CT Big Day - May 16, 2018 - 193 species (new CT record!)

The Raven Lunatics were back at it this year on our quest for 200. Our team of Frank Gallo, Dave Provencher, Dave Tripp, Fran Zygmont and myself (no Patrick Dugan for the second year in a row) ran our statewide CT Big Day on May 16th this year, our earliest run yet. We finally surpassed our previous record of 192, which we set all the way back in 2011. So, yeah, it took us seven years to get back to that level!

History: This team has been doing Big Days in CT since 2009, with a couple years off sprinkled in there. Despite not having set a new team record in seven whole years, we have been inching our average forward throughout this process. Now we expect to at least approach 190 every time. As we continue to refine our route and strategy each year, we feel that 200 species is now within reasonable striking distance. It'll happen one of these years, but it's going to take some luck...always a necessary piece of the Big Day puzzle.

Scheduling and Weather: Per usual we blocked off a window of 5 days so that we had some flexibility in choosing the exact date based on weather and migration. Every year is different. This year, the local migration could be described as nothing short of brutal through May 14th, thanks in large part to a few stretches of clear skies and light east winds. While breeders have no trouble returning in that sort of weather, any easterly component tends to push migrants just to our west, and there was no inclement weather to concentrate those migrants that were passing through CT.

Things changed on the 15th, thanks to a night with light SW wind and drizzle and fog. Migrants were pushed into CT and then downed by the iffy weather on that date. Birds where everywhere. It looked like the night of the 15th would not be a good migration night, so we figured we would make a run on the 16th with so many birds parked in CT for what looked like several days. We were pretty confident that whatever was downed in the state for the 15th would not be leaving that night.

Scouting: We were able to pull the trigger on the 16th because we had a pretty good handle on the birds despite it being early in the breeding season. Many birds had just arrived on the 15th, which made for some rushed last-second scouting! But we had started scouting a bit early this year, especially on the coast, and already had some good birds lined up.

The Big Day: When we all met one hour before midnight, we still weren't sure exactly where we would start. Somewhere along the CT River Valley was the answer, but we ended up deciding to start with a Pied-billed Grebe that had been reported "singing" at a pond in Portland. PBGR has become a mega-tough breeding bird in CT, and we had not recorded one on a Big Day before. The problem was that nobody had been able to scout this bird at night to hear if it was singing then, as they sometimes do. Well, nothing like starting a Big Day with a miss! The grebe was not talking for us. The defeating amphibian presence at this particular location was not helping either.

From there we continued northwest-ward, hitting various marshes and grasslands and woodlands in search of species that tend to vocalize at night. We began to tick some good birds such as Grasshopper Sparrow, Sora, Virginia Rail, American Woodcock, Eastern Screech-Owl, Barred Owl, and Eastern Whip-poor-will. Remember that Pied-billed Grebe we missed in Portland? Well, we were thrilled to hear one singing (laughing, really) at an entirely different location. A new Big Day bird for this team! A Green Heron, always a candidate for biggest PITA of the day, squawked for us. Always nice to get that one out of the way!

Based on the silence overhead on this night, nothing was migrating. Though this is when we usually tick migrating Swainson's Thrush, often Gray-cheeked, and occasionally cuckoos, we came up empty. This was actually part of the plan, however, as we wanted the weather to keep all those migrants in place for us. Nocturnal dips also included American Bittern and Northern Saw-whet Owl - unfortunate! Still, we had bagged a few key species on night #1. We would hope for a nocturnal migration during night session #2.

Dawn broke in Litchfield County with Hermit Thrush and Blue-headed Vireo and other northern goodies. We "felt" Ruffed Grouse drumming right on cue. The "ticks" came fast and furious. We tore through the first hour of our daytime route encountering the expected breeders. Missing, so far, were those downed migrants. I was not about to panic; the first stretch of our daytime route does not pass through any migrant traps, and it is not unusual to go large stretches with only breeders evident, even on good migration days.

A few of our tougher inland birds began to fall. Solitary Sandpiper and Bank Swallow were tallied at the same location. Solitaries peak in the first half of May and quickly drop off come the middle of the month, so we often struggle with that species. Bank Swallow we almost always find somewhere, but some years it can prove rather difficult, especially as breeding colonies shift locations from year to year.

We made one stop specifically for Belted Kingfisher and Wilson's Warbler, on the off-chance that the singing WIWA that Dave heard here on the 15th had decided to stay. Not only did those two species cooperate, but we finally hit a small pocket of migrants that included 2-3 Cape Mays and a Bay-breasted Warbler. Things were looking up! Cedar Waxwings also made their first appearance. The waxwings, though a common breeding bird, are always a nice "get" in mid-May as they can be somewhat scarce until the second half of the month.

On and on we went, picking up more and more local breeders all while incidentally hearing such migrants as Blackpoll, Tennessee, and Parula. We were able to salvage a mid-morning American Bittern, which was missed the night before. Bantam Lake in Litchfield had been holding two lingering ducks: Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup. Lucky for us, they held on for another day. As we worked our way into more southern-like woodland, we picked up Acadian Flycatcher and Hooded Warbler. It was late morning by this time, and we would be heading for the coast soon. We said goodbye to our last chances at Winter Wren and Common Merganser, both of which would elude us on this day. It wouldn't be a Big Day without a few misses!

Coastal birding on a Big Day is always a bit of a crapshoot. You're not dealing with many territorial birds. Tides matter. And so do temperature and humidity. Too much heat and you'll be fighting shimmer on the water all afternoon. Too much humidity and you may find certain sites fogged in without any warning! On this day, our weather challenge would be rain. Steady rain. For 12 hours.

It became apparent upon our arrival to the coast that the forecast of "passing showers" would be slightly misleading. What they meant to say was that a large blob of green on the radar would sit over Connecticut for the rest of the day. And an east breeze at 5-10 would be more like 10-15 sustained.

Sure, being wet for that long can take its toll. There were times when we could not effectively scan with binoculars because we were all shivering (well, at least I was!). It was a good thing we had a full roll of paper towels, because we ripped through those at lightning speed. Keeping optics dry in driving rain isn't easy, and it was something we were not expecting to have to deal with. All that being said, give me rain over shimmer or fog any day. The weather was helpful in some ways - we didn't have to worry about heat shimmer on this day. And we did not have to fight any beach crowds :)

For the most part, the coastal birds came through for us. We began the afternoon around saltmarsh and picked up Tricolored Heron and a late Northern Harrier in Stratford. The usual shorebirds could be seen, and we eventually eeked out a White-rumped Sandpiper. Further east, the continuing drake Eurasian Wigeon in Guilford was another Big Day "first" for this team. Nearby I had a hen King Eider scouted on private land, and she was right where she should have been.

Hammonasset Beach State Park was good to us, as always. The continuing adult Little Blue Heron was right alongside the road as we drove in, which saved us some time. We picked up our first Glossy Ibis here as well. Saltmarsh Sparrow was a tick. We departed Hammonasset with 182 species, so a new record was still within reach. At this point, with time dwindling, we had to start focusing on our biggest miss up to this point...White-breasted Nuthatch. Before you laugh too hard at this, if we were to miss this species, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be the first New England Big Day team to do so! We've had some bad misses before. Hairy Woodpecker comes to mind off the top of my head. Those two common species can be a royal pain on a fast-paced Big Day in May, a time of year when they get quiet in the heart of the breeding process.

Dave P. assured us that we would get WBNU in coastal woods as we proceeded eastward. He would be correct. We were eventually able to pish in one bird, which came in silently, of course. In fact, we didn't notice the thing until it was clinging to a tree trunk just a few feet from Frank's face! Crisis averted, anyway. Around this same time, our first (and only) cuckoo of the day vocalized...a Yellow-billed.

We entered our final daylight stop in Waterford with 188 species. It would take a few good birds to get us close to our previous record of 192. Common Eider was a gimme here. With that flock we noticed two King Eiders, an immature male and a female. We didn't need that species for the day, but it was a sweet find nonetheless. A young male Black Scoter got us to 190. Gallo picked out a Great Cormorant among Double-crests on an offshore channel marker -191! Very clutch spotting by Frank. Roseate Terns had been seen here all week (and were apparently there earlier that day, and the next day), but we were only able to get identifiable looks at Common Terns. At one point there were several dozen terns feeding way offshore, but they were beyond ID range. This was a bit frustrating, as Roseates almost certainly were a part of that group, based on odds alone. Oh well!

Darkness fell. Sitting at 191, we needed one bird to tie our old mark and two birds to set a new one. And we still had several possibilities for night #2. Swainson's Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Black-billed Cuckoo, Great Horned Owl, Least Bittern, King Rail to name the most probable. Actually, King Rail is not probable at all, but we happened to have a lead on one from private property in fresh water. This would be our next stop.

We pulled up to the freshwater marsh to rain that had only increased in intensity. A glance at the radar confirmed that we would be lucky to hear ANY nocturnal migrants tonight. The rain would not be letting up anytime soon, and the cold east wind persisted. While we waited for rails to make sounds, Frank and Fran began hooting like Great Horned Owls. Worth a shot, right? Silence for a while. One of us clapped loudly, hoping to elicit a response. Sure enough, that got the Virginias going. Once that happened, the King Rail chimed in with a grunt series. 192! That lifted our wet spirits a bit!

OK, back in the game. We just needed one more bird. We didn't have any more leads on which to follow-up, so we went to another private wetland location in hopes of a surprise Least Bittern, a Great Horned Owl, or the NFC of one of those passerines we still needed. Well, the marsh birds were silent. Nothing. Frank and Fran continued to hoot their heads off. Nothing. All we heard overhead were rain drops whacking against leaves; nothing crazy enough to migrate in this crap. It was 11:55pm, and we began our soaked walk back to the car to call it a night.

Off to our left, a Great Horned Owl called. It definitely took a few seconds for us to realize that it was the real deal and not one of our team members. "Hey....wait....Fran, is that you??"  "Nope, not me!" I reached into my pocket as quickly as I could for my cell phone to pull up the time...11:59. Are you kidding? Wow. Just in time. One minute later and it would not have counted. 193, a new CT record.

We are obviously a very goal-oriented group, so the difference between 192 and 193 felt like way more than one bird. To us, it was the difference between great success and...I won't use the word failure, but we absolutely would have been at least mildly bummed if we had only tied the old mark after putting in so much effort. Sure, either way we would have raised money for Litchfield Hills Audubon Society, which is obviously the most important thing. But, we hit 192 seven years ago, so we had been waiting a while to reach a new milestone. We were really, reallllly pleased.

Dave P. had brought along some beers for celebration were we to hit 193+, and boy were they tasty. We recounted the day's efforts with plenty of laughs and smiles, suddenly not caring at all how wet or cold we were. That Great Horned kept talking, too. And sometime after midnight, about halfway through my beer, a goddamned Swainson's Thrush called overhead.

Analysis: Slowly but surely, we are getting better at this. I felt that our pace was great throughout the day. Rarely did we get sucked into "birding" or chasing misses at the expense of other birds. Our route seems to vary less each year as we tweak and refine. I don't have any major criticisms, though there are always improvements to make. Our goal of 200 stands, and we are getting closer. It used to seem like a pipe dream, but now we know it'll happen eventually. It will just take that perfect (or nearly-so) day.

Misses: Given that this is our highest total ever, there were quite a few attainable misses! As mentioned before, Swainson's Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Black-billed Cuckoo are species you can reasonably expect to get at night, especially the thrushes. None of us sniffed a Least Bittern during scouting, but they are annual breeders, so that goes down as a miss. Winter Wren and Common Merganser should both be seen, but this was a down year for WIWR and the mergansers can be tough if you don't hit the right stretch of river. Northern Saw-whet Owl, White-winged Scoter, Red Knot, Laughing Gull (we only had the 3 common gull species today), Roseate Tern (not usually considered a miss, as we've never had this species on a Big Day, but there had been some hanging around Waterford this year), Mourning Warbler (not really expected because it's on the early side still for this species), White-crowned Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark (becoming harder and harder in CT!) were also missed.

Looking at that list of misses, it's not hard to imagine adding seven more species to reach the 200 mark on the right day.

Biggest Miss: Common Merganser

Bird of the Day: King Rail. A darn good bird in CT regardless of the day, this calling individual during a steady rain perked us right up and put us in position to reach new heights.

As always, we could not have done this without each and every one of the active birders in CT who contribute with their reports via CTBirds and eBird. THANK YOU!

Road closed from tornado/microburst damage? Fine, we'll walk to the Hooded Warbler if we have to.


Popular posts from this blog

Warblers in Flight: A Photographic Collection

Last winter's gull review

Guest Post by Tim Spahr: Finding Connecticut Warblers in Fall Migration