Monday, May 26, 2014

New Massachusetts Big Day record – 24 May 2014 (195 spp)

Listening for flight calls and nighthawks in Pittsfield at 3am
(left to right: Peter Trimble, Vern Laux, Luke Seitz, Ian Davies)

On May 24, 2014, a group of four crazed birders set off for an attempt at the Massachusetts big day record, and succeeded, ending the day with a total of 195. Our intrepid team consisted of Luke Seitz, Peter Trimble, Vern Laux, and myself. Starting in the Berkshires and ending on the Cape via Plum Island, our plan was dubbed “MAdness” by Jacob Drucker – a fitting name I think! We drove slightly over 600 miles, with our primary goal of getting 200. Although we fell short of the 200 mark, we managed to surpass the prior record of 193, only by two species! I have not the slightest doubt that 200 is achievable, and I believe that 210 is an attainable total with a lot of planning and a little luck.

We had some unfortunate misses, as always happens (Winter Wren, Cliff Swallow, Lesser Yellowlegs, Eastern Screech-Owl), but also had some completely unexpected species to partially make up for that (Black-legged Kittiwake, Red-necked Phalarope, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron).

We were originally planning on running the day on Thursday the 22nd, but weather precluded an attempt on either the 22nd or 23rd – leaving us with the only option of Memorial Day Saturday. Traffic turned out to not be an issue aside from a couple slow stretches through Boston – a pleasant surprise. At both midnights during the day it was drizzling, which might have helped in our surprising miss of screech-owl, but surely contributed to some of the nice flight calls we heard in the first night.

There was definitely no way that this total could have been reached without some prior scouting, part of which was carried out by team members, but invaluable assistance was also given for the eastern part of the state by Ryan Schain and Tim Spahr, and for the Berkshires and Amherst area by Rene Wendell, Larry Therrien, Jonathan Pierce, Steve Motyl, Gael Hurley, and last but not least, Ed Neumuth. Our thanks to all of you! Ed also provided delicious pasta and warm beds the evening before and for scouting in weeks prior, along with his bottomless knowledge of October Mountain State Forest – there is definitely no way that we could have done this without him.

One of the most enjoyable parts about the big day for me (aside from the birds) is the scouting and planning aspect. You get to take knowledge of habitats and distribution in the state, use it to locate birds, and then string all the locations together into a coherent route that maximizes the potential. Then at the end of it all, you get to go spend a whirlwind day trying to execute your planned-to-the-minute birding extravaganza, and just hope that the feathery fellows cooperate.

At 10:45 on Friday evening we left Ed’s house, replete with caffeinated beverages and ready to go. Most of the ride to the southwestern corner of the state was through drizzle and light rain, which may have ultimately been a blessing to our predawn efforts. Midnight found us near a Sandhill Crane nesting location, where in our brief midnight vigil we heard no birds calling form the natal marsh – perhaps a factor of the rain. Off to our next spot, a Black Vulture roost that is used only half of the time, where we also came up as empty as the branches of the roost tree. However, here we started picking up our first nocturnal migrants, which were moving at lower elevations due to the inclement weather. Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes helped make up for the lack of vultures and cranes so early on. Our next couple stops for Eastern Screech-Owl both came up short, and this was a bird we would eventually miss! Making up for the lack of screech-owl was a completely unexpected Long-eared Owl hoot heard twice (!), coming from the depths of a swampy riverine area in Sheffield. Flight calls were still pumping overhead too, and we got Canada and Black-throated Blue Warblers, Ovenbird, Common Yellowthroat, and American Redstart under our belts before 1am!

Heading north along Route 7 up to the Stockbridge area, we stopped at an extensive marsh complex, the only spot where Pied-billed Grebe has been out west this year. In 20 minutes of listening at the edge of the marsh we picked up the grebe, a Great Horned Owl, and a fantastic cuckoo flight overhead – with 13 Black-billed and a single Yellow-billed tallied in this short period! Excited at the prospect of picking up more nocturnal migrants, we continued heading north towards Pittsfield with high hopes for good listening conditions under the lights downtown. A stop at a wonderful marsh in Lenox provided Common Gallinule, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Barred Owl, but not the hoped for Least Bittern or Solitary Sandpiper.

Once in Pittsfield, we stopped right in the middle of downtown (not too crowded at 3am), where we heard more Swainson’s and a second Gray-cheeked Thrush, but no Common Nighthawks or other desired species overhead. The movement overhead wasn’t nearly as impressive here as it had been further south, and one of the major strategy regrets of mine for the day was not finding a well-lit place down near Great Barrington to listen at. Departing here, we stopped at a small lake to pick up Common Merganser visible on the water in the ambient light. After a last nocturnal listening effort, which included some amusing conversation with both a mall cop and the local police force, we ascended to Washington and the wonderful October Mountain State Forest.

Bouncing along dirt roads in the predawn blackness, we arrived around 4am at a spot for Northern Saw-Whet Owl, which cooperated nicely for us. The Whip-poor-will that had been around for the past 3-4 days was notably absent, but before dawn broke we picked up winnowing Wilson’s Snipe, a few more Barred Owls, and American Woodcock. All of this was still in moderate fog and occasional drizzle, so we were lucky that species like the saw-whet were calling!

As the clock neared 5, dawn chorus reluctantly began to greet the gray, damp dawn. This is definitely the most exciting time of any big day, and we quickly began to add quality birds – American Bittern, Mourning Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, spruce groves with Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blackburnian Warblers, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pileated Woodpecker, and much more. A quick visit to a Broad-winged Hawk nest that I had found earlier this month resulted in my complete inability to locate the nest tree, even though I’d seen it as recently as Wednesday! This boneheaded move cost us a few precious dawn minutes, but we quickly made them back as we picked various species out of the car window while driving, cutting out future stops for species like Brown Creeper, Purple Finch, and Nashville Warbler. Most fortunately, we had a Broad-winged Hawk calling, salvaging my nest snafu.

After about 30 minutes of daylight the only expected things we still needed from this area were Slate-colored Junco, Winter Wren, and Common Raven. Departing the forest, we picked up the junco, but left the wren and raven on the table for the moment (and we would never get the wren!). A quick visit to a nearby beaver swamp got Hooded Merganser and Wood Duck, with an Eastern Wood-Pewee out the window on the drive adeptly picked out by Peter. A stop at nearby Ed’s house got us Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and the Louisiana Waterthrush cooperated perfectly down the street.

Running slightly ahead of schedule, we began to head east, stopping briefly for Alder Flycatcher and a couple more fruitless attempts at Winter Wren. We even drove through Peru, but the mountains of Peru left something to be desired – not nearly as much cloud forest as we were hoping for, with less South American specialties. Arriving at our second Sandhill Crane location, this one in Worthington, we were dismayed to find the crane fields empty and quiet. This wasn’t helped by the friendly comment of a lady walking past that “the cranes were calling all last night”! We still got a few good species here, with a nice Tennessee Warbler picked out by Luke joining Cedar Waxwing and Eastern Bluebird on our list.

Descending into the Connecticut River Valley, a quick stop at the Northampton-Hadley bridge did not feature the desired Peregrine Falcon, but nearby fields in Hadley were quite productive, with Bald Eagle, Orchard Oriole, Vesper Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, and our only Spotted Sandpipers of the day. Heading south along the east side of the Connecticut River, a brief stop at the base of Skinner State Park got Worm-eating Warbler, complemented nicely by a Blackpoll Warbler along the road nearby. Running right on time, we arrived at Westover Air Force Base around 8am, and were treated to the most perfect grassland experience you could hope for on a big day. Upon arrival, in the first 20 seconds we had Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrow and Eastern Meadowlark singing, followed almost immediately by spotting a couple Upland Sandpipers and an American Kestrel – the entire birding experience took about 4 minutes, and we hit the road for the North Shore ahead of schedule and in high spirits!

The drive helped our raptor list, with numerous Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vulture, and a distant and poor view of Peregrine Falcon on the People’s Bank in Worcester. We also had a Common Raven flyover on 495 – a clutch flyby and our only one of the day. Arriving in West Newbury, we quickly picked up Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruddy Duck, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but our Ring-necked Pheasant wasn’t calling like he should have been!

Moving east towards Plum Island, we had one our most disheartening stops of the day, where the four Cliff Swallow nests on the underside of the Hanover St Bridge in Newburyport seemed to have no tenants – resulting in one of our more foolish misses of the day. After a quick and unproductive spin through Oak Hill Cemetery and our gas stop for the day, we were off to Plum. We had many species of waterfowl staked out that had been present here in days prior, as well as high hopes for shorebirds and landbird migrants, but Plum had other plans for us. From the entrance through Hellcat, there was no sign of the wigeon, pintail, and Green-winged Teal that had been present, no Northern Harrier, new songbird migrants, or Lesser Yellowlegs. Hellcat did provide a Blue-winged Teal in Bill Forward Pool, but almost nothing else. Against our better judgment, we went down to Stage Island Pool to try for Least Bittern and maybe a Lesser Yellowlegs in the marsh, but had no luck there either. Returning north another quick check of Bill Forward Pool yielded no new dabbling ducks, but a Short-billed Dowitcher here would turn out to be our only one of the day. A quick look off of Lot 1 added Purple Martin in the parking lot and Roseate Tern (nice pick Luke!) in addition to Piping Plover and healthy numbers of Long-tailed Ducks.

Leaving Plum, we checked Newburyport Harbor by Joppa Flats, where our other chance at pheasant came up empty – our consolation prizes being Green Heron, Brant, and Bonaparte’s Gull in the harbor. Another brief visit to the Hanover St bridge cemented our miss of Cliff Swallow. In lower spirits after missing so many staked out birds, we were elated to have a male Wilson’s Phalarope at Pikul’s on 1A – the perfect morale booster, right when we needed it. Since we were running slightly behind schedule, a spot in Ipswich had to be cut to keep us on course, making our next destination Kettle Island.

Rather than check marshes in the hopes of ibis and Little Blue Heron, we had decided to go straight to the source – Kettle Island! Although adding a bit of drive time, this paid off, with both the ibis and heron seen in flight over the island in several minutes of scanning. We also picked up Great Crested Flycatcher calling here (finally!), and were trying to downplay the fact that we still needed Northern Flicker..a truly impressive miss at this point in the game.

One of the most worrisome parts of the day, for me at least, is going through the Boston area. One accident or road/lane closure and traffic could put the kibosh on a lot of the remaining birding. We lucked out this time, and a quick stop at Revere Beach got us Manx Shearwater, a single bird spotted in flight by Vern just as we were about to pack up and leave!

South of the city we hit small pockets of slow traffic, but nothing apocalyptic, resulting in our arrival at Plymouth Airport about 15 minutes behind schedule. We quickly picked up our three targets here (Prairie Warbler, Field Sparrow, and Horned Lark), and were off to Manomet. Manomet Point provided Great Cormorant, Black Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, and Northern Gannet, but no Purple Sandpipers. A quick stop nearby at my yard provided one of the most gratifying experiences of the day – a flicker rocketing across a pond directly at us, saving the embarrassment of missing that!

Next stop Cape Cod, we nabbed Fish Crow and a wonderful Cooper’s Hawk along 3A in Manomet, and proceeded to have an entirely traffic-less drive to Harwich. Here we had flashbacks to Plum Island, as our staked out Greater Scaup and Green-winged Teal of Peter’s had vanished, leaving us with no new species added in our first couple stops. At this point we knew we were within reach of the record, so these two misses really hurt. However, we had no idea what wonders we had in store for us in Chatham.

Cowyard Lane was fairly good, giving us a good slug of new shorebirds, but there were no Red Knot or White-rumped Sandpipers, with the latter species being one we would eventually miss.  Next stop was Chatham Light, and this is where it really got fun. Between fielding questions about what we were looking at, we quickly spotted Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, but with no sign of the Iceland and Glaucous that have been around, we were getting nervous. About a minute later, Luke calls out  “small gull coming straight towards us far out over the breakers, get on this!” As the bird gets closer, it banks once, showing us the beautiful mantle pattern of a young Black-legged Kittiwake! I guess the northeast winds helped us out! Following this, Vern had a Parasitic Jaeger chasing terns, and I picked up a small shorebird far offshore, heading north low to the waves with erratic flight – eventually coming close enough to show itself as a Red-necked Phalarope! With these bonus birds under our belt we headed to Morris Island, with the tide perfect for shorebirds.

Viewing off of the south side of the island, we were treated to an incredible spectacle of tens of thousands of birds spread out along the flats of South Beach and North Monomoy, from carpets of gulls, shorebirds, and cormorants to a massive vortex of terns over South Monomoy. Here we finally had a staked out duck remaining, in the form of a male Lesser Scaup hanging with scoter. The thousands of gulls on the flats gave up at least one Iceland, but we couldn’t find a Glaucous. Northern Harrier over South Beach made up for missing it on Plum Island, and another Parasitic Jaeger ruining the evening of many a tern allowed all of us to get on that species. We got Red Knot in a flock of Black-bellieds on South Beach, and then the final crowning moment of the day – a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron departing North Monomoy with a small group of Black-crowneds at dusk!

With about 40 minutes before sunset, we left Morris Island at what we thought was 189 species. A quick stop north of the Morris Island Causeway got us Northern Bobwhite for 190, but no sign of the Tricolored Herons that were so regular a couple weeks ago. We made the perhaps foolhardy decision to try to make it to Coast Guard Beach before sunset to try to get Lesser Yellowlegs and White-rumped Sandpiper. No sign of Common Nighthawk on the drive up, and once we arrived the flats were already covered, signaling defeat on the shorebird front. A scan of distant gulls turned up another Iceland picked out by Luke, but no Glaucous here either. We admitted defeat for daytime birds, and headed to Wellfleet for Clapper Rail.

Arriving at the Herring River marshes, we negotiated a seriously bumpy and narrow road, and getting there at dusk, immediately picked up Whip-poor-will and Clapper Rail for 191 and 192. With good chances at Eastern Screech-Owl and Chuck-wills-widow, as well as a Red-shouldered Hawk nest, we felt pretty good about getting at least two more species. However, a stop in Orleans for Chuck-wills-widow was conspicuously silent, casting a grim silence over the car as we drove back to the Falmouth area for another Chuck, and a shot at screech and the hawk nest.

No dice at our first screech spot, but we collectively breathed a sigh of relief that the Red-shouldered was on its nest and visible – 193. Next stop was for a second Chuck-wills-widow..and we still had a third to try if need be. We pulled up at the spot at around 10:30, and immediately upon shutting the car off, heard the Chuck singing away for #194! Happy but barely conscious, we headed back to Manomet to try two more spots for screech, but in the drizzle we got no response from what are usually reliable birds! At this point we had 20 minutes left, but our collective mental presence could no longer power us to go check a couple other spots for screech, so we happily passed out instead. You might have noticed that I only have the Chuck listed as 194 above – upon checking the tally again the following day, we realized that the Long-eared Owl had not been factored into the 194, bringing the total up to 195! I left the numbers as we thought they were in the field, since we were hanging on every new bird at the time.

The view off of Morris Island in Chatham, where we had so many vital additions and unexpected sightings

Although we didn’t achieve 200, it was still a wonderful day! The real deal breaker was Plum Island, which had potential for as many as 10 species that we did not encounter there. Missing species like Winter Wren and Cliff Swallow, which should be locks, did not help either. I think that with some route tweaking, lingering waterfowl that don’t leave unexpectedly, and a good migration event, 210 or even 215 is possible. But first we need 200 – a great project for next year! Below I have outlined all the misses, and our total species list.


Sandhill Crane
Solitary Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Eastern Screech-Owl
Winter Wren
Cliff Swallow
Wilson's Warbler


Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sooty Shearwater
Least Bittern
Tricolored Heron
Black Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
White-rumped Sandpiper
Glaucous Gull
Common Nighthawk
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Hooded Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Lincoln’s Sparrow

MAY 24, 2014 SPECIES LIST (195)
The numbers after the species denote coded rarity – where 1 = "easy", 2 = "missable", 3 = "tough", 4 = "very hard", and 5 = species not even factored into planning.

Brant            2
Canada Goose            1
Mute Swan            1
Wood Duck            2
Gadwall            2
American Black Duck            1
Mallard            1
Blue-winged Teal            3
Common Eider            1
Surf Scoter            2
White-winged Scoter            2
Black Scoter            2
Long-tailed Duck            2
Lesser Scaup            3
Hooded Merganser            2
Common Merganser            2
Red-breasted Merganser            1
Ruddy Duck            3
Northern Bobwhite            3
Ruffed Grouse            1
Wild Turkey            2
Red-throated Loon            2
Common Loon            1
Pied-billed Grebe            3
Manx Shearwater            2
Northern Gannet            2
Double-crested Cormorant            1
Great Cormorant            2
American Bittern            1
Great Blue Heron            1
Great Egret            1
Snowy Egret            1
Little Blue Heron            3
Green Heron            2
Black-crowned Night-Heron            2
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron            5
Glossy Ibis            2
Turkey Vulture            1
Osprey            1
Northern Harrier            3
Cooper's Hawk            2
Bald Eagle            2
Red-shouldered Hawk            2
Broad-winged Hawk            2
Red-tailed Hawk            1
Clapper Rail            3
Virginia Rail            1
Sora            2
Common Gallinule            2
American Oystercatcher            2
Black-bellied Plover            1
Semipalmated Plover            1
Piping Plover            2
Killdeer            1
Spotted Sandpiper            2
Greater Yellowlegs            1
Willet            1
Upland Sandpiper            2
Ruddy Turnstone            1
Red Knot            3
Sanderling            2
Dunlin            1
Least Sandpiper            2
Semipalmated Sandpiper            1
Short-billed Dowitcher            2
Wilson's Snipe            2
American Woodcock            1
Wilson's Phalarope            4
Red-necked Phalarope            5
Parasitic Jaeger            3
Bonaparte's Gull            2
Black-legged Kittiwake            5
Laughing Gull            1
Ring-billed Gull            1
Herring Gull            1
Iceland Gull            3
Lesser Black-backed Gull            3
Great Black-backed Gull            1
Least Tern            1
Roseate Tern            3
Common Tern            1
Rock Pigeon            1
Mourning Dove            1
Yellow-billed Cuckoo            3
Black-billed Cuckoo            3
Great Horned Owl            2
Barred Owl            1
Long-eared Owl            4
Northern Saw-whet Owl            2
Chuck-will's-widow            2
Eastern Whip-poor-will            1
Chimney Swift            1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird            2
Belted Kingfisher            2
Red-bellied Woodpecker            1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker            1
Downy Woodpecker            1
Hairy Woodpecker            2
Northern Flicker            1
Pileated Woodpecker            2
American Kestrel            2
Peregrine Falcon            2
Eastern Wood-Pewee            1
Alder Flycatcher            1
Willow Flycatcher            1
Least Flycatcher            1
Eastern Phoebe            1
Great Crested Flycatcher            1
Eastern Kingbird            1
Yellow-throated Vireo            2
Blue-headed Vireo            1
Warbling Vireo            2
Red-eyed Vireo            1
Blue Jay            1
American Crow            1
Fish Crow            2
Common Raven            2
Horned Lark            2
Northern Rough-winged Swallow            1
Purple Martin            2
Tree Swallow            1
Bank Swallow            1
Barn Swallow            1
Black-capped Chickadee            1
Tufted Titmouse            1
Red-breasted Nuthatch            2
White-breasted Nuthatch            1
Brown Creeper            2
House Wren            1
Marsh Wren            1
Carolina Wren            1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher            2
Golden-crowned Kinglet            1
Eastern Bluebird            2
Veery            1
Gray-cheeked Thrush            3
Swainson's Thrush            2
Hermit Thrush            1
Wood Thrush            1
American Robin            1
Gray Catbird            1
Brown Thrasher            2
Northern Mockingbird            1
European Starling            1
Cedar Waxwing            2
Ovenbird            1
Worm-eating Warbler            2
Louisiana Waterthrush            2
Northern Waterthrush            1
Blue-winged Warbler            2
Black-and-white Warbler            1
Tennessee Warbler            3
Nashville Warbler            2
Mourning Warbler            3
Common Yellowthroat            1
American Redstart            1
Northern Parula            2
Magnolia Warbler            1
Blackburnian Warbler            1
Yellow Warbler            1
Chestnut-sided Warbler            1
Blackpoll Warbler            2
Black-throated Blue Warbler            1
Pine Warbler            1
Yellow-rumped Warbler            1
Prairie Warbler            2
Black-throated Green Warbler            1
Canada Warbler            2
Eastern Towhee            1
Chipping Sparrow            1
Field Sparrow            1
Vesper Sparrow            2
Savannah Sparrow            1
Grasshopper Sparrow            2
Saltmarsh Sparrow            2
Seaside Sparrow            3
Song Sparrow            1
Swamp Sparrow            1
White-throated Sparrow            1
Dark-eyed Junco            1
Scarlet Tanager            1
Northern Cardinal            1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak            2
Indigo Bunting            2
Bobolink            1
Red-winged Blackbird            1
Eastern Meadowlark            2
Common Grackle            1
Brown-headed Cowbird            1
Orchard Oriole            2
Baltimore Oriole            1
House Finch            1
Purple Finch            2
American Goldfinch            1
House Sparrow            1