[CT Birds] New England Big Day Record Broken

edward.raynor at maine.edu edward.raynor at maine.edu
Fri Jun 5 15:29:54 EDT 2009

Date:   	 Fri, 5 Jun 2009 13:09:54 -0400 [06:09:54 PM BST]
From:  	"Marshall J. Iliff" <miliff at aol.com>
To:  	'massbird' <massbird at theworld.com>
Subject:  	[MASSBIRD] New MA Big Day record--191 species on 26 May  
2009 (part 1...long)
Headers:  	Show All Headers

Big Days, those crazy 24-hour efforts to try to see or hear as many species
as possible, are silly, frivolous, and carbon-intensive. With that bit of
dirty laundry out in the open, I would hasten to point out that they are
also a great way to test your personal knowledge of bird distribution and
occurrence, sharpen your birding skills, and learn new birding areas. And
for that subsection of us afflicted with compulsive-avian-competitive
disorder, they are just plain fun. Jeremiah and Peter Trimble, Matt Garvey,
and I are all certifiably afflicted, and have long had our sights set on
bettering the Massachusetts Big Day record of 185 and on breaking the
formidable 200 species barrier. On 26 May 2009 we made an attempt, and met
one of our two goals. Below is a rather lengthy accounting of the day; read
on or delete as you wish. This email provides a text description of the day;
a following email will give our complete list.

Our ultimate route was the product of a couple years worth of conversations
among the four of us. Jeremiah and Peter Trimble (along with Vern Laux)  had
been a part of the 185 species day, which rather insanely covered
Bartholemew’s Cobble, Mt Greylock, Turner’s Falls, Skinner State Park, Plum
Island, Lynn Beach, and South Beach (Cape Cod!) all in the same day. We set
our goals on covering less ground and finding more birds, and after multiple
meetings at various Boston-area bars under the guise (to our significant
others at least) of “planning the route”, we finally settled on the
following route, which was refined and revised by scouting intel all the way
up until 25 May. On 24 May we rented a van from Cambridge, packed furiously
(with Marshall forgetting a key notebook and later begging his fiancée to
photo-text-message it to us in the nearly cell-phone dead zone of October
Mountain!), and headed west. Much of the success of the route was directly
due to the incredible hospitality of Ed Neumuth, who gave Marshall and
Jeremiah a personal tour of October Mt over the previous weekend. Not only
that, but Ed let us rest up and fuel up (on his incomparable homemade
chicken enchiladas) on the evening before at his cabin near October
Mountain. We can’t thank him enough.


We began in October Mt State Forest, focusing first on owls (Northern
Saw-whet and Barred) and American Woodcock, before dropping down into the
Housatonic Valley south of Pittsfield for Sora, Virginia Rail, and a chance
at Common Moorhen. We ultimately missed moorhen here (although we had it
while scouting), but got those targets along with Great Horned Owl, Marsh
Wren (rare in Berkshire County), and a few other landbirds singing at night.
By about 2:30 we had knocked off most likely species, but missed Eastern
Screech-Owl (uncommon at best in Berkshire County) and rarer marsh birds
that we had not found in our scouting efforts (King Rail, Least Bittern, and
Pied-billed Grebe). We decided to focus on trying to get Wilson’s Snipe out
of the way as early as possible, but the one bird we had scouted was not
winnowing at 3:00 so we birded marshes until 4:00 and returned. It was
winnowing loudly when we got out of the car at 4:00 am, and so we
immediately headed back to Post Farm for another try at moorhen. The Post
Farm marsh was a 10 minute walk in during the night, but dawn was fast
approaching so we tried to cut that down to a 5 minute run on the way in.
Our Big Day aerobic training was not what it needed to be though; not only
did Marshall take a nose dive into the mud at the beginning of the run, but
he spent most of our 20 minutes of “quiet” listening coughing up a lung. To
his credit, though, he was first back to the car on the return trip and had
it turned around and in gear by the time the rest of the team dragged
themselves down the final 50 meters. Running was an essential part of the
strategy of this Big Day—as it should have been!


With dawn birdsong under way we picked up species rapidly while we ascended
into October Mt State Forest—American Bittern (amazingly common there!),
Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green and Blue, Blackburnian, and
many others were found before our first official dawn stop. At the October
Mt lookout, birdsong rose up from below and bolstered our list further. We
tried to rush to our next official stop but could not help but pick up more
birds from the car window: Golden-crowned Kinglet, Blue-headed Vireo, Veery
and Wood Thrush, Alder Flycatcher, and more. At the “Four Corners” area in
October Mountain, we turned right noting that we’d already crossed this
point 3 times in the pre-dawn. This was the beginning of what we
affectionately called our “Dos Equis” route, on which we would trace two
crosses as we took four separate jogs down each leg of the Four Corners
area. We headed east, ran into Washington Mt Lake and netted Hooded
Merganser and Green-winged Teal, the latter a rare state breeder that was
showing all the signs of breeding here this year. Another leg got us Ruffed
Grouse, Canada Warbler, and Pileated Woodpecker, and then we spurred out in
another direction for Brown Creeper, Mourning Warbler, and a chance at
Olive-sided Flycatcher. Our successful night put us in a great position to
finish the route early, and by 6:00 am we needed just four more species:
Purple Finch and Common Raven (both of which had backups in Essex County and
elsewhere), Northern Waterthrush (our best spots still ahead of us), and
Olive-sided Flycatcher. So after crossing over the intersection at Four
Corners for our 7th and final time, we planned a few stops along County Road
to clean up our misses. Northern Waterthrush was easy, but Olive-sided was a
disappointing miss since we’d checked all possible spots in the days before
the Big Day, and at least two known areas already that morning, and come up
dry. Olive-sided is a very rare breeder in Massachusetts, but October Mt has
had territorial birds in most recent years. Perhaps they weren’t in yet. So
we focused on cleaning up the other species and planned a stop where we had
Purple Finch and raven earlier in the week. While listening attentively for
those two, in between bouts of godawful croaking to attract ravens, we heard
a distant pipping call. Once the team’s attention was focused, a whistled
Olive-sided song by Jeremiah elicited a response practically overhead which
gave us a burst of energy that sent us surging out of October Mt with no
misses (Purple Finch and waterthrush were cleaned up at our next two stops;
we would miss raven in the west but cleaned it up on the tower in Essex
County). We departed October Mt at 6:20 more than 40 minutes ahead of
schedule and flying high!
We exited October Mountain via Route 8 and Route 20, and on the way were
treated to driveby Louisiana Waterthrush and Yellow-throated Vireo and a
cryptic female Common Merganser along the Westfield River that Jeremiah
adeptly spotted topping a rock. We scheduled two skywatches to give us a
chance at the Black Vulture we had seen near Huntington the previous day,
but on this morning all we saw was a small flight of Common Loons heading
north and west (probably too early in the morning for vultures). We picked
up a few other species (Bank Swallow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Red-tailed
Hawk) , stopped for a Blue-winged Warbler, stopped at a stakeout Pine Siskin
spot and also a pond complex with gnatcatcher and Green Heron. One of the
prime stakeouts was a Vesper Sparrow nest (with four young) at Barnes
Airport that Marshall had found on 23 May and we were able to distantly hear
the singing male here without even going near the nest. Prairie Warbler,
Grasshopper Sparrow and meadowlark were also easy at Barnes Airport, and
while we had squandered our time gain from the early morning, we were right
on schedule getting on MassPike at 8:00.


 From here it was a long and almost entirely birdless drive (a flyover
Red-shouldered Hawk was our only new bird, but a good one!) until we exited
I-495 at Merrimacport to cross the Rocks Village Bridge where we got Cliff
Swallow. From there we hit a low point, with the disappointing disappearance
of the Cherry Hill Reservoir Ruddy Ducks that had been present the previous
day and another bummer with a miss on Bald Eagle, both of which we
ultimately missed. Disappointment continued as we arrived at Newburyport
about 15 minutes late, finding a full high tide had covered the flats,
blowing our best chance at Lesser Yellowlegs. We decided to take solace in
the large slug of coastal species that we were getting for our first time.
We worked our way south down Plum Island, picking up Red-throated Loon,
gannet, and Purple Martin from Lot 1, Greater Yellowlegs and Gadwall (but no
shoveler) in the salt pans, Northern Harrier, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed and
Seaside Sparrows over the marsh, and Least Bittern, moorhen (Jeremiah only),
and Blue-winged Teal at the North Pool/Hellcat marshes. Since we had missed
Long-tailed Duck at Lot 1 (where they had been the previous day), we
detoured 15 minutes out and back to Stage Island, but unfortunately only
picked up a few “low end” shorebirds, although one flyby Sanderling seen by
Jeremiah and Pete turned out to be our only one for the day.  On the return
trip we focused on migrants, picking up our first Blackpoll (where had they
been?--there were dozens statewide the previous day!) and a welcome
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher calling. I can only imagine what the birder
present must have thought when he saw us screaming and high fiving just
after the plaintive pee-wee calls rose from the bushes. We left Plum Island
missing several key species (Tricolored Heron, Lesser Yellowlegs,
White-rumped Sandpiper, Black Scoter, Northern Shoveler, Tennessee Warbler)
that we had scouted the previous day and our spirits were dipping for the
first time. The Pikul’s Farm salt pans only made matters worse—no phalaropes
or Glossy Ibis were to be seen. Against our better judgment, we decided on a
secondary loop past the pans, trying for White-breasted Nuthatch (which we
amazingly still needed) and a second try at ibis in the marshes in back.
Heat shimmer was bad and the large flocks of landbirds had nary a nuthatch,
but our spirits were buoyed somewhat by the sudden appearance of a Glossy
Ibis as we drove past the pans a second time. After a gas-up stop, Matt
guided us more-or-less deftly to the Common Raven nest and on to I-95, where
our first and only Broad-winged Hawk flew over.


Our next stop was at the Revere rotary, since we couldn’t bear to not try to
see Manx Shearwater on our day. We had scouted all three scoters, Brant,
Bonaparte’s Gull and a few other key species here, and quick scans from two
points got us all but the Brant and Black Scoter. A last minute scan by
Peter turned up the Brant tucked along the shoreline but we couldn’t buy a
Black Scoter.  As quickly as possible we got back on route, passing through
Logan and taking the Williams Tunnel to I-93
or so we planned. An animated
conversation over some intricacy of the afternoon route distracted our
driver (Marshall) who suddenly found himself on I-90 west, and a solid 10
mile detour was needed to correct the error. A flyby Black-crowned
Night-Heron (our one and only) probably did not justify the error, but had
we been willing to identify the Red-tailed Hawk perched on a building edge
as a Peregrine then maybe the equation would have been different.
Nonetheless, we found ourselves ahead of schedule still as we entered
Wompatuck SP, where we attempted a surgical strike for several key
landbirds. The cool afternoon temperatures surely worked in our favor as we
fairly quickly swept our targets here: the Acadian was singing
intermittently at Picture Pond, the Cerulean sounded off at Boundary Pond,
and Peter managed to spish up a silent Worm-eating. Other cleanup species
included Pine Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, and Cooper’s Hawk, but we couldn’t
dig out any other migrants (except for another Yellow-bellied Flycatcher!)
or the Kentucky Warbler that apparently departed just two days before.

 From there it was on to another stretch of coastline. Ian Davies had
provided invaluable intel the previous day, scouting for us Black Scoter,
Fish Crow, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Horned Grebe, and Red-necked
Grebe (!). On a circuit past Manomet Point, we managed to find all but Black
Scoter and Horned Grebe (which apparently departed overnight—argh!), but
Jeremiah did pick up a flyby Roseate Tern which would prove to be our only
one. A quick run in to Ellisville Harbor got us Piping Plover but no
surprises and no sign of the kingfisher (yes, we still needed kingfisher, a
traditional pain-in-the-butt bird on big days!) that had been present the
previous day. A quick pop-in to Scusset Beach got a calling Ring-necked
Pheasant that we had scouted and then we switched drivers and were on our
way to our spot for grassland bird cleanup. Pete’s experience there helped
us catch up on American Kestrel and Upland Sandpiper, but we could not clean
up Grasshopper Sparrow or find a lone Clay-colored Sparrow that we had
scouted during our short time there. Perhaps the best surprise of the day
was a Merlin that streaked past us; Jeremiah screamed it out and all team
members got on it before it disappeared. Was this just a late migrant, or
could the species be thinking of nesting on Cape Cod too? This would be a
good place with lots of evergreens if they did decide to nest.

With only 50% of the team conscious, Pete drove us out to Chatham where
disappointments continued. No seabirds at Chatham Light. No gull flock
there. No bonus birds. In fact, between Chatham Light and Buck’s Creek (the
spot where EVERYONE gets skimmers), we got just one new bird: oystercatcher.
We had high hopes for Chatham and were struggling to maintain optimism as
our count had us knocking on the door of the record. We needed Red Knot, so
we stopped off at Cow Yard Rd., but we probably didn’t give it enough time
since our quick scan was too quick to pick out the White-rumped Sandpiper
that Rick Heil had there the very same day. We decided to meet dusk at Fort
Hill, with hopes of Sandhill Crane and a few bonus birds to loft us over the
record. A last-minute save on Belted Kingfisher highlighted the commute and
we pulled up to Ft. Hill with renewed optimism but, alas, no crane. To make
up for it we buckled down for some long-distance scanning to try to dig out
a few needed birds. Matt was the champ here, spotting a distant first-winter
Iceland Gull behind Nauset Beach. The scope line-up was broken up by
Jeremiah’s call of a flyby nighthawk behind us and Marshall rallied with two
distant Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We decided that we’d done as well as we
could here and decided to make a last ditch effort at Northern Bobwhite at
Wellfleet Bay, and although we arrived with some final minutes of daylight
at 8:20, we didn’t get another new bird until the Whip-poor-wills started
calling at nearby Marconi Station. It was then that we realized we had
crossed the record with the nighthawk and were now just trying to add more
of a cushion. We formulated a plan for the final hours of the day, drove the
90 minutes back to Boston and were squinting up at a Peregrine nest on the
MIT buildings before 11:00 pm. Once we were all convinced that the bird-like
shape was in fact a brooding Peregrine, we surged on to Great Meadows for
our grand finale. We were counting on 6 possible birds here: we had not yet
whistled up an Eastern Screech-Owl and were hoping that marshbirds like
Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot (both seen here recently) might sound
off. For any other additions we’d have to depend on night flyovers, but we
still needed both cuckoos, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and could always hope for a
late Solitary Sandpiper. And worst of all, we were hoping to pick up a Wood
Duck here before midnight since one of our greatest oversights of the day,
which we didn’t realize until 7:00 am, was to skip known Wood Duck spots on
the morning route. (For the next 11 hours we stopped at every possible Wood
Duck spot we could think of, but were unable to produce. This was our last
chance to avoid that embarrassment—we were already going to have to admit to
complete incompetence at locating a White-breasted Nuthatch!) The
screech-owl took longer than usual, but we got it. Then, in a stroke of
luck, a coot responded to our outlandish impressions. Could we get a Wood
Duck before midnight? We watched the minutes as we scanned in the dim
moonlight for a woodie, and finally, with literally one minute left, managed
to confirm a Wood Duck on the impoundments—our 191st and final bird of the


Other than Iceland Gull, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and American Coot, we
didn’t have much for surprises. Our 12 Bad Misses (below) would have put us
over the 200 barrier, and we very well could have reached that goal if we
had managed to make it for low tide at Newburyport, had some better luck
with migrants, and had some better luck with key stakeouts like Black
Scoter, Bald Eagle, and Clay-colored Sparrow. We elected not to use tape on
this Big Day (although allowed by ABA Rules, amazingly)—tape would have
helped with a few of these species, for sure.

The question of date is a tricky one. Running the Big Day later ensures that
species like Alder and Willow Flycatchers, Mourning Warbler, and possibly
Olive-sided are on territory. On the other hand, an earlier date offers
migrants such as Solitary Sandpiper and potentially ducks and others. Our
feeling was that, on balance, the later date was better, but we were
disappointed with how few migrants we had. Good fallouts can certainly
happen on the last week of May, but we may in fact try for a slightly
earlier date next year to be closer to the peak for Bay-breasted, Tennessee,
Lincoln’s Sparrow, and others.

Weather did not negatively impact us and we managed to execute our plan
almost perfectly. Had we been able to reach Newburyport before the flats
were covered, that might have been the best improvement to the route. Alas,
with much ground to cover and the hard fact that you can only be in one
place at a time, we didn’t have much ability to tailor our route to the
tides. We also had considered a boat trip to South Beach, but decided
against it given that we did not expect any super rarities and felt that we
needed the time elsewhere. Although the route requires very quick birding at
October Mountain, Plum Island, Wompatuck, and other areas that are deserving
of more time, we believe it combines the best of Massachusetts birding
locales and gives a very real shot at 200 species. We have some potential
revisions to implement next year.

Perhaps our greatest achievement was that we managed to eBird almost the
entire day. No, we didn’t record complete checklists for every location, and
no we didn't come close to recording every robin. But we did generate

In addition to Ed Neumuth mentioned above, thanks are due to Ian Davies (who
gave Marshall a personal tour of potential Manomet stops), Charlie Nims,
Linda Pivacek, Rick Heil, Blair Nikula, and all the users of Massbird and
eBird for tips and information that they shared. Overall, it was a great
day, with great company, and moderate to excellent junkfood.

Expect a repeat run in 2010!

--Marshall, Matt, Jeremiah, and Pete


Black Scoter
Bald Eagle
Lesser Yellowlegs
White-rumped Sandpiper
Black Skimmer
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo
White-breasted Nuthatch
Tennessee Warbler
Wilson's Warbler
Lincoln's Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow


Northern Shoveler
Ruddy Duck
Northern Bobwhite
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Sooty Shearwater
Tricolored Heron
Black Vulture
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Clapper Rail
King Rail
Sandhill Crane
Solitary Sandpiper
Wilson's Phalarope
Glaucous Gull
Arctic Tern
Bay-breasted Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Evening Grosbeak

Marshall J. Iliff
West Roxbury, MA
miliff AT aol.com
eBird/AKN Project Leader
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Rd.
Ithaca, NY 14850

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