Even aside from their ridiculously long tails, the Fork-tailed Flycatcher is beautiful. This bird’s black cap and light gray mantle make it one of the most interesting Tyrannus flyatchers – one of those birds that has always made me pause while skimming through a field guide and admire it. I always felt as if the Fork-tailed Flycatcher was a mythical creature – occasionally reported in some far off coastal location and then disappearing after a few days.
On November 30th, Jeff Feldmann discovered a Fork-tailed Flycatcher at the Hadlyme Ferry terminal in New London County, Connecticut. This is the state’s 4th record and the second in the past three years. I have never really had an opportunity to chase a Fork-tailed Flycatcher until now and when I saw how cooperative the bird was being for photos, plus the fact that it was an adult male with two spectacularly long tail streamers, I knew I had to make the 6.5 hour chase. The problem with vagrant flycatchers is that they often don’t stay around for very long, so I had to go as soon as possible if I was going to do it. Michael David was also interested in going to see the bird, so we left State College at 1am on Wednesday morning and drove through the night. I needed to be back in town by 7pm, so it had to be a quick chase. Many of the reports we saw were from the early morning hours, so we felt like our chances were good. We arrived at the ferry terminal a little after 7am and could see birders staring up into the tree that we actually had to drive underneath just to get into the parking area! For the next 40 minutes, the flycatcher was perched high above us in a tree and would occasionally grab berries to eat, but mainly just sat still and was probably trying to warm up. I took a few videos of the bird, using my iPhone 5S through Mike’s Swarovski scope, but I didn’t have an adapter so they are a little rough – check them out below, including a few slow-mo sequences.
Suddenly, around 8am the bird took off and flew across the river and out of view. Michael and I were happy with the views we had gotten, but wanted to try and come back later in the morning to see if it would be more cooperative for photos and after the fog and clouds moved out.
In the meantime, we planned to swing down to see a male Eurasian Wigeon and also try for some of the cool birds being seen at Hammonasset Beach SP. The wigeon was only 20 minutes south of the flycatcher spot, and soon after we got to the pond, Mike spotted the wigeon floating around with some Gadwall and a single female American Wigeon. Many other waterfowl were scattered around the pond as well, many of which were new state birds for me. Hammonasset was just a few minutes from there and we had quite a list of target species to try and get in an hour and a half, if we wanted to get back to the flycatcher spot with some time to watch it before racing back to PA. We drove to the campground area first, and started searching for a Clay-colored Sparrow that had been reporting for the past few days. While walking around, I turned and saw a flash of color low in a cedar. I started pishing, and after a few seconds a Blue-headed Vireo popped up into view! The vireo foraged in the open for a little and then flew up to another tree and wasn’t seen again.
We joined forces with a third birder that also got there when we did, and eventually found the sparrow flock at the back end of the campground. Mixed with Dark-eyed Juncos and American Robins were three Field Sparrows, two Chipping Sparrows, and a beautiful Clay-colored Sparrow. The Clay-colored perched up nicely for photos a few times, but was very active and often flew long distances to another perch. One Pine Warbler (which I missed seeing) was also in the area, among the more common Yellow-rumps.
We dragged ourselves away from the sparrow, and drove down to the far end of the park where we were hoping to see the Snowy Owl that was hanging out there. Any trip birding this winter isn’t going to be complete without seeing at least one Snowy Owl, so we were determined to get one for our Connecticut list! When we got down to the parking area for walking out to see the owl, the birds were continuing to do their best to delay our efforts for this to be a *quick* visit to Hammonasset. A beautiful Lapland Longspur was foraging alongside seven Horned Larks and eighteen Snow Buntings! I couldn’t help but try and get a few photos, but then Mike and I walked out the Cedar Island trail and saw the Snowy Owl sitting peacefully in the distance. Just as we were turning around to head back to the car, I got a text from Dorian Anderson that the Fork-tail was back and perching lower around the parking area at the ferry. This was my second visit to Hammonasset Beach SP, and both visits have been incredible experiences! I’m certainly jealous of birders that can call that place their local patch.
By 12:15pm, Mike and I were back in Hadlyme and the flycatcher was still showing off. The lighting was great and the flycatcher flew down to forage in front of us multiple times, offering great photo opportunities. Sometimes the bird would fly over and land within 10ft of the birders gathered around the area! I was blown away by how great the views were of this rarity – what better way to get a lifer than for the bird to be so cooperative and obliging for photos!
Based on wing molt and tail-streamer length this bird is an adult male. The primary notching also confirms this is the southernmost subspecies, Tyrannus savana savana (see 5th photo down).