One Photograph- Where the Sea Breaks Through- at Griswold Point

Where the Sea Breaks Through—
at Griswold Point
Story and Photo by William Burt

Least Tern in Flight, Old Lyme, Connecticut, July 2014 © William Burt.

“Head for the inlets, where the sea breaks through,” wrote Roger Tory Peterson,* “if you wish to see birds by the hundreds”; and this 14-year-old had dearly wished to do just that. I asked my dad, who had grown up here at the mouth of the Connecticut, and he knew of exactly such an inlet. It lay out at the end of “Poverty Point,” he said—a nearly mile-long sand spit jutting out into the estuary—and one fine summer morning I set out from the Town Beach to find it.

I trudged on past the bleating radios and sunning bodies, past a going game of volleyball, then on alone at last upon an empty beach, until I came upon a bank of earth cut by the sea. I stepped up and around to find a sprawling field, and far beyond it the long sandy finger of the Point, extending west into the estuary. To the inside lay a cove, and a green band of marsh; and to the outside the blue waters of Long Island Sound. I’d never seen a meeting of the earth and sea so radiant: the greens so green and blues so blue, yet each the more so for the other.

But I still had a ways to go: out through the fields, along a stretch of fine Spartina marsh, and then on to the sandy Point itself. I waded out through heads of Queen Anne’s lace, and an ongoing jamboree of Bobolinks: rising and singing, sailing, falling, and still singing as they fell. Only the snappy-looking males, of course—there must have been a dozen in the air at any time—but I’d seen Bobolinks before, and didn’t linger. I was headed for “the inlets,” and “birds by the hundreds.”

And birds there were, birds by the score if not the hundreds; and birds more than I could handle, even with my trusty Peterson. I got to know the Piping Plovers and Least Terns, which nested on the upper beach; then managed to identify not only a Black-bellied Plover but a flock of snipe-like Dowitchers,** whose long bills jabbed the shallows like machines. And then, as if I needed more to grapple with that day, I came upon a group of hunkered “peeps”: birdwatcher-speak for five small brownish sandpipers with streaks like sparrows on the breast, and all so diabolically alike that after hours of scrutiny a boy could be forgiven if he tossed off his binoculars and walked off never to return. I scrutinized them and I scrutinized my Peterson as well until I got a headache, but I still wasn’t sure if my small sandpipers were Least or Semipalmated; and that bothered me. It bothered me because I had this sure “life bird” here in my sights, whichever bloody kind it was, but I still couldn’t check it off.

In years to follow I’d meet many another new bird either on or within eyeshot of the sand spit I now know as Griswold Point, and a fair number of those firsts would prove increasingly to be “good” birds indeed, and in some cases truly rare. And better still, I’d witness two breathtaking congregations I can best call spectacles; so I’ll begin with those: the spectacles.

In much of March for four years running—from 1973 through ’76—low tides would find the cove inside the Point massed with at least a thousand swirling, barking little gulls with bright-white wingtips, each bird plunging in its turn to snap up a red bloodworm from the shallows. They were Bonaparte’s Gulls, and among them were up to four each of two rare European visitors: the visibly smaller Little Gull, and the marginally larger Black-headed Gull. I don’t know if the bloodworms and the gulls have burgeoned in such numbers since those years, but I can say that few Bonaparte’s if any had been present during March throughout the early 1960s.

And the other spectacle? Considering that Griswold Point is but a strip of sandy beach, and offers not a single conifer, this one was even more astonishing.

One crisp morning in November 1976, I arrived with my friend Judy to find small songbirds passing westward down the Point relentlessly in bunches, trailed by the collective clatter of their jip-jip call notes. They were Red Crossbills, all; and finding little else to perch on—this was bizarre—a few dropped in to rest among the relics of a onetime camp site, and were not only clinging to old posts but massing in the bone-bare branches of a lone Ailanthus tree, and even lined up on the steel cross members of a long-abandoned tent frame. Unable to find room and get a purchase, some birds tumbled down upon the sand and picked about as if in search of something—grit for their gizzards, maybe?—then took off in a whirl to rejoin the flight.

It was a noted flight year for these northern “winter finches,” and I cannot imagine that it has been equalled since. Most years here in Connecticut you would do well to catch the calls of one or two small volleys passing over; but we took a sample count that morning, and some 700 crossbills passed us in one hour.

You never know what might await you out there “where the sea breaks through.”

Soon after my first boyhood jaunt down Griswold Point, I learned that it had been renowned among bird watchers for the Wilson’s Plover that had turned up every spring from 1948 through 1951, and again sporadically through 1958. The Wilson’s is a shorebird of the southern coasts, and has never nested north of southernmost New Jersey; yet this one bird had returned to the same spot for four years running, and again sporadically through the next seven. Might it have nested here?

I never saw the famous plover, of course—it was before my time—but in years to follow I and others were to chalk up quite a list of “good” birds at the Point, and a few snazzy rarities as well. One late May morning in 1972, Judy and I arrived to find a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher hovering above a lone Marsh Elder shrub, and scissoring its nine-inch tail. It was a creature of impossible, breathtaking beauty; and as we learned later, it had been the second ever for Connecticut.

It should have been in Oklahoma.

A sand spit between marsh and sea would hardly seem the most inviting rest stop for migrating songbirds, yet Griswold Point has drawn such goodies on migration as the Orange-crowned Warbler, Dickcissel, and Henslow’s Sparrow; and if not the very rarest, certainly among the most bizarre of all was the male Summer Tanager that Hank Golet found resting on the beach one April day back in the early 2010s. It was an exhausted migratory “overshoot,” as they call it, and a long ways north of its home woodlands.

But it’s the waterbirds, and in particular the shorebirds, for which the Point has best been known; and far the most important are its two beach-nesting residents: the State Threatened Least Tern, and the Federally Threatened Piping Plover. Thanks to the care and vigilance of folks at the Connecticut Nature Conservancy, they are still going strong.

The Black Skimmer and the king-size Caspian and Royal Terns have all appeared on occasion, and so too have not only Marbled and Hudsonian Godwits, but the rare Baird’s Sandpiper; and more than once the rarer-still Buff-breasted Sandpiper (I recall once seeing two together, nodding along the upper beach like doves among pink scraps of washed-up plastic, sad to say).

Again, you never know what might turn up at Griswold Point. But your best opportunity for strays is always in the wake of a big hurricane, which almost certainly will fling birds far north of their normal range—or indeed, far inland. My best such strays at Griswold were three Leach’s Storm Petrels, following Hurricane Belle back in August 1976. Having been blown inland late the night before, they winged on past me in a bee-line on their way back out to sea, These birds nest only on remote sea islands of the North Atlantic, and being both pelagic and nocturnal, they are rarely seen abroad by day.

Yet most hurricane rarities come from the southern coasts. The Gull-billed Tern seen by Ted Hendrickson at Griswold following Hurricane Gloria in 1985, for instance: it breeds spottily along the coasts from Texas north to Maryland, and his bird was apparently the first seen ever in Connecticut. Another southerner was the Brown Pelican that Hank Golet saw lumbering along the Sound side of the Point in the still-heavy winds of Hurricane Hanna, in 2008. That island nester now breeds northward to the south coast of New Jersey (in the days of my first [1962] Peterson Guide, its northern limit was North Carolina!).

Much has changed out there in the six decades since I first set foot on what my dad had known as Poverty Point, and with regard not only to the bird life but the sands themselves.

The shape and very aspect of the Point have been transformed, due largely to the monster storms that breached its base back in the winter of ’92–’93, enabling waters of the Black Hall River to pass through. So at high water, Griswold Point is now an island. And not only has it since been slimmed and shortened but its western end has turned to the northeast, resulting in a dog bend jutting up into the mouth of the Black Hall.…So in short, there is a lot less of the Point these days.

And the birds? The Least Terns and the Piping Plovers are still much as I had found them in the early 1960s, again with thanks to folks like David Gumbart of the Connecticut Nature Conservancy. And there’s a new bird on the scene these days at Griswold Point: a hefty, handsome shorebird with a red-hot bill. If you’d seen an American Oystercatcher out there only 25 or 30 years ago it would have smacked you silly with surprise, but this impressive bird is now an almost daily presence in the summer months. Indeed a pair or two has nested every year for the past ten or more, though never with complete success, due either to predation or extreme high tides—or sad to say, human disturbance.

More than once the egg clutch has been washed away by storm tides, and in one case I’m aware of this befell them when they were within a day or two of hatching.

The other new bird on the scene, remarkably, is a cave-dwelling species whose two major populations concentrate in Mexico and the Caribbean: the Cave Swallow. Its range and numbers have expanded radically in recent decades to include not only southeastern New Mexico and much of Texas, but south Florida; and since the early 1990s, inexplicably—this would stretch anyone’s credulity—some young birds have been known to venture north in fall as far as the Great Lakes, and up the Atlantic seaboard to New England (and even Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia).

But why? Do these autumnal joy rides function as some kind of rite of passage—or a one-time fling, before resigning to the old life as a troglodyte?

I scarcely could believe this ludicrous phenomenon (why spend up all that energy?); but then the genius-naturalist and friend and first class chap who had explained this to me was none other than the late lamented Noble Proctor—so, I listened. And one mid-November morning half a dozen years ago he hauled me out to Griswold Point, that I might see one of these swallows for myself. He’d seen the bird at several points along the Connecticut coast that very week, he said; so “why not here?”

And sure enough, we saw not one but four Cave Swallows, all within about two hours: all single birds, each speeding westward down the Point as if it had a place to be, and never more than eight or ten yards from the water’s edge.

Those moments with the far-flung swallows would have so thrilled Roger Peterson, I mused, had he been there as well; and no doubt that very notion had struck Noble, too. I’m sure of it.

William Burt is a naturalist, photographer, and writer with a passion for wild places—especially marshes—and the elusive birds few people see. His photographs and stories are seen in Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and other magazines, and he is the author of four books: Shadowbirds (1994); Rare & Elusive Birds of North America (2001); Marshes: The Disappearing Edens (2007); and Water Babies (2015). He lectures often, and his traveling exhibitions have shown at some 35 museums across the US and Canada—including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the New Brunswick Museum, the Calgary Science Center, the Liberty Science Center, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

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