get dive-bombed by a least tern, you’re too close to a least tern nest,” she tells me.

We follow a long line of string fencing dotted with little orange and pink flags (warnings both for people and for birds who might get caught in it) that extends most of the length of the beach. It’s low tide when we arrive, so we’re able to give the fence a wide berth. It’s there to protect the plovers’ tiny nests, which are little more than indentations in the sand holding sand-colored eggs. Sometimes, Folsom-O’Keefe says, they’re edged with a few small shells, but the easiest way to find a nest is to find a plover sitting on it.

More obvious are the exclosures—wire cages built over active plover nests (and removed if the birds reject them) in order to protect them from predators. Piping plovers incubate their eggs for about a month, so the chicks are more mature when they hatch than, say, a baby robin. “The nests are all in the string fenced area,” Folsom-O’Keefe says, “but once the chicks hatch, they can be anywhere!” She demonstrates the call of the piping plovers you’ll hear—“peep-ler” or “peep peep”—if you’re getting too close to their chicks.

Piping plovers, who winter in the Bahamas, return each spring to Sandy Point in early April. If their first nest fails, they’ll try again once or even twice and usually finish raising their brood by the end of the summer. The beach is also an important migration stopover for as many as 2,000 semipalmated sandpipers, who visit in late July and early August on their way south. This beach is “globally important” for them, Folsom-O’Keefe says, because “they’re a species that’s declining pretty drastically.” That’s probably because they rely on eating horseshoe crab eggs, and horseshoe crabs, often used for bait or harvested for the medicinal value of their blood, are declining due to overfishing. It’s just one example of nature’s complex web of interdependency, which Folsom-O’Keefe notes several times on our walk.

“We want these birds to be here for future generations, and there are certain best practices that we can all kind of keep in mind when we’re visiting the beach to make sure that happens,” she tells me, listing a number of dos and don’ts for sanctuary visitors. Leaving trash on the beach attracts predators like foxes, opossums and crows. For the same reason, it’s better not to gut any fish you catch on the beach; take them home instead. Fishing line should also be disposed of in the receptacle at the parking area so birds aren’t entangled in it later.

And dogs aren’t allowed in the summer. “Even if the person has the dog on a leash and they’re away from the string fenced area, the birds see that dog… as a predator,” Folsom-O’Keefe explains. “So they might fly away from their nest and sort of leave their nest exposed.” Piping plovers will even try to lead a predator or a person away from the nest by faking a broken wing. “That takes the energy of the parent and… again, leaves the chicks or the nest exposed.”

With a team of 10 field staff and about 280 volunteers, Audubon and the wildlife division of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection keep track of whether nests at Sandy Point and elsewhere have successfully hatched chicks and whether the chicks are surviving to become fledglings. Volunteers also play a key role in educating the public, especially during peak beach usage. The town of West Haven, which owns Sandy Point, is also a valuable advocate for the wildlife here, Folsom-O’Keefe says. Little by little, they’re removing invasive plants bordering the beach and planting native species instead—plants that will support the birds’ food web by attracting the right insects and caterpillars. Meanwhile, a group of eight Audubon Wildlife Guards from West Haven High School have started their summer job restoring and maintaining the area. Planters by the parking lot are bursting with colorful flowers designed to attract birds and butterflies, and the lot itself has seen recent improvements.

If you want to sunbathe or swim, West Haven’s other beaches are a better choice, Folsom-O’Keefe says. “But if you want to see a beautiful spot and see some of these birds that nest here on the shore in Connecticut, it is one of my favorite places.”

Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary
Beach St and 3rd Ave Ext, West Haven (map)
Parking: free for stickered residents or metered at $1.50/hour
To volunteer, email ctwaterbirds@gmail.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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