At the moment of writing I am sitting outside, with Blackpoll Warblers singing in the trees above me, reminding me of really how amazing yesterday’s big day was.
As many of you know, I’ve been conducting a 2011 Fairfield Big Year, trying to see as many species as I can in the town of Fairfield in one year. With the big year effort has come the want to do a Fairfield Big Day. Yesterday, Dave Hursh and I made it happen. Although not a ‘real’ 24-hour big day like the recent, record-breaking effort by CT’s own “Raven Luna-ticks,” ours still involved the same concept: trying to see as many species as possible in one day’s time. Our goal was 100 species, quite reasonable considering the number of birds currently on the big year list.
Our big day began at 5:00, when Dave and I met at my house. Outside, the dawn chorus had begun. American Robins, Northern Cardinals, House Wrens and more were singing their hearts out. We already had ten species on our list when we arrived at our first location, Lake Mohegan in Northern Fairfield.
Lake Mohegan is one of the town’s brightest jewels. Encompassing a total of 170 square acres, it was a no-doubt choice as the first stop on our big day. Its position is very good, right at the spot where Mill River thins out, giving migrants a fantastic place to rest after navigating the river up from Long Island Sound. Not only that, but the habitats at Lake Mohegan are quite varied and immense. Aquatic, Forested, Brushy and Field habitats are all well represented.
As soon as we left the car, we began to hear both migrants and residents including some LM specialties like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-winged Warbler plus migrants like Blackpoll Warbler. Before 6:00, we had hit the 30 species mark and just kept going higher. 2 singing Worm-eating Warblers were quite a surprise, and could indicate breeding on LM’s wet slopes. Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Wood-Pewee and Baltimore Oriole were all in abundance. 2 (m/f) Ring-necked Ducks on the Lake were a huge surprise and got us thinking. A singing Canada Warbler and a vocalizing Common Raven were two other very unexpected highlights. Before we knew it, it was 7:30, our time of departure. We left Lake Mohegan with 51 species, setting the tone for the whole day.
We then moved south, aiming to hit many of the spots along Mill River before mid-morning. Our next stop was Springer Glen where we continued to notch birds. Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher and Eastern Towhee were all added. Onto Mill Hollow where we picked up Cedar Waxwing, Barn Swallow and others. We were just pulling into the parking area for Perry’s Mill Ponds when we got a call from James Purcell that he had found a Hooded Warbler.
There was now a big decision to be made: not chase the warbler and be left with the fact that we might’ve missed a great big day and town bird or do chase it and maybe miss the bird and waste a lot of time in the process. It was soon decided to chase the bird, albeit with consequences. We put in an hour for the Hooded to no avail. The fact that James never saw the bird, or the fact that it only sang twice got me thinking about the merit of adding it to the big year list.
With precious time wasted, we again tried Perry’s Mill Ponds. Although we added Osprey, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Northern Parula, we didn’t get nearly as many migrants as I had hoped for.
With our morale waning after the Hooded Warbler chase, we headed north and had a fantastic time birding the Hemlock Reservoir and Hoyden’s Hill area. Great birds such as Pine Warbler, Red-tailed Hawk, Orchard Oriole, Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting were added to our list. We were headed to the coast with just over 70 species, with our goal in sight.
After lunch we were surprised to find most of the Penfield Reef already covered by the incoming tide. It was soon realized that we had spent too much time with lunch and birding the north; However, we still added Least Tern, Least Sandpiper, all three common gulls and one of the biggest highlights of the day, a Long-tailed Duck during our half-hour visit.
It was on to Southport to try to gain some shorebirds, after not seeing many at the reef. Southport was quite dry in that category but we were still notching birds. Mute Swan, both egrets and others were added during our time there.
Soon it was realized that we had missed the best time for shorebirding in Fairfield and would have to stick it in the evening when it was again midtide. With that conclusion we arrived at Ash Creek where we were in for some of the biggest surprises of the day. At the point we nailed Brown Thrasher, Willow Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher, three fantastic birds for the big day. Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were also new and we noticed the usual good numbers feeding around the creek.
At one point, I noticed a big bird, with a lumbering flight and broad wings flying up the creek. It recalled Brown Pelican, with the feather structure being right on for that species. I’ve seen many, many Brown Pelicans annually on my trips to Florida and other places around the south and is probably the reason I was able to put a name to the bird so quickly. Unfortunately, it was flying up the creek (away from me), thus never allowing me to get a look at the diagnostic head and bill shape, nor was I able to get Dave on it. A check of Upper Ash Creek, the area the bird was flying towards, yielded nothing.
After the excitement from the possible pelican, we turned our attention back to the big day and list which currently stood at 84 species, and made our way to South Pine Creek just as the rain began to start. Here we endured two full hours of afternoon showers, getting a bit heavy at times. The experience was a big morale drainer, but birds were still around. Willets, Greater Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpipers were all present, helping us make up for our lost shorebirding before. At least one Bank Swallow was foraging in the marsh. Not at all common in Fairfield, this bird was the biggest highlight there.
The rain finally began to abate as we left Pine Creek en route to the Birdcraft, which was, in a word: quiet. No new bird day birds were had after a good amount of time there. It was past 5, with the day’s total at 94 species. A look at the checklist showed a number of forest species missing. We turned our sights north and headed to the Larsen Sanctuary with three huge targets in mind. On the way up, the sun began to peak through and finally, upon arrival showed itself once again.
Upon closing the car door, we soon got one of our 3 targets in the form of a singing Veery. Wood Duck at Dirty Swamp soon followed, and 2 calling Barred Owls were heard on our way out. We had nailed all of our biggies here and were just three birds away from our goal. It was past six, and high time to make another visit to the reef.
Upon arrival, we quickly got Common Tern, noticing two sitting on buoys out on the sound. 98. A group of Black-bellied Plovers appeared on the reef, some in their beautiful breeding garb. 99! And suddenly out of the corner of my eye I noticed a mid-sized shorebird, with orange on the back and a black-and-white face, feeding amongst the plovers. Dave noticed it too. It was our 100th bird: RUDDY TURNSTONE!
High fives and hugs were exchanged but then it was back to birding. We nailed Red-breasted Merganser on the sound, and a Semipalmated Plover, heard and then seen flying off.
Our last stop of the day was the Pine Creek Marsh, behind the town senior center. Under the light of the waning sun, Marsh Wrens sang, Saltmarsh Sparrows moved about and Clapper Rails called from a deep spot in the marsh. Standing there, watching the sun set with all this life around us was the perfect way to end an amazing day.
The Fairfield Big Day effort was a total and overwhelming success. We nailed 106 species in 15 hard hours of birding. It was done battling 2 hours of afternoon rain and losing an hour to a failed chase.
Although I have had some intense and/or long days of birding Fairfield, I have never conducted a “formal” big day like this one, nor have I ever broke 100 in a day in Fairfield.
In terms of scheduling, our team ran into many of the same obstacles the CT team ran into. Our original plan was to do the big day May 15, but it was postponed due to rain and pressing personal matters. For the next week following, a low-pressure system parked itself right over CT and resulted in strong wind and rain (and very little-no passerine migration). It had us worried that not even the weekend would produce, but that fear abruptly ended thursday night when a steady migration look place, due to the opening of the winds. Friday morning was fairly decent at the Birdcraft and drove us to pick saturday, May 21 as our day.
Lastly, Although I’ve been vigorously birding Fairfield the whole year, due to the Fairfield Big Year, I never scouted solely focussed on the big day. Just a little inland as well as coastal scouting might’ve payed off to land us a few extra breeders and migrants as well as backup locations for some species.
It was terrific, and we are already chomping at the bit to surpass our newly set record in 2012!
Best Bird: Long-tailed Duck
Biggest Miss: Ruby-throated Hummingbird