May 16, 2023 Big Day - Last one for a while??

When this team of Connecticut birders first assembled back in May 2009, our lofty goal was to someday beat the long-standing state Big Day record of 186 species. That first year we tallied 177...a solid effort, but not quite in the ballpark. The following year we came oh-so-close with a total of 185...tantalizing! In 2011 we kept the improvements rolling and crushed the old record with 192 species.

We have run dedicated Big Days nearly annually since in hopes of reaching the mythical number of 200, but we have done no better than 193 (2018). It's been quite a ride! Over the years we have improved our route and efficiency to the point where on a normal migration day we know we are likely to hit somewhere in the 188-192 range. Reaching 200 will take a hefty migration event and some luck (luck always plays a part, no matter how prepared you might be).

Heading into this year, I felt like I soon needed a break from the all-out week-long effort we put into this annually. This might have been my last crazy run for a while. In speaking with teammates, turns out I wasn't the only one feeling it. Nothing has been decided for 2024 or beyond, but there's a chance this was our swan song.

Which makes it all the more annoying that we had an awful year! By our standards anyway. I'll save the suspense and reveal that we quit at dusk with 184 species. This was our second worst result ever as a full team (a couple years we were missing one or two members for various reasons).

So, what happened??

I'll give the full analytic breakdown for old times' sake :)

Scouting: We can't blame ourselves for lack of effort! Dave & Fran meticulously refined the inland route, while Frank, Patrick and I were joined by honorary team member Phil Rusch in scouting the coast. It was clear early in scouting that the coast would be an issue. Lingering waterfowl was scarce to absent. And those we did scout early in the week (Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck) had vanished as the Day approached. Did the mid-April heat wave have something to do with it? Or did the preceding mild winter prevent ducks from being forced into Long Island Sound? Who knows.

The Sound in general was quieter than usual. Even the more common species seemed less abundant than is typical. Still, a few uncommon species concentrated at Milford Point and Hammonasset gave us hope that we could put together a respectable total.

Scheduling and Weather: We blocked off a six-day window this year so that we could pick the date that best gave us a shot at the kind of migration event/fallout it would take to get us to 200. Unfortunately the weather, although objectively beautiful, was way too nice to concentrate migrants. Generally speaking, the best spring migration days in Connecticut are a result of either inclement weather that downs migrating birds OR several days of blocking weather that suddenly clears and opens the migration floodgates. We saw neither of those scenarios. The weather was clear and calm for days, resulting in a scattered trickle of migrants.

With few migrants in the state to begin with, we decided to roll the dice and go on a day of seasonably warm southwest winds, which would certainly spur nocturnal migration. But there was no inclement weather to ground the birds, and we had no idea where they would land. Best case scenario, the turnover would result in more migrants than were already in place. Worst case, birds would leave and not be replaced.

The Big Day: As expected the radar was lit up with migrants as midnight on the 16th approached. The volume of birds we were hearing wasn't terribly high, perhaps because of their altitude, but there were enough audible flight calls to work with. Soon after midnight struck, we whistled up an Eastern Screech-Owl. Two Soras whinnied in the distance. Virginia Rails were not to be ignored. Swainson's Thrushes peeped from the heavens. This is the magic of a Big Day at work. Nighttime birding is underrated!

After more Connecticut River Valley birding that netted us a few grassland species, we headed for the [Litchfield] hills, where we found our scouted Northern Saw-whet Owl and spotlit a Broad-winged Hawk on a nest. Both cuckoos, which are often vocal at night, sounded off as well. En route we picked up a calling Pied-billed Grebe. The first night session ended well despite the unexpected miss of Great Horned Owl.

The dawn chorus began with Hermit Thrush, and the day's list quickly grew from there. A Ruffed Grouse drummed on schedule. We were unable to connect with a pair of locally nesting Sandhill Cranes, a species that continues to give us trouble despite its status as a recently established breeder in the state. Dave and Fran's scouted passerine breeders were generally where they were supposed to be, and the morning hummed along at a healthy pace. We have a couple spruce stands that are reliable for migrant Cape May Warblers, but these were empty, which was our first clue that last night's birds had overflown Connecticut. Despite the lack of migrants early in the morning, we were racking up the breeders. Even some that require a bit of luck, like the two inland mergansers, Green Heron, and Belted Kingfisher, cooperated better than usual.

Yours truly in search of Sandhill Cranes

Mid-morning was approaching and we were entirely missing a key component from the day's list: migrants. Fully aware that we needed above average migration to reach 200, reality began to set in. As we rolled up to Point Folly on Bantam Lake, which is our best and last inland migrant hotspot, the fate of the day seemed to hang in the balance. This place always produces something. What would we hear singing when the vehicle came to a stop?


It was not lost on us that not only were we lacking the bigtime migration event we were hoping for, but this was easily our worst migration on any Big Day we have ever done. We literally had ZERO migrant warblers to that point, which is damn near impossible on May 16th driving miles of habitat with the windows down for three hours.

While we knew 200 was out of the question at this point, spirits were still high because, as Patrick had pointed out later, we had run a heck of a breeding bird survey that morning :). Dave kept us to schedule, and we even had time to detour for lingering Snow Goose and breeding Mississippi Kite on our way to the shore. Hey, maybe the coast would deliver a glut of unusual species plus a few migrant songbirds!

Not quite.

After bagging a Peregrine Falcon near her nest, we went to Milford Point to catch the end of the tide that is best for shorebirds. We saw most of the expected species, though scouted marsh ducks were conspicuous by their absence. A male Northern Harrier and foraging Caspian Tern coursing the marsh were nice finds, but they were outnumbered by the missing species. Next up, Stratford was quiet, but a pair of Gadwall was clutch.

Moving east we easily found Purple Sandpipers right where they were supposed to be, and some flyby Sanderlings saved us from an embarrassing miss. Our one remaining Red-throated Loon was still there, thankfully.

Looking at our list of remaining likely species, it became clear that we might struggle to reach the old record of 186!

We ran all the way out to the Thames River where we only added Common Eider, notably dipping on White-eyed Vireo. Then it was back west to Hammonasset where we would spend the rest of the day. We connected with expected species like the marsh sparrows and Glossy Ibis. Little Blue Heron was a lucky roadside find, and we were pleased to see a few White-winged Scoters that were new arrivals. However the list of missed birds included scouted Lapland Longspur, White-faced Ibis, Roseate Tern, Tricolored Heron, Brown Thrasher...not to mention the hoped-for surprise shorebirds like Red Knot or Whimbrel, or the odd migrant warbler.

Our time at Hammo took us all the way to dusk, where we sat at 184 once we finally scoped a few distant Surf Scoters. We could have netted a couple more species after dark if we wanted to try, but after fighting through glare and wind all afternoon without much to show for it, we collectively decided to tip our caps to mother nature and call it a [not so big] day.

scanning the Sound at Hammonasset Beach State Park

Bird of the Day: Caspian Tern, the first one we have seen on a May Big Day.

Misses: Too many to list! Some pretty big ones too. Red-breasted Merganser, Great Horned Owl, Brown Thrasher, White-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula, Blackpoll Warbler. The only warblers were encountered were breeding species. Still shaking my head...

Final thoughts: If this is it for the team, this isn't how we wanted to go out. However I will say that the route we ran was once again pretty tight. If we did it again, I would have taken us to Hammonasset before the Thames River rather than doubling back. But we're talking possibly a few more species at best. The combination of migration and good luck that is required to threaten 200 never did materialize. As always, though, I had a blast spending a full day birding with the best teammates anyone could ask for.

And, most importantly, we raised money for the New Canaan Nature Center!

 - Nick


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