By Paul Hicks
Pullquote: We might have been living on a lake in the Maine woods when we heard the call of a Common Loon one night.
Not long ago, we moved from a home with trees and gardens to a condominium overlooking Long Island Sound — two distinctly different habitats for watching and listening to birds. Previously, we enjoyed a chorus of Cardinals, Wrens, Robins, Gold Finches, and many other songbirds. There were also occasional raucous calls of Blue Jays, Starlings, and Grackles as well as the sounds of Red-bellied Woodpeckers hammering on our house, but they were definitely in the minority.
What a difference we discovered in the calls and songs of our neighboring sea and shore birds when we moved close to the Sound in the midst of the fall migration season. We might have been living on a lake in the Maine woods when we heard the call of a Common Loon one night, the familiar yodel of a male who was heading to his winter territory. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Common Loons are famous for their eerie, beautiful calls. Among these is a wavering call given when a loon is alarmed or to announce its presence.”
When we heard a loud call on another evening out on the water we discovered that Mute Swans are not mute after all. They have a hoarse bugle-like call, which is not as loud as that of another species called the Trumpeter Swan. (See the Cornell Lab’s website for a wide range of bird songs and calls.)
Many people are familiar with the sounds made by Canada Geese, which can be seen floating or flying in V-shaped groups over the Sound throughout the year (often on their way to a nearby golf course). Some say that the sounds of males and females differ, but, according to one birding guidebook, the lower pitched “honks” are made by larger-bodied geese.
Around the end of October, geese called Brants return from their nesting grounds in the high Arctic tundra to winter in our nearby coastal waters. No other geese nest as far north as Brants, and few migrate as far. One of our favorite species, they are much smaller than Canada Geese and do not have large white patches separating their black necks and heads. Unlike the loud noise made by the “honkers,” Brants make a soft gargling sound as they swim about in flotillas.
Ever since seeing the movie “Finding Nemo,” every gull seems to be saying: “Mine! Mine! Mine!” That includes the locally common Ringed-billed Gull, which congregates in flocks on the beaches at Rye Town Park and Playland. Adults are clean gray above, with a white head, body, and tail; their black wingtips are spotted with white. They have yellow legs and a yellow bill with a black band around it.
Since June we have been watching the nesting and parenting of a pair of Greater Black-backed Gulls, visible through a scope on a large offshore rock outcrop. This is the largest species of gull in the world, with broad wings, a thick neck, and a heavy, slightly bulbous bill. Their one offspring is now about two months old, but, according to guidebooks, it will take at least four years to reach maturity. If we are lucky, it will come back to its native rock in the future.
Best of all our new avian neighbors are four American Oystercatchers that divide their time between the same offshore rock outcrop and the shores of some nearby coves. Among the largest shorebirds, they feed mainly on oysters, clams, and mussels by breaking or prying open their shells. They look like harlequins with black-and-white plumage and long, bright orange beaks. Their loud piping calls have become as welcome a sound as the mellifluous sounds of songbirds we left behind.