Last year's CT Big Day effort would have been considered a success if our expectations had not been raised so greatly by our record-breaking 192 run in 2011. I took 2012 off, but was back last year and hoping for a new record. Instead, we came up with 186. Not quite the number we were hoping for, but it did tie the old record that stood for so many years, showing that our 2011 run was no fluke.
Entering 2014, I had set aside over a week for scouting, so my expectations were high. Dave and Fran, the kings of the north, already had their basic route set from the past few years, so they didn't need as much time as in past years to feel comfortable with it. Patrick and Frank had a whole lot going on so their scouting time was more limited than expected, but somehow Frank managed to sneak out most days and cover some of our most productive coastal locations. My schedule flexibility allowed me to cover whatever ground the others could not get to, including the CT River Valley and much of the eastern coast. Overall we had pretty good coverage, but probably not our most ever.
As our target dates approached, it became clear that the weather might keep us from running in that May 19-21 window that we love. On Friday the 16th, Dave Tripp suggested that we go that night. He talked us into it, and it appeared to be the right move. First, there were a ton of migrants already here, and it was looking like a mass exodus was coming on Saturday night once the weather changed. Second, we had quite a bit of lingering waterfowl that was scouted along the coast, which we were afraid might bail with the songbirds once the weather changed. Third, we were hoping for an inland waterbird fallout since rain was forecast for Friday night. Fourth, although it might shape up better later in the week, after our 19-21 window, we did not trust the forecast enough to wait and see. So we decided to go for it. On the downside, we would have much preferred an extra 1-2 days of scouting, and not all of the late breeders were in. For instance, we did not have Acadian Flycatcher pinned down anywhere along our route. It was a calculated risk, but we wanted to try.
Our run was in immediate danger of being canceled though, thanks to a band of heavy rain that was forecast to come through overnight. We were fully ready to abandon ship before dawn if the rain was too extensive. In actuality, the rain wasn't too much of a bother. We had to wait out the downpours for a couple hours, and it may have kept us from ticking Northern Saw-whet Owl, but we did pick up everything else we "needed" during that first night session. By the time dawn came, skies were clearing in the northwest and an unexpected cold breeze greeted us. The songbirds did not like this and weren't exactly singing their hearts out. Our morning in the north was tough at times, as some staked out breeders were missing (White-eyed Vireo) and others just took a bit too long to tick (Cerulean and Hooded Warblers). It was a product of the weather and not the route, for sure. Still, we got most of what we wanted and even ran into a few migrants along the way as hoped for. However those key misses and difficult birds ended up slowing us down over time. It was getting too late by the time we headed for the coast.
We hit the coast on a mission, knowing that we needed to be super efficient to have any shot at all at a record. Amazingly, nearly everything was right where we expected it to be. Iceland Gull...check, White-rumped Sandpiper...check, both scaup...check, check! We cut out the right spots and even ran into a surprise rarity, a Red-necked Phalarope that had actually been found earlier in the day in Guilford (nothing was downed on inland lakes but this bird was surely a product of the previous night's SE winds and rain). Our coastal run was both efficient and lucky, but it still wouldn't be enough. We got to the coast too late and ran out of daylight.
At this point, we knew that our 192 record was out of reach but we had refocused with a new goal...to beat the old 186 mark again and set a new second place number. We had some work to do at night, but we had some nocturnal birds to pick up that we probably would have ticked already if not for last night's rain. After hearing Screech Owl, Whip, Sora, and finally a surprise Least Bittern, we ended at midnight with a proud total of 188 on May 17, 2014.
As the next couple days passed, it became apparent that we did the right thing by going early. The 18th through the 20th were unimpressive, with a stiff NW breeze and not much in the way of birds. However, we all had planned on going on a later date, so our schedules were still pretty much clear. We began to talk about trying a second Big Day on Wednesday, May 21, regardless of weather...because we could. The weather for the 21st looked fine in that the NW breeze was finally forecast to die down. Conditions were favorable, but it did not look like we would see any significant migration either. We continued to scout early that week in case we made another run.
On Tuesday morning we decided to give it another go that night. Crazy, I know. We were hoping that we would be able to tighten up the inland route, leaving us enough time to cover as much coast as we needed to, which should lead to an increased total.
We met at 11pm on Tuesday night, pumped and slightly incredulous that we were doing this twice in five days. The air was still and the sky clear, as forecast. Our night started at midnight with a Sora, and we were off from there. We got everything we could have reasonably expected during that first night session except for Great Horned Owl. The quality was stellar, capped by a stridently tooting Northern Saw-whet Owl. So cool. This was the best first night session we've ever had, as far as I was concerned.
Our morning in the north went much more smoothly than it did on Saturday. There was more birdsong in the air, and this theme carried throughout the morning. As a result, we were able to spend much less time looking for individual birds and did not have to rely on as many backup locations. This helped save a ton of time. By late morning we were actually ahead of our record pace despite missing a couple species and not having many migrants at all! Dave and Fran did an amazing job at getting us to the coast at an early hour, allowing us to go much further east than we did on Saturday.
We hit the coast running at Harkness Memorial State Park, getting such birds as the King Eider we had found while scouting, Common Eider, Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Piping Plover, and Purple Sandpiper. We were feeling very, very good.
That didn't last for as long as we had hoped though. After that point, things on the coast were a bit more of a struggle. Birds weren't quite where they were supposed to be. Instead of Saturday's efficient coastal run, it felt like pulling teeth at times. We actually got most of what we were in search of, but there were fewer surprise birds and we had to put in much more time and effort per species. In the end, we ran out of daylight once again...again short of a new record. After dark there wasn't much we needed. We ended up dipping on Great Horned Owl, but our last bird of the day was a calling King Rail that we had found just before midnight the night before! Our total? You guessed it...188! Again.
As our good friend Julian Hough put it, "Glad to see you are improving!" Ha ha...
In all seriousness, over the past 5 years we have gone from hoping to beat the old record (186) to beating it three times and tying it once. The old record is basically our new average. Now that we've upped the stakes, we should eventually reach the mid-190s. 200 is certainly not out of the question, but it has become apparent that reaching 200 on a Connecticut Big Day would take intense scouting, stellar weather conditions, perfect migration timing, and, of course, a bit of dumb luck.
I'm already looking forward to 2015.