(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.