With many of us confined to our homes for much of the last year or restricted to socially distanced activities like nature walks, birdwatching has become the nation’s fastest-growing pastime. And with more than 160 species known to breed within Connecticut’s borders between May and July, now is the time to grab your binoculars and field guide and explore some of the state’s best birding destinations.
If you want to go birdwatching, a good place to start is one of Audubon Connecticut’s nature education centers in Greenwich, Sharon or Southbury, which serve as gateways to the organization’s many wildlife sanctuaries around the state. Audubon hosts local birding trips and educational programs from these centers, giving new birders a chance to hone their skills. Gina Nichol of Sunrise Birding Tours, who got her start leading birdwatching tours from the Audubon Center in Greenwich, says the 686 acres of land that Audubon protects in Greenwich is a great place for beginning birdwatchers to get an introduction to many of our local species.
For observing birds of the shoreline and salt marsh, Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison can’t be beat. Designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International, it’s an ideal place to see rare piping plovers, least terns and American oystercatchers raise their chicks on the beach, and to observe numerous other shorebirds that stop there on their way to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Saw-whet owls and long-eared owls can sometimes be seen roosting in the park’s cedar trees, and the marsh is one of the last nesting places in the state for the imperiled saltmarsh sparrow. Don’t miss it.
If you like to hike while you watch birds, then the 40 miles of woodland roads, trails and boardwalks — and 50 access points — through the 4,000-acre White Memorial nature preserve in Litchfield is the place for you. Its diverse habitats include grasslands, shrublands, mature forests, wetlands and several streams, which is why nearly 250 species of birds have been recorded there in the last 60 years, including 18 species of breeding warblers, plus hawks, falcons and owls. The site is also home to an environmental education center and nature museum.
For those interested in seeing birds more common in northern New England, University of Connecticut ornithologist Chris Elphick recommends Boston Hollow, a deep ravine in Ashford accessed by a dirt road that was formerly part of the historic Center Turnpike. It’s one of the few remaining places in the state where ruffed grouse can be seen and heard, and it’s a great spot for observing nesting yellow-bellied sapsuckers, winter wrens and Canada warblers, among many others. Nearby Bigelow Hollow State Park and the part of the Nipmuck Trail that runs by Bigelow Hollow are also excellent destinations for late spring and early-summer birding.
Butterflies, too: When the birds get quiet in mid-summer and are harder to find, that’s when many birders turn their attention to watching butterflies, and Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford is an ideal place to see them. It’s great for birds as well, especially in winter when waterfowl are abundant on the coast, but the numerous cultivated gardens, hedgerows and weedy fields are perfect for seeing more than two dozen varieties of colorful butterflies fluttering through the area. For those looking for an introduction to local butterflies, sign up for one of the Connecticut Butterfly Association’s regular field trips to the park.