After an incredibly successful Fairfield Big Day run the year before, in which we shattered our previous record by ten species, Dave Hursh and I were looking forward to taking a stab at our new species record, 116, on the 2013 Fairfield Big Day run.
Having experienced the thrill of a Fairfield Big Day the previous two years, this year’s run was all business, and we executed our plan at a near-perfect level, just like the big day professionals did during the World Series of Birding on the same day.
The only threat to our perfect execution was the weather, something that was playing heavily on our minds when we awoke at 11:30PM, just thirty minutes before the big day effort was due to begin.
Quickly packing the car and getting our belongings in order, we made our way to the end of my street. Watching the clocks in anticipation, we waited until a 12 flashed on to the screen, signaling the start of another year’s big day effort. And it happened soon enough, prompting me to turn on my spotlight. At the other end of the beam sat a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, huddling inside its nest, making an effort to ignore the blinding beam that was just rudely shone upon it. It was the first of many species on this truly epic day.
Making our way back towards the car, it was clear that a major calling event, with nocturnal migrants as the main players, was taking place. In short order, Veery, White-throated Sparrow and others made their way on to our ever-growing big day list.
We then headed off to the Pine Creek Marsh, in hopes of adding a few calling residents to our list. Marsh Wren was noted singing before we even left the vehicle, and species such as Killdeer, Northern Mockingbird and Clapper Rail were also evident. Nocturnally-migrating Swainson’s Thrush and Least Sandpipers called as they headed over.
Moving north, we struck out on Eastern Screech-Owl at two different locations, but still caught up with Black-crowned Night-Heron and Canada Goose. Another try for Eastern Screech-Owl finally paid off, along with a couple of roosting Mallards. Bizarrely, a Swamp Sparrow was also doing some night singing at the same location.
The rain finally set in, and we missed Great Horned Owl in no short order at two separate locations. Feeling deprived of owls, we headed for the Larsen Sanctuary, where we were able to entice a couple of Barred Owls into responding to our hoots.
With the rain dying down, and the dawn chorus beginning its performance, we quickly left Larsen in favor of Lake Mohegan, our first planned daytime stop of the day. Along the way, we picked up birds like Pine Warbler, Blue Jay, Chipping Sparrow and Eastern Phoebe, all heard vocalizing as we drove along.
Arriving at Lake Mohegan to threatening skies, we quickly made our way through the open space, trying to pick up as many species as we could before the skies once again opened up.
Upon leaving Lake Mohegan, our total stood at over 70 species, well ahead of the pace of our two previous big days. Highlights at the Lake included singing White-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos as well as Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. One of the biggest feel-good birds of the day was a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a species we had missed on our previous Fairfield Big Day efforts.
A stop at the nearby Grace Richardson Open Space failed to yield any Louisiana Waterthrush along the stream edges, although a calling flyover Common Loon was a nice surprise, and gave us the feeling that we were birding tens of miles to the north, instead of in Connecticut.
Hoydens Hill again came up big for our effort, and we added species such as Bobolink, Blackpoll and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A big miss at Hoydens was the Indigo Bunting, which has likely not arrived on territory yet.
On our way back to Larsen, we bagged Cliff Swallow at Hemlock Reservoir, the only known breeding site for this species in Fairfield. An unexpected Wild Turkey also joined our ever-growing list.
It began to rain as we returned to the Larsen Sanctuary for our second visit of the day. Nevertheless, we battled through the poor weather to add species like Wood Duck, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Louisiana Waterthrush, proving that we remained unyielding in the pursuit of our goal, despite the elements.
A soggy stint at Brett Woods followed, in which we missed both Pileated Woodpecker and Red-shouldered Hawk, birds we had plenty of opportunities to connect with throughout the morning. A consolation prize was a Red-tailed Hawk at the powerline cut, our first hawk of the day (no thanks to the poor weather conditions).
With all of our planned spots in the northern part of the town completed, we decided to keep moving rather than nurse the wounds of missed species.
A bit of a route change from previous years’ efforts found us in Southport, still on schedule. Bulkley Pond yielded Great Egret, while Southport Beach proved to be one of the most successful stops of the effort, with many of the day’s biggest highlights occurring within just a few yards of each other. Least and Common Terns, Red-throated Loon, Common Raven, Solitary Sandpiper, Red-breasted Merganser, Brant and Snowy Egret were all noted within a span of a few minutes. Many of these species had been missed during one or both of the previous years’ big days, so catching up with them now was definitely a treat. Red-throated Loon, Solitary Sandpiper, Common Raven and Common Tern provided species 100-103, respectively.
Tearing ourselves away from the show at Southport Beach, we notched the nesting Purple Martins at the Harbor Road Bridge, another restricted hirundine in Fairfield. Incredibly, Purple Martin was species number 104 on the day, the same number it had been on last year’s big day.
Trying to stay ahead of the ever-present threat of rain, we departed the Southport area, in favor of Perry’s Mill Ponds, hoping to turn up a Green Heron or other denizen of these slow-moving waters. No heron here, but only our second White-breasted Nuthatch of the day, the first heard by both team members, which was an important species to catch up with.
Arriving at Oak Lawn Cemetery for a last-ditch effort at Green Heron, it appeared that our efforts for this bird would be all-for-naught, as no herons were immediately visible. But this did little to deter us. Dave, making one of the biggest pulls of the day, spotted a Green Heron buried deep in the vegetation across the pond.
Moving on to the Metro Conservation Area, we tied our 2011 record with Great Black-backed Gull, and pushed ahead of that mark with Semipalmated Plover.
Upper Ash Creek yielded Greater Yellowlegs and American Black Duck, with a single non-vocalizing Monk Parakeet being the only new species seen at the Ash Creek Open Space area.
We wrapped up our visit to the Ash Creek area with species number 111 at Jennings Beach, the Brown Thrashers, that spends the breeding season at this spot. Brown Thrasher put us within just five of the record, but that’s when the birding gods decided to pull the mat up from underneath our feet.
Sunken Island proved to be a complete bust, and the Birdcraft Sanctuary wasn’t much better. This is now the third year in a row that the Birdcraft Sanctuary has choked on a Fairfield Big Day effort. Incredibly birdy just the evening before, the Birdcraft was dead quiet during this visit. The relative lack of migrants might be at least partially attributed to the threatening skies above, which began to open up for the third time on the day.
In the midst of the deluge we attempted to hit the Penfield Reef, but were thwarted by an all-too-close lightning strike that sent us fleeing back to the car. We noted American Oystercatcher (for species 112) before clearing out, but were unable to pull out any other new species that might have been lurking at the reef.
The downpour continued for forty-five minutes plus, dampening our spirits and draining precious time away from finding some key species. As the rain began to abate we again headed out to the reef, and in no short order had accumulated species 113, 114, and 115, in the form of a few stalwart Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone (respectively), that had decided to stick it out, instead of heading for more protected locations.
As we turned to depart the reef the sun began to peek through the clouds. With the weather turning for the better and our species total only one away from the record, we knew there was no giving up.
Soon after, we arrived at our last spot of the day: Pine Creek. One of the best birding locations in all of Fairfield, we hoped Pine Creek held just the few species needed to put us over the record, and perhaps, provide some insurance.
We began by scanning the marsh in hopes of adding a new shorebird or two. After a few minutes, our efforts were rewarded by a calling flyby Willet, providing us with species 116 and a tie with the record.
Now teasingly close to our goal, we continued our Pine Creek visit, looking for migrants in the thicket behind the ballfield. Coming up empty, Dave took the chance to stay behind and listen for anything new, while I pushed ahead. It was while we were separated that a Cooper’s Hawk dove in to the thicket, pursuing what few migrants were around. With the Coop came the realization that we had done it, we had broken the Fairfield Big Day record!
But Dave hadn’t seen it, as he had been holding back. With the Cooper’s in the bag, and the record broken, we decided we really needed a bird for us both to see and enjoy, in order to cement the record.
Making our way through the Pine Creek complex, we were unable to pull out any other new birds. Belted Kingfisher, a species we had missed last year, weighed heavily on our minds. We hoped not the repeat the same blunder this year, but light was disappearing fast.
With the kingfisher acting elusive, we decided to head for the marsh behind the senior center, in hopes of notching a marsh sparrow or two. Unfortunately, we failed to connect with either Saltmarsh or the rarer Seaside Sparrow during our time watching the marsh. But consolation came in the form of an incredible experience with two Clapper Rails.
With my camera back in the car, all I could do was watch as a pair these birds strutted into the open and proceeded to put on a show. Over the next twenty minutes, we watched as these birds swam across the creek and begin calling and bathing along the bank. One of my best-ever rail experiences, this moment put the exclamation point on what had been a sensational day.
Still looking for the team clincher, a bird we could both enjoy as the winning bird, we tore away from the rails to keep searching the area. Finally, as light was fading, the unmistakable calls of a Belted Kingfisher filled the air. It was species number 118 on the day, and finally cemented our narrow topping of the record.
A last-ditch effort for Saltmarsh Sparrow at another location in the area came up empty. With daylight fading fast and the record securely broken, we decided to head home and enjoy a nice dinner and some reminiscing with the family.
By the time we returned home almost twenty-one hours later, we were soaking wet and incredibly tired, but we’d beaten the Fairfield Big Day record. In the process, we had proven time and time again that a little weather couldn’t beat us down, and resiliently fought the elements throughout the day. It all came together in the end with a new Fairfield Big Day record, 118, to show for it.
Scouting: Scouting began in early April when I started my search for early breeders like owls and hawks. A slow start to the big warbler push saw that my May scouting was more unsuccessful than usual, as many of the late-arriving breeders simply weren’t on territory yet. Because we ran our big day a week earlier, we also weren’t able to have a weekend of scouting like last year, which thus severely reduced our scouting time. I don’t believe we were able to pick up any species during this effort that can be attributed solely to this year’s scouting effort. Nevertheless, scouting during previous years definitely provided back up locations for a few species (such as Green Heron at Oak Lawn Cemetery) and helped cement a changed, but still successful, route.
Weather and Migration: Weather-wise, last years effort was almost as good as it could get. Partly cloudy with temps in the mid 70s. But migration-wise (to quote from last year’s big day entry), “migrants were sorely lacking.” This year’s big day was almost the exact opposite: cloudy with occasional thunder showers, but with a fantastic evening of migration the night before, incorporating a notable calling event, partly thanks to the tough weather conditions the birds were encountering.
I don’t mind clouds, (which are probably better for a full day of birding than direct sun) but the rain and wind definitely didn’t help things. Over the past couple of weeks since the big day, I’ve found myself contemplating just how many species we could have picked up had it not been for the weather. I’m sure it would have been over 120.
Despite the good conditions for migration the night before, the pace of arrivals is significantly behind that of last year (or perhaps last year was just ahead of the norm?). Whatever it may be, the lack of a few arrivals, such as Indigo Bunting, Willow Flycatcher and Saltmarsh Sparrow definitely hurt our cause.
Planning: The planning process for this year’s big day was much the same as last year, with many of the same people being instrumental to the planning process. This includes Charlie Barnard, Frank Mantlik, James Purcell, Milan Bull and others. Many of the same resources as last year, including Walking Through Fairfield’s Open Spaces: A Guide to Fairfield’s Walking and Hiking Trails by the Fairfield Conservation Commission, also came in handy this time around.
eBird and CTBirds were, as always, extremely helpful, so thanks to all of those that posted a report from the Fairfield area over these last few weeks.
As I said last year, ” 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: Due to our busy schedules, we had no choice but to run this year’s big day effort a week earlier than usual. Hoping for the same early conditions as last year for this year’s spring migration, we were surprised to find a much different trend this time around, with east winds holding off the bulk of migrants until at least the tenth of May.
It is my hope that next year, we’d be able to be a bit more flexible and hold both weekends free, in order to time our big day with the pace of migration. But this is extremely difficult to do, especially going into another busy year at school.
As always, scouting is the key to a successful big day. It is my hope that I’ll be able to put in as much scouting time as I have these past couple of years.
Best Bird: Common Raven. Other contenders include Red-throated Loon, Bobolink, White-eyed Vireo, Least Tern, Solitary Sandpiper and Green Heron.
Feel-good Award (for a species that has been a rough miss on previous big days): Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Biggest Miss: Red-shouldered Hawk. Pileated Woodpecker, Indigo Bunting and Saltmarsh Sparrow were also tough.