On May 24, 2015, four crazed birders set out on an attempt to exceed the Massachusetts Big Day record: 195 species, set last year in 2014. Did we surpass that number? No? Did we have fun? Yes.
Even though I have not managed to get find time to write this account until over two months after the fact, the memories are still fresh in my mind.
As anyone who has done a Big Day knows, the day starts long before the 24 hours of the day itself. This year it started in March, as I schemed endlessly about May birding routes, trying to imagine where certain birds might be in two months’ time. Hours were spent on Google Maps, locating marshy habitats to check for elusive marshbirds in May; viewing terrain to see where you might find a good slope for a new Worm-eating Warbler location; or scouting out just the right field/swamp complex for a potential Long-eared Owl. Even though most of those endeavors don’t pay off, half of the fun is in the planning.
To me, Big Days are a fascinating culmination of many aspects of birding: the planning involved; knowledge of bird distributions across the state; knowledge of habitats and species life histories needed to scout effectively; and then the ability to actually locate the birds on the day itself. Although it is indeed a carbon-intensive way to spend a day, it isn't as bad as four people individually chasing a bird for their list across the state. You can do it in your state, your county, your town, your yard, or wherever! It is a lot of fun. You should try it sometime.
The team this year was comprised of a quartet of birdaholics—a full clutch of obsession. It was me, Luke Seitz, Peter Trimble, and Tim Spahr. Luke, Peter, and I were all a part of last year’s attempt, where we set the state record with 195. Each of us helped to plan, scout, and of course find birds on the day itself. Our total this year was 191—so close, yet so far.
I'd also like to take this chance to offer a sincere and massive thank you to everybody that shared sighting or logistical information. Special thanks to Ed Neumuth for hosting us during our Berkshire scouting, as well as providing a hot meal and beds for the evening before the madness begins. Also thank you to the intrepid Berkshire birder (and eBirder) team of Gael Hurley, Jonathan Pierce, Greg Ward and Rene Wendell for their help finding nests and general scouting, and for Larry Therrien who held down the Connecticut River Valley for us, keeping tabs on local birds and finding the nest of a Cerulean Warbler! There are numerous others who contributed their time and knowledge—thank you all so much. Without your kind help, efforts like this would be impossible.
Now, on to May 24th and final hours leading up to the day. All Big Day stops will be notated with eBird checklists, linked either in the species name or text.
On the afternoon of May 23rd, our crew assembled in Plymouth, stocking up on portable potables and various processed foods that would not be consumed on most other occasions. The drive out to the Berkshires was punctuated with strategic discussion and various decisions about the coming day. The forecast was favorable, with southern winds for the first night of the Day, and low winds in the morning. Later in the afternoon the Cape was forecast to be a bit more windy, but that didn't seem like much of an issue at the time.
Arriving in the Berkshires at 6pm or so, we still had one more task: secure access to our Cliff Swallow colony for a nocturnal visit. After a quick walk up a long driveway, a knock on a stranger's door, and one awkward explanation of what a Big Day is, and we were golden. 2am we'd be back, viewing the Cliff Swallows nesting on the homeowner's barn. With this out of the way, it was time to hit the hay.
Finally reaching Ed's around 7:30pm on Friday, we bolted some pizza while tomorrow's planned route got a final round of scrutiny. Alarms set for 10:15pm, it was time to catch ~2 hours of sleep. After what seemed like 30 seconds, phones around the house were ringing and buzzing, and it was time to go. Getting our gear in line, we piled into the car, bid farewell to Ed, and rolled down to the far southwestern corner of Massachusetts: Sheffield.
At 11:45pm we met Greg Ward, a great guy and local birder who was going to take us onto private property (with permission!) to view a Black Vulture roost. Our plan was to start there at this roost at the stroke of midnight, get the vultures, and skedaddle. Of course, it is never that easy. We get to the roost at 11:48 or so, and find the roost tree's branches depressingly bare. Quite a similar story to last year.. Thanking Greg profusely for coming out in the middle of the night to help us, we quickly sped off to an alternate starting spot. Arriving at Bartholomew's Cobble at 12:02, we quickly salvaged the first two minutes of the day—the first time that any of us had spend the first moments of a big day in the car. Three species of owls were fantastic, and both cuckoos as flight calls as well as a bonus Spotted Sandpiper put us in a great mood, despite the vulture disappointment.
Moving north up the Housatonic River Valley, we made a couple more stops for nocturnal migrant listening as well as the location where we had Long-eared Owl last year. No luck on the Long-eared, and a Canada Warbler overhead was the only addition. Reaching Stockbridge before 1am, we quickly located the stakeout Sedge Wren that I'd come across during scouting. Due to concerns for publicizing this species, the precise location has been intentionally withheld.
Happy that the Sedge Wren had stuck around from a few days prior, we moved on to Ice Glen Rd, where our Cliff Swallow politics the evening before paid off in spades, with many cuddly Cliff Swallows sleeping on their nests. We started adding our first marshbirds as well, with Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren. Further north, at the famous Post Farm Marsh, we picked up Common Moorhen, and followed that up with great success in Richmond Marsh with Least Bittern, Sora, and Pied-billed Grebe.
Reaching the urban bustle that exemplifies Pittsfield at 2:45am, we quickly picked up Common Merganser roosting on Silver Lake, as well as flyover Gray-cheeked Thrush and a Killdeer. A check of a Cooper's Hawk nest that we had staked out resulted in nothing but sticks—no sign of the bird that was there the day before. Some more flight calls at nearby Best Buy (no run-ins with mall cops this year) got another Gray-cheeked and a Northern Parula.
With nighttime hours dwindling, it was time to ascend to October Mountain State Forest for Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Common Nighthawk, American Bittern, American Woodcock, and Wilson's Snipe—not a bad set of nightbirds/dawnbirds. We succeeded on all accounts except for the saw-whet, which ended up giving us the slip for the entire day.
October Mountain SF is one of the paramount breeding bird destinations in Massachusetts. With breeding species ranging from Green-winged Teal, to Northern Harrier, to Mourning Warbler, it is always a varied and wonderful birding experience. That said, the morning of May 24, 2015, was the DEADEST that I've ever seen it. Big Day karma never fails. It sounded as though the entire world had a blanket over it—the late-May dawn chorus seemed like it might have been mid-April form volume, if not for the species singing. American Bittern, normally an omnipresent noise at almost every location in the forest, was scraped out at our very last stop in our 96 minutes there. This said, we only missed two of our target species—the owl and Broad-winged Hawk.
|Scoping Washington Mountain Marsh at October Mountain SF|
From Washington we proceeded east across the Berkshires, descending through Worthington to check for some of Massachusetts' breeding Sandhill Cranes (no luck) en route to the Northampton-Hadley bridge for nesting Peregrine Falcon (success!). The Honey Pot in Hadley was next up, and a sweet stop it was. Singing Clay-colored and Vesper Sparrows were right where they were supposed to be. Flush with sparrowy success, we went to a vulture roost via a fruitless stop for Solitary Sandpiper. The vulture roost had one Black Vulture only seen for a split second as it departed the roost area, but that was all we needed! It was great to make up for our midnight snafu with this redemption.
Crossing the 8am mark, things were already starting to heat up temperature-wise. A drive down Moody Bridge Road gave up three crucial species: American Kestrel, Eastern Bluebird, and Orchard Oriole. Next stop Skinner State Park, where there were breeding Worm-eating and Cerulean Warblers, two species we had no shot for anywhere else. However, Skinner gave us our first major roadblock of the day (but not the last!), with a closed and locked gate that had been open at this time in prior days. Not entirely foiled, we went to the nearby migrant spot Mitch's Way, where we did a skywatch and trolled for migrants until the gate opened. Once the Skinner gate had been opened, we raced up, got the two warblers, and continued on our way. The gate delay is something that we'll make sure will never happen again in future years.
Coming off of the loss of valuable morning time, we arrived at Westover Air Force Base, our grassland mecca with singing Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrow, and every other feathered denizen of open grasslands in Massachusetts. It was now time for the long drive east—next destination West Newbury.
Taking stock of our situation, we went through the list of target species that we "needed" from Western Massachusetts and found that we had missed only five at this point: Cooper's and Broad-winged Hawks, Bald Eagle, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. All of these we had chances at again in the east except for Bald Eagle. Our drive got us Broad-winged Hawk near Worcester, but no Cooper's. Arriving in Newbury, we cruised to Cherry Hill Reservoir for Ruddy Duck. This was another depressing period, where the Ruddy Duck was gone, and the normally vocal Yellow-throated Vireos were silent in the ominously increasing wind.
This increasing wind was mirroring the temperature, and the forecast temperatures of ~75 degrees and 4-7mph winds were instead manifesting as 84 degree heat being blown into your face at 12-15mph. With this increasing heat, we were very nervous about reaching Plum Island early enough so that the gate would still be open. It was too much of a beach day. Upon reaching the island, our worst fears were realized—the gate had closed less than 20 minutes earlier.
Distraught and without any joy remaining in our lives, we took stock of the situation. In the grim silence during the 2-3 minutes following our Plum Island rejection, there were certainly thoughts about just calling it a day. However, the day was young, and we had done so well in the West that 200 was still within reach. A quick check revealed that losing Plum Island only meant we lost a chance at 3-4 species—certainly not ideal, but not the complete end of the world.
Revitalized (at least somewhat), we optimistically checked Newburyport Harbor for some of our shorebirds, where we got Red Knot as well as our only Brant of the day. However, luck soon turned against us, and Pikul's in Rowley had no Wilson's Phalarope (present last year!), and our brief heron-watching vigil at Kettle Island got us nothing but ibis. We did notice that there were lots of migrants around the Kettle Island though, and that pointed us towards Marblehead Neck as a replacement destination for Plum Island.
Despite a little bit of traffic getting out to Marblehead, we reached it without much event. Arriving at Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, we were greeted with a bounty of migrants. Everywhere you pished you got several migrants coming in, and we soon picked up a couple Bay-breasted Warblers and a Wilson's Warbler. Somehow despite all of the birds that were flitting around these thicket oases, we were unable to locate any of the other migrants we needed: Lincoln's Sparrow; Cape May Warbler; Mourning Warbler; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
|Marblehead Neck—migrant paradise|
As a Manomet resident, this is always one of my favorite parts of the day. Today, it was incredible. We pulled up to our first migrant stop at 4:50pm, hoping for some activity. A couple birds were around, but we only drew in a half-dozen migrants with our commotion. Just as we're getting disheartened, a single bird flits into the subcanopy of an overhead oak—Yellow-bellied Flycatcher! It was one of those times when you really needed a pick-me-up, and this greenish-yellow nugget of an insectivore gave us what we needed.
The flycatcher was only the beginning of the Manomet magic. Vinebrook Road in Manomet (my childhood neighborhood) gave us our stakeout Red-shouldered Hawk nest, long overdue Carolina Wren, and two more serendipitous migrants. A small marshy stream crossing the road has proven to be good in the past for migrants, and we stopped to see what we could drum up.
As many birders know, trying to attract birds in the middle of the day is difficult, and often involves many noises and behaviors that are only socially acceptable when performed by birders in the company of other birders, or in the middle of the woods away from humanity. However, Big Days do not have time for social decorum. Pishing, squeaking, and whistling screech-owl calls, we tried to draw some birds out for a brief glimpse so we could leave them be and continue on our way. This ended up being a great time for a neighbor of mine to show up and curiously observe our bizarre display of inhuman noise—prompting an explanation that we'd been up since 10pm the night before and no longer knew how to speak.
All social encounters aside, these thickets were awesome. Right at the start, Luke and I saw this chunky greenish-yellow large warbler flick through the undergrowth, flashing sideways briefly, giving us a look at the undertail coverts: long and bright yellow, reaching right to the tail tip. Naked eye, it was a tough call as a Mourning Warbler, but we felt fairly good about it. 30 seconds later, it popped up right in front of us, giving views to everybody. Right after that: Lincoln's Sparrow. Right in the open, 5 meters from the Mourning Warbler. Yahtzee.
Missing almost no landbird migrants, it was time to hit the ocean. Manomet Point time—can this glory of glorious towns continue to deliver? In an 11-minute stop we got lingering Purple Sandpiper and Great Cormorant, a couple new seaducks, and a Pacific Loon! Documenting the loon with some quick and horrid photos, we hurried onwards. Stop right by my parents yard for Green Heron—out of the car for 10 seconds before we heard it—right back in. More Manomet wonder with Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, and then we're on to the Cape.
Now that we'd left Manomet, it was time to cycle away from the patch of good luck into the zone of mixed-bag Chatham. The birding was fairly good, the wind was not. Arriving in Orleans, we looked for a Bufflehead (nope) in ~20-25mph winds, ripping through the skies from the southwest. Like the forecast earlier, this was also supposed to top out around 12-15, which would have been handleable. Heading to Morris Island, we were nervous for what was in store.
Looking over the spectacle that is North/South Monomoy and South Beach, we pieced through the hordes of birds from our vantage point on Morris Island. Despite the wall of wind buffeting our faces, thousands of larids gave up goodies like Iceland and Lesser Black-backed Gull; a Parasitic Jaeger was mean to some terns; and a weird surprise male Northern Pintail was seen in flight. Shorebirds provided some good additions, but we were left without White-rumped Sandpiper, and were still missing Lesser Yellowlegs. The wind was from the wrong direction from seabirds, too strong for birds to be feeding in large numbers in the rips, and was generally awful.
Leaving Morris Island at 7:45, we were at the stage of the big day where you only have about 10 more species in play. At this point we were somehow at 191—the amazing successes of Western MA and Manomet had put us in a position to still succeed despite the North Shore and the wind tunnel of Cape Cod. We were easily within reach of the record, with birds gettable at night like Chuck-wills-widow, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, Clapper Rail, and Purple Martin all still on the table. There was still another 45 minutes of sunlight too, when we could get Northern Bobwhite, White-rumped Sandpiper, and perhaps Glaucous Gull or Lesser Yellowlegs. There we go, there is the record and 200 right there!
Optimistic, we pulled up to our bobwhite spot, and fought our way out of the car against the increasing wind. Trying to listen for adorable quail, we looked at each other and realized our fate. We had it in reach, but it wasn't going to happen. An ill wind was blowing.
If the airblasting wasn't sufficient, the first clouds we'd seen in several hours decided it would be a great time to pop up on the western horizon, knocking out the sunset about 20 minutes early. We scarcely had time to check Chatham Light and Cow Yard Lane before it was too dark, and we got zero of our targets. Off next to a marsh where there had been up to 3 Clapper Rails calling regularly: we got out of the car, stood there for 30 seconds listening to the deafening rustle of reeds, and calmly got back in our car and drove away. Final effort was for Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, where we thought there might have been a lee for us to listen from. Hah! Not a chance.
And with that, we were done! 10pm, and the big day was effectively over. Nightbirding in open areas in 25+mph winds was not going to happen. We drove back to Manomet, and were asleep by 11pm, with an extra hour of time just ticking away.
And so ended the seemingly ill-fated Big Day 2015, where we started at 12:02 and ended before 10pm, yet managed over 190 species. This is proof that 200 is so attainable in Massachusetts, and I imagine that the perfect day could even yield 210+. I look forward to trying in future years, and will certainly be making some changes over this year. Plum Island? Sorry, never again.
The full 191 species list is below, along with numbers from our 39 eBird checklists we submitted during the day. Also included are our misses, as well as how boneheaded each of them was.
I hope that this provided some entertainment, and perhaps some motivation to do a big day of your own. The birds are out there, waiting for you!
Below I've marked all of the species that we missed that we expected or hoped for on the day. Expected are birds we had a spot for that we felt had a very sure chance of getting, but just had one spot for it. Hoped for are species that are likely and regularly seen at this time of year, where we had one or more spots potentially for them—but didn't have a "slam dunk" spot.
Very Boneheaded Misses(expected)
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Fairly Boneheaded Misses (hoped for)
Little Blue Heron
Cape May Warbler
Massachusetts Big Day 2015 results
May 24, 2015 (191 species)
|American Black Duck||4|
|Great Blue Heron||2|
|Lesser Black-backed Gull||4|
|Great Black-backed Gull||76|
|Great Horned Owl||1|
|Great Crested Flycatcher||1|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||2|
|Black-throated Blue Warbler||6|
|Black-throated Green Warbler||11|