May Madness: 5/14 – 5/20 Fairfield BIG Day!

I certainly can’t believe over a year has gone by since last year’s Fairfield Big Day. So many changes have occurred in my life, both birding and otherwise. There was no talk of ‘colitis’ last year or of a third thoracotamy. But, there was no Hopkins either, a school I have very much enjoyed in my limited time away from treatment this year. I’ve had some wonderful teachers and a blast with some terrific new friends. One thing does remain the same since last year’s effort, however: my passion for birding in Fairfield and my commitment to the skewered mantra, ‘Bird local. Think global.’

With this in mind, Dave Hursh and I took to the field at 3:30AM on Saturday, May 19th trying to break last year’s effort, raise a little money for conservation, and have a great time doing it. A peak at the radar before leaving that morning had shown a limited movement of migrants taking place in eastern New York and western Connecticut. Hoping to catch up with some of these migrants (some of which, like Gray-cheeked Thrush are sometimes easier to pick up during a big day at night), we headed for a shopping center parking lot along Black Rock Turnpike (Route 58) in Fairfield.

Needless to say, we certainly didn’t have much luck with any nocturnal migrants there. A loud air conditioning vent and an even louder tractor-trailer turned this unscouted location, our first stop of the day, into a bust. After thirty minutes of trying to avoid half-asleep tractor-trailer drivers, while trying to stay concentrated on listening, we cut our losses and headed to Lake Mohegan.

Many of you might remember that Lake Mohegan was the first stop on last year’s big day effort. With a wide variety of habitats and species, Lake Mohegan certainly is one of the top options for a first stop on a Fairfield Big Day effort. As they say, ‘why fix something that ain’t broken?’ Our first stop was the main parking lot, where we attempted to continue our listening effort for nocturnal migrants.

Although our listening efforts remained unproductive, we nevertheless enjoyed one of, if not the biggest, nonbirding highlights of the day, a shooting star, from that vantage point. We also had our first bird of the day, a singing American Robin. It was a sure sign that dawn was approaching, and we raced to a different area of the Lake Mohegan, in order to still try to pick up a nocturnal denizen while the light was still good. Or bad?

Although I’ll keep from disclosing the name of the location here, a pair of vociferously dueting Barred Owls was the obvious highlight of that effort. As we drove out, it was clear that the dawn chorus had begun. By the time we returned to the parking lot, our ‘open window policy’ had paid off in almost getting us to fifteen species.

We moved through the extensive habitats of Lake Mohegan like mad, while still listening carefully for new species. Scouted White-eyed Vireo? Check. Is that a Swainson’s Thrush I heard? Yup. Canada Warbler, you on it? Got it. It was like this for a couple of hours, but what really seemed like just a couple of minutes. By the time we departed Lake Mohegan, our day total stood at over fifty species, past my goal of forty-five. And it was only just beginning…..

Our next stop after Lake Mohegan was just across Congress Street and up a couple of steep hills. Containing one of the largest areas of shrubland and open field habitat left in Fairfield, Hoyden’s Hill Open Space certainly has its own share of specialties. Here we added Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Brown Thrasher, Indigo Bunting, Blue-winged Warbler and Eastern Bluebird. We also connected with a few unexpected species, including an immature Cooper’s Hawk, a male Wild Turkey charging across the driving range, its colors fully illuminated by the early morning sun, as well as a calling Pileated Woodpecker. Charlie Barnard’s scouted Savannah Sparrows remained elusive, however.

A bit ahead of schedule as we left Hoyden’s Hill, a couple of special scouted species awaited at Hemlock Reservoir. We quickly notched Cliff Swallow in the form of the tens of birds nesting on the pumphouse, and Pine Warbler fell soon after. Our scouted Chestnut-sided Warbler and Swamp Sparrow were nowhere to be found, but cancellations, including FOURTH Hairy Woodpecker of the day (sometimes a dastardly species on big days; we missed this bird entirely last year), were certainly within reach.

Fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, we raced towards the Larsen Sanctuary, in order to have as much time as we possibly could at this birding gem. The extra time we had certainly paid off. We quickly picked up both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, as well as a calling Eastern Wood-Pewee. Dirty Swamp provided us with Wood Duck, as well as a surprise Green Heron, cutting out a stop for that species later on. One of our scouted Louisiana Waterthrushes remained singing in the vicinity, a very nice sign.

Moving over towards Wildlife Pond, we enjoyed our second Canada Warbler of the day (our third would come later in this same walk) as well as Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green and Blackpoll Warblers, among others. The walk to Deer Meadow was quite dead and might have been better spent elsewhere, with our scouted Yellow-throated Vireo being a no-show.

Eager to remain on schedule, we moved on to Brett Woods, in search of a few birds Charlie Barnard had found days before. Although we weren’t able to locate a few scouted birds, including Worm-eating Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo, we defied our losses and kept picking up new birds, including Turkey Vulture, our third Barred Owl of the day, and one of the biggest highlights of the effort: Broad-winged Hawk (possible breeder), picked out by ‘owl ears’ Dave.

With our inland stops complete, we headed for the coast and arrived just a little behind schedule. A flyby Monk Parakeet and nearby Great Egret soon reminded us of our changed geographic location. Arriving at Ash Creek, we nailed one of many singing Orchard Orioles on the day (they were all over Ash and Pine Creeks), Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, calling Clapper Rail (again, all over both ‘creeks’), as well as a big surprise: a singing Field Sparrow in the meadow, which was especially nice after our scouted bird at Lake Mohegan decided not to show.

With both Willow Flycatcher and Monk Parakeet in the bag, we decided to skip Jennings Beach entirely and head via I-95 (in hopes of picking up Black Vulture) to Southport. Arriving at a vantage point on Harbor Road, with only one TV to show for it, we commenced scanning the harbor and nearby Fairfield Country Club. The female Boat-tailed Grackle I had found a few days before was not present (never expected it to be), but we did pick up our first Killdeer and Least Sandpipers of the day.

Moving on to the mouth of Southport Harbor and then further west, to Southport Beach, we notched Common Tern, Common Loon, Snowy Egret and others. It was in this same area, that we snagged our 100th bird, in the form of our wonderful European friend, Mute Swan. We were now just 6 birds away from last year’s total.

Trying to stay on schedule, we decided to keep moving rather than linger, but not before notching nesting Purple Martin on the Harbor Road bridge. Our 104th bird of the day,PUMA put us within two of last year’s total of 106. Back in the main part of Fairfield, we hit Sherman in the mid-afternoon heat, which was a complete bust. Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Solitary Sandpipers remained elusive, and the many Savannah Sparrows that were seen just days before, had likely moved on due to the moving of the fields.

The heat-of-the day blues continued at the Birdcraft Sanctuary, where we again struck out on new species. With things seeming to be slowing down (or perhaps slamming shut is more appropriate) just as we were nearing the record, we departed the Birdcraft a half hour early, hoping for some new coastal species at the Penfield Reef and Sunken Island.

Bird 105 remained elusive at Sunken Island, but quickly showed itself at the reef , the Black-crowned Night-Heron. The tying bird? A wonderful late May group of White-winged Scoters just off the reef. We were now in line with the record, five hours earlier than last year!

But things quickly changed after the scoters. For thirty minutes, no new birds made themselves apparent at the reef. I knew a flyby Least Tern was to be expected at any moment (this species regularly passes by this site on coastal fishing trips). Frustrated (and probably a bit tired as well!) I defiantly sat down on the gravel surface of the reef and declared, “I’m not moving until a Least Tern appears. I don’t care if the reef gets covered. Swimming is fine by me!” It was then that a rather high-pitched and announcing call made itself audible above the surf. Straining to lift myself up from my sitting (pouting) position, I picked out the source of the vocalization, an American Oystercatcher zooming right by the reef, heading east.

It was a new bird for the day. Indeed, it was the bird that broke the record: it was species #107! High fives and hugs followed, but then it was back to business.

After one final scan at the reef, we moved on to our last daytime stop: the Pine Creek complex. Our effort began on a very high note, when birds #108 and #109, Swamp Sparrow and Great Blue Heron, respectively, were heard picked out singing and calling in the fading evening light.

We soon hit #110 with our first Northern Waterthrush of the day, and #11 followed not soon after when two Lesser Yellowlegs moved past the lagoon. In vicinity of the overlook over the lagoon, we picked out a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler among the throngs of Yellows and managed to get a crummy look, before the bird returned to its obstructed perch.

A calling Willet in the marsh provided us with #113 and capped off an incredible streak that added insurance birds to our newly formed record.

With the evening light fast diminishing, it would soon be time to make it over to another area of Pine Creek to look for marsh species. But in the meantime, two gaping holes on our list remained: Belted Kingfisher and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, as well as a few easy migrants. We first looked and listening for kingfisher at the old railroad bridge. Nothing. We then tried for hummingbird and migrants in the thickets behind the ball field. Again, nothing. We then decided to walk the road along the thicket to give the migrants another go.

Although my “life” New England Cottontail showed (I’m certain I’ve seen this species before, albeit I did not know the field marks), our third effort was also a strikeout. With kingfisher and hummingbird left hanging, we moved on to the marsh behind the senior center, in the same way we ended last year’s daytime effort. Singing Marsh Wrens and calling Clapper Rails were abundant and we soon noticed many sparrows moving about the marsh.

The first sparrow I was able to pick up on out in open was not the expected Salmarsh but instead was my first confirmed Seaside Sparrow for Fairfield, one of the biggest surprises of the day! As I watched, the bird quickly dove deep into the grass, where I thought (or at least hoped) contained a nest site.

Bird #116, Saltmarsh Sparrow, came soon after, providing some terrific views through the scope. We also had a very close bird in the marsh doing its ‘whisper-song’, the first time I’ve heard this stunning vocalization up close.

Realizing we might be able to pick up a few shorebirds while the tide was still good, we returned to the Penfield Reef, where it was mostly too dark to see anything. However, as the sun set on our big day effort, we enjoyed fantastic looks at a pair of bird #107, American Oystercatcher, on the reef. It was the perfect ending to the day. A beautiful sunset while enjoying more views of the record-breaking bird.

Although we did try a few spots for owls in the northern part of the town, my overwhelming exhaustion saw us returning home by 9:00pm, after an incredible 18-hour marathon of birding.

Scouting: As I mentioned in my post about last year’s effort, “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.” I’m happy to say that this year, we were able to increase our scouting efforts, from none whatsoever, to almost two full days of inland scouting, and a nice afternoon and morning of coastal scouting. Others also kindly did some scouting for us, amounting to almost a day. And although quite a few of our scouted species didn’t show, it was still nice to know we had made the effort. Another case we encountered was not even needing to visit a scouted location for a species, because we encountered that bird elsewhere before our planned stop. Again, it was nice to know we had made the effort and always had a backup.

Weather and Migration: The weather on the big day was as good as it could get. Partly cloudy, with temps in the mid 70s. While we encountered over two hours of rain on last year’s effort that definitely was more hurtful than helpful, a 0% chance of precipitation was forecasted, and it seemed that the birding gods were smiling down at all from all fronts.

However, migrants were sorely lacking, with only sixteen wood-warbler species encountered on the big day (most of which were breeders), which included very small numbers of some of the migrant species (1 Blackpoll Warbler for example). The exception, of course were the 3 Canada Warbers, which, looking back on it, was pretty average (rather than low) for the amount of ground we covered.

Planning: A few people were instrumental in the planning process, including Charlie Barnard, Frank Mantlik, Milan Bull, and Scott Kruitbosch. Charlie also kindly contributed quite a bit of scouting time, which amounted to a full day or more. In addition, there guys provided tips, recommendations on where to find tough species, in addition to locations for some of the commoner birds as well. A few resources also came in handy, including “Walking Through Fairfield’s Open Spaces: A Guide to Fairfield’s Walking and Hiking Trails” by the Fairfield Conservation Commission, compiled by Frank J. Rice. “Connecticut Birds” by Joseph D. Zeranski and Thomas R. Baptist, as well as “The Breeding Bird Atlas of Connecticut,” edited by Louis R. Bevier, were also quite helpful at times.

My own notes, as well as those of other Fairfield birders, like James Purcell and Dennis Varza, were also important to the planning process. I’m sure I pulled information from eBird and CTBirds during the process as well, so thanks to all who post to those respective sites.

I spent a lot of time planning this year’s effort, beginning in late April when I contacted some of the people listed above and started to write out a plan. If you’re hoping to do a big day in your town and looking for advice on the planning process, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Changes for Next Year: As I mentioned above, our list was quite lacking in the form of migrants. During one of our full-day scouting efforts the week before, we ran into 20 wood-warbler species, and 89 species in all (James Purcell had 2 other wood-warbler species elsewhere in Fairfield that day). Migrants, including those 22 wood-warblers, were certainly easier to come by. With the addition of 20 easy coastal species (all of our birding that day was done inland), we would’ve broken the record, a lot quicker than we did on the 19th.

In talking with Jay Kaplan a few days later, it was quite apparent that I wasn’t the only one that shared a similar experience. He too conducted a town-wide big day just a few days after mine, and likewise, found few migrant species. Jay noted that Connecticut birders might want to re-think the third week of May as the time for big days. I was in agreement, and was thinking the same thing to myself during the last few hours of that big day, when it became quite clear that our warbler total was not going to surpass, nor come close to, twenty species.

We’ll see how the pace of migration goes next year, but if it’s anything like what took place this month, I think you can very well expect the Fairfield Big Day to be a week earlier. We might be paying for it with a few later migrants, like Willow Flycatcher and some shorebirds, but most of the species seen on the big day, could be seen or were definitely noted, the week before.

As always, more scouting can only be more helpful for a big day effort, and I’d like to see next year’s scouting effort to increase at least by a day, though I was very happy with the amount of time we were able to put in this year. Lastly, while we got pretty lucky with birds of prey during this year’s effort, that was not the case last year, and more searching for nests sites might be helpful in the long run.

Best bird: Seaside Sparrow. Other contenders were Broad-winged Hawk, American Oystercatcher Yellow-billed Cuckoo, White-eyed Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Field Sparrow

Biggest miss: Belted Kingfisher. A tough call, as Ruby-throated Hummingbird (last year’s ‘biggest miss’) was nearly as ridiculous.

Wow! Can’t believe it’ll be a full year until the next one! Unlike last year, I’m actually content with a break!

-Alex

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6 Responses to May Madness: 5/14 – 5/20 Fairfield BIG Day!

  1. Gerry says:

    What an impressive effort!

  2. Helen Iwanik says:

    What a recitation, Alex! Congratulations on your Big Day! I am very impressed with your dedication and your results. Thank you for sharing it with your fans.

    Best to you always,
    Helen

  3. Nick Bonomo says:

    Congrats on the great effort Alex!

  4. Keep it comin from fairfield bro….

  5. James Purcell says:

    Congratulations! Sounds amazing, and I’m sure you’ll get those hummingbirds and kingfishers next year

    James

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