Thursday, June 6, 2013

Big Day 2013

Oh, the Weatherman Lied
The Raven Luna-ticks 2013 Big Day Run
by Frank Gallo

The weather was setting up nicely for the Raven Luna-ticks 2013 Big Day birding fundraiser: south winds starting in the afternoon to bring migrants up from the south, with thunderstorms predicted for late evening to drop them into our area. Fog was to settle in on the coast to keep things down, and would lift by late morning so we'd be able to see off the coast in the afternoon. Things couldn't look better for our run—ah, if only weather forecasts were true, and the weather people hadn't lied!

The afternoon of May 21, 2013, arrived, along with those predicted south winds, as we finished up last-minute scouting, tweaked final plans for our Big Day run, and headed to bed for a few hours of much-needed sleep before midnight. All was going according to plan.

Patrick Dugan showed up at the door at 10 p.m., right on schedule. We loaded his stuff into the car, and my partner Vanessa drove us to the meeting spot. Our longtime Raven Luna-ticks teammates—Nick Bonomo, Fran Zygmont, and Dave Tripp—were already waiting at the Dunkin Donuts when we arrived. Ten minutes later, coffees in hand, we prepared to leave for our first stop, the swamps of South Windsor.  We could hear birds calling as they passed overhead. Things were looking good—but where were the predicted thunderstorms? I hoped that they'd come, without messing up our night birding too much.

Rails and other marsh birds were the targets for our first stop. Standing at the edge of the marsh, we were met first by a winnowing screech owl, then by the calls of migrating thrushes moving overhead; Swainson's, Hermit, Gray-cheeked, and Veery were passing over us and headed, it seemed, right out of Connecticut . . . When was that storm coming to drop them all down? Cuckoos had already arrived, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called from the edge of the marsh; a woodcock displayed at our next stop, and, surprisingly, a Short-billed Dowitcher called as it migrated past.

Between 12:00 and 4:15 a.m. we tallied 34 species—a new record—including Horned Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Great Horned Owl, Northern Saw-whet, Common Nighthawk, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, Great Blue Heron, Cliff Swallow, and a Black-billed Cuckoo serenading the night. By 5:10 a.m., we'd totaled 55 species. It was a great start, but still no thunderstorms. We drove off to the west.

As we rolled on past dawn, our scouted stops paid off, yielding tough northern breeders such as Magnolia Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Waterthrush, Purple Finch, Winter Wren, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. A quick stop at an inland lake added a resting Common Loon. An hour ahead of schedule, we raced off for more . . .

Kingfisher, Nashville Warbler, a lovely male Ruby-throated Hummingbird resting on a fence near a feeder, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, a beautiful male American Kestrel hunting near its nest, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher wheezing away in an oak by the roadside all greeted us at our scouted sites.  By 8:17 a.m., our tally had climbed to 114.

White-eyed Vireo (our yearly nemesis), Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vulture, Hooded Warbler, Northern Flicker, and a Mourning Warbler singing an interesting alternate song took their place on our tally sheet. By 11:35 a.m., we'd gathered 138 species and were right on schedule, and were tracking our 192 species record-breaking year nicely.

Here's where the tactical error occurred. It involved math, and math shouldn't be done on the fly. It seemed like a good idea at the time (more sleep may have helped) to go to Hartford. What we didn’t calculate was the extra hour it would take us to get to the coast after that. By 2:00 p.m., we had made it to the shore, having gained just two additional species, Upland Sandpiper and Cooper's Hawk (which we happened to see en route).

But we rallied. Scouted birds cooperated: Common Eider, check. Purple Sandpiper, check. Black Scoter, nope, not today—the only ones we had pinned down during scouting were nowhere to be seen. It's always something, so we moved on. Greater Yellowlegs, check. Least Tern, check. Surf Scoter—those weren't there the day before, extra check. Summer Tanager—wow, we could use a few more rarities like that.  Hey, we're gaining ground again. Little Blue Heron, nope. Weird Little Blue x Tricolored Heron hybrid—cool, except we can’t count it. Red-breasted Merganser, check. Red-throated Loon, thank God, check. White-faced Ibis, check. Wait, White-faced Ibis . . . flying by right in front of us . . . and not the one we'd staked out but wouldn't have time to get to—wow, we could use a few more surprises like that.

At 5:00 p.m., our bird list had 175 species checked off; there was 3 hours of light left and it was going to be close. In New Haven, we hit big: Lesser Scaup, thank you! Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Monk Parakeets, nesting near a friend’s house; and Gadwall and American Coot, followed by a quick save on Green Heron . . . and we were off to the races. Sandy Point held Piping Plovers and a Clapper Rail, but the scouted Laughing Gull, Red Knot, and Skimmers were nowhere to be seen, and there were no land-bird migrants along the coast. Two flyby White-winged Scoters were a bonus, and we left in good spirits, with 184 species and still a distant chance at the record of 194. It was 6:40 p.m., and the light was fading fast.

At 8:07 p.m., a surprise Merlin flew directly over our heads and flushed all the shorebirds on the sandbars at Milford Point. We didn't see a Red Knot in the group, but the Merlin was #185 for the day, equaling our second-best Big Day effort. Our scouted birds, it seemed, had taken the afternoon off. Where did the Greater Scaup go, and the Iceland Gulls and Great Cormorant?

Well, we still had scouted rails and bitterns to get . . . King Rail, no. Least Bittern, no. American Bittern, nope. Our last new bird, a Sora, called at 10:47 p.m., giving us our second-best total of 186. It was followed by another Sora calling—good for us. (I really like Soras.) At midnight, as we were setting up for the team photo, a pair of Eastern Screech-Owls was quietly winnowing back and forth to each other and slowly coming closer to us. At midnight, as the flash went off and the camera recorded our picture, they were directly above us, serenading and soothing our finish. It was a nice way to end a day of birding with dear friends.

Dave, Fran, Nick, Patrick, and I would like to thank the Connecticut birding community for all your support; we'll be out there again next year to break the record. It’s only a matter of time. We achieved 192 species in 2011; our goal to surpass the New England Record of 193, and reach 200, is in sight. All we need is an honest weather report, and the right day. You know, come to think of it, we never did run into that thunderstorm.    

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