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Monday, May 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Big Days

Big Day (bĭg dā) - noun. A 24 hour period in which a birdwatcher, or team of birdwatchers, attempt to positively identify by sight or sound, as many species of birds as possible. Usually, clearly defined rules are followed and efforts are focused on a geographic region and, in most cases, occur during the Spring migration period. It requires not only identification skills, but also logistical and time management planning. Frequently used in conjunction with larger, conservation fund-raising events ("Birdathons"), but more often carried out just for fun and bragging rights.

Last year I did a Spring Big Day on bicycle and ended my attempt having located 124 species of birds. This year for the May 9th Spring Birdathon the Brooklyn Bird Club raised money for International Migratory Bird Day. Shane and Doug asked me to join their team and help set an all-time single day record for Brooklyn. I would still be doing a Big Birding/Biking Day the following Saturday, but thought it could be fun in an insane, masochistic way, so I agreed to join them.

In keeping with blogging's reverse time order, I'll start with this past Saturday's attempt.

Big Day birding is a mix of skill, planning and luck. The "luck" part refers, primarily, to weather conditions. The meteorological ingredients for a perfect day of Spring migration birding would be light south winds, mild temperatures (but not too warm) and clear skies with scattered puffy clouds (easier to see raptors). On Saturday I experienced the exact opposite of those conditions. No, it didn't rain, but if it had, it would have been an improvement. When I left my home at 5:30am, it was cold and fog shrouded most of the city. This is what it looked like when I arrived in Prospect Park.

Due in part to the cold temperature, most of the birds were not singing. Looking up into the trees for any movement yielded dark silhouettes against a white background. I kept telling myself that it was going to clear up any minute. My optimism was boosted slightly with the sight of a Summer Tanager in the park's Ravine. When I left at around 9am to head south, there were less than 65 check marks on my bird list. On that date, it would more typically have been closer to 80.

It was still in the low 50's when I arrived at the Promenade along Gravesend Bay and the fog was so bad that I couldn't find the Verrazano Bridge. Well, maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration. I could make out a small section of roadway near the Brooklyn tower. The bottom line was that scanning the bay for waterfowl was an exercise in futility. I also started to worry about finding any shorebirds once I rode all the way out to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Giving up on doing a big day started to make sense, but I wanted to at least get as far as Dreier-Offerman Park before making a decision.

I circled from the north cove to the south cove and located a grand total of three bird species. Then it started to drizzle. It didn't look good. I still had to cover Plum Beach, Riis Park and Ft. Tilden, then head towards Jamaica Bay. That would be about 16 miles in the fog and drizzle. At 11:30am, with a mere 77 species, I decided that continuing my Big Biking and Birding Day would be, not just pointless, but foolish. I went home, took a shower and watched the Mets beat the Giants.

Back up one week, and my experience with Shane and Doug couldn't have been more different.

View 2009 Big Day in a larger map
The week prior to the Birdathon, Shane and Doug had been scouting coastal areas for shorebirds, marsh sparrows and waterfowl. I scouted Prospect Park for songbirds and also made a brief visit on bike to Marine Park. The plan was to hit 10 locations, timing our coastal area arrivals to coincide with the tides. When the tide is high, it forces shorebirds that had been feeding on island mudflats to higher ground, concentrating them in places where we can see them. We also planned to spend as much time as possible in Brooklyn locations before heading to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (a small section of the refuge is actually in Brooklyn, so some of our sightings would still add to the Brooklyn total). An eleventh location, Ft. Tilden, was added at the last minute when I suggested checking the coast for seabirds and waterfowl near the Silver Gull Beach Club.

Shane and Doug picked me up at 3am and we headed to our first location, Paedergat Basin. Paedergat isn't quite a park or preserve but more like a trash strewn marsh nestled between some baseball fields, the Belt Parkway and a marina. It's one of those charming little places that only birdwatchers and mob hitmen know about. Prior to our arrival it had been raining so hard that the water on the street was level with the curbs. We sat in the car at the parking lot in front of the baseball fields feeling optimistic that "the rain would stop soon". Once it slowed to a drizzle we walked the muddy path parallel to the ball field fence until we came to the marsh. Our plan was to listen for rails in the 4am rain. To that point all we had heard was a Carolina Wren and some Killdeer on the field behind us. At 4:15 Doug said, "Look a night-heron" and beamed his flashlight into the inky marsh night. Emerging from the raindrops and darkness was not a Black-crowned Night-Heron, but the ghostly white visage of a Barn Owl. High fives all around. It definitely seemed like an auspicious way to start the day. Back to the car and our next location - Floyd Bennett Field.

We spent little time driving around in the dark at Floyd Bennett. At the intersection of the runways we stood quietly and listened for American Woodcock. Several were "peenting" in the distance and we could also hear the twittering of their wings as they ascended above their annual leks. There was about 30 minutes left before sunrise, so we hurried off to Marine Park.

The Marine Park Saltmarsh Center has a short loop trail through the marsh and upland habitat. It's a quick walk and we hoped to add several marsh species. We were trying to be disciplined and stay on a strict schedule, so blew through the saltmarsh fairly fast. Some highlights here were Hooded Merganser, Snowy Egret, Osprey, Solitary Sandpiper, Least Tern, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow. As we were packing our stuff into the car we had two great, unexpected flyovers; a Common Nighthawk and a pair of Bobolinks.

Plum Beach would be our next stop, before heading into Prospect Park for three hours of songbirds. At Plum we had the inner protected marsh habitat to search, as well as, the dunes and beach on the south side of the peninsula. This was where we were hoping to pick up several shorebird species, Black Skimmers, Clapper Rails and marsh sparrows.

There was a flock of about 175 Black Skimmers resting on the beach, as well as, lots of Sanderlings. Rails were calling within the marsh and, after several minutes of searching, we located a single Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Then the fog began to roll in. It wasn't really a problem, though, because we had found what we were looking for and were heading out. On the way to the parking lot I heard a Rose-breasted Grosbeak calling from an unseen perch in the fog adjacent to the parkway. He must have dropped in as the fog was rolling off the water. By 7am we were already at 72 species and hadn't even been to Prospect Park yet.

Doug & Shane are really good with shorebirds and seabirds and I'm most at home in the woods and fields of Prospect Park. As an ear-birder I can usually locate the songbirds pretty quickly, then point the rest of the team in the bird's direction. I was confident that we could spend a few hours in the park and come away with close to 90 species. So far the weather had been cooperating and we had been very lucky with our sightings. Birds were very active and we quickly picked up a Cape May Warbler in the Ravine. Peter's team had a similar route to our's and we frequently crossed paths, sharing any good finds as we went along. We weren't doing as well with warblers as in past years, but we were making up for it with other songbirds, waterfowl and raptors. Our list was already over 100 species when we left for a quick stop at Green-Wood Cemetery. From the cemetery we would head to the coast with stops along Gravesend Bay for Purple Sandpiper, then Dreier-Offerman Park, Big Egg Marsh and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

The Purple Sandpipers were feeding on the rocks in the expected spot, so we headed to Dreier-Offerman Park. Here we added Wood Duck (perched in a tree), Bufflehead, Common Loon, Belted Kingfisher, Merlin and Boat-tailed Grackle. While we were still at the park we received a text message from Peter. His team had located a Whimbrel at Plum Beach. This large, long-billed shorebird is a rare find around Brooklyn, so we decided to stop at Plum one more time. We passed Peter and his team in the parking lot and they gave us directions to the Whimbrel. Unfortunately, it was a 5-minute wonder and had departed by the time we walked out to the marsh.

Before I continue with our timeline I should point out what the car's interior looked like by, say, noon. Doug's car is a four-seater, with the fourth seat reserved for our packs, coolers and general crap. It's a small car and, since I have the longest legs, I got the front passenger seat and Shane shared the back with the piles of "stuff". The pile started out at dawn with some semblance of order, but by lunchtime it had devolved into an interior landfill of sorts. There were times when we weren't sure if Shane was still in the back seat. At one point I asked Shane to hand me an apple from my cooler. I dropped it and it disappeared into the abyss of stuff, luckily I had another one. I wonder if Doug ever recovered it?

After our second stop at Plum Beach we had a little time to kill before heading to Jamaica Bay. I suggested swinging by the fisherman's parking lot in Fort Tilden. Seabirds or waterfowl off the shore were a possibility and we might find something new to add to our growing list. As we were pulling up to the west end of Tilden we spotted a large flock of scoters close to shore. They were primarily White-winged Scoters, but several Surf Scoters were mixed in with the flock of about 60 birds. While Doug and Shane were checking every scoters for something different, I turned my scope to the right and began looking for other birds. Within minutes I spotted three large ducks swimming away from the shore. I recognized one right away as a Common Eider and assumed that they all were the same. I said, "Guys, I've got some eiders over here." Very quickly Doug realized that only one was a Common Eider and the other two were King Eiders. Common Eiders in Brooklyn during the Spring is very unusual. One is more likely to encounter these seaducks at Montauk Point. King Eider in Brooklyn at any time of year is extremely rare, during Spring, some might say outrageous. More high fives all around.

By the time we pulled in to the parking lot at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge my body was beginning to slow down. We still had a few hours of light left and some target species missing from our list. As we moved counter clockwise through the South and North Gardens, then the West Pond, like the muscles in my feet & legs, I noticed that the bird songs were waning. We added Greater & Lesser Scaup, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Northern Harrier, American Coot, Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, Red Knot, Short-billed Dowitcher, Forster's Tern and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. As we stood in the parking lot next to the car, a hummingbird flew over us. Maybe I hadn't slept enough the previous night (is 3 hours too little?), but as we crossed the road and headed to the East Pond, I felt like I was dragging my butt. As we stood at the edge of the pond scanning the waterfowl, swallows and wading birds, Doug's undying energy level gave me one final push. In quick succession he spotted a pair of Little Blue Herons and a single Blue-winged Teal. We all got on the birds and added two more checks to the day. I felt like I'd make it through the day.

Our final stop was at Big Egg Marsh to the south of the refuge. We were hoping to find a Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow and scan the flocks of incoming shorebirds for anything we had missed. Finding the sparrow was relatively easy but picking out the shorebirds against the setting sun was difficult. Difficult, not just because they were backlit, but after 17 hours of birding, merely enjoying the spectacle of hundreds of shorebird silhouettes against a brilliant red, pink, purple and orange morphing sky was much more compelling.

It was 8:30pm when we packed up the car and headed to Mary's house to meet with the other teams, compare notes and share stories. Our team, "The Wandering Talliers", finished with 142 species just in Brooklyn and 157 species overall. I was stunned with our final number as it was 13 more than our previous high, which also covered many more areas. Already Doug and Shane are thinking we can beat that by 3 come next year. I'd be happy just to finish what I started last Saturday, only without the fog.

Date: May 9, 2009
Locations: Big Egg Marsh, Dreier-Offerman Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Fort Tilden, Gravesend Bay, Greenwood Cemetery, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Marine Park Saltmarsh Nature Center, Paedergat Basin, Plum Beach, Prospect Park

Number of Species: 157

1) Snow Goose
2) Brant
3) Canada Goose
4) Mute Swan
5) Wood Duck
6) Gadwall
7) American Wigeon
8) American Black Duck
9) Mallard
10) Blue-winged Teal
11) Northern Shoveler
12) Ring-necked Duck
13) Greater Scaup
14) Lesser Scaup
15) King Eider
16) Common Eider
17) Surf Scoter
18) White-winged Scoter
19) Bufflehead
20) Hooded Merganser
21) Red-breasted Merganser
22) Ruddy Duck

23) Ring-necked Pheasant

24) Common Loon

25) Double-crested Cormorant

26) Great Blue Heron
27) Great Egret
28) Snowy Egret
29) Little Blue Heron
30) Tricolored Heron
31) Green Heron
32) Black-crowned Night-Heron
33) Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

34) Glossy Ibis

35) Osprey
36) Northern Harrier
37) Red-shouldered Hawk
38) Red-tailed Hawk
39) American Kestrel
40) Merlin
41) Peregrine Falcon

42) Clapper Rail
43) American Coot

44) Black-bellied Plover
45) Semipalmated Plover
46) Killdeer
47) American Oystercatcher
48) Spotted Sandpiper
49) Solitary Sandpiper
50) Greater Yellowlegs
51) Willet
52) Lesser Yellowlegs
53) Red Knot
54) Sanderling
55) Least Sandpiper
56) Purple Sandpiper
57) Dunlin
58) Short-billed Dowitcher
59) American Woodcock

60) Laughing Gull
61) Ring-billed Gull
62) Herring Gull
63) Great Black-backed Gull
64) Least Tern
65) Common Tern
66) Forster's Tern
67) Black Skimmer

68) Rock Pigeon
69) Mourning Dove

70) Monk Parakeet

71) Barn Owl

72) Common Nighthawk

73) Chimney Swift

74) Ruby-throated Hummingbird

75) Belted Kingfisher

76) Red-bellied Woodpecker
77) Downy Woodpecker

78) Eastern Wood-Pewee
79) Willow Flycatcher
80) Least Flycatcher
81) Eastern Phoebe
82) Great Crested Flycatcher
83) Eastern Kingbird

84) White-eyed Vireo
85) Yellow-throated Vireo
86) Blue-headed Vireo
87) Warbling Vireo
88) Red-eyed Vireo

89) Blue Jay
90) American Crow
91) Fish Crow

92) Tree Swallow
93) Northern Rough-winged Swallow
94) Bank Swallow
95) Barn Swallow

96) Black-capped Chickadee
97) Tufted Titmouse
98) White-breasted Nuthatch

99) Carolina Wren
100) House Wren
101) Marsh Wren

102) Ruby-crowned Kinglet
103) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

104) Veery
105) Gray-cheeked Thrush
106) Hermit Thrush
107) Wood Thrush
108) American Robin

109) Gray Catbird
110) Northern Mockingbird
111) Brown Thrasher

112) European Starling

113) Cedar Waxwing

114) Blue-winged Warbler
115) Nashville Warbler
116) Northern Parula
117) Yellow Warbler
118) Chestnut-sided Warbler
119) Magnolia Warbler
120) Cape May Warbler
121) Black-throated Blue Warbler
122) Yellow-rumped Warbler
123) Black-throated Green Warbler
124) Blackburnian Warbler
125) Prairie Warbler
126) Blackpoll Warbler
127) Black-and-white Warbler
128) American Redstart
129) Ovenbird
130) Northern Waterthrush
131) Common Yellowthroat
132) Canada Warbler

133) Scarlet Tanager

134) Eastern Towhee
135) Chipping Sparrow
136) Field Sparrow
137) Savannah Sparrow
138) Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
139) Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
140) Seaside Sparrow
141) Song Sparrow
142) Swamp Sparrow
143) White-throated Sparrow
144) White-crowned Sparrow

145) Northern Cardinal
146) Rose-breasted Grosbeak
147) Indigo Bunting

148) Bobolink
149) Red-winged Blackbird
150) Common Grackle
151) Boat-tailed Grackle
152) Brown-headed Cowbird
153) Orchard Oriole
154) Baltimore Oriole

155) House Finch
156) American Goldfinch

157) House Sparrow


Yojimbot said...

Quite a tally...I dont see summer tanager on your list.

Rob Jett said...

The Summer Tanager was only seen on my discontinued Big Day - 5/16. The 157 species were seen on the 5/9 Birdathon day.

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