Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ten Minutes to Midnight

The following entry is from Frank Gallo, Director of the Coastal Center at Milford Point. It is a truly riveting account of a Big Day birding effort to raise money for the Coastal Center and the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Ten Minutes to Midnight
by Frank Gallo

At ten minutes to midnight, Saturday, May 22, the Raven Luna-ticks members -- Nick Bonomo, Patrick Dugan, me (Frank Gallo), Dave Tripp, and Fran Zygmont -- walked quietly down a muddy dirt track, ducking fallen trees and fording puddles, into the Station 43 marsh in South Windsor. Near the end of the trail, we stopped and started whistling for Screech Owl. It was four minutes to midnight. The Screech Owl responded immediately, too soon, really, and the team sweated out the remaining three minutes, praying the owl would keep calling. At one minute to midnight, it was still whinnying, and was then joined by two Least Bitterns, moaning at each other from opposite sides of the marsh... Forty-five seconds to go... thirty... fifteen... Yes! Screech Owl and Least Bittern were in the bag at the stroke of midnight. Both were missed here last year... but every year is different.

The team left in high spirits to the thumping applause of Virginia Rail and the exuberant trills of Marsh Wren, or so we'd like to think. Thus began our race for the Connecticut Big Day record of 186. It was a good start.

Next stop: Bradley Airport, Hartford, for Horned Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Upland Sandpiper. The Horned Larks were singing up a storm - check; the Grasshopper Sparrows also sang on cue - check; but stop after stop, the Uplands remained silent. Now we'd have to come back. Two out of three in the bag, and an hour ahead of schedule, we raced for Connecticut's northwest corner... with a quick stop for Fran's rather obliging Whip-poor-will along the way.

The small hours, between three a.m. and dawn, when the air is stillest and the night broods, is now a blur to me. There was a stop for Saw-whet Owl that tooted with gusto -- we felt honored. A gallant but failed attempt to hear a scouted Common Moorhen -- we felt privileged even to be able to look for one and calling Yellow-billed and, later, Black-billed Cuckoos. There were successful stops for Sora, Great Horned, and Barred Owls, and a visit from a nice policeman who wanted to know what we were doing parked at the side of the road at three a.m. He didn't believe our story, until I came walking out of the woods hooting like a Great Horned Owl; we met him later, while gassing our truck in town, and he happily offered suggestions on where to find owls in a nearby valley. Now, that's public service at its finest!

At dawn, we were on and near Mohawk Mountain picking up northern breeding birds such as Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Pileated Woodpecker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It was a real treat to have both Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches oinking at us from the same tree along Route 43. A calling Swainson's Thrush was one of the few migrants we recorded for the day. Broad-winged Hawks were cooperative this year, and three were seen on our northwest foray. We tallied a slew of warblers, including Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped, Mourning, and Black-throated Blue, but we missed Magnolia, and the Nashville. We hoped that missing them wouldn't cost us in the end...

Racing around the northwest corner between Cornwall and Kent, we added Common and Hooded Mergansers, Wood Duck, American Kestrel, Common Raven, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Thrasher, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Field and Savannah Sparrows, and most of the remaining warblers, including our staked-out Prairie, Blue- and Golden-winged, Hooded, and Parula. Magnolia nearly eluded us, but a last-ditch stop while leaving Goshen finally produced. Of course, we heard two other Magnolias out the car window on the drive south...

Tyler Lake was empty of migrants, so our remaining hope was Bantam Lake, in Litchfield, where two Caspian Terns were seen the day before. The terns had moved on, but the lake provided us with an adult Bald Eagle and our last stop in town garnered Winter Wren and a rather cagy Golden-crowned Kinglet to save the day.

Late morning, we took a gamble. The tides on the coast were all wrong until late afternoon, and finding birds during the week had been difficult, at best. Rather then speed directly to the coast, we decided to head west back to Simsbury and Hartford, and then south to the coast. Our plan was to reverse our normal route, heading from east to west rather than west to east along the coast. It paid off!

Great Pond in Simsbury was our next stop. We scanned the skies for 45 minutes en route, hoping to see a new raptor... but nothing. Our luck changed when we arrived at Great Pond, where a Red-shouldered Hawk nest and a back-up Spotted Sandpiper had been staked out. Our hope was to also catch a glimpse of one of the area's nesting Mississippi Kites while one hunted over the pond. We could see the fuzzy head of a baby Red-shoulder peeking above its nest when we arrived. As we began walking towards the pond, the crows started screaming and mobbing a raptor. Dave started yelling "Mississippi Kite"; we all ran to the parking lot clearing for a look. Soaring over the trees came the kite, and with it, a second bird, a Cooper's Hawk. Imagine, a Mississippi Kite on a Big Day in Connecticut -- amazing. The adult Red-shoulder started screaming from the woods behind us. In less than a minute, we'd gained three new species. The Spotted Sandpiper was on the pond, and remarkably, ended up as only one of two for the day. Ahead of schedule, we blasted back to Bradley Airport with our fingers crossed... Touchdown! Nick's scouted Upland Sandpiper was calling, so we blasted to the coast, to find a big surprise awaiting...

Fog. At our first stop in Westbrook, it was so foggy we couldn't see Manunkatesik Island. We thought we were in the wrong place and drove around a bit, before realizing that we had been correct, we just couldn't see the island. This did not bode well. However, while we were pondering what to do, a Little Blue Heron flew by close enough for all to see... Okay, that was one. We decided that all we could do was try, run our route, and see what happened. Our second stop produced a few new shorebirds, including an American Oystercatcher and a much-needed Bank Swallow, saving us a stop, and time, later in the day when wasted minutes cost birds.

Hammonasset Beach State Park was a Kite Festival... literally, and not the Mississippi kind. The entire west end was blanketed in colorful flying objects... UFO's in DayGlo. There were few new birds, and certainly none at the west end, but Patrick picked up a singing Orchard Oriole. Little Blue Herons were conspicuous (because we didn't need one), and the pools on the moraine trail, scouted earlier in the week, produced our only White-rumped Sandpiper, the best bird for the park.

Our central coast home run was at Middle Beach in Madison. A flock of young male Common Eiders found offshore near Tuxis Island two weeks earlier but absent during the week decided to reappear, as did a young male Surf Scoter. Perhaps it was the tides? It doesn't matter, they were there! As were Purple Sandpipers and a Common Loon found on Saturday. Scouting paid off big, again. Nearby, the marshes and beaches along Neck Road gifted us with Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Plover, and Purple Martins. We left the area to a chorus of Seaside and Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Spirits were running high. Did I mention that the fog stopped at Hammonasset, and it was clear sailing to the west!

We had most of our targets and decided to bypass our remaining central coast stops and head straight to Lighthouse Point Park. After talking our way through the gate, we grabbed our scouted White-eyed Vireo and Brant and flew towards Bridgeport for Peregrine. We never made it to Bridgeport; the stop proved unnecessary. Delayed by traffic on the Quinnipiac Bridge, we were able to find the local Peregrine sitting on a radio tower! (Patrick yelled out, "Third tower on the right." I was driving but was able to grab a look before the traffic moved.) Go team...

We were saving Milford Point for last, when the tides were highest, so we drove straight to the Railroad Ponds in Stratford. A quick run into the marsh and we had Boat-tailed Grackle, Gadwall, but no Wilson's Warbler; one had been singing there all week. That hurt. Our consolation bonus was a group of shorebirds hiding in the marsh that contained three or four Red Knots, a Greater Yellowlegs, and Short-billed Dowitchers, among the many Black-bellied Plovers in a wide array of plumages. Knots had just come in the day before. We left the area in a great mood, with five new species, and headed for Long Beach. The female Piping Plover's head was visible in the exclosure to the west of the parking lot, but the Glaucous Gull was absent. We'd have to find it on the Milford side, if we could. It was at Milford Point two nights before.

The infamous Glaucous Gull on a typical day, hanging out with the crowd at Long Beach in Stratford.

A quick check of the list showed we were at 181; the record was possible. Stratford Point produced some winners: Patrick picked up 11 White-winged Scoters that flew north along the jetties and up river before circling over Wheeler Marsh and heading back out to sea. Scanning the marker buoy at the end of the jetty, I noticed a large cormorant preening itself...We left with another tick, Great Cormorant. Hallelujah!

It was getting dark, and we had to hurry. As the light was fading, we scanned the marshes for Barn Owl; a large brown bird with a pale body flew by, but it was too far away to get a positive ID. Was it a Barn Owl, a Northern Harrier, or something else? We had to let it go and move on. Our last stop in Stratford produced a Green Heron, and to Dave's amazement, a Least Bittern that flew across the pool in front of him. The big, or should I say small, new bird was a Green-winged Teal that flew out of the pool with a Black Duck. One had been seen in the area a week ago, but we hadn't expected to find it!

Now at 183, we drove to New Haven hoping to find Common Nighthawk. For years there has been one reported from Cottage and Whitney; just minutes after our arrival, it called, and we were off for Durham... with 184.

Durham Meadows was beautiful, shrouded in fog aglow in moonlight. The dead trees within the marsh appeared to sprout from a cotton comforter; their branches looked like bare Q-tips silhouetted against the sky. There were a few birds calling: the ubiquitous songster of wetland, Marsh Wren, a few Swamp Sparrows, and Virginia Rails. We left with delightful memories and no new birds...

A few birds were still possible -- Gray-cheeked Thrush, King Rail, Common Moorhen -- hey, we were even contemplating a run for the Snow Goose that sleeps in Stamford Harbor... but time was running out. We decided to try for migrants and marsh birds. The last thing we expected was a Long-eared Owl calling near midnight. What a perfect finish to a wonderful day.

We ended with 185, one short of the record. There were a couple of birds we reconsidered but in the end decided not to count. It was a great day, full of surprises; any day with 185 species is a good day in our book, and there's always next year...

I would like to thank my tireless (or nearly so) friends and teammates, Nick Bonomo (the bird magnet), Patrick Dugan (the bird whisperer), Dave Tripp (the eyes), and Fran Zymont (the ears.) You make this event worthwhile and, dare I say, fun.

I would also like to thank all the generous Connecticut birders who sent us reconnaissance during the weeks leading up to the event; we can't do this event without knowing were the birds are, and our schedules don't allow us all the scouting time we would like... so are hats are off to you! A huge thanks also to all our tireless supporters who help us raise money to support the education and conservation mission of Connecticut Audubon Society, and specifically, the Coastal Center at Milford Point, by pledging per species... I bet now you wish you gave a lump sum... (It's never too late to donate, and remember, your contributions are tax deductible.) Thanks again. Frank Gallo, Director, Connecticut Audubon Society Coastal Center, and the Raven Luna-ticks.

Photo © Twan Leenders

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