The bill of the American avocet curves up. The bill of a whimbrel turns down.
They are both beautiful, long-legged wading birds. Neither of them belong here.
Whimbrels — migrating in a huge loop from their nesting grounds on the Canadian and Alaskan tundra to winter as far south as the Brazilian coast — do make spotty appearances on state sandbars in the fall.
Avocets nest on the edges of wetlands west of the Mississippi. When they migrate south, it’s generally across the interior. There’s no reason to swing east to Connecticut.
Yet this month, they showed up together at the Milford Point Coastal Center owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society — three avocets, two whimbrels.
Milan Bull, the society’s senior director of science and conservation, said it’s rare enough to see one avocet in Connecticut. But three?
“In my experience, that’s a first,” he said.
And birders, avid to see and list, may have been tipped off to the show in a new way — via texts on their cellphones.
The Connecticut Audubon Society now sends messages about rarities via its Rare Bird Alert. People can sign up for free by going to the society’s website at https://www.ctaudubon.org/2019/08/ctaudubon-rare-bird-alert/
The alert has been a hit so far, with about 1,200 people joining.
“For local birders, it’s fabulous,” said Margaret Robbins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in Brookfield.
“It’s exciting,” said Angela Dimmitt of New Milford, president of the Western Connecticut Bird Club.
“It’s such a great way to connect expert birders and novice birders,” said Cathy Hagadorn, director of the society’s Deer Pond Farm preserve in Sherman. “Anything that gets people away from their TVs and out into the world is fine by me.”
And it feeds the inner fire.
“There’s an element of competitiveness, or dare I say, fear of missing out,” Hagadorn said.
Ben Oko, former chairman of the Ridgefield Conservation Commission, said the alert raises new issues for him.
“First, will I remember to check my cell phone when I get in my car in the morning, since that’s where I keep it?” he said. “Second. Do I want to start chasing rare birds at my age?”
Patrick Comins, president of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said the rare bird alert came about when the society’s staff began to think about ways to better use technology it had on hand.
The society had been using a list server to alert its members about environmental policy issues that needed addressing. Thanks to the text message, they could reach out to town officials or legislators to get them involved.
The staff realized the same service could let people know — and quickly — about rare birds in the state, the better for them to drop everything, grab a pair of binoculars and spotting scope, and head off.
For speed matters when it comes to chasing birds, especially birds passing through during migration. They generally don’t stay here very long. As happens in life, a trip that begins in hope ends in chagrin.
“It happens,” Dimmitt said. “Frequently.”
One existing way to see it there are any rarities out there is by looking at the posting people send via their cell phones to the Connecticut e-bird list. But although that list does sort out rarities, it also includes the usual suspects people see on local birding trips.
The society’s rare bird alert will edit out that clutter. It’s intended to tell people when a rare bird shows up and is verified as such. Unless there’s a storm that blows a dozen Caribbean exotics our way, the alerts won’t be frequent.
It also means people won’t have to check on their computer weekly for a rare bird sighting, only to learn that black tern seen on Monday is long gone by Wednesday.
“It alerts you,” Comins said.
The race to be first aside, it’s also a way to get people out and seeing the world and its graces.
At Milford Point, along with the elegant avocets and somber whimbrels, there was a chattering flock of American oystercatchers. There were sanderlings playing tag with the surf and gulls calling. There was salt air and a pale blue sky and a new moon high tide that brought the water flowing onto the beach.
Hagadorn quotes the great American ornithologist Yogi Berra on the value of actually getting out there.
“You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yogi said. You could look it up.