Things have been pretty busy on my end over the past month, but not too busy to squeeze in a Big Day with the usual crew - Patrick Dugan, Frank Gallo, Dave Tripp, and Fran Zygmont. Below is a brief synopsis.
History: This was our sixth year (out of the past seven) as a Big Day team in Connecticut, and we have slowly but steadily improved since we started back in 2009. There have been peaks and valleys, but overall we have been gradually raising our average over the years. Our totals are as follows:
2009 - 177
2010 - 185
2011 - 192 (CT state record)
2012 - off year for me
2013 - 186
2014 - 188, 188 (two separate days)
2015 - 191
Scouting: This year our scouting was collectively less extensive than it usually is. I personally was more limited than ever, but still managed to free up enough time to give a solid effort. Having less time forces you to be more focused and efficient with your scouting, which meant less exploring of new areas and a greater percentage of time focused on birds along our main route.
Contrary to most years, the coast was firmed up before the north was. A few cool and breezy mornings in the north kept Fran and Dave from getting a good handle on some of the breeders' habits. The coast, which is usually in a state of uncertain flux due to the migrant turnover, was surprisingly stable. Most of the scouted coastal birds were reliably seen on consecutive days preceding the Big Day. But you never know what the day itself will bring.
Scheduling and Weather: As always, we tried to be flexible with choosing the day itself, leaving the decision to the last minute based on weather and scouting results. Our schedules allowed us to pick any one of May 17-19 or the 21st (I was unavailable for the 20th).
In past years we have struggled with oft-changing forecasts, sometimes not deciding until just a few hours before midnight of a given day. This year, however, the forecast for our window held true for 5+ days before. The stable forecast made the decision easy...Tuesday the 19th would be the day. Conditions leading up to the 19th were just "too nice"...we have noticed that perfectly nice weather often does not translate to good spring birding in Connecticut. The 21st was looking windy. But the 19th itself looked promising...light south wind with scattered showers and moderate temps. Give me some rain over wind any day. In fact, rain often results in great spring birding around here by knocking down migrants, preventing them from overflying the state.
The Big Day: As midnight approached it was clear that we were going to get wet during the early morning hours, followed by a dry afternoon and possibly a line of showers and storms during the evening. We were just hoping to dodge the heaviest showers, and that any heavy rain would be short-lived.
We started, as we always do, in the Connecticut River Valley. The night was quiet. A few things were migrating, like Swainson's Thrush, but not much else was calling. We struggled in the marshes and grasslands, missing more than we were hitting. Things changed when we made our move to the northwest corner, where the ceiling lowered and we began to see some raindrops. Fran's scouted Saw-whet and Long-eared (!) Owls came through. Our American Bittern stop also held a surprise Sora.
As first light approached in the northwest, we went for a staked-out migrant White-throated Sparrow, but the bird did not cooperate. Still, we had no problem fighting through the early morning rain and ticking off the breeders that Dave and Fran had scouted. Ruffed Grouse, Belted Kingfisher, and Acadian Flycatcher...check, check, and check. We even had a surprise Kentucky Warbler belt out its song in Kent. One negative surprise was the lack of downed waterbirds on the lakes. I was sure that we would run into a flock of scoter or a rare tern, but...nada! Even the scouted Ruddy Duck that had been on Bantam Lake for days was nowhere to be found. Still, we left the northwest right about where we should be at a time that would allow us to make a few extra stops on our way to the coast. Fran and Dave again did a great job of putting together an inland route.
Normally we head to the coast with maybe a stop or two along the way, but not much else. This year, given others' reports from the day before, we decided that two additional areas should be hit: Southbury and Hamden. In Southbury we had five possible birds: Meadowlark (scarce even at traditional locations this year!), White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, and White-eyed Vireo. We ended up scoring everything but the meadowlark in pretty quick fashion. On to Hamden where we had three more birds to find: Prothonotary Warbler, Pine Siskin, and Red-shouldered Hawk. We made even quicker work in Hamden, going three for three!
On the way to the coast from there, we did hit a few more quick spots for some easy birds, and we didn't even have to get out of the car to see the male Bufflehead that Frank had found days earlier. High tide around Stratford/Milford was productive as well. Milford Point delivered with Red Knot and White-rumped Sandpiper, two key species we often struggle with.
As we headed east we took a quick detour to a Black Vulture roost (missed inland because the rain kept them down) and then continued the coastal assault. Things were looking really good at this point. A new record was certainly within reach, even likely.
Until we got to Guilford, where we were met with fog.
"You've got to be &$%*#&@ kidding me" said everyone at the same time.
We couldn't believe it, really. After venting frustrations and feeling badly for ourselves for a few minutes, we pressed on. Here and there we picked up new birds. We managed to find a few things onshore, but had no chance at viewing anything offshore, including some "guaranteed" species such as Surf Scoter.
You didn't have to go more than a quarter mile inland to find the sunshine again, though. This allowed us to see the continuing White-faced Ibis that had been hanging in Clinton just inland of Route 1. We were forced to bag several scheduled stops because of the lack of visibility, so we just decided to make the best of it. Old Saybrook was still worth a visit because there were a few species there we could potentially see on shore. First up was a small stretch of beach shrouded in fog that held two individual gulls...amazingly, one was an Iceland Gull (scouted) and the other was a Laughing Gull (surprise)...two birds we needed. We took a "what the hell" look at nearby South Cove and were lucky to find a Little Blue Heron and a pair of Gadwall just barely visible in the fog...two more we needed. Somehow, we were managing to save face.
The fog refused to lift, so we were forced to leave behind at least two guaranteed species and one or two likely ones. Light was fading and visibility was not improving, so all we could do was head back inland for the last few hours of the day. Most of the night was spent waiting out probably the most impressive lightning storm I have ever seen. A nasty line of storms pushed through the state bringing heavy rain, strong winds, and isolated hail. After they passed we managed to pick up one more species before midnight. That left us at 191 for the day, just one short of our CT record.
Analysis: We had a new record in the bag and even had a shot at 195+ if it weren't for that fog along the central-eastern coast. So it would have been easy to be disappointed with the day if you just look at it from that perspective. We do expect a lot from ourselves. But we still ended up with our second best total yet despite some adversity! I am really proud of the team and how we powered through the fog to get all the way to 191. It was a fantastic day overall. We never hit any waves of migrants or downed inland waterbirds, and of course we had the foggy afternoon, but we also had stretches of great success...like when we hit 7 out of 8 of the possible Southbury/Hamden birds. I'm already looking forward to next year because I think we are still improving and just need the "right" day to set a new record. You can debate whether 200 is possible in Connecticut (I think that it is, on the perfect day), but it's clear that we have yet to max out our total. Good stuff!
Biggest Miss: Eastern Meadowlark
Bird of the Day: A tough one! Toss-up between Kentucky Warbler and Swallow-tailed Kite. Also in the running were staked out White-faced Ibis, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Prothonotary Warbler. We had more rare birds on this day than we have on any prior Big Day, for sure.
Huge THANK YOUs to everyone in the Connecticut birding community who help make our success possible every year by reporting to eBird, posting to the listserv, or communicating directly with us as we prepare.
Finally, a special thank you to my grandmother, who passed away on the same day. She had been sick, so it was expected. I thought it somewhat fitting that she, the person who is solely responsible for introducing me to birding, died on the day we were out doing this crazy thing that would not have been possible without her. Thank you Grammy.