Coventry Big Day 2017

(Short disclaimer: My camera died early in the morning despite charging it the night before so I have no pictures. Hopefully my narrative style will make up for that.)

I got home from college on Thursday, May 18 around 2:00 PM. It was a couple hours after that when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do my big day that weekend, and I decided to do it the next day. It was a lot all at once, but I decided to scout some areas that afternoon before going to bed extra-early Thursday night. My goal for Friday would be 90 species.

I woke up on Friday at 3:00 AM, excited and ready to go. I planned to begin my day by checking off the easy Barred Owls outside my house, but nothing was calling. I had to move on to Creaser Park, where I would try for Great Horned. In an ironic twist, I heard no Great Horned there but a couple Barred Owls began calling. After striking out on owls at a couple more spots, I headed to a marsh on South Street Extension to search for rails. When I got there Swamp Sparrows (a big miss from last year) and Yellow Warblers were already calling, and when I played the grunt calls of the rail it didn’t take me long to get a response. I officially got Virginia Rail – and I was already on a roll. My next stop was Brigham Road, where I would listen for owls as some songbirds began to wake up and sing. Once again Barred was the only owl calling here, but Louisiana Waterthrushes, Veeries, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Scarlet Tanagers had begun to sing. After spending so much time on a college campus, hearing the natural chorus of breeding birds was very refreshing. Unfortunately, I was too early for the Black-throated Green Warblers and Blue-headed Vireos that breed here, so I had to come back later.

A large chunk of my morning would be spent at Hop River Road, where the lovely trails there offer for some great migrants. The beginning of the trail was somewhat annoying, as I had trouble finding anything interesting. As I headed back to the parking lot, I heard and saw a Northern Parula singing – a bird I didn’t get last year. After that I was in the zone. I got great looks at a Worm-eating Warbler singing, chased down a male Blackpoll Warbler in the treetops, and picked out a Belted Kingfisher flying over. I also saw another Barred Owl, along with nabbing Pine Warbler and Canada Goose at the end of the trail. Really the only thing I missed there was Field Sparrow, which I could deal with. This success at Hop River set the tone for most of the morning, as I quickly got Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder Flycatcher and Canada Warbler at Creaser Park. I was amped to be getting tons of birds I missed last year, and felt that 90 or 95 would be in reach.

However, I felt that it was already time to alter my plan. Missing Black-throated Green Warbler was an unprecedented problem, and I had not added another visit to Brigham Road in my itinerary. But I figured that I would have time for it, so I stopped home to get some breakfast (adding Hairy Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird in the process) and moved on to Brigham for the second time that day. The BT Greens were singing now, but I still couldn’t hear any Blue-headed Vireos. Maybe they just weren’t there this year? Whatever the case, it was time to check on some waterbirds. This was a horrible shortcoming last year, as I had not seen a single gull, cormorant or sandpiper during my entire 2016 Big Day. I would check off the sandpiper, getting a Spotted Sandpiper at Eagleville Lake. Missing Mute Swan was annoying, but hopefully Coventry Lake would add some species I didn’t get last year.

That would not happen. Checking from multiple viewpoints, I found that Coventry Lake had one Mallard on it and nothing else. I realized that Ring-billed Gull may have been less of a terrible miss and more of a bird that doesn’t show up here in May. I headed back to the Virginia Rail marsh to see if any marsh birds were around. Wood Duck and Green Heron were two other birds I didn’t see last year, but they both had a chance to be seen now. Unfortunately neither of them were around, but a singing Northern Waterthrush and two dozen Bank Swallows made up for it. The Bank Swallow numbers were truly impressive; they were the most abundant bird there! I think they’re coming from a colony a few miles south in Columbia, but I didn’t see nearly as many here last year.

Heading into the dreaded mid-day nap period, I was still doing pretty well. As the temperature climbed into the 80s, I stopped at the Babcock Hill Road powerline cut in search of Prairie Warbler. I heard it before I even got out of the car, and a bonus Field Sparrow put my total up to 76. As I watched a Black Vulture fly over the landscape below me, I began to hear a weird sequence of calls coming from a bush. It sounded like some sort of mimid, but did not resemble a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird. These raspy calls intrigued me, but in the back of my head I realized that it may just be a catbird messing with me. Nevertheless, I pished a little bit and waited for a few minutes as this bird eventually revealed itself, and when it finally did, I gasped.

Yellow-breasted Chat. Holy sh*t.

I assumed I would see some good birds on my big day, but I never thought I would get a life bird. I never thought I would see a bird that hasn’t been recorded in the spring in northeastern CT since 2012. But here I was, eyeing a lovely Yellow-breasted Chat that quickly disappeared into the brush once again. As it continued to call, I stood there speechless; this was one of the rarest birds I’d ever found by myself. This was one of the defining moments of a great morning of birding, and as I headed to Silver Street with utmost confidence my day list was already above 80.

Silver Street was another defining moment of my morning; I had four targets there that I got within one minute of leaving the car. Before I even got out I noticed a Bobolink on the power line, and once I opened my door, I could hear Northern Mockingbirds and a Willow Flycatcher calling. Shortly after that, a Killdeer flew over the car, announcing its presence with a loud call. It was about 11:30 AM, and it was time for lunch. I headed to my mom’s house and ate my lunch outside, hoping a raptor would fly over. I only had 3 hawks on the day (Turkey and Black Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk), and I got my Red-shouldered Hawk last year at my mom’s house. Sitting at 84 species, I was already only 3 birds short of last year’s total, and I felt pretty safe about beating it. However, the afternoon would be very slow.

The long, hot afternoon saw me work at a pace of roughly one bird per hour, and I was working hard. Beginning to feel the effects of waking up at 3:00 AM, I headed to Creaser Park to do a thorough examination of all the trails. I earned a Pileated Woodpecker, Ring-necked Pheasant and Yellow-billed Cuckoo from this, but it took nearly two hours. I was excited about the cuckoo, which was my biggest miss from last year. They’re honestly hard to find in Coventry, but with all the great habitat I’m really surprised we don’t see more. After that I returned to Babcock Hill, where the chat was still calling. I also heard a Magnolia Warbler singing (bird number 88!) but I was really looking for hawks. Babcock Hill is a great place to hawkwatch as it overlooks a huge portion of south Coventry, but nothing was in the air.

After moving around a little bit more, I realized that it was pointless to actually look for hawks. I don’t know where these birds are nesting, so if I’m going to see them I just have to let it happen. I moved to Hop River to check on migrants there as it had cooled down a little. It was dead, so I stood on the bridge by the river to kill some time. I remember patience being a virtue for me last year, but standing on this bridge for 20 minutes got me nothing of note. I moved on to Brigham Road, in my final search for the Blue-headed Vireo. Sitting in the forest for a good amount of time got me nothing, and when I reached the end of the road I was annoyed. I decided to turn around and go back up, and this would prove to be influential. Just as I turned around a Broad-winged Hawk flew across the road and into the woods! My total now stood at 89. I picked up my dad so he could see the chat, and we got looks at it once again at Babcock Hill.

After that we drove to Creaser, when on the way there I heard a probable Blue-headed Vireo. With a car tailgating us, we couldn’t stop or turn around easily, and we would never encounter the bird again. I didn’t count it at the time, but listening to more recordings later that night made me realize that no Red-eyed Vireo sounded like that. So I had got to 90 but I didn’t know it at that point. Anyways, Creaser Park itself was boring and we headed back to my house to drop my dad off before the second night shift began. Going into that night, my worst misses were both raptors: Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawk, along with Green Heron and Ring-billed Gull.

I planned to spend my twilight at the Virginia Rail marsh, where hopefully some marsh birds would begin to call. But before that, I noticed a duck flying over the marsh. This bird was too small and chunky for a Mallard – it was a Wood Duck! Exited to get my 90th bird and meet my goal, I couldn’t believe I had finally got this bird that had eluded me for all of last year and most of this one. As the swallows and blackbirds quieted down, I played the tape for Marsh Wren, Least Bittern, Sora and Eastern Screech-Owl. Unfortunately, none of them responded. But in the 45 minutes I spent there, I noticed that the Virginia Rail numbers there were truly impressive. Some of these birds were doing grunt duets, a strong indication that they may breed there. I was excited to see breeding Virginia Rails in my town, as this bird had not been reported in Coventry before.

After striking out on those rare marsh birds, I headed to some other marshy spots in search of them. It soon became clear to me that these places were all too populated, as cars driving by made it difficult to call in a Sora or a Marsh Wren. I decided to focus on Great Horned Owl, a bird I had seen many times in Coventry, for the last part of my big day. I drove around North Coventry for a while, but nothing but Barred Owl was calling. Heading back to Nathan Hale State Forest seemed promising, but I couldn’t get anything but Barred there either. (Barred Owl was very common in case you couldn’t tell.) At around 10:45 PM, I decided to call it a day, finishing my total at 90 species. The total would actually become 92; the Blue-headed Vireo I added on later as well as a counting error in my list gave me two extra ticks.

Highlighted by a chat and an amazing morning, this was one of the best birding days I’ve ever had. I had some regrettable misses (Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Ring-billed Gull) but the good birds I found definitely outweighed the misses. I’m particularly excited about the possibility of Virginia Rails nesting in Coventry, as well as finding a rarity in my own town. If I can get home around May next year, I figure 95 is a good goal, but I still think 100 is a possibility. It’d require a nearly perfect day, but I’ve seen 98 species in the last two years, so I don’t see why not. More scouting will be done and improvements will be made to the plan, and I think it’s definitely possible to get to the century mark.

Time to Rant – The Hawaii Version

Hey everyone, it’s been too long! I’ve been far too busy here at college to post a lot, and to be honest I haven’t really had the time to bird. I saw a Cape May Warbler the other day, but haven’t really had anything post-worthy. So I figured that I’d just rant about anything that’s going on in the birding world.

Anyway, right now the predominant thing in birding news right now is the possible addition of Hawaii into the ABA Area. This has long been discussed, mainly due to Hawaii being a state just like the other 49 states that are in the area. However, I have a viewpoint on this, and I’m strongly against Hawaii being added into the ABA Area for a variety of reasons.

The ABA Area is a primarily geographic area with political boundaries, and Hawaii does not remotely fit into this geographic area. People argue for Hawaii since it is a state, but the ABA Area is used for environmental and biological (birdwatching) purposes, so there’s no point in adding Hawaii just for political reasons. Why not add Puerto Rico into the ABA Area then, since it’s almost a state right? Maybe so, but it doesn’t matter. Adding Puerto Rico would also mandate adding all Caribbean islands, since they’re even closer geographically. To give some perspective on how far away Hawaii is from the rest of the ABA, it is over 2,200 miles from the ABA Area at its closest point (Adak Island in Alaska), which is double the distance that South America (Santa Marta, Colombia) is from its closest point in the ABA (Florida Keys)! Should we just add all of Central America then too? All the listers would love the awesome boost that offers!

Many people make a variety of counterarguments that the geography does not mean anything, but they are all flawed in some way. People argue that places like southeastern Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are biogeographically different too, and they are in the area. But, if that is the case, where does one draw the line? If these areas were to be removed because they are too different, what would the area turn into? Would they remove singular counties from the area? This makes no sense! Plus, these areas are only a small percentage of the ABA Area, but there’s no reason to remove this tiny amount. Plus, Hawaii is far more different, as it lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an entirely different biome than the rest of the ABA Area. The current ABA Area makes sense because it contains all of the continental United States, as well as Canada and Alaska since they are on the same area of land as the US, without adding too many new species. These areas are chosen partly because of politics (since they are part of the US and its surrounding regions) and also because of geography (because they collectively make up what is commonly known as North America). Mexico and everything else south of the border is known as Central America or the Neotropical region, evidence that it is different both politically and geographically. It would be difficult to draw the line as to what is in the ABA otherwise, so the border between America and Mexico provides a good delineation.

The only argument that has any traction is that Hawaii may get more conservational attention if it is part of the ABA, an organization which works to conserve a lot of its area. Hawaii is unfortunately losing its bird diversity at an alarming rate, as invasive species as well as humans take over the lovely habitats of honeycreepers, o’os and nesting seabirds. A possible turnaround in this trend is a promising reason to add Hawaii, but the ABA does not seem very concerned with the prospering of native species as they rank these “twitch exotics” as the #3 reason to add Hawaii to the ABA Area. Hopefully Hawaii can gain some conservation attention (it’s still an awesome tourist spot) without being added randomly into some area it shouldn’t be in.

The bottom line is that if Hawaii was not a state there would be no consideration in adding it. There are tons of places that are the same distance away with awesome birds and heavy conservation needs that obviously aren’t being remotely considered. That’s the difference between Hawaii and everything else in the ABA Area now. If Alaska wasn’t a state, it would still be added into the ABA Area, since it has similar climate to Canada and directly borders on the rest of the ABA Area. Hawaii has some awesome birds, and it is definitely worth visiting. It’s a place I’d love to bird (especially before all the cool birds go extinct and I’m stuck looking at dozens of white-eyes and shamas) but it doesn’t need to be in the ABA Area for people to bird there.

P.S. – To all those ABA listers out there, you realize how this isn’t actually good for you right? Having to spend all that money on a trip just to keep you close on the Top 100 isn’t gonna make your life any better. Plus, it would make that awesome Bulwer’s Petrel (you know, the one you have on your ABA list that none of your friends have) irrelevant, since it’s a Code 1 now! Anyways, it may seem good for you listers, but your list is still awesome even if you can’t go to Hawaii.

Churchill Trip Report – Part 4: A Reluctant Goodbye

Thursday began with a tour of the Churchill River mouth, specifically the estuarial section where the water was brackish. This was mainly designed for seeing Belugas, but anything was possible. Bird-wise, we didn’t see anything too astounding, but White-winged Scoters were cool, and obviously we got close to Bonaparte’s Gulls and Arctic Terns. A couple jaegers also flew around in the distance, including one that looked oddly plump (Pomarine?) but anything else besides Parasitic would be quite rare, so I let it go. However, after we got back on land we realized that our time in Churchill was becoming limited. A little sad that we weren’t going to be here for much longer, we decided to check Landing Lake again. There was nothing new for the trip there besides a Taiga Bluet damselfly, but we got awesome looks at Whimbrels! On an offshoot road of Landing Lake Road called Scrap Metal Dump Road (yes, it leads to a fairly impressive dump of random metal objects including cars, refrigerators, etc.) we immediately provoked what appeared to be a nesting pair. One bird actually crossed the road right in front of us! Both the male and female were calling and were perched up for a long time. We noticed that the females appeared to be a little paler, which I was not aware of beforehand. However, I did know that female Whimbrels (and shorebirds in general) have longer bills than males. Apparently Scrap Metal Dump Road leads right to Goose Creek, so it gave us an obvious choice as far as what to do next: our last chance for the Ross at CR30.

Bonaparte's Gull2

Bonaparte’s Gulls are not shy at all.

We weren’t disappointed when we arrived at the pumphouse; whereas sometimes the place can be bereft of gulls in total, there were hundreds of them today and they were all fairly close. However, scanning over and over again didn’t turn up a Ross. Nevertheless, we kept trying. I was excited to find three more Little Gulls, though! All of them eventually flew right by us and my dad got some good shots of them in flight. But still lacking a Ross’s Gull, I continued to scan. Meanwhile, the rocks were full of feeding birds, including a trio of Bohemian Waxwings, a cute American Tree Sparrow, the same Northern Waterthrush and Spotted Sandpiper that were clearly nesting nearby, and a couple Rusty Blackbirds. Occasionally when the Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls flew by, they would make a quick stop in the rocks right in front of us too. Farther out where the gulls were, I noticed a lot of American Wigeon and a small flock of Lesser Scaup to go with the hundreds of primarily Ring-billed Gulls out there. We scanned the gulls for two hours before giving up and heading back, but I was still happy with how we did.

Eventually Friday morning came and we realized that the last day in Churchill had actually come. I couldn’t believe the trip was already coming to an end despite how long we’d been here. Now that we were without a rental car, we were back to birding the Granary Ponds for another day. No new species came out of it, but it was nice to walk that same road once more. Seeing the same terns, shorebirds and ducks was heartwarming, and it was nice to just sit and observe these birds despite having seen the same individuals earlier. The phalaropes bobbed their heads as they swam in the shallows, mother ducks guided their ducklings around the pond, and terns chased anything that threatened them, including a harrier that flew by.

Red Necked Phalarope2

I’m gonna miss those little Red-necked Phalaropes!

Gulls sat by their chicks; these little fluffballs had become perfectly balanced atop the large rocks on the pond, and the group of about 20 dowitchers prodded their bills in the muddy shallows for food. It was amazing to think that all these birds, which I’m used to seeing on migration or during the winter, had nests nearby. We got lunch in town, visited the Eskimo museum for a while, and sat on a bench and calmly viewed the Hudson bay one last time. With a couple hours left we actually ran into some other birders that we’d seen a couple nights before, and they offered to take us to CR30 again. We did add a couple new species, including a surprise Red-tailed Hawk being hounded by a Merlin, and a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers in some mudflats that were almost definitely on their way south already. Upon return to town, we thanked them and got ready to leave Churchill.

Waiting in the one-room airport terminal, I thought about our trip as a whole. I expected all my friends to ask me how many lifers I got (8) but it wasn’t about that for me. Churchill, Manitoba is in my opinion the most unique birding experience in the ABA and I got to visit it and spend a whole week there with my dad. It seems like the general numbers of birds may have declined from when our birding guide was written in 1994, but that doesn’t matter. I saw godwits five feet from my head. I got dive-bombed by Arctic Terns, the birds that basically circumnavigate the earth every year. I was close enough to beluga whales that I could nearly touch them.

Common Redpoll

I hadn’t even seen a Common Redpoll before this trip.

I could look out the window of our hotel at 11 PM and it would still be bright out. I spent time in one of the few places in the world where tundra, wetland, spruce bog, freshwater and saltwater combine in one area. The number of new experiences that I had cannot be fathomed simply because I was living these experiences constantly. As we got on the flight back to Winnipeg, I realized that the last bird of our trip had been Arctic Tern, something I hadn’t even seen before I arrived. I was sad to leave, but as the plane took off and we flew over Landing Lake, CR30 and all the roads we’d birded, I had a smile on my face. Despite some of the disappointment over missing some birds, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to go on this trip and I wouldn’t choose anywhere else had I done it again.

Arriving back in Connecticut was weird. Driving on smooth roads, seeing tall deciduous trees that blanketed the ground, and listening to cardinals and vireos sing in the trees behind my house made it even more apparent that my last week had been truly different.

            Best bird of the trip: Little Gull. No debate. All four Little Gulls we saw were close views of a breathtaking and rare bird. The strange dark underwing and tiny stature of this bird make it undoubtedly the best bird.

Best non-bird animal of the trip: Beluga whale. Again no debate. I was so close to these guys it was ridiculous. Certainly not something that a lot of people have experienced.

Cutest chicks: American Wigeon. There were a lot of these guys at the Granary Ponds, and the ducklings were cute both for their small size and their cool yellow-and-black patterning. Whimbrel comes in second for this one.

Coolest call/song: Harris’s Sparrow probably takes the cake on this one, just because it is so ethereal and beautiful. Plus I’d never heard one before. But Dunlin calls are pretty interesting too.

Most delicious restaurant: Seaport Hotel. If you ever go to Churchill go to the Seaport Hotel at least a few times. I had the steak sandwich there and the chicken quesadilla there and they were both phenomenal. The Tundra Inn comes in a close second with their arctic char though.

Biggest miss: Willow Ptarmigan, I guess. American Golden-Plover and American Pipit are close behind. They just weren’t here, what can I say?

White Crowned Sparrow2

This is one of my favorite photos that my dad took on this trip – a lovely White-crowned Sparrow. I’ll never forget their cute little song and how curious they always were.

Links to other parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Churchill Trip Report – Part 3: Dealing with Disappointment

But, it was only 12:30! After a little thought my dad and I concluded that we had time for Twin Lakes, Churchill’s most remote location. This road travels far east and south of the town, but the Launch Road that leads there can also be good for some of the dry tundra birds. Twin Lakes could get us a Three-toed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill, Willow Ptarmigan or Smith’s Longspur, so we were excited to bird it.

Why was I excited to bird Twin Lakes? We didn’t get any of these things! We did see some Hudsonian Godwits atop spruce trees, an awesome Parasitic Jaeger chasing a tern right above us on the Launch Road, and good numbers of some of the birds we’d already seen, like Boreal Chickadee, Gray-cheeked Thrush and Long-tailed Duck. Also Bonaparte’s Gulls nest at Twin Lakes, in a similar manner to Solitary Sandpipers (in spruce trees), so we saw tons of them. But we were still slightly disappointed as we returned home to end the day. Were we spoiled by Monday’s good birds or were we rightfully annoyed to miss all the stuff we did?

Parasitic Jaeger

I can’t say we got everything at Twin Lakes but this was ridiculously cool.

The next day I woke up hungry to get a lot of the birds we were missing. Despite how far away it is from town, I decided that the only reasonable option for the day was to try Twin Lakes again, bird it extra hard, and hope for the best. So we headed down the same road as we had the day before. Near the end of the Launch Road we had a pair of Tundra Swans, a promising sighting for the rest of the day. Behind the swans was about a dozen Snow Geese and a singing Lincoln’s Sparrow. Two of the Snow Geese were blue, which was kinda cool, but none of them were Ross’s Geese. A little farther up the road, I picked out a Common Loon in a pond; its large bill and size clearly separated it from the pair of Pacifics right next to it. As we started down Twin Lakes Road my head was stuck out of the window glued on the open brushy areas – I would have to keep my eyes peeled for the surprisingly camouflaged ptarmigans. We got out for a couple minutes and heard a new trip bird – Dunlin! I gave myself a pat on the back for IDing a new shorebird simply based on its song, unaware that we’d see it anyways in a couple minutes. The shorebirds seemed to be a little more active today, and we heard good numbers of snipe displaying. I played the call of Yellow Rail once again (do I ever learn?) to no avail. But definitely the coolest thing was a Hudsonian Godwit that decided to perch closer to the road today.

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit right near its nest and chicks, on Twin Lakes Road

We saw it at first from a distance, and snapped a couple distant pics on the assumption that it would move away. But this guy let us come right next to him! It was absolutely phenomenal. Eventually we noticed why he was standing his ground on this tree – his mate was not far away with a couple chicks! It was awesome, but we didn’t want to piss the family off too much so we continued on. The actual lakes didn’t get us anything new, although more Tundra Swans flew over. We also got up close and personal with Bonaparte’s Gulls (thanks to the stick-holding tactic again) in the spruce forest. We were clearly walking right by the spruce trees that they were nesting in, but their nests were concealed well.

Unfortunately, we were still missing some glaring birds such as ptarmigan, golden-plover and Smith’s Longspur. For whatever reason, I focused on this way too much as we headed back home. However, a nice adult male Horned Grebe at close range gave me something else to think about for a while. We got back to town, had a nice dinner of elk and assessed our strategy for the remaining day and a half. Having the rental car until 5:30, we decided to bird a little more tonight and schedule a whale-watching tour for Thursday morning.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebes are much cooler in breeding colors

Once again, Goose Creek was kind to us. We made the trip much more quickly this time, being a bit more tired. We saw more Tundra Swans in Goose Creek under the bridge, a bird that had seemingly become common after we hadn’t seen one all week. Pulling up at CR30, we didn’t have high hopes for anything, but the Ross’s Gull was still on the table, and being where we were, this was our number 1 objective. I walked out the car and immediately saw something that wasn’t a Ross’s Gull, but just about as cool.

“Little Gull! Breeding adult!” My dad rushed down. I had the scope, but it was right close to us and we didn’t need it. This lovely but minute bird, smaller than an Arctic Tern, fluttered around and flaunted its all-black underwings and small black head with no eyering. This bird was one of the only things that could keep my mind off all our misses of earlier, and I realized then that those stupid white chickens could go die in a hole. Same goes for the golden plovers! A bird like this Little Gull, which I’d never seen in breeding plumage before, would become the bird that would keep my head up and make the outlook seem less bleak for some of the other birds we were missing. And if we didn’t see them it didn’t matter – I was still having the time of my life.

Little Gull

Aren’t Little Gulls fantastic? This bird was good for our morale as it zipped right past our awe-stuck faces.

Links to other parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Churchill Trip Report – Part 2: Amazing Sightings

Now, for some actual birding! Monday started off with a bang, as we picked up the green Ford F150 and got right on the road. Our first stop was Goose Creek Road, which goes south from town and leads to the pumphouse (known as CR30) on the river. Apparently, for the first time in years, the Ross’s Gull had been seen in Churchill, and it had been spotted flying around the river at CR30. So I knew where our first stop would be! However, Goose Creek was very much worth birding before we even got to the pumphouse. The road very quickly crosses into the treeline, and this got us a lot of bird variety. The toughest part was getting used to the songs of these birds – I had never even heard the song of American Tree Sparrow before! Pulling over at a small marshy pond, we pished out some Lincoln’s Sparrows, Tennessee Warblers and Orange-crowned Warblers, all singing.

Orange Crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

In the distance a pair of Merlins were calling, and I picked out one perched atop a spruce tree. It was awesome to see those two warblers on their breeding grounds, since I’d only seen them once before that. Continuing down the road, a distant pair of Rough-legged Hawks soared over the road, and an Alder Flycatcher sang repeatedly. They are the only flycatcher that nests in Churchill. Upon approaching some more boggy area, we pulled over and took a little walk. Our hopes for a Spruce Grouse were dashed, but a Gray-cheeked Thrush did sing a couple times for us – another bird I’d only observed once in my life before this trip. Continuing down the road, we added a couple Gray Jays, observing us with the curiosity that no other bird can match. They are so cute! At this point Tennessee Warblers had become commonplace, and my dad and I began to unconsciously drown out their buzzy song in our heads. I had birded spruce bog forest before, but Tennessees singing everywhere was a new and awesome experience for me.

One welcome thing I noticed was not a bird, but it was flying – a dragonfly! Churchill has about nine species of odonates and this one looked to be one of the emeralds that can be found there. I admired this little guy’s perseverance for being able to spend all summer here and moved on. As far as odes went, I also noticed a Hudsonian Whiteface or two on Goose Creek Road.

Gray Jay

Gray Jays are awesome!

At one point in the road, the trees were replaced by marshy pools. However, the remaining spruces on this marshy section of the road were adopted by Lesser Yellowlegs, who struggled to find their balance on the flimsy treetops while they wailed their little “tew-tew” calls at us. Mixed in with the yellowlegs were some Solitary Sandpipers, a good bird this far north. While most shorebirds nest on elevated portions of the wet tundra, Solitaries literally make their nests in spruce trees. Surprisingly absent from these marshes were Hudsonian Godwits, which love this sort of habitat but were nowhere to be seen. A familiar sound from the open fields of Connecticut was the vociferous call of the Killdeer, which echoed through the marsh while my dad and I sifted through flocks of ducks and dowitchers feeding in the mudflats. As the marshy section of the road continued on, my dad pointed out a waxwing flying by! Knowing there were no Cedar Waxwings up here, my ears perked up. A quick glance through the binoculars confirmed our speculations – we’d seen a Bohemian Waxwing! This clutch bird kept us energized as we headed down the long road.

At one point we pulled off onto the road labeled “Goose Creek Cottages”. According to the book we’d bought, some of the cottage owners put up feeders that attract sparrows and finches, so it was definitely worth a look. There were a lot of birds around, but most of them were just Common Redpolls and robins. A Dark-eyed Junco that briefly showed itself was kinda nice, but we turned around. On the way out, I heard a chickadee! Unaware of how silly it may have sounded, I yelled out, “Holy crap, a chickadee; stop the car!” Of course, every chickadee up here is a Boreal Chickadee, and we got a good look at a pair of these elusive, brown-capped beauties. Happy to have gotten my dad a lifer, we continued moving down the road towards CR30. As we crossed the Goose Creek we still continued to pick up new trip birds. A small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (the only icterids in Churchill) flew by, and a female Lesser Scaup among Greaters was another good find. A stand of spruces got us really close to an adult male Blackpoll Warbler, and American Tree, Fox and Lincoln’s Sparrows were common in the more open marshy areas. Northern Waterthrushes became quite common, and a singing Nelson’s Sparrow that we saw well was a great pickup. We played the call of Yellow Rail in the Nelson’s spot hoping for a response but realized how stupid we were thinking we’d actually get a response. Soon enough we arrived at CR30.

Blackpoll Warbler

A lovely male Blackpoll Warbler collecting food for its young on Goose Creek Road

The CR30 pumphouse is a small building near the river with a road that has a parking area right beside the river’s rocky coastline. Ducks and gulls filled the river, and a Spotted Sandpiper was quite vocal as it fed around the rocky areas. A Northern Waterthrush sang a weird song that, when influenced by the Churchill book, sounded like a Wilson’s Warbler, but it eventually came out and allowed for some good views. These rocks would turn out to be great feeding area for all sorts of passerines, as some redpolls and blackbirds made an appearance. After a quick scan of the gulls (no Ross’s or anything interesting), we made our way back. The drive back was quicker, but it was already 1:30 PM. However, a quick check of the Goose Creek Channel Road was necessary.

Nelson's Sparrow

The elusive Nelson’s Sparrow

This road was great, and not only did we see a flyover Osprey here, but we had good looks at a Fox Sparrow, a pair of Blue-winged Teal, and a Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the mudflats. Greater Yellowlegs is heavily outnumbered by Lesser here and this bird was probably already migrating south. A stop farther up the road in the Old Dene Village got us good looks at a White-throated Sparrow singing its lovely song, but the Harris’s Sparrow we were looking for here didn’t show up. A nice Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang in a grove of spruces as well. But the highlight of the road back was definitely a Pine Grosbeak pair that called and was briefly seen near the entrance to the cottages. Our second lifer of the day, these birds have calls that sound like louder House Finches. Our only view of them was the orange-headed female, so we didn’t get a look at the lovely pink males that we wanted.

Happy with how we did overall but still missing some key birds, we picked up a Pacific Loon on the way back to the hotel and got something to eat. We decided to make a quick stop at CR30 again (thanks to longer days) and try to pick up on some misses. Could we get a freaking Godwit for once? The answer would be no, but a singing Hermit Thrush was fairly surprising. We also enjoyed seeing a good-sized flock of about 50 Rusty Blackbirds, 5 Solitary Sandpipers scattered around the marshy areas, and a good-sized flock gf Bonaparte’s Gulls that we scoured for a good half an hour. Our next day of birding would bring some new territory and hopefully some other cool birds.

Since we didn’t have to wait until 9 AM to pick up the car from now on, we could get started a bit earlier on Tuesday morning. We concluded that the road to Landing Lake would give us the best shot for some new birds, but we checked the Coast Road and the surrounding areas first. The fact that we drove all around the Coast Road without picking up larks, pipits or golden-plovers was a little worrying, but I assumed they would be easy to pick up at some point somewhere. For whatever reason, all the “dry tundra” species seem harder to find than the book made them out to be, a signal that they have declined. The road down to Landing Lake got us yet another Bald Eagle, and once again it was harassed by smaller birds. In this frenzy I heard the diagnostic call of the Hudsonian Godwit, a soft “whit”, before seeing a large shorebird with a straight bill fly over. Landing Lake Road ends at Landing Lake, which is used for seaplane landings; the road down is mostly open tundra whereas the area around the lake is below the treeline. However, we didn’t really get anything good until we reached Landing Lake.

White Crowned Sparrow3

This White-crowned Sparrow isn’t a Harris’s Sparrow…  but still cool!

The lake itself was full of Pacific Loons, which had become more and more common as the week went on. We noticed that even when they were surfaced, Pacific Loons seemed to keep a lot of their bodies underwater for some reason, almost as if they weren’t very buoyant. However, despite having added the godwit, we were still looking for the Harris’s Sparrow, an elusive bird with a fairly low global population. So we decided to drive around the little roads that encircled Landing Lake, one of which being East Farnworth Lake Road. (Landing Lake is also known as Farnworth Lake). This road seemed promising but was fairly empty. When we approached a puddle, it seemed like a good place to turn around. I got out and walked into the puddle to see how deep it was (didn’t want another World Series situation at our hands) and it was passable.

But just as I was about to re-enter the car, I heard a distinctive, song in the distance: three long and similar high-pitched notes. I immediately recognized this beautiful song as the Harris’s Sparrow! Soon enough a large sparrow dropped into a bush right in front of us, and this lovely black-faced bird gave us good views. Absorbed by the beauty of this amazing little guy, I forgot to photograph him (luckily my dad did), but I won’t ever forget this awesome bird.

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Taking this as a good omen, we decided that this road was worth walking down a little. More Harris’s presented themselves, and a surprise flyover Common Merganser was new for our trip list. Some more sparrows, warblers and redpolls made some noise farther down the road. Going through the same nauseating routine of checking all the redpolls for a Hoary, one pale female grabbed my attention. Upon noticing the bright white chest and rump, combined with the frosty white scapulars (the clincher), I realized what I had here – my first Hoary Redpoll! Finally all my hard work had culminated to actually seeing one of these little guys. (Side note: I talk about being excited about a Hoary, but I truly believe that all the redpolls are just one species, but I was happy to have added Hoary to my life list while it was still a species. Imagine my nervousness when the AOU Checklist Supplement came out like the next day! Thankfully it’s going to stay a species, but I expected them to lump the redpolls and still think they should.) Either way, especially with a nice female Red-breasted Merganser in one of the ponds, we left Landing Lake fairly satisfied with our observations.

Links to other parts:

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4

 

Churchill Trip Report – Part 1: Getting Acclimated

I’ve written a lot of trip reports in my day, but none will ever come close to this one. I’ve written TRs for such locations as Florida, Texas, England and Vermont, and as the secretary for the CTYBC I do all our club trips as well. However Churchill, Manitoba is a place unlike any of these.

Last summer my dad asked me to plan a trip for the summer to any birding location (within reason) that I would like to visit. I was thinking of choosing either southeastern Arizona or somewhere in the Arctic, and I went with the latter for a few reasons. My life list was really the only thing that was going to support Arizona, which I didn’t really care about too much. We’ll get into that more later. I decided on Churchill for a few reasons: for being in the arctic tundra it was fairly warm, and there was spruce bog habitat nearby as well. It’s pretty hard to find a combination of tundra, taiga and shoreline like there is in Churchill. Most of Churchill’s fame among birders was gained upon the discovery that a small colony of Ross’s Gulls was nesting in that area about 25 years ago. They were seen consistently each year until about five years ago when they disappeared. I guess 58° latitude is just too warm for them these days. But even without the gulls, Churchill provides a wide variety of habitat for cool northern birds such as ptarmigans and gray jays while also holding nesting habitat for a medley of migratory shorebirds and passerines. So now that we’re all acclimated with the birdlife in Churchill, let’s get into the parts that make it truly unique.

Churchill is a small town in northern Manitoba that sits on the Hudson Bay, east of the Churchill River. The town of Churchill has roughly 600 year-round residents, down from the 6,000 when it was a military base during the Cold War. Aside from a small seaport near the mouth of the river, Churchill’s main business revolves around tourism; hundreds of people from across the globe travel there to see beluga whales in the summer and polar bears in the early fall. Yes, birdwatching is third on Churchill’s list of attractions, but I was there to see birds. Many of the better birding areas are up to 20 miles away from town and require renting a car to drive down the bumpy graded roads. Since the car rental place was only open on weekdays and we couldn’t make an appointment, we had to wait until Monday to get a car and bird the local areas for a while. Early July is a good time to see young birds of all kinds, and many of Churchill’s breeders are very defensive of their nests. This is something we would get used to very quickly.

After a full day of travel through Toronto and Winnipeg, we arrived at the Churchill Airport around 9:15 AM on Saturday, July 2nd. Upon leaving the place we noticed how warm it was that day; it would not stay that way but it was nice. As we walked to the terminal to collect our luggage I spotted the first bird of the trip: a family of Canada Geese. Common Raven was quick to follow. We met the owner of the hotel we’d be staying at, and he drove us into town. We quickly got settled into the Polar Inn (a lovely hotel by the way) and got right to birding.

Northwest of town is Cape Merry, a point that juts out to the mouth of the Churchill River. A walk out there can be quite scenic, and it also passes the Granary Ponds, a few large pools that host dozens of waterfowl and shorebirds during the breeding season. Due to the threat of Polar Bears on the coastal areas, we decided not to walk out to the end of the point, but we did get a good dose of birding in the tundra. Just a note: all these photos are courtesy of my dad and his D750.

DSC_0044.JPG

Arctic Terns are everywhere here

Before we even reached the Granary Ponds I had picked up a few solid trip birds. My first lifer was Arctic Tern, an incredibly common bird up here that nests in coastal pools such as the Granary Ponds. They were abundant just about everywhere we went; they were also the only tern species we saw. Numerous White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows were singing in willow thickets just outside of town, as were a few Yellow Warblers. The Yellow Warbler population up here is quite stable, and I find it amazing that they can withstand some of the colder days up here despite declaring Florida and Texas “too cold” during the winter. Our first look at the Granary Ponds did not disappoint, as we immediately happened upon a good-sized flock of Short-billed Dowitchers and Lesser Yellowlegs feeding. These birds were quite vocal and offered good views, and it was the first time I’d heard a dowitcher calling. Also nice to see were the surprisingly small Red-necked Phalaropes, which politely paddled around close to shore allowing for some good photography. The ponds were also full of waterfowl such as Greater Scaup, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Mallard, Canada Goose and more. Herring Gulls nest on the rocky parts of the ponds, and we noted how their young looked like little fluffballs sitting on the rocks. A quick detour to the other side of the road got us a look at the river, where more terns were feeding with gulls. Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s were both new to our trip list. We also saw tons of Belugas surfacing on the river, and noted that there was still some ice on the water as well! We also noticed a lot of Common Eiders sitting in the river as well.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpipers are fairly common at the Granary Ponds.

Walking further up the ponds got us some more good birds. A flock of Sandhill Cranes was feeding nicely on some grain by the shore, while a Swamp Sparrow sang in the brush and poked its head out for us a little. We picked up a small group of Common Redpolls that landed and fed in some brush, but unfortunately no Hoaries were in with them. Wilson’s Snipe were calling a lot, and a Spotted Sandpiper flew into one of the ponds and hung around for a while. A bench on one of the roads in town gave us a distant view of the Hudson Bay, so we scanned a little bit to turn up a scoter flock that included all three species, along with more terns, gulls and eiders. Possibly the most unique thing about this was the pieces of sea ice that were still on the bay, despite it being 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Those blocks of ice would be gone by the time we left.

For a place this far north, the food is delicious! This would be a recurring trend throughout the week, but it was nice to settle in and have a nice steak sandwich at one of Churchill’s little restaurants. Hoping to see some more new birds, we embarked on the same walk out to the granary ponds. We were rewarded with subpar looks at a cool female Parasitic Jaeger zipping over the road, as well as a Common Goldeneye and a Redhead in the ponds. The latter would be flagged on eBird, which surprised me as I learned that they were nesting there this summer. I also (apparently) got a little too close to an Arctic Tern nest and one bird loudly called and swooped over my head. Startled, I scoffed at the tern for nesting right next to the road and getting mad at me for walking by. But you can’t deny that getting that close to an Arctic Tern is a rare birding moment, and I certainly won’t forget it.

Once again, the rental car place wasn’t open until Monday, so Sunday was a fairly boring day featuring more walks out to the Granary Ponds, more time hanging out around the hotel, and more delicious food. Highlights were better looks at Parasitic Jaegers pursuing Arctic Terns, a Wilson’s Snipe perched on a telephone wire, and a pale-looking Herring Gull that got me a bit excited. However that night we would get to explore some new area, as we got to take a boat over to the other side of the river.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe in town

This little tour from Sloop Cove to the Prince of Wales Fort gave us some insight into Churchill’s history as well as our first looks at the truly beautiful scenery of the Arctic tundra. The diversity of the flora was surprising and beautiful, as purple, yellow and white flowers coated the ground as far as the eye could see. Coupled with the Hudson Bay waves crashing upon the rocky coastline, this was truly a beautiful and natural scene. We also got great looks at more terns as they came down to attack us – thankfully we had a stick to hold over our heads, and our entire group peaceably watched from a distance. Semipalmated Plovers were also abundant on the beach we walked on; apparently they nest in close quarters with the terns so as to let them drive predators away. We also got startled by a nice immature (3rd or 4th year) Bald Eagle that flew over the estuary, getting harassed by half a dozen terns. Long-tailed Ducks were around in good numbers as well, and scaup and pintail filled up the tundra ponds.

Semi-Palmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover near its nest

At one point a Least Sandpiper jumped right off the trail into some tundra, which gave us speculation that they had a nest nearby. By the fort there were tons of redpolls, although IDing them was an ordeal. Walking right next to the fort’s disheveled structure, noting the technique with which people had put the fort together through the cold Churchill winters centuries ago, and absorbing legendary stories about those who once lived here and operated the fort was unreal. Shortly after we parted ways with the fort, a nearly white juvenile gull on a distant rock caught my eye – an Iceland Gull! It took me a while to dissect the plumage of this bird, but it was far too white for anything else. Iceland is a good bird! As we made our way back to the hotel at 9:30, I couldn’t believe how high in the sky the sun still was.

American Wigeon

Many birds in Churchill had adorable little chicks, like this American Wigeon.

Links to other parts:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

3 More Days until….

I’ve been waiting for this for about a year. And now it’s only three days away. On July 1st I will be leaving for a one-week birding trip to Churchill, Manitoba. This trip has been something I’ve always wanted to do my entire birding life, and it’s almost here now.

When asked where they would like to visit anywhere in the ABA during late June or early July, popular answers are southeast Arizona, California, or some other popular birding location. As someone who despises cold weather, one may think I wouldn’t be fascinated with taiga and tundra habitat, but they would be wrong. Plus, Churchill isn’t too cold in the summer, averaging with highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. Churchill is located in the northern coastline of Manitoba on the Hudson Bay. Its unique combination of tundra habitat by the coast, spruce bog and taiga forest farther inland, and the mouth of the Churchill River make this place unlike anyhwere else. It would be hard to find Hudsonian Godwit and Spruce Grouse nesting in the same area anywhere else in the world.

Since this trip has been booked I’ve been learning a lot about the place as a while. Bonnie Chartier’s “A Birder’s Guide to Churchill” has been very helpful in outlining the locations where birds can be found, but more so it has helped me prepare for what Churchill will be like. It is truly another world up there; the sun rises at 4 and sets at 11 (and it’s never really dark), the shorebirds you see slowly prodding at food in the beaches turn to displaying and singing creatures that adopt lovely breeding plumages. Nearly all of the common birds you can find farther south are replaced by awesome rarities. Red-winged Blackbird is replaced by Rusty Blackbird here, and House Finches and American Goldfinches are replaced with redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks. The mouth of the Churchill River creates some lovely habitat for waterfowl, and many of the area’s wide variety of nesters can be found here. On the other hand, traveling inland and away from the town to locations such as Twin Lakes or Goose Creek take you to an entirely different habitat with Smith’s Longspurs, Wilson’s Warblers and other tundra species. But the Bonaparte’s Gulls that nest in spruce trees and the jaegers that can be found quite far inland make even the spruce bogs unique from other areas. It’s safe to say I’m excited.

I will make a post to describe my trip (if one post can hold everything) and I will include some of the great photos that my dad and I will take. My dad has a fancy DSLR and with the long sunsets and tame birds, Churchill is awesome for photography. I’ll see you then!

Connecticut’s Crazy High Counts

I was messing around on eBird the other day and noticed how fun it can be to check out the high counts for a specific region using the “Explore a Region” tool. If you look at it a lot you’ll notice some crazy stuff! I can’t even imagine seeing some of the counts below, and that’s just in Connecticut! I compiled this list of highlights, but anyone can access them all using eBird easily.

Which high count do you guys like the most? Note: These are for the entire state of CT, not just me. I have a few high counts on eBird (20 Yellow-throated Vireos!) but none of them are impressive enough to get on here.

  • 75 American Black Duck x Mallard Hybrid, Sherwood Island SP, February 2013 – Courtesy of Kathy Van der Aue, a great birder and person. This is crazy; I’ve never seen more than one of two of these in one place. You think hybrids are more likely to congregate together? It’s clear that these birds are very prone to hybridization.
  • 8 American White Pelicans, Stratford Point, December 2009 – This is a pretty interesting record, but even more interesting is that there aren’t even any comments for such an outstanding find. I wonder if the birds were large amounts over time, or a small group all at once flying by the point.
  • 60 Soras, Milford Point, September 2011 – Sora is pretty hard to find in CT and there are only a handful of well-known locations where they breed, so how are 60 showing up at once on the coastline? Weird record for sure; I bet this total includes birds migrating from all across New England.
  • 7 Little Gulls, Southport Beach, April 2015 – I saw one of the Little Gulls here last April but I honestly had no idea there were ever that many at the same location! Leave it to Keith Mueller’s attention to detail to find seven of those things amongst hundreds of Bonaparte’s Guls.
  • 14 Franklin’s Gulls, Stratford Point, November 2015 – If you were a birder last November you’d remember the historically awesome two-day Franklin’s Gull invasion of the Northeast. They showed up in nearly triple-digits down in Cape May, but this record will always be a historical one in Connecticut.
  • 22 Sooty Terns, Cornfield Point, August 2011 – Hurricane Irene turned up some pretty crazy awesome birds in the Long Island Sound, highlighted by large numbers of tropical terns such as this one. It’ll take another hurricane to top this outstanding count.
  • 49 Cave Swallows, Lighthouse Point Park, November 2005 – Cave Swallows are surprisingly prone to northeastern vagrancy late in the year to the point where they are almost the expected swallow during this time. 49 is a heck of a count, but it’s surprisingly average compared to some of these other records as good years for Cave Swallows can turn up great numbers.
  • 12 Cape May Warblers, Mohawk State Forest, September 1983 – With a nesting population of Nashville Warblers, Mohawk is a good potential spot for Cape Mays to migrate through. 12 is outstanding though, especially when most of them are in breeding plumage, as the checklist comments state.
  • 42 Nelson’s Sparrows, Milford Point, October 2014 – Nelson’s Sparrows aren’t too hard to find in Milford Point in October – that’s how I got my life Nelson’s. But for such an uncommon bird that shares migratory habitat with Saltmarsh, 42 is an excellent count for the Big Sit that logged this number.
  • 10,000 White-throated Sparrows, Bluff Point, October 2011 – I could put down tons of stuff for Bluff Point’s morning flights, but I figured this one represented how many birds can be seen better than any other. Simply picturing that many of just one species is hard, and there’s always potential for that sort of movement at Bluff Point.

Coventry Big Day

The Connecticut Town Big Day Competition was inspired by the Connecticut Young Birders Club on the way home from Cape May, NJ following the World Series of Birding. Exhausted after a long big day, we decided that another big day would be a fun idea. Anyway, I was happy to have a chance at thoroughly birding my hometown of Coventry. I set a goal of 80 for myself, but I was a little uncertain of how successful this could be. I wasn’t sure how many migrants I could add or how many birds I could effectively stake out in just a week of scouting. I did my best to scout birds, taking advantage of the few hours when I had the car to myself. From using Google Maps to find bird habitat to driving down Coventry backroads with the windows open, scouting was thorough and fairly effective. Going into Saturday morning, I felt confident that I had scoured the town for everything I could.

Planning how much time to spend at each location was also immensely difficult, but given a small and not extremely birdy location, I was given the opportunity to spend ample time at the more important spots. One main component of my strategy was to visit better spots multiple times, which I had the liberty to do during this big day. This would give me the opportunity to check a location in the morning and afternoon instead of intensely birding it once. The last thing I did before going to bed was to print out the schedule so I would have it with me all day.

At 3:00 AM I awoke for the beginning of the big day. Confident that the night shift wouldn’t be that important, I decided to trade the possibility of one or two extra birds for sleep. My first target would be Barred Owl, which I would get before even leaving the house – two or three birds were quite vocal in the yard. Due to Connecticut’s driving laws, I was not allowed to drive alone until after 5:00 AM, which meant that I would be spending dawn chorus in my yard. So I chilled out in the front yard, waiting for birds to wake up one by one. From House Wrens and Tree Swallows calling at 4 in the morning to hummingbirds buzzing by my ear at about 6, the first stop of the big day had landed me at 39 species – nearly halfway to my goal. Of course, I went without such nesters as Yellow-throated Vireo, Swamp Sparrow and Pine Warbler, and I hadn’t really got anything great yet.

The next location to hit would be the Hop River rails-to-trails on the Columbia border. This was one of Coventry’s best spots for migrants, and getting a couple migratory birds could be huge in an area that doesn’t really get too many. My dad and I lucked into a Blackpoll Warbler at 7:15, and added some more clutch nesters including Field Sparrow and Eastern Wood-Pewee. The pewees are common across the Northeast but arrive late, and knowing that they have made it to their breeding grounds was a relief. A pair of turkeys in the woods was also a nice pickup; these birds along with things such as Hairy Woodpecker and Carolina Wren fall into a group of birds I like to call “dumb misses.” Despite being abundant and common in the area, it can be hard to get some of these birds. We would get all three of the above birds quite easily, but some common ones would give me a headache.

Our next stop would be a drive down a hilly dirt road called Brigham in southeastern Coventry. This location is great for boreal birds like Black-throated Green Warbler, and its potential led me to bump it up to the morning. I hadn’t scouted it much but I felt like it could give us something huge that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the town. The BT Greens were calling immediately, and were joined with Blue-headed Vireos – unfortunately those were the only two new birds we added here. A little disappointed that a Northern Waterthrush or Black-throated Blue didn’t present itself, we moved onto Creaser Park.

Creaser Park is arguably the best spot to see birds in Coventry, and it was also pretty quick. We could get cuckoos, empids, Wood Ducks or even a Ring-necked Pheasant here. I’d been bragging to my CTYBC friends that I would be the only one to get pheasant on their big day, so this was important. We lucked out on the pheasant, hearing one call deep in some brush not long after we arrived. But that wasn’t even the luckiest bird we got – a little further down the trail a pair of cuckoos flushed from some woods and flew across the stream! Not only were they cuckoos, but their red eyes and lack of rufous on the wings made them Black-billed Cuckoos. An overdue state bird for me, this was a huge pull for the big day and it certainly wasn’t anything I expected. Just as the day seemed to be slowing down, awesome looks at an uncommon bird had the two of us going again. However, I wouldn’t say I was completely satisfied with our luck – not a single empid showed itself the entire time.

Some quick stops would make up filler time for a while as we would skip around the town in search of birds. Truman’s Meadow is a field right near Creaser Park that looks really promising for meadowlarks and grassland sparrows, but looks aren’t everything! This field seems to always be empty, but it’s still worth checking. However, we were greeted by a lovely pair of Chestnut-sided Warblers that neither of us expected. Pishing to verify that they were indeed Chestnut-sided (I wasn’t completely sold by the songs) gave us great looks, but it may have angered them a little too much. We also added Eastern Towhee and Pine Warbler there. On the way to Coventry Lake, we decided that a drive through Nathan Hale State Forest with the windows open could get us some singing warblers, but the only new bird we got didn’t require opening the windows – a Broad-winged Hawk spotted by myself deep in the woods. Coventry Lake was destined to add us some new birds; in our CBCs it serves as our life blood for species totals. Today wasn’t as helpful – not a single gull or cormorant was near the lake. We’d take our Northern Rough-winged Swallow and move on to the next spot.

We moved south of Coventry Lake to a marshy area near Plains Road, a place where Green Herons had been seen before. Thinking I knew this location well enough, I didn’t scout it at all, and was completely surprised when my dad pointed out an extension to the marsh. This place looked way cooler, and seemed very promising for rails, Swamp Sparrow or even Marsh Wren. However, none of these things popped up. A Belted Kingfisher flyby and half a dozen Least Flycatchers kept us satisfied, but I knew I had to spend more time here in the afternoon.

Beginning to head north, we pulled over on the side of Silver Street in search of Bobolink and Northern Mockingbird (surprisingly hard to find here). It took a while, but the Bobolinks allowed for awesome views, singing and flying right past us to the other side of the field. Calling Killdeer and a surprise Willow Flycatcher singing were also new for the day, but we didn’t get any mockingbirds. We then checked a powerline cut on Babcock Hill Road (found via Google Street View) and checked off a Prairie Warbler we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten. This spot excited me as soon as I saw it, and was eager to scout the area and then bird there. Eagleville Lake in eastern Coventry (bordering on Mansfield) was home to a pair of Mute Swans, so we sat there for a while and scanned. No swans turned up, and we also struck out on Bank Swallow and Spotted Sandpiper which are always a possibility there. Driving up Route 32 in Mansfield on the way home, my dad pointed out the swans farther up the river! They were in Coventry (even if we weren’t), so we counted them – my big day, my rules right? Mute Swan was bird number 77, and halfway through the day I felt like the goal of 80 was guaranteed, and maybe 85 or 90 was more realistic.

After a quick stop at home, my dad and I broke off – he was done birding for the day. This was the point when I began to assess what birds I’d missed and how to get them, as I began to deviate from the schedule. A quick visit back to Silver Street got me the mockingbird I missed earlier, and I stopped at my mom’s house (also in Coventry) to check the pond for Wood Duck or Spotted Sandpiper. Neither of those showed up, but I had some good food for lunch and picked up a calling Red-shouldered Hawk for the day. Torn as to where to go next, I decided that a return trip to Creaser was in order – Alder Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo were both a possibility. Knowing I was ahead of schedule, I spent a little more time there, birding some of the auxiliary trails that usually don’t get anything. Today they got stuff, as I got a couple migrants in Magnolia Warbler and Northern Waterthrush. Due to Coventry’s vast forest habitat, migrants are hard to come by, and two in the same area is just about as rare as an ABA Code 5! (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.)

Still Alder-less and Yellowbill-less, I left Creaser and birded North Coventry a little, leaving with nothing new. It was ridiculous that I was still missing Rock Pigeon (a bird that is comically hard to come by in Coventry – we missed them on the last 2 CBCs) so I drove up and down Route 31 checking the barns for pigeons on the roof. Nothing. Then I remembered something my dad said – he saw one on top of a church on Main Street. I went down there and got it! Having ticked the elusive pigeon and topped my goal of 80, I was pretty happy at this point in the day.

The last part of the day shift is a little crazy, but I love it. It consists of unexpected birds, nerve-wracking misses and frantically rushing to beat the sunset. I still needed to bird North Coventry a second time in search of some extra nesters, but I was also still looking for Wood Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting and Swamp Sparrow. I figured a quick stop at Hop River could get me a miraculous migrant and I was somewhat right – a trio of Common Nighthawks as I left the trail was bird number 83 for the day. I then scoured the Babcock Hill Road powerline cut in search of buntings, and was first welcomed with a lucky Black Vulture. Frustrated that there were no buntings in such perfect habitat, I did something I don’t do too often – use playback. I played the call for Indigo Bunting a little, and it worked marvelously; a female jumped right out and I was at 85 right after that. Some might say sitting around waiting at that little spot was a waste of time, but I left there with two extra birds because of it.

“Sit and wait” became the theme for the rest of the day as I gave Plains Road another shot. The lucky bird of this location was a pair of Bank Swallows that quickly flew by, identified by small size, breast band and voice. Another Black-billed Cuckoo popped out of the marsh, an awesome bird but not new for the day – I sorta wished it was a Yellow-billed. Once again no Swamp Sparrows or rails called, a little disappointing but I couldn’t complain about Bank Swallow. My list stood at 86 at about 6:30 PM.

Second stops at Creaser Park and Brigham Road were unsuccessful, and I would end the day with evening chorus in North Coventry. Riley Mountain Road was a pretty good forest habitat (huge cuckoo potential) and I even got a Swainson’s Thrush on the side of the road a couple days before. Chilling out at the end of the road got me a Cooper’s Hawk (not new) and a Pileated Woodpecker (bird #87) before the sun began to set and I had to head home.

The second night shift would not add any new birds, so I ended my day at 87. I was pretty content with how the day went (especially for it being my first time) but I think there are definitely some things I could change. North Coventry may have deserved some more time, and scouting more there could have revealed some nesting habitat for some of the birds I missed. There definitely needs to be some more scouting for owls at night – getting only Barred isn’t good enough. I also don’t want to spend as much time in my yard next year, and starting off at Hop River could get me some extra good birds. There were a lot of things that I could (or should) have gotten and didn’t, and I think 95 is a feasible but lofty goal for next year’s Big Day. Common birds like Spotted Sandpiper, Swamp Sparrow and American Kestrel don’t even crack the list below.

Important misses include:

  • Wood Duck – I’ve seen these countless times in Coventry and there’s so much great habitat. I don’t know what happened here.
  • Ring-billed Gull – This is a pretty embarrassing miss. For whatever reason gulls just weren’t around. I’ve had all three common CT gulls in Coventry during the warm months, but not one Ring-billed was at the lake whenever I visited there.
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo – I truly can’t believe I missed this one. With all the great habitat around (I’m not even going to try to count how many tentworm colonies I saw) there should have definitely been at least one instance where I heard or saw one of these. Given the fact that Black-billed outnumbered Yellow-billed 3 to 0 on this big day, I guess it’s just hard to predict what will happen.

Attached here are some photos from the day that I thought you guys might enjoy.

Black-and-white WarblerBobolinkLeast FlycatcherBroad-winged HawkBlack-billed CuckooEastern Kingbird

 

The World Series of Birding

“Guys, it’s midnight!”

As Brendan had pointed out, the clock on Alex’s car had officially changed to 12:00. We rolled the windows down in hope of hearing some miraculous birds from outside the car. The wind made us a little cold and we were all operating on insufficient amounts of sleep, but birds were the most pertinent thing for our team for the next 24 hours. This is the World Series of Birding.

We drove down a backroad in northern Cape May County on our way to our first location. Some car trouble early in the day made us a little late, but that would not affect our total at all. We headed to a boat launch in Tuckahoe where we had the possibility of finding some owls, nightjars or rails. When we arrived at the remote little parking lot, we opened the doors and were surrounded by a pitch-black sky. The only sounds were wind and moving water. And a whippoorwill! Our first bird of the day made a distant call repeatedly. Our first bird was a life bird for me – this is surreal. Even more interesting was the loud “peent” of an American Woodcock, a great bird for this early in the day. But shortly after that, we heard the most dreaded noise in all of birding.

“Tsip.”

Oh God. Flight calls. Now we were good with almost all bird sounds but one thing our team was weak in was the nocturnal flight calls of warbler species. We would have to get used to hearing wonderful warblers pass by us overhead without being able to identify them, and it was hard. We knew the experienced teams could ID these, and they would have a significant advantage on us from the start, but luckily Alex could nab one of them. “That’s a Savannah Sparrow,” he said. Alex was good with most groups of birds except warblers, so we hoped that NFCs wouldn’t be too devastating.

After the realization that our night shift would put us at a disadvantage, we moved on to a location for Eastern Screech-Owls. Alex noted that he has been “screech-owl cursed” for the last few years, and we all agreed that it would be a difficult bird. No screech-owls showed up (what a surprise) but we did have a bunch of Chuck-will’s-widows calling around us. This was a bird that Jory needed as a lifer, so four birds (and half an hour) in Jory and I each had one lifer – a different eastern nightjar.

Before leaving Tuckahoe we decided to check up on one last spot in the area, a bridge on Tyler Road that could get us King Rail. It was important to stay on schedule; if we got behind it could ruin our route. We stood on the side of the road at 1 AM listening for rail calls for a while; unfortunately all we had was a Clapper. In hopes of still getting King, we waited around a little more, and we were rewarded by a Great Horned Owl calling in the distance. After a little more frustration over warbler NFCs, we got out of there and moved on. We began to move south towards Cape Island, searching Stipsons Island Road for more rails or night-calling shorebirds. As soon as we got in we were bombarded by tons and tons of Clapper Rails – the only way to properly describe this amount was an “orgy” of Clapper Rails. Seriously, they seemed to be everywhere. We added a few birds by voice – nothing we wouldn’t see during the day – and moved on.

Jakes Landing was right nearby, and we hoped to get some more rails or calling birds here at night. We also hoped that nobody was there getting drunk – birders have been hit with beer bottles there at night before. We cautiously pulled up to the boat launch and noticed we were in the clear – phew! However Jakes was sort of quiet, and we headed down to Cape Island to finish off the night shift.

The Cape Island night shift was also slightly annoying – mainly because of the WhatsApp. The WhatsApp seemed like a convenient tool to help birders make their sightings known quickly to others. However, it somewhat killed our night as people began reporting rails and owls north of the Cape May Canal. Should we go back to Tuckahoe and bird the same spots we already had, or continue owling on Cape Island? We decided for the former, and it killed us. We spent an hour up in Tuckahoe seeing absolutely nothing, and upon return to Cape Island we also saw nothing. Heck, at one spot we saw a bat looking for that cursed Eastern Screech-Owl and I got excited just to see an effing flying object.

After missing screech-owl for about the millionth time, we went back north to begin our day shift – starting out at the lovely Belleplain State Forest. We got out of the car and the singing had already begun (whippoorwills were still singing too); Wood Thrushes had already made their appearance and it wasn’t even 5 AM yet. We turned a corner and heard an Acadian Flycatcher calling – life bird! However with passerines I don’t count it as a lifer until I see the bird so I waited around. “C’mon, Peter, we have to go!” Well, guess I’m not getting my life bird. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little annoying. It was here where I got my first taste of World Series birding – no time for trying to see birds that you’ve already ticked, and the paramount matter is always the species count. (You will notice there aren’t any photos on this – we were too busy birding at an awesome clip and seeing great birds to take any.) Adding birds at a feverish pace, we rushed from spot to spot at Belleplain, adding all sorts of warblers and other breeders. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it – I did get to see my life Yellow-throated Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo – but it was a little stressful. Belleplain is a big place, and we had a lot of spots to hit. It got a little frantic when we weren’t even hearing the goddamn Hooded Warblers at their super-reliable spot, but we got one song and got the heck out of there – we had already wasted enough time waiting for those birds. Overall Belleplain was awesome – we got most of what we wanted along with some extra surprise birds. We added an awesome array of passerines that included Prothonotary Warbler, Summer Tanager and Blue Grosbeak – all hard to see in Connecticut.

The two-hour long stay at Belleplain was followed by some quick stops elsewhere in northern Cape May county. We efficiently added Solitary Sandpiper and Horned Lark, before heading to Jake’s Landing to dip on Saltmarsh Sparrow. (Note: Jory had what he was quite sure was a junco on the road somewhere, and we really should have gone back to check on it – oh well.) Having got up at 12, we felt like it was already afternoon at 8 in the morning, but we were still running on adrenaline. Our next stop was Beaver Swamp where we planned to look for Wood Duck. We pulled in the dirt road and saw some pretty good-sized puddles. Brendan’s dad’s Subaru easily went through them and they weren’t that deep, making a big splash for each one. Splash, splash, splash…

The car started sinking. This puddle was deeper than the other ones.

We tried. But we couldn’t get out.

Remember when I said, “The most paramount matter is always the species count”? Yeah, this would hurt our species count. I’m not sure which sank faster, the car or our hearts as we realized that our big day may be over. We thought about all the potential this day had and that it had been vanquished all because of one stupid puddle. We sat there for hours waiting for the tow truck to come, watching the tow truck leave because it couldn’t get to the car correctly, getting annoyed when the cab couldn’t find us and many more fun things. We did get a Red-shouldered Hawk, the lone highlight of this terrible experience. Driven to finish the day if only to fulfill the per-bird fundraising donations people had pledged, we eventually made it back to Alex’s car at about 11:45, sleepy and cynical.

Having to cut places like Reed’s Beach (goodbye Red Knots) and our Cattle Egret spot for the day, we decided to pick up where the schedule had us right about then, in Stone Harbor at the Wetlands Institute. This spot was pretty good, and before we even parked we had good looks at Tricolored and Little Blue Herons on the side of the road. The shorebird pools were even better, getting us some coastal birds we’d been missing including a few White-rumped Sandpipers. If the World Series really was like a baseball game, we might be on our way to a big inning late in the game. After that Nummy Island yielded some roadside shorebirds, one of which was the Whimbrel we were looking for. We were coming up on 130 – would 150 still be in reach? Driven by our late resurgence, we confidently pushed on.

Stone Harbor Point was our next spot, and Alex and Jory wandered away in search of Piping Plovers while Brendan and I seawatched. Feeling good after having spotted a Brown Thrasher here, we were confident that the plovers could be around. Common Loons were new for the day and we added a couple out on the water; unfortunately Alex and Jory could not get to them since they were looking for plovers. They were unsuccessful, but more importantly, we realized the importance in staying together no matter what. Only 5% of the birds that our whole team didn’t see would count! Another lesson came at the US Coast Guard ponds – don’t break the WSB rules when the NJ Audubon people are around. We had to make sure they didn’t see Alex driving when we pulled up in search of Northern Shovelers. Not only did we get the birds, but they didn’t find out, and we continued on our separate ways.

More craziness ensued after a short stop at Wawa, where a little car trouble turned into a locked steering wheel and a troubling experience. We eventually figured out how to start the car, but we all felt the ominous feeling that the big day was ending early once again. Thankful that the car had started but slightly worried about the rest of the day, we continued on.

A few more quick stops took care of themselves quickly, and in a blink of an eye it was 3:00. A couple lucky birds like some Black Skimmers on the shores of the Cape May Canal, some Lesser Black-backed Gulls seawatching from Cape Island, and a Roya Tern at Stone Harbor had got us back in the game for 150. It was time to focus on some key birds we were missing, like Red Knot, Green-winged Teal… and goldfinch?! It’s 3:00 and we still didn’t have a goldfinch yet! We checked the feeders at the Northwood Centre, and there was nothing there! How could we go an entire day without seeing one? Then again, a goldfinch isn’t that big of a deal – it’s worth just as much as any other species here. A little extra seawatching got us our second scoter species of the day – we now had Surf and Black. Lily Lake didn’t have any Warbling Vireos – a surprisingly hard bird to get down here. A quick stop at the Cape May Point State Park was important not for birds, but because we would reunite with Brendan’s dad and his rental car. We left Alex’s car at CMPSP for the moment and continued towards Higbee Beach.

The entire area around Higbee was quite dead, and this was unfortunate as we were still missing migrants such as Black-throated Green and Chestnut-sided. Because we had focused our morning on the nesters at Belleplain (which was still a good idea) we had missed some of the good morning birds that Higbee had turned up. Sitting on 134 species, we headed towards the Cape May Meadows.

The Cape May Meadows is the best! Immediately upon arrival we picked up some dabbling ducks we needed, like Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Gadwall and Mute Swan. And most importantly, some goldfinches flushed from some bushes near the trail entrance – finally we picked up that darn bird. As the evening came upon us the light was getting really nice for birding, and just as we neared the end of the trail we noticed a couple things. First, there were a pair of Stilt Sandpipers in the pond and they allowed for awesome views of a great bird. Second, an enormous rainstorm was coming. This is the type of storm that leaves the entire sky covered by dark blue clouds. This is the type of storm that would drench all of Cape May County in no more than an hour. And at this time the clouds were halfway towards us, so the sky was split right down the middle between beautiful late afternoon and menacing storm. Even more breathtaking was the ghostly second-year Iceland Gull that flew in front of the stormy clouds. Not only was this a day bird, but the contrast between this all-white gull and the dark sky was astounding. If we weren’t on a tight schedule, that would be a moment to just sit and think, “Can you even believe we’re here right now?”

It was a good thing we didn’t sit around and reminisce – the heavens opened up not long after that. We hurried for the shelter of the rental car and killed some time driving around the island. What could we even see in this type of rain? We sat around at Higbee Beach taking turns jumping out of the car, realizing the rain was worse than we thought, running for cover, and repeating. Soon enough the rain lightened up to the point where we could bird Higbee once again, and we heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler chip which was somehow a day bird. Right was we left I picked a White-throated Sparrow out of some bushes, a fairly late bird that was also new. Having cleaned up on some birds here, we headed right back to the Meadows (where else?) but before we even made it there we had some awesome news.

I had been keeping the list, so I always knew exactly what our species count was. On the way to the Meadows we were at 142, and 150 would be a stretch and would involve an amazing second night shift. But I realized that the list app didn’t count birds that got flagged as rare until comments were included, so some of our birds didn’t count to the list! In one second we had improved from 142 to 147, and our outlook had drastically changed. Three new birds at the Meadows would get us our goal!

When we got to the Meadows for the second time, the views were just heavenly. After the storm had quickly swept through the area, the entire landscape was painted with a brush of ethereal color. All the greens, blues and even browns we could see were intensified and saturated. But we had business to take care of, and we quickly did. We added a Common Nighthawk flying low over the observation platform (148) and heard a peenting American Woodcock (not new) in the distance. Watching the sun set, we sat on the platform with some other teams, watching the ducks and shorebirds retreat to sleep (or migrate north). Calmly enjoying the twilight scenery, we were happily greeted by calling Black-crowned Night Herons (149!) flying over. Their silhouettes gave us comfort and excitement – we were only one away.

As the last slivers of light disappeared from the sky, Alex and Jory’s ears perked up. “I think I just heard a Virginia Rail,” Alex calmly commented. Jory affirmed; he had heard it too. Although Brendan and I didn’t hear it, we had done such a good job sticking together that we had lots of room for 95% birds. We hadn’t seen or heard a Virginia Rail yet today, and this was bird number 150.

But not so fast! For this to be our milestone, our goal, and more importantly, a species count in an actual competition, we had to be positive that it was a rail. Since Brendan and I didn’t hear anything, we mostly just listened to Alex and Jory discuss whether it was really a rail. But as the two of them contemplated, they only became more sure, and we counted it as our milestone bird. We left the Meadows to commence our second night shift, realizing how truly humbling this was to have worked so hard despite our setbacks and achieve our goal.

The second night shift was mostly a bust – searching for Nelson’s Sparrows and Yellow-breasted Chats got us nothing but wet and muddy. The second night shift is tough (especially when we were already content with 150) since we are all tired and have already added most of our target birds. In fact I even started hallucinating a little, or at least I was the only one who was alert enough to notice the strange rodent-like creatures jumping from blade to blade of grass every so often. The finish line gave us the opportunity to finally breathe, eat some good food, and celebrate the best birding experience we’d ever had. This emotional roller coaster that was the World Series of Birding was an unforgettable experience for all, and I’m glad to have went through it with the CTYBC.