In the Spirit of Peterson: Up the Lyme Coast

On a sullen, soggy Saturday, the father of field guides past leads us to a raven maven. Roger Tory Peterson meets the King of Connecticut Birding in a salty swamp.

Last Saturday was a Global Big Day, when  it seemed everyone would be tallying species from dawn ‘til dusk.

Not us. We took a relaxing drive up the Connecticut coastline–though to be fair, Interstate 95 isn’t the most scenic of routes. At one point a trio of Wild Turkeys seemed to be toying with the grim reaper, deciding at a crucial intersection, Why Does the Turkey Cross the Interstate? I pray they made the other side.

Pez Museum
Book Barn

After much bird-related memorabilia in the Pez Museum (you know they have Rio PEZ dispensers, right?), we hit the Book Barn of Niantic. It’s one of the best bookstores you’ll ever get lost in, featuring cats in cubbyholes, free coffee and donut holes, resident goats and goldfish, and, oh yes: thousands upon thousands of books. In our the last barn (Book Barn is actually a series of buildings) we came across Roger Tory Peterson’s biography—a prescient find, as we were only miles from his longtime home in Old Lyme. (I, however, used my single purchase allowance to buy a Toulouse-Lautrec biography.)

Down the road, after an ill-advised stop at a clam shack (more on that later), we visited Rocky Neck State Park. My wife’s insistence on seeing the beach on a non-beach day led to an hour of wonderment.

Across the main beach parking lot is a marshy inlet; a lost, salty river. Full of birdlife: Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, all manner of gull. Amongst these we spotted an atypical bird, a Little Blue Heron, a life bird (for non-birders, that’s a first-time sighting) for me. The slate-blue body morphing into a curved, purplish neck is beauty almost unfathomable until you’ve seen it.

Rocky Neck State Park pic

Unfortunately for me, the fried clams I ate were no good, and I had to go behind a tree to give them back to nature. As I emerged from the shrubbery, a gentlemen laden with all sorts of birding gear, as well as a Sunrise Birding cap, joined us at water’s edge.

We learned he was Frank Gallo, author of Birding in Connecticut, a spectacular 500-page avian jog through the Nutmeg State. Frank was scouting for an upcoming Big Day for Connecticut, and had some copies of his book in the trunk (again, I demurred in purchasing).

Birding with someone like Frank Gallo is like taking cooking lessons from Jacques Pepin (also a  Connecticut resident!). We see Snowy Egrets in the distance; Frank sees the Great Blues hidden In the reeds next to them, stock-still swamp sentinels. We see ducks; he distinguishes a flotilla of Black Ducks from the less-common Gadwalls, and while giving us some identifying marks to remember, implores the birds to stay for Big Day.

He cocks his head sideways and says, “did you hear that? Purple Finch.” (I did not). We average birders hear a nice folksong; Frank Gallo hears a complex and multi-toned symphony.

Birding in Connecticut by Frank Gallo

Some more chit-chat and Frank is on his way back to Litchfield County; we are off to the Old Lyme Inn, whose logo is the very same Northern Flicker that inspired Roger Tory Peterson to become a maniacal birder just a century ago, and soon thereafter, the Father of the Modern Field Guide (His 1934 Guide to the Birds set the standard, and for many still does).

My stomach turned a few more times before the evening was over, but even so, it wasn’t a bad birding day, after all.

POSTSCRIPT: I did buy Birding in Connecticut from later in the week, and boy, is it cool.

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