Gulls, Plankton & Fish in LIS during March 2019

ALERT: 10:00am DEPARTURE! This trip will depart the dock two hours earlier than planned, at 10:00am rather than noon, on March 9th, due to an unexpected late morning parade in Norwalk CT! Notice of this change was sent to participants around 7pm Feb.13th. So the 6-hour trip will be 10am-to-4pm (NOT noon-to-6) on March 9th. You should arrive at the dock 9:00am, to 9:30 at the very latest.

STATUS: This trip is ON and it is SoldOut (with a waiting list). On February 2nd we reached the minimum number of participants needed to pay the charter fee. <Check this site weekly, for more instructions this month. >

SOME REMINDERS: Dress very warmly. Bring your own food & drink. No glass (except optical). No high heels. No smoking of any kind, including electronic/vaping. Your signed waiver document should be sent-in well before trip. Thank you.

This website was updated on February 20, 2019 at 1:20pm -- only 17 days before our March 9th trip.

GOOD NEWS: The first wave of Bonaparte's Gulls have arrived in CT this year, on February 19th:

RED markers on the map above indicates reports in the last 30 days, of Bonaparte's Gulls, and with these gulls have come the first-of-the-season Little Gulls, at Montauk Point, NY (on Feb.14,2019), shown in red on the eBird map below...

Here are two photos (by two excellent long-time Long Island, NY, birders, Ken and Suzy Feustel) taken two years ago at Montauk Point, also on February 14th... so, like clockwork, we are coming into the peak time for small gulls in our region, including Long Island Sound...

MAIN THEME: This trip is an unpredictable experiment, to learn more about the relatively understudied marine season of " late winter", of February and March (and at least to document a baseline of data for comparison in future trips, in future years and decades). The entire marine ecosystem, including birds (as well as fish, plankton, etc), is undergoing major seasonal changes now, as one wave of plankton bloom cycles after another one, and the food chains of grazers and predators respond. The winter winds and storms have destabilized the summer stratification of the seas, and the mixing of oxygen and nutrients (especially nitrates and phosphates and mostly the same ones needed by terrestrial plants: ) is fueling these plankton life-cycle blooms, starting with the explosion of photosynthesis in the phytoplankton, often beginning in mid-winter. This late winter period is perhaps the most dynamic time in the seas, and we have chosen this cold time of year to go out and try to learn what is happening! By the way, these gull species already know what is happening, in the pelagic water column and along the shore's intertidal zone, and that is why they are here now, fueling up on multiple trophic levels of the revved-up marine food web.

SUMMARY: March 9, 2019 is the trip date. Six hours on a modern research ship, in central LIS (Long Island Sound) waters, starting from Norwalk CT. A unique combination cruise, in LIS, including 1) searching for rare birds, 2) thousands of gulls and other seabirds feeding on plankton and fish, 3) plankton net towing, 4) showing the caught plankton on large screen from microscope, 5) underwater video photography (we'll do a slower version of this: click to view>> towing a video camera off Jeffries Ledge), 6) interactive commentaries (with Q&A) by top birders in New England, by marine scientists from UMass, and of course the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, on a stable and spectacular modern research vessel (scroll down to see 6 photos of the ship). A unique and perhaps once-only trip in the LIS waters off central CT. An $80 bargain (barely breaking-even with our charter cost)! We received a collection permit from CT DEEP, an agreement with Yale Peabody Museum to house our samples, will be assisted by UConn in the ID of the plankton, are sponsored by the Hartford Audubon Society, and will feed our resulting data into the Research LIS Gulls & Plankton Project. A multi-organization collaboration. Thank you all!

I know that some are wondering how frequently Long Island Sound gets rare and uncommon birds, and if we might have a chance to see any on March 9th, but I think if you recall the last few years of good LIS birds, and this apparent SKUA report from a few days ago, you will agree, that anything is possible in LIS!...

Note my January 27, 2019 video (click on the center of it, to run the VIDEO clip) and photo below at Long Beach, Stratford, CT: the earliest of the annual winter/spring "plankton bloom" cycles have begun and the gulls are already beginning to respond, so March 9th looks like a good date for our trip...


Do not miss this very unique trip through very dynamic offshore waters in LIS, Long Island Sound. PRE-register early to reserve a spot.

Get close to thousands of gulls in offshore Long Island Sound! Rare species are possible in March, such as Little Gull (one adult was very recently in Cape May NJ) or Kamchatka Gull (which is currently in LIS) !

Search and pursue uncommon birds offshore! Get close for photos, somewhere in the twenty miles between the Norwalk Islands and Stratford Point, CT.

Watch and work with scientists to sample these LIS waters for whatever these gulls are eating! On a modern research vessel, using multiple scientific methods of sampling the water, the fish, the plankton, etc.!

If we think of Long Island Sound as a restaurant-for-birds, we are trying to learn more about what is on that "menu". For example, why are Common Eiders increasing so much in LIS? Why are Razorbills pouring into LIS recently? Why did shearwaters invade eastern LIS last July? We will provide you with a draft of this evolving MENU (and our evolving month-by-month "Fish Calendar"), and may modify it as a result of this trip.


This trip combines serious Bird Watching and serious Marine Science. It focuses largely on Gulls, Fish and Plankton. We expect to get very close to thousands of gulls -- and will try to ID what they are eating.

Thousands of gulls, sometimes tens of thousands, mass in the offshore waters of LIS Long Island Sound, usually in the first half of March, to feed on something(s). We are planning a cruise right into the middle of these gulls this March. We will get close looks at many gulls (up to half a dozen species) and other birds (great photo opportunities), and hopefully catch and identify (we have an on-board microscope and large display screen) some of their prey items. If you might be interested, please register soon, before this ship and this trip fill up. We expect it to fill quickly.

PURPOSE: To learn more about gulls and plankton (and fish) in LIS Long Island Sound. And how they relate to each other during the late Winter and early Spring plankton blooms. AND to discover uncommon bird species far offshore.

What (which one or several species, lifeforms) are the thousands of gulls eating? What are the life cycles of those prey? What are those prey eating? Is anything special about the water column and the benthic environment directly underneath these masses of feeding gulls? Why does this happen on the CT side of LIS, not the NY side?

GOALS: 1) To find, ID, and photograph as many bird species as we can, in LIS waters east of Norwalk in the target area. 2) To find very large flocks of gulls in the water and to get close to them without disturbing their feeding. 3) To determine what those thousands of gulls are feeding on, using binoculars, telephotography, underwater video, plankton nets, microscopes, post-trip lab analyses of these plankton samples, etc.

BIRD SPECIES: At least six species of gulls are possible, including Little Gull and Black-headed Gull. Plus alcids and other late winter species which have been seen this year. During our last trip into these masses of gulls, they were oblivious to our ship, so we expect very close encounters with these intensely feeding birds, and unusual photo opportunities.

WHERE -- TARGET AREA: We will cruise in LIS waters from Norwalk toward Stratford Point, about 20 miles, and back to Norwalk, CT, USA, including some Norwalk Islands. The large gull flocks are usually within one mile of shore. Of course we cannot predict the route exactly nor can we be sure we will get all the way to Stratford Point, depending on where we might find masses of gulls, how slowly we pass through the flocks, and how long other stops might be.

WHEN: March 9th, Saturday. Fallback/storm/rain date is Sunday March 10th (perhaps 5% likely). Between late February and early April there is a week or two (usually in March) when plankton blooms get thousands of gulls into a surface-feeding frenzy, somewhere in LIS waters, usually in some of the waters between Norwalk and Stratford Pt., CT, sometimes a mile offshore.

TIME: Six hours, from 10am to 4pm, on one of the above dates. Be at the dock before 9:30am. In recent years gull numbers and feeding activity has been the greatest in the afternoon. During the trip, we may decide to shorten the duration by an hour or so, depending on the weather and birds; if we find the gull flocks early, if there are disappointingly few birds that day, or if the weather/waves turn bad.

DOCK: The dock is 1,000 feet south of the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, CT. The cruise will leave from the Aquarium Dock which is located 100 feet south of the IMAX® theater. ((Address for the Aquarium is 10 N Water St, Norwalk, CT 06854, but use this for your GPS: 24 Marshall Street in Norwalk, CT.)) The open parking lot for the dock is directly across from El Segundo restaurant ( ), at 1 or 3 North Water Street, Norwalk, CT. This is the same open parking lot for the Sheffield Island Ferry. Parking there is $1.50 per hour, by credit card. If that open lot is full (it can hold 43 cars) the fall-back parking solution is....TBD -- WE WILL RECOMMEND A BACKUP PARKING LOT, SOON. <<

ROUTE TO DOCK & PARKING: We just found out there will be a parade on March 9th in Norwalk! We will recommend a route to avoid this parade, and backup parking areas, in case you need them. Add a little extra time to get to the dock, due to this parade. Here is our preliminary info: "I just saw in the local paper that Norwalk is having their St. Patrick's Parade on the 9th starting at 11am. The issue here is that the parade route circles the area where the boat is docked, this will close a number of streets while the parade goes by, including Veteran's Park, Washington St, North Main St up to Pine St where the parade ends at O'neill's Pub. I don't know how big this parade is or how long it will take..." ***We recently discussed this with the Norwalk Police Dept, and their instructions for navigating around this parade are, "Attendees of your cruise will need to take West Avenue to North Water Street to get to the Maritime Center during parade time." So, from West Avenue, turn east onto North Water Street, and follow it (including Ann St.) all the way down to the dock across from 3 North Water Street. *** BECAUSE OF THIS UNEXPECTED PARADE WE HAVE DECIDED TO SHIFT OUR TRIP BY TWO HOURS, TO DEPART FROM THE DOCK AT 10:00AM, NOT NOON. PARTICIPANTS ARE BEING NOTIFIED BY EMAIL ON FEB.13TH.

RESEARCH: We will search for and survey birds, do underwater video with our own GoPro gear (similar to our ocean video: towing a video camera off Jeffries Ledge but at slower speed of 1-2 knots), tow for plankton (we have two nets), view plankton in on-board microscope and large display screen.

THE SHIP: The Norwalk Maritime Aquarium's new 63-foot $2.7million research vessel, RV "Spirit of the Sound". R/V Spirit of the Sound and see article below... This is a very stable ship. Note that there is also an indoor "classroom" in case of rain or extreme cold, able to hold and seat 30-40 people comfortably. It also contains a microscope connected to a 50-inch display screen. But bring your own sandwiches - there is no food sold onboard. And, yes, there is a head (toilette).

BRING: Bring your own lunch & drink (please no glass). Dress warmly; it will feel ten degrees colder than on shore.

PROHIBITIONS: There are no Hazardous Substances or Compounds allowed on TMA (The Maritime Aquarium) property, including the ship, the Spirit of the Sound. Please do not bring high heels, glass, or smoking/vaping/electric cigarettes on board.

PARTICIPANTS: This trip is open; anyone can join this trip. Registration is required. No walk-ons. Target is a maximum of 35 participants for this trip, maybe plus a few more but only if absolutely required.

REGISTRATION and PAYMENT: Please 1) REGISTER immediately (we believe this trip will fill quickly), by email to Tom Robben at and 2) PAY $80 by check by February 9th. Mail checks to this address: T.Robben, 172 Grandview Drive, Glastonbury CT 06033. Make your check payable to the Hartford Audubon Society.

PRICE: $80 per person, for this six-hour cruise. You will receive a full Refund if this cruise does not occur for any reason. No refunds otherwise. Note that this is a zero-profit trip, and this ticket-price is needed to cover our total cost for chartering this modern comfortable ship for six hours (the Aquarium has given us a discounted 6-hour total price because this is considered a scientific charter).

ORGANIZATIONS: this trip is co-sponsored by The Hartford Audubon Society (HAS Hartford Audubon Society , this is a HAS Field Trip -- special thanks to Maggie Peretto, President of HAS!) and The Connecticut Audubon Society (CAS ), working with The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk CT (TMA ). Joint agreement has been reached to run this cruise, and the contract is being fine-tuned for signing this week.

LIABILITY WAIVER DOCUMENT: Everyone on board will be asked to sign a typical liability waiver agreement prior to the trip. Here is a link to that one-page document, which all participants must fill-in and sign. They can then mail it to us, or deliver it to us when they arrive at the dock on March 9th:

RELATED ARTICLES/SITES: This is a new HAS field trip, described at the new HAS website : . This trip is also in direct support of the COA Research Committee and is described on page 6 in the just-published Spring 2019 COA Bulletin: .

BIRDERS: Several (quite a few!) of the top bird experts in the U.S. will be on board to lead the search for and ID of birds.

MARINE SCIENTISTS: Several top marine scientists in the U.S. will be on this trip.

LABORATORY FOLLOWUP: We hope that our collected samples will be analyzed at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk and at UConn marine labs at Avery Point (UConn has supported us in past years). Preliminary surface sampling here in prior years has found some barnacles, slipper shell limpets/snails, various copepods and other zooplankton, but no fish! These thousands of gulls are surface feeding intensely, and it feels like we are overlooking some component of this active late winter food web (the LIS food web changes month by month, especially as the multiple waves of plankton blooms occur and then fade, species by species). Of course the results of our post-trip analyses will be published online for everyone to see. <<

PRE-TRIP FIELD WORK/RESEARCH: During the two weeks preceding this cruise, birders will try to locate any emerging large congregations of surface-feeding gulls in LIS, so as to save searching time during our 3/9 cruise. As of late January there is one adult Little Gull around Cape May NJ, and we already see over a thousand Ring-billed Gulls (plus Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, etc) assembling around Long Beach, Stratford, CT, apparently going after an early bloom of Slipper shell snails. See the video above.

POST-TRIP REPORT: A trip report will be created, after the trip, and posted here or more likely at a companion website (with a link from here), plus links to eBird reports for this trip.

Note that the map below is a possible trip route, but we may not get that far, all the way to Stratford Point, depending on where we encounter the flocks of gulls, etc...

This is the ship for our March 9th cruise:

March 27, 2019 four photos below: Maggie Peretto, President of HAS Hartford Audubon Society, and Louis Zicari, Senior Captain, in the classroom (another good viewing area, with high quality glass windows), which seats more than 35. The onboard microscope and its 50-inch high resolution display. The side walkway. The steps up to the top deck....

These are photos of the surface-feeding gull flocks which we will search for on 3/9:

Here are the 19 gull species which have appeared in Connecticut, in LIS, during recent years:

The following map was a snapshot from eBird in the Spring 2016. It covers only reports of Bonaparte's Gulls in the months March and April, for all years, with the red icons representing reports in the most recent 30 days, in Spring 2016. Note the concentration of reports between Norwalk and New Haven CT, and the paucity of reports from the NY side of LIS...

The following eBird map shows our area of greatest interest, LIS waters (typically within a mile or two of shore) from Norwalk east to Stratford Point, CT. This eBird map was taken on 2018dec31 showing only Bonaparte's Gull reports for the two months of March and April, all years. We are using this as an indicator species, although most of the thousands of gulls here will be Ring-billed Gulls... plus other gull species we may get including Herring, Iceland, Glaucous, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Little, Black-headed, Common, etc.

The following map shows one possible route for our March cruise, from Norwalk CT about 20 miles east to Stratford Point, although we may not get that far, depending on birds, weather, etc...

LIS MENU: A new checklist of many prominent lifeforms in LIS will be provided here.

LIS FISH CALENDAR: A new month-by-month calendar of fish in LIS will be provided here.


  • Overall Question: "What is out there, and NOT out there (and what's happening in LIS) at this time of year?"
  • Will there be noticeable blooms of plankton this (warm, mostly) winter?
  • When and where in LIS will they peak? Usually in March?
  • Will the gulls be able to find them, and mass in the thousands?
  • Will this attract uncommon gulls such as Little Gull (H. minutus)?
  • Will this attract other species of birds?
  • What species/genus/families of plankton(s) are these gulls feeding on?
  • Is there a sequential chain of blooms of different species? Which?
  • What are the LIS seasonal cycles for phytoplankton, micro-zooplankton, larger plankton?
  • Which other birds are out there in LIS, and feeding on what?
  • What is the long history of these plankton blooms in LIS?
  • What is the food web around these plankton blooms?
  • Where do fish fit into this food web? Since there are so few in LIS in winter.
  • What about "forage fish" in particular, at this time of year?
  • Where else along the Atlantic coast are similar gull plankton feeding events? Why?
  • Is this a trip we should run again next year? and perhaps annually?
  • Is this ship a good "birding platform"? What are the best ways to bird from this ship?
  • What lessons did we learn from this March 9th trip??