Sunday, August 2, 2015

Massachusetts Big Day 2015—24 May

Left to right: Luke Seitz, Ian Davies, Peter Trimble, Tim Spahr
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.
Listening for nocturnal migrants—one Canada Warbler here
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.
Cliff Swallows at home
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
Rolling through the town of Washington, we picked up Wild Turkey on the roadside, Louisiana Waterthrush at a stream, and Pine Siskin at a feeder. Blue-headed Vireo (normally common) had eluded to this point as well, but luckily our very last stakeout singing bird didn't let us down. Luke was ranting about my poor planning regarding Blue-headed Vireo as we pulled up to this last point, so I'm thankful to that bird for sparing me from hearing about that miss forever. 

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
With a mixed bag of Marblehead success, we proceeded through Boston with a quick stop at Revere Beach to snag a group of nine Manx Shearwaters sitting on the ocean. Ahead of schedule due to the loss of Plum Island, we arrived next at Plymouth Airport, snagging Prairie Warbler and Field Sparrow, as well as our second (!) Clay-colored Sparrow of the day. Next stop: Manomet. 

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)
Long-tailed Duck
Bald Eagle
Lesser Yellowlegs
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Yellow-throated Vireo
Purple Martin
Saltmarsh Sparrow

Fairly Boneheaded Misses (hoped for)
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
American Wigeon
Ruddy Duck
Northern Bobwhite
Ring-necked Pheasant
Little Blue Heron
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Clapper Rail
Sandhill Crane
Solitary Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Roseate Tern
Tennessee Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Seaside Sparrow

Massachusetts Big Day 2015 results
May 24, 2015 (191 species)

Brant 24
Canada Goose 36
Mute Swan 1
Wood Duck 6
Gadwall 2
American Black Duck 4
Mallard 52
Northern Pintail 1
Green-winged Teal 2
Common Eider 48
Surf Scoter 7
White-winged Scoter 82
Black Scoter 26
Hooded Merganser 1
Common Merganser 1
Red-breasted Merganser 37
Ruffed Grouse 4
Wild Turkey 1
Red-throated Loon 3
Pacific Loon 1
Common Loon 3
Pied-billed Grebe 1
Manx Shearwater 9
Northern Gannet 2
Double-crested Cormorant 294
Great Cormorant 1
American Bittern 1
Least Bittern 1
Great Blue Heron 2
Great Egret 17
Snowy Egret 15
Green Heron 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron 6
Glossy Ibis 12
Black Vulture 1
Turkey Vulture 22
Osprey 2
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Broad-winged Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Virginia Rail 10
Sora 1
Common Gallinule 1
American Oystercatcher 4
Black-bellied Plover 82
Semipalmated Plover 3
Piping Plover 1
Killdeer 1
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Willet 15
Upland Sandpiper 2
Ruddy Turnstone 4
Red Knot 10
Sanderling 8
Dunlin 155
Purple Sandpiper 3
Least Sandpiper 5
Semipalmated Sandpiper 2
Short-billed Dowitcher 13
Wilson's Snipe 1
American Woodcock 3
Parasitic Jaeger 1
Bonaparte's Gull 50
Laughing Gull 14
Ring-billed Gull 104
Herring Gull 1,470
Iceland Gull 4
Lesser Black-backed Gull 4
Great Black-backed Gull 76
Least Tern 34
Common Tern 2,029
Rock Pigeon 2
Mourning Dove 9
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 3
Black-billed Cuckoo 2
Eastern Screech-Owl 1
Great Horned Owl 1
Barred Owl 15
Common Nighthawk 2
Eastern Whip-poor-will 1
Chimney Swift 2
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 4
Downy Woodpecker 4
Hairy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 3
Pileated Woodpecker 1
American Kestrel 1
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee 3
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher 1
Alder Flycatcher 3
Willow Flycatcher 2
Least Flycatcher 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Eastern Kingbird 4
Blue-headed Vireo 1
Warbling Vireo 5
Red-eyed Vireo 19
Blue Jay 13
American Crow 14
Fish Crow 2
Common Raven 3
Horned Lark 1
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 2
Tree Swallow 12
Bank Swallow 16
Barn Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 15
Black-capped Chickadee 25
Tufted Titmouse 15
Red-breasted Nuthatch 3
White-breasted Nuthatch 4
Brown Creeper 1
House Wren 1
Winter Wren 2
Sedge Wren 1
Marsh Wren 8
Carolina Wren 1
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
Eastern Bluebird 1
Veery 9
Gray-cheeked Thrush 2
Swainson's Thrush 18
Hermit Thrush 1
Wood Thrush 3
American Robin 34
Gray Catbird 35
Brown Thrasher 3
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 15
Cedar Waxwing 11
Ovenbird 11
Worm-eating Warbler 1
Louisiana Waterthrush 2
Northern Waterthrush 3
Blue-winged Warbler 1
Black-and-white Warbler 14
Nashville Warbler 4
Mourning Warbler 1
Common Yellowthroat 26
American Redstart 25
Cerulean Warbler 1
Northern Parula 8
Magnolia Warbler 23
Bay-breasted Warbler 2
Blackburnian Warbler 7
Yellow Warbler 14
Chestnut-sided Warbler 13
Blackpoll Warbler 3
Black-throated Blue Warbler 6
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 6
Prairie Warbler 2
Black-throated Green Warbler 11
Canada Warbler 7
Wilson's Warbler 1
Eastern Towhee 3
Chipping Sparrow 10
Clay-colored Sparrow 2
Field Sparrow 1
Vesper Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 6
Grasshopper Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 17
Lincoln's Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 5
White-throated Sparrow 3
Dark-eyed Junco 2
Scarlet Tanager 3
Northern Cardinal 11
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 5
Indigo Bunting 1
Bobolink 16
Red-winged Blackbird 38
Eastern Meadowlark 1
Common Grackle 4
Brown-headed Cowbird 7
Orchard Oriole 2
Baltimore Oriole 7
House Finch 1
Purple Finch 2
Pine Siskin 3
American Goldfinch 13
House Sparrow 2

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