Bird Observer - The New England Birding Journal

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

October 2015

Vol. 43, No. 5

Bird Finding at Harkness Memorial State Park, Waterford, Connecticut

Robert Dewire


Marsh and mud flat in Goshen cove. (All photographs by the author.)

Harkness Memorial State Park is located in Waterford, along the Connecticut coast. To reach the park from Interstate 95 (I-95), take exit 81. If traveling south on I-95, turn left at the end of the ramp. At the second traffic light turn left onto Cross Road. If traveling north on I-95, go to the first traffic light and turn right onto Cross Road. Proceed just under one mile to US Route 1 and turn left at the traffic light. Go to the second traffic light and turn right on Avery Lane. Stay on this road, which changes name to Great Neck Road or Connecticut Route 213, and travel just over three miles. The park entrance will be on your right.

The park is open from 8:00 am to sunset all year. A parking fee is charged weekends from the third weekend in April through the weekend before Memorial Day. After Memorial Day the fee is charged daily until Labor Day weekend, after which charges are assessed on weekends only to mid-September. From then until the third weekend in April, no fee is charged.

The property was left to the state by owners Edward and Mary Harkness in 1950 and became a state park in 1952. The park is 230 acres and is dominated by the Harkness mansion, called Eolia, and its Great Lawn stretching from the mansion to Long Island Sound. Large meadows of grasses and wildflowers, thickets, fresh- and saltwater marshes, a tidal cove, sandy and rocky beachfront on Long Island Sound, and specimen trees dotting the Great Lawn make up the park habitats. The mansion is surrounded with formal gardens along with large cutting gardens nearby. Flowering is at its best in late summer and fall. There is no swimming allowed at the beach.

The western side of the park is bounded by a tidal cove called Goshen Cove. Besides the open water, the cove contains a salt marsh and exposed mud flats when the tide is low. Niering Walk, the trail down to the cove from the parking lot, borders some fine thickets. There is a viewing blind or hide, marked 1 on the map, which looks over the mud flat area. This habitat mix is the best area in the park for birding. Across the cove is a designated natural area, also part of the park, but not accessible to the public. Much of the water of the cove is visible as you walk the trail (NOTE: if it has been a wet spring, parts of the trail may be flooded).

From mid-October to mid-April a nice selection of waterfowl makes use of the cove. Common species such as Mallard, Black Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, and Hooded and Red-breasted mergansers can be found. Less common are Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveler. In late March and April, Blue-winged Teal often appear and Eurasian Wigeon has been found in with the American Wigeon. Prolonged cold spells can result in the cove completely freezing over, forcing the birds to depart.

The mud flats attract shorebirds, terns, and gulls. Common and Least terns often use the flats in summer for loafing. In late summer and early fall they may be joined by Forster’s and Black terns and on occasion a Black Skimmer. Royal and Caspian terns may also show up but are quite rare. Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed are the expected gull species. Laughing Gulls join them from August through October.

Fall shorebird migration begins in mid-July and goes into October. The common species on the mud flats include Semipalmated and Black-bellied plovers, Killdeer, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and Spotted, Least and Semipalmated sandpipers. American Oystercatchers, Red Knots, Willets, Sanderlings, and White-rumped and Western sandpipers are less common but still may be found here. Rare finds have included Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper, and the rarest find the park has ever had, a Black-tailed Godwit in breeding plumage that was discovered on April 29, 2001, and stayed the whole day, giving many birders an opportunity to see and photograph this beautiful bird.

The salt marsh attracts Great Blue and Green herons and Great and Snowy egrets from spring through fall. Little Blue Herons and Glossy Ibis are found mostly in April and May. Tricolored Heron is quite rare. Black-crowned Night-Herons roost in trees in summer and autumn in the natural area across the cove and can occasionally be seen flying about, even in mid-day. Saltmarsh Sparrows nest in the marsh and in October, Nelson’s Sparrow is regularly found. An Osprey pole in the marsh has a nesting pair annually.

As you walk the trail, there are excellent thickets that are most productive in the fall (mid-September through November). A few taller trees in the thickets attract migrant warblers including Black-and-White, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Cape May, Blackpoll, and Redstart. Thicket-loving warblers are harder to see, but include Blue-winged, Prairie, Northern Waterthrush and Wilson’s. Although rare, Connecticut Warbler has been recorded here in October. The two breeding warblers here are Yellow and Common Yellowthroat. In late October through November, Yellow-rumped Warblers are by far the most common. They should be checked carefully for Palm and Orange-crowned Warblers. Also in fall, Yellow- breasted Chat may show up in thickets any time right up to the end of the year. You just have to be lucky.


Brant at rocky beach.

Following the thicket edge will bring you to the beach where the cove empties into Long Island Sound. A viewing platform provides a good vista of the section of beach across the cove. It is here that Piping Plover and Least Tern nest. Plovers are here from late March to mid-September and the terns are present from early May to early September. Long Island Sound is pretty quiet in the summer; the best bird worth watching for in summer is Roseate Tern. Some of these birds feed along the Harkness beach, often with Common Terns. They nest on Great Gull Island in the Sound near Long Island, NY.

The best time period for scanning Long Island Sound from Harkness is from mid- October to late March. Common and Red-throated loons are readily found, along with Horned Grebes. Red-necked Grebes are found annually but can take a lot of searching. Among ducks, Common Goldeneyes arrive in November and are easily found along with Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers. Offshore, flocks of scoters pass by heading west into Long Island Sound. Some flocks will be close enough to identify without a scope. Our most common scoter is Surf, followed by Black, and then White- winged. Common Eiders are regularly found around the park, especially in the rocky area, usually single birds or a small flock of ten or so. Once in a while a large flock will appear offshore numbering a hundred or more birds, often with scoters mixed in as well. Always scan the eider flocks carefully since King Eider has been recorded here on more than one occasion. Good numbers of Brant can be expected along the Harkness shoreline from November through April. Sometimes they feed up on the Great Lawn.

At the eastern end of the beach, the sand gives way to large rocks offshore and a rocky beachfront as well. At low tide the seaweed-covered rocks attract Purple Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Ruddy Turnstones. At high tide all three will roost up on the larger rocks and often be joined by Sanderlings. American Pipits pick through the washed-up seaweed in this area and Bonaparte’s Gulls fly just offshore. On strong easterly windblown days during November and December, watch offshore for Northern Gannets. Alcids are scarce in Long Island Sound, but in recent years Razorbills have become more regular in winter. The bottom line is that it is always worth scanning Long Island Sound.

Follow the water along the rocks until you come to a fenced-off beach area on the eastern side of the park. This is Camp Harkness, a summer camp for children with intellectual and development learning disabilities. The beach area is off-limits to the general public. Follow the fence and large shrubs around the beach. You will have the mansion and Great Lawn on your left. Continue along the shrub edge until you come to a bar across a dirt road on your right and beyond the bar, a paved road, marked 2 on the map. Go out to the paved road and turn left. The road is for transporting the children back and forth from the beach to the camp area. It is rarely used and the edges are a nice mix of thickets and trees. It is the one part of the park that is closest to a woodland habitat. In the fall, look for migrants such as Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, both kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, and Baltimore Oriole.

In irruptive years, the row of white pines can yield Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. When you get to the end of the pines, turn left on a paved road, Daffodil Lane. It will take you between two fields. The field on the left is wet in the spring and is a great spot to find Wilson’s Snipe in late March and April. When you get to the bend in the road you will see a small apple orchard on the right. This is a good area for Eastern Bluebirds. Also at the bend, you will see a dirt road going off to the left to an open area marked 3 on the map, where park staff leave large piles of brush, cuttings, and other plant materials. This is the best area for finches and sparrows in the park; best time frame is from the end of September through mid-November. Sparrows are represented by good numbers of Savannah, Field, Chipping, White-throated, Swamp, and Song. You can also expect White-crowned in smaller numbers. Harder to find but recorded annually are Clay-colored, Lincoln’s, and Vesper. In late November, Tree and Fox will be here. Indigo Buntings are regular, but the bright blue of the males will have changed to their brown winter plumage. Watch for what looks like an oversized Indigo Bunting, because Blue Grosbeaks are also found here annually.

Continue toward the mansion and visit the gardens. Up to the end of September, you should find Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and lots of butterflies as well. If you find a hummingbird in late October or beyond, check carefully because it may well be one of the western hummers like Rufous or Calliope. American Goldfinches and House Finches feed on flower heads. Pine Siskins may be present by early November. The large trees around the mansion have nesting Fish Crows and a couple usually overwinter. From the gardens it is a short walk back to the parking lot.

A few more special things to look for:

If it is a good winter for Snowy Owls, the dunes across the cove along the beach are a good area to see them.

In good years for Short-eared Owls, they will often be found flying over the cove, marsh, and adjacent fields at sunset.

The coastal hawk migration in late September and October is pretty good here. Hawks are best watched for from the crest of the hill next to the parking lot, looking down on the cove. Expect Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Red-shouldered, and Red-tailed hawks, Osprey, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, and Merlin. Less common are Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

In late October and November, areas of the Great Lawn by the water’s edge may attract Horned Larks and Snow Buntings. Sometimes a Lapland Longspur or two may be with them.

Many of the fields are mowed in the fall. They can be attractive to Eastern Meadowlarks at this time.

For the most part, Harkness Park is at its birding best from late August to mid- April. In summer the park can be crowded, especially on weekends. Parking lots fill before noon, in which case the park entrance will be closed. Bathrooms are located by the parking lot. There are many benches where you can bring a picnic lunch or supper. There are no food vendors at the park.

Harkness is a great place to spend at least half a day. I wish you good birding when you are there.


Robert Dewire has lived in southeastern Connecticut for most of his life. He went on his first bird walk at age 14 with a group from a local nature center. The location of the walk was Harkness Park. On that day, he began his life list. He has been compiler of the New London, Connecticut, Christmas Bird Count since 1963 and is an active birdbander. He currently lives in Stonington.

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