The World Series of Birding, 2k15

Every May, birders from far and wide congregate in the state of New Jersey for an epic 24 hour birding marathon known as the World Series of Birding.  The goal?  To see as many species of birds as possible within the 24 hour slot (and get more than the competitors).  The purpose?  To raise money for bird conservation, promote birding, and celebrate New Jersey’s dazzling array of avian diversity.  To sum it up, it’s one hell of an event.

I’ve been lucky enough to participate in the past five WSBs.  For the past four years, I’ve been part of the New York State Young Birder’s Club’s team, the Razorbills.  This year, along with teammates Eamon Freiburger and Silas and Joseph Hernandez, we set out for a big day within the confines of Cape May County (with Cape May itself being the crown jewel).

The forecast looked good, but during the drive down to Cape May on Friday night, it became apparent that the coast of southern New Jersey was completely covered in a dense blanket of fog, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  It was worrisome, but couldn’t put a damper on my spirits.  Arriving at our campground around 8:30, we set up shop and I hopped in the tent for 2 hours of sleep.  I woke up bright and early at 11:30 PM and ate “breakfast”, before meeting up with my teammates, loading our van, and heading out into the field.  As soon as we got on the roads, we saw the fog hadn’t let up in the slightest.  There was no way any migrants were moving overhead.  This would prove seriously problematic, but we pushed forward to our first stop (Higbee’s Beach WMA) and hoped night birds were in a good mood.

Our first bird of the day was a Yellow-breasted Chat calling out in the meadow.  It was soon followed by two calling Chuck-wills-widow and a Greater Yellowlegs calling in the distance.  Otherwise, Higbee’s was pretty quiet, and we moved on.  Swinging by Cape May Point State Park netted us Mute Swan and Canada Goose on bunker pond (visible in the lighthouse’s beam) and calling American Oystercatcher, Willet, and Laughing Gull on the beach.  We then left Cape Island behind and headed up to the marshes on the Delaware Bayshore.  Driving slowly along coastal roads by the marsh turned up Clapper Rail, Seaside Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Red-winged Blackbird calling.  Virginia and King Rails were not cooperating, and sooner or later we decided to head over to Belleplain State Forest, a major stop that we would stay at for the dawn chorus.

Belleplain at night is magical; it’s deep, dark, and always full of life.  Whip-poor-wills and Barred Owls put on a show, a few Ovenbirds called out in the dark, and we even stumbled across an Eastern Phoebe calling by the lights of the Bathroom.  Joe also picked out a Pine Barrens Treefrog calling, which was super cool to hear.  Sooner or later, however, the forest began to wake up in earnest.  Just as the faintest trace of light appeared in the eastern sky, American Robins, Eastern Towhees, and Wood Thrush woke up to sing, soon followed by Northern Cardinal, Common Yellowthroat, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated, Pine, and Worm-eating Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Gray Catbird, and Great-crested Flycatcher.  We had put ourselves in position to snag a local specialty as soon as it woke up, and sure enough, right on cue, a Prothonotary Warbler sang from the swamp in-front of us.  We continued around Belleplain as the sun crept above the horizon (although not appearing- thanks fog!), and added bird after bird- Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Carolina Chickadee, Black-and-white Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood Pewee, Blue-winged Warbler, and finally, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.  We swung by Lake Nummy, normally a good place for Spotted Sandpiper, but the beach was under renovation and no pipers were in sight.  Fish Crow, Chimney Swift, Tree Swallow and Eastern Kingbird were new for the list, though.  By 7:00 we were leaving Belleplain, ahead of schedule, and with 60 species under our belt.  Windows down, we cruised along backroads to our next location, adding White-breasted Nuthatch, Prairie Warbler, and Indigo Bunting along the way.  The Pea Fields, the most reliable spots for grassland birds in the county, were cloaked in dense fog, but we still managed to pick up Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink.  (Two of my favorite birds!).  A couple Forster’s Tern passed overhead.

An Ovenbird pauses in the pre-dawn mist.
An Ovenbird pauses in the pre-dawn mist.

Belleplain had been lacking in migrants, so we headed over to Cox Hall Creek WMA, a good migrant trap.  However, we were utterly disappointed; Cox was dead.  Apart from a single Yellow-rumped Warbler, migrants were nowhere to be seen.  This was a blow: migrant songbirds make up a huge part of a May big day.  Worried, we left Cox quickly, but still managed to catch local Blue Grosbeak, Northern Flicker, Cedar Waxwing, Green Heron, and House Wren.  We made a snap decision to reroute and head down to Cape Island in hope to pick up any migrants, if they were around.  Along the way to Higbee’s Beach (again) we made a quick roadside stop for a reported Painted Bunting.  No luck, but Black Vulture and Field Sparrow were small consolation.  Arriving at Higbee’s, it was soon obvious that the migrants weren’t there, either.  Trees that would normally be dripping with warblers were silent.  However, don’t let my downer self ruin the fun- there were birds around.  We added Northern Parula, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Orchard Oriole in the meadow, and I pulled out a lucky Wilson’s Snipe overhead.  However, the jetty at Higbee’s was very productive.  Lingering Purple Sandpiper and Gadwall were good to see, and flocks of WhimbrelShort-billed Dowitcher and Least Tern passed over the breakers, above an active pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.

Prairie Warbler at Higbee's.
Prairie Warbler at Higbee’s.
Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin

We then headed over to the CMBO center by Lily Lake to stock up on caffeinated beverages, and added White-throated Sparrow, Purple Martin, Snowy Egret and Blackpoll Warbler (finally, a migrant!) while we were at it.  Next up was the platform at the end of the Coral Ave, where we did a sea watch alongside a fellow team, the Champions of the Flyway group from Israel.  Here, new birds came fast and furious; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Double-crested Cormorant, Boat-tailed Grackle, Glossy Ibis, Black Scoter, Bonaparte’s Gull, Common and Red-throated Loons, Common Tern, and best of all, a stunning adult Parasitic Jaeger that coursed through a flock of Forster’s Terns, somersaulting through the air in a spectacular display of piracy.

Always a welcome sight.
Always a welcome sight.

We quickly stopped at a pull off along the canal (adding a surprise Hairy Woodpecker) before our next stop, Cape May Point State Park.  Starting on the beach, we picked up two lucky Black Skimmer flybys as well as a Bank Swallow and our first Great Egrets.  We walked down the boardwalk towards Lighthouse Pond, marveling at the number of Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks above.  While looking at a pair of Red-tails, I noticed two other birds circling a little ways above them.  I did a double-take; they were Mississippi Kites!  MIKI’s are becoming more and more regular in the northeast, especially during periods of Southeast winds in the spring, but seeing two together is always an incredible sight.  We could hear cheers coming from the hawk watch platform, alerting us that they too had gotten the birds.  In awe, we watched the birds circle directly overhead for a good 5 minutes or so, until they passed off to the west out of sight.  High-fives were given all around– we had just gotten our bird of the day!

One of two (!) Mississippi Kites over CMPSP.
One of two (!) Mississippi Kites over CMPSP.

As we returned to the hawkwatch platform to congratulate other birders on the kites, Silas picked up a Cliff Swallow over Bunker Pond and an adult Bald Eagle passed overhead.

Moving next door to the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge (“The Meadows”), we added Lesser Yellowlegs, Yellow Warbler (finally), Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Brown Thrasher.  We took a quick lunch break, and headed north, back over the canal.  Thanks to the local knowledge of one of our leaders, Herb Thompson, we swung by a roadside field with nesting Eastern Bluebirds.  Then it was on to Reed’s Beach, a fantastic place to view the Horseshoe Crab breeding/bird feeding frenzy spectacle that happens along the Delaware Bayshore every spring.  This is always one of my favorite stops; gull numbers are incredible (90% of them Laughing Gulls), and there are always nice shorebirds around.  We added Least Sandpiper at a roadside pond and Ruddy Turnstone on the beach, as well as Ring-billed Gull, a tough bird at this time of year.  Although not on the beach, a few mixed flocks of Red Knot and Dunlin passed by over the water.

Atlantic Horseshoe Crab eggs are a life sustaining force for many birds that pass along the Delaware Bayshore this time of year.
Atlantic Horseshoe Crab eggs are a life sustaining force for many birds that pass along the Delaware Bayshore this time of year.

Now in the heat of the day, new birds were getting harder and harder to find.  Our numbers were hurting due to the lack of migrants, and we knew it.  We finally added a singing Baltimore Oriole on the side of the road and a Black-throated Blue Warbler in a field at Jake’s Landing.  Sooner or later, we realized we had to leave the bay behind and traverse the peninsula to hit the marsh and beach of the Atlantic side of Cape May.  Our original species goal of 150 species was leveled out to just 140, but we realized even that number could be a stretch.  However, we were determined, and a few hours of daylight remained.  The Wetland Institute produced Brant, Killdeer, Black-bellied Plover, and a flyover Little Blue Heron.  We picked up Semipalmated Plover on the bridge over to Stone Harbor, and as another bank of fog rolled in we bolted out to Stone Harbor Point just in time to net Sanderling and Piping Plover before the beach was completely engulfed.  We raced the advancing fog to Nummy’s Island, where some of our luckiest pulls of the day came in the form of two distant American Black Ducks, a flyby Peregrine Falcon, and a skulking Tricolored Heron.  With only an hour of daylight left, it was time for some snap calls.  We picked up Yellow-crowned Night Heron at the Avalon rookery easily enough, but our hoped for a sea watch were completely crushed by fog.

YCNH
YCNH

With the list sitting in at 136 species, 140 was looking tougher and tougher- we were running out of options.  But there was hope.  In the last vestiges of daylight we decided to head over to Jake’s Landing in hope birds would be moving over the marsh at dusk.  At Jake’s, luck was on our side.  A Savannah Sparrow (#137) hopped out of the grass, a Swamp Sparrow (#138) perched in a low shrub, and two Black-Crowned Night Herons (#139) flew out over the marsh.  Right after the sun dipped below the horizon, we ran up the road to the field just in time to see an American Woodcock (#140) flush into the air.  And last but not least, our final bird of the day came in the form of two Green-winged Teal flying overhead into the marsh as the last traces of light left the sky.  We were relieved to reach our goal, and felt really good about the day, given the conditions.  We birded for a little longer, hoping for Great Horned Owl or Virginia Rail, but the night was silent.  We called it a day and headed over the finish line- another WSB in the bag.

Tallying up the list, we celebrated our luck with some birds: Mississippi Kite, Parasitic Jaeger, Cliff Swallow, Black Skimmer, Tricolored Heron, etc., and mourned the misses, most notably American Redstart, Black-throated Green Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, and Spotted Sandpiper.

It was a fantastic day of birding with some truly fantastic team members, in one of my favorite places on earth: Cape May NJ.  To top it all off, I heard a Great Horned Owl in the campground right before I fell into a beautiful sleep.  That’s birding, folks.

– Brendan

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From All Walks of Life

Amongst my busy schedule, it is rare that I ever have a weekend where I bird continuously (maybe that’s a good thing?), but this past weekend was an exception.  The weekend kicking off my spring break is always a blast, as I’m filled with optimism and eager to get outside.  This weekend did not disappoint.  It started out with some local birding on Saturday morning, trying to kick up some early migrants around my town’s limited open space. Here in CT, we’re only just starting to see the beginnings of “warm” weather; today actually climbed above the 60 degree mark.

It became clear early on that Wood Duck was the bird of the weekend.  This normally secretive bird was seen in nearly every spot we covered (both Sat and Sun), providing good looks on several occasions.

A Male WODU at Wood's Pond, Norwalk, CT
A Male WODU at Wood’s Pond, Norwalk, CT

Other highlights around town included Common Merganser, Common Raven and my FOY Palm Warblers, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.  Spring was in the air as the day warmed up.

A Palm Warbler forages in the leaves.
A Palm Warbler forages in the leaves.
Common Raven overhead
Common Raven overhead
A Drake and Hen Common Merganser fly by.
A Drake and Hen Common Merganser fly by.

It was early on that I got word via the CT list serve that a Little Gull was being seen at a beach not 20 minutes away, a beach famous for its huge Bonaparte’s Gull concentrations and a place Little Gull has turned up in the past; but never reliably.  Little Gull is one of those birds that melts into a roosting flock, and although I had covered the area many times in the past I had yet to find one there.  The chance was too good to pass up, and we had time.  We hightailed it over to the beach, where immediately upon arriving the vast flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls carpeting the mudflats was apparent.  A group of birders had gathered on the end of the jetty extending out onto the mud, and we marched out to join them as Bonies swirled through the air around us, none exhibiting the diagnostic dark underwing of Little Gull.  However, no worries; we hadn’t even reached the group of birders when “It’s in the Scope” was announced out loud, “it” not even needing to be specified.  Pretty much anywhere in the US, Little Gull is a good bird.  Reliable in very few places, they are certainly worthy of the mythical tone that this “it” bird had been rewarded.

It didn’t exactly fill the frame, but there, tucked in amongst a sea of Bonaparte’s Gulls, was a adorable little Little Gull, looking happy to see me.  Even on the ground, it stood out distinctly.  Little Gull are indeed significantly smaller than Bonies, not a good field mark when they are at a distance or by themselves, but with a direct, side-by-side comparison the difference was striking.  In fact, the glowing white primaries of the LIGU (as opposed to the dark of the BOGU), stubby bill and light mantle shade made the bird pop out.  However, it didn’t stay that way.  A few minutes later the flock shifted, and BOOM; the bird vanished.  Over the next hour or so we stayed with the flock, and the Little Gull played trick after trick on us, appearing one minute and disappearing the next, weaving in and out of it’s larger cousins.  On one or two occasions the flock lifted up, and all of a sudden the Little Gull would appear out of the swirling white cloud with a flash of black underwing.  Although not a life bird for me, I considered this bird a “half-lifer”, meaning it was a second but more satisfying view of a bird I had seen only once before.

A terrible picture of the Little Gull (back center, in the water) on one of the few occasions it peeled off from the larger flock.  This was phonescoped with my iPhone.
A terrible picture of the Little Gull (back center, in the water) on one of the few occasions it peeled off from the larger flock. This was phonescoped with my iPhone.

The rarities had only just begun to materialize, however.  The second half of the day held an even greater prize.  A Crested Caracara, a unique relative of vultures from Latin America (reaching into south Texas and FL, where I have seen them previously) had somehow wandered  north to the seemingly insignificant town of Montgomery, NY, a quiet town of farm fields and woodland an hour and a half north of me across the Hudson River.

Now, normally I would not have chased this bird.  I don’t like to chase birds further than an hour away, especially because I cannot drive and I depend upon my Dad as a chaffeur (convenient seeing that he too is a birder).  However, like one of my previous posts described. some birds are just too convenient to pass up.  We had to go up to a nearby town that afternoon for one of my Dad’s art openings (he’s a critically acclaimed bird artist- find his work at http://www.seanmurthaart.com), and the Caracara was just 20 minutes out of our way.

With a little back and forth between a NY birder friend of ours, we found out that the bird had moved to a different location then where it had previously been discovered, now occupying the wooded edge of a small golf course in town.  When we arrived we found flocks of birders converged upon the entrance road, but most of them were leaving.  “It just flew off!”  one of them told us, the kiss of death in birder tongue, “but not far.”  Many of the birders had already seen the bird and were now leaving after watching it fly, leaving only a few remaining.  My Dad and I parked and walked down to the area where it had last been seen, and waited.  Within only 5 minutes, my dad spotted a weird bird flying back over the tree line.  There’s really nothing else like it- it was a Crested Caracara.  The bird, crazy looking with its broad, blocky wings, large white wing patches and long yellow legs, came right over and landed in a tree right above the entrance road.  Wow!  The birders remaining all converged upon us, and the bird showed off beautifully, making everyone happy.  After a few minutes it flew up to another tree, providing even better views, but eventually retreated back into the woods where it still perched up visibly.  For the next 45 minutes or so we stayed with the bird, long enough for our friend (the birder from NY) to arrive and get on it.  The mission had been accomplished, and I got to spend a good amount of time studying and marveling at a bird that I had, like the Little Gull, never had truly satisfactory looks at before.  The prehistoric looking raptor looked incredibly out of place in the bare, spindly trees of a New York April.  Strangely enough, however, Caracara sightings are becoming increasingly ‘common’ along the east coast, with multiple birds showing up over the past year or so.  Just last week, a Caracara flew over on Cape Cod, and there have been a spattering of sightings in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.  No one really knows what has caused the influx, but it will certainly be interesting to see if the trend continues.  It would be sweet if Caracara became the next Black Vulture, the carrion eater out on a northward conquest…..

A CRESTED CARACARA appears over the trees.
A CRESTED CARACARA appears over the trees.
You could see the bird with the naked eye above the road.
You could see the bird with the naked eye above the road. 

By Sunday morning I was back home, and out bright and early with my close friend and fellow young birder Alex Burdo who also lives in my area, at the Little Gull beach.  I wanted longer looks at the bird, and Alex had yet to see it, so we put in a total of almost 3 hours scanning the gull flocks from the jetty.  Our time was incredibly successful, as carefully scanning the gulls we found not 1, not 2, but 4 Little Gulls, a seriously impressive number.  At times, the 4 could be seen within feet of each other, providing even better views.  Opportunities to closely study a species such as this are really hard to come by, and it is entirely possible that throughout all my future years of birding I will never get to see 4 Little Gulls in the same place again.  It was also really nice to be able to get the word out of the perfect conditions and have other birders arrive and get on the birds.

Even without the Little Gulls, the area was alive with birds, many of which were waterbirds on the move.  Migrating flocks of Great Blue Heron and Wood Duck passed by inland, and the coast was teeming with large numbers of Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-throated Loon, and Common Goldeneye, many of which were moving out.  The beach itself also had good waterfowl present in the tidal channels, highlights being Eurasian Wigeon (the resident drake), American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, and Green-winged Teal.  Other good birds along the shore included Little Blue Heron (As far as I know the first seen in the state of CT this year), Greater Yellowlegs, Belted Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night Heron, Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, both Egrets, and good numbers of Double-crested Cormorant and Osprey.  Overall, we had just over 50 species in our 3 hour vigil.

Greater Yellowle
Greater Yellowlegs along the beach.

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We spend the rest of the day birding leisurely around the area, hitting a couple of local spots.  It was a gorgeous spring day, and we even ventured out in only a t-shirt a couple of times (a big leap at this time of year), and ate lunch at an outdoor seating area.  Springs mad optimism is contagious.  The birds weren’t shabby either, highlights being drop-dead looks at 2(!) gorgeous American Bittern at a local Audubon chapter’s wetland, Ring-necked Duck, Wilson’s Snipe, Palm and Pine Warblers, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Pileated Woodpecker, and a few lingering Pine Siskins.  Even Painted Turtles were out basking, and my first Mourning Cloak of the year drifted by through the leafless woodlands.  Spring, you are welcome here any time.

Brown Creepers are incredibly hard to photograph.
Brown Creepers are incredibly hard to photograph.
It really doesn't get any better then this- American Bittern.
It really doesn’t get any better than this- American Bittern.

_MG_9687

– Brendan

Twitching? I prefer common sense.

Many birders love a good twitch.  Twitching is like chasing a bird, but ‘chasing’ a bird is an understatement.  Twitching is what happens when you combine birdwatching with road rage and with the quest for the holy grail.  There is no rational thinking. There is no relaxing. There is just a lust for a certain bird, a need for it’s appearance in your life; as if the crossing of paths between you and this individual has long been written in the book of birding religion, and by missing it you are putting a black spot on your purity.  Seriously.  For many twitchers, missing the “bird of a lifetime” is akin to missing your siblings wedding.  You can never live it down.

If any of this seems exaggerated, I apologize.  Not all birders are like this.  I, for one, am young, and thus realize that I have plenty of time to mop up the black spots on my purity.  A missed bird is just a bird to get later.

Wishful thinking?  Perhaps, but this is what happens when you don’t own a car.

However, some birds are truly too good to pass up, no matter how much of a twitcher you are.  Distance is often the limiting factor to who gets a bird and who doesn’t (unless you’re every big lister), and when a really rare bird shows up 20 minutes from your house, you have a moral obligation to see it.  Lucky for me, really rare birds have shown up close to my house on multiple occasions.  Fairfield County, CT, is heavily birded, and in the suburban sprawl that has engulfed the area, birds are concentrated.  Therefore, they get found.  A few years back (2010) a Fork-tailed Flycatcher put on a world class performance 10 minutes from my house.  A Barnacle Goose has graced the area in several past years.  Strange birds pop up all the time.

This past weekend, it happened again.  A TUFTED DUCK, a species of waterfowl widespread in Eurasia (I had seen them previously in Japan) showed up in a small marina a short drive from my house, mixed in with a flock of scaup and Canvasback.  The report came in midmorning, following a fresh snowfall.  I had been slowly waking up (a several stage process), but when my phone lit up, I was all business.  A driveway had to be shoveled.  Mother had to be motivated.  This bird was too close to slip away.

As far as twitching goes, I’ve never had the best luck.  Just recently, I waited 8 hours on a freezing New York Curb waiting for a bird that had been seen regularly the past few days (Couch’s Kingbird).  The bird never showed up, and we caught a train home depressed.  15 minutes after we left, the bird showed up.

This twitch was easy in every way possible.  I was at the scene within the hour.  Pulling up, I could already see a crowd of local birders gathered under a pavilion, looking out over a small patch of unfrozen water riddled with ducks.  It looked good– and looked even better when I walked up, peered through the first open scope, and got my bird.

It was almost laughable; that was too easy!  I spent the next 45 minutes with my scope trained on the bird, a female Tufty that did a fantastic job of being a Tufted Duck (that is, it stayed in sight and provided great views, clearly identifiable).  For a bird notorious for blending into scaup flocks like a demon, I felt a surge of affection for this cooperative gal.  High fives were exchanged.  It was a state bird for practically all, and a life bird for many.  I’m not really an impulse twitcher, but it’s birds like these that turn people into one.

A female TUFTED DUCK (center) with Greater Scaup and American Black Duck.
A female TUFTED DUCK (center) with Greater Scaup and American Black Duck.

Good Birding!

Brendan