CT "Big Day", Sept 2, 2016

As last week's weather forecast was clarifying itself, Friday looked like the day with the best bet to witness diurnal migration. I was itching to get out but could not come up with much of a plan other than giving Bluff Point's morning flight a shot. I had done some local shorebirding with sub-par results over the preceding few weeks, so I wasn't too excited about trying that again. The winds during the day were forecast to be 5-15mph out of the north, which is great for hawk migration, but that season is just getting started and figured to not be terribly exciting on September 2nd. It's not late autumn rarity season yet either. So.....what to do?

Determined to spend the day in the field, I wondered about trying a casual Big Day. Despite doing annual May big days for several years now, I had never attempted one at any other time of year. I actually missed our dedicated attempt this past May because I was in China (I swear I'm going to post SOMETHING on that eventually...), so I hadn't felt the logistical big day juices flowing in quite some time. Greg Hanisek and Frank Gallo were up for joining me, so we decided to give it a shot. No scouting, not starting til dawn, and very little strategizing...not exactly what I'm used to!

Of course there was still strategy involved - you just can't help yourself no matter how "casual" the day is supposed to be. Big Days are all about logistics (honestly almost as fun as the birding itself), so we couldn't help but talk a bit about our plan the night before. It basically came down to this: morning flight for passerines, shorebird hotspots around midday high tide, a bit of hawkwatching to pad the list at some point, and kicking around for mixed flocks otherwise. We made a few brief detours for one or two birds here and there, but it we were essentially just "birding" at known hotspots all day. For those of you who are not familiar with May big days, thanks to scouting of territorial breeding birds, you usually aren't doing much looking around to see what's there. Rather, you are looking/listening for the individual bird that is supposed to be at that particular location at that particular time. You either see/hear it or you don't, and you move on the the next target. It is incredibly focused and disciplined. You stick to both the schedule and the route. If you start "birding" during a serious May big day, you're making a mistake. If someone gets distracted and says "let's give it a few more minutes" or "let's just detour down this side road for a second," it is up to someone else on the team to crack the whip and say NO, unless you happen to be ahead of schedule (which is about as rare as a tubenose in Long Island Sound!!). This is counter-intuitive to birders, as we love to explore by nature. It takes some getting used to.

There was not much whip-cracking on Friday. It was not too difficult to stick to our loose schedule, but you'd still be surprised at how you can fall behind schedule without even realizing it.

We started at 6am at Bluff Point in Groton for the morning flight at the so-called "hot corner," which isn't quite as hot as it used to be, it seems. There was a decent movement...certainly enough to keep us entertained for the first 90 minutes of daylight. We had nine species of warbler here, two empids including a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER, flyby DICKCISSEL and PURPLE FINCH, and two pre-sunrise COMMON NIGHTHAWKS.

From here we ran directly to Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, where both BUFF-BREASTED and BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS had been seen the evening before. Lucky for us they stayed the night and were feeding side-by-side in one of the grassy parking lots. A stop at nearby Shell Beach in Guilford netted us a LITTLE BLUE HERON, BROAD-WINGED HAWK, and GREEN-WINGED TEAL among other commoners.

From here we ran west for our shorebird and tern high tide roosts. The Stratford loop, then Milford Pt, then Sandy Pt (if necessary) was the plan. Stratford started slowly and never really improved. We began by missing the Stilt Sandpipers that were there the day before (and, turns out, were also seen early Friday morning). The warehouse pond did deliver with both TEAL, both NIGHT-HERONS, MARSH WREN, and a flyby tail-less BOAT-TAILED GRACKLE.

Milford Point was totally dead at high tide, which must have been the result of some type of disturbance as nothing was roosting on the sandbars. We did end up walking out the short spit at Sandy Point in West Haven, where we picked up some remaining common shorebirds plus FORSTER'S, BLACK, and ROSEATE TERNS among the throngs of Commons.

From here we ran east to Ecology Park in Branford for a short hawk watch. There was a steady trickle of common migrants and local birds. New for us were AMERICAN KESTREL and SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, and we cleaned up COOPER'S HAWK which I had missed earlier.

By this time is was mid-afternoon and we decided to head inland a bit to check ponds for waterbirds and powerline cuts and woods for passerines. These were mostly quick hits. Slowly but surely we filled in some big gaps, as we had not seen several "easy" songbirds. We're talking things like woodpeckers, wrens, grosbeaks and tanagers, etc. Our stops included Lake Saltonstall, Konolds Pond, Downs Road in Bethany, and Durham Meadows. We didn't get anything unexpected, but the beauty of Big Day birding is that a House Wren counts just as much as a Mourning Warbler, so you're pretty excited to find that first Eastern Towhee at 3pm.

Our final stop, at dusk, was the Quinnipiac River in North Haven, where we got our last two birds of the day: Spotted Sandpiper and Bald Eagle. The sunset was pretty spectacular too. We finished at 8pm with 127 species for the day. The ABA-rules record CT Big Day for the month of September is 131, and we gave that a pretty good run. We actually had at least four species in play if we decided to bird after dark (Virginia Rail, Clapper Rail, Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl are all likely in the right habitat), but we decided to call it quits, pleased with our effort and results.

Every Big Day has missed birds, and we definitely left quite a few possibilities on the table.  I'd say our three biggest misses were Wood Thrush, Pine Warbler, and especially Chipping Sparrow.

I/we had a blast doing this. My favorite part was probably birding places I never would have thought of visiting in early September, such as random powerline cuts in Bethany or North Farms Reservoir in my hometown of Wallingford. Perhaps I'll do the occasional out-of-season Big Day from now on.

sunset on the Q River
  - Nick


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