In birding there are those rare days when everything falls into place. Those days when the birds are throwing themselves at you in such numbers and quantity that even when you’re just a few hours into it, you know something historic is in the works. May 17, 2014, this year’s Fairfield Big Day, was that kind of day.
Backing up a little, this year’s big day team was somewhat changed from previous years. Instead of my stalwart big day companion, Dave Hursh, I was joined by my Fairfield Birding partner in crime, James Purcell. With James heading off to Cornell University next fall, and this spring thus being his last in Fairfield, we thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to hopefully put an exclamation point on what has been a memorable childhood of birding the town together. Besides, Dave was preoccupied with preparing for an Alaska trip. Yep, I’m jealous.
Last year was mine and Dave’s second straight year of besting a previously-held Fairfield Big Day record. Thus, when preparing for this year’s effort, I knew that a setback might be possible, be it from weather, migration conditions, or just dumb luck.
As with the year before, weather was certainly on my mind when I fell asleep the night of May 16. Due to incessant rain, thundershowers and heavy winds, I didn’t make it out until the weather cleared at 2:30, and there were still a couple of brief passing showers that occurred over the next couple of hours.
James and I intended to still play by all of the big rules, including that all team members must see or hear 95% or more of species seen or heard. He wasn’t joining me until 5 am, however, so I was on my own for the night shift, and thus hoping that we’d be able to catch up with some of the birds I picked up later on.
The first bird of the Fairfield Big Day, like last year, was Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, in the form of one of our nesting pair, sitting on its nest at the end of the street. As I made my way back to the car, I picked up a calling Gray-cheeked Thrush, the only one for the big day. Although the conditions had put a literal damper on our nocturnal plans, they had allows for the birds to fly a bit lower, and thus for us to pick up this species thanks to flight calls.
By the time the rain abated for good, it was 4 am, and high time to make my way up to Northern Fairfield to begin the day shift. I started things off at Hemlock Reservoir around 4:30, still a half hour before I was supposed to meet James. Although my hoped-for target here, Wild Turkey, did not call, I still was able to pick up birds like Barn Swallow, Pine Warbler and Song Sparrow, all new species for the big day list, and all birds we would see later on.
I then headed to Lake Mohegan, where for the fourth straight Fairfield Big Day we’d be working this location at sunrise. Meeting James, we spent some time listening in the parking lot, picking up species like Wood Thrush, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Orchard Oriole.
When we had enough light to begin our trek through the open space, it was still cloudy, and it was not yet obvious how unbelievable the day was destined to turn out. Only residents were singing, with many of the migrants staying quiet. Finally, about halfway through our hike, the sun appeared from behind the clouds and the volume of singing birds increased dramatically. This in turn lead to us leaving Lake Mohegan 20 minutes behind schedule, but with species like Common Loon, Green Heron, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Canada and Wilson’s Warblers to show for it.
Migrants and residents alike were singing in earnest by the time we left the lake, a trend that would continue at our next stop, Grace Richardson Open Space area. There we picked up respectable species like Solitary Sandpiper, Louisiana Waterthrush and a late Yellow-rumped Warbler. But all of these terrific highlights were outshined by the bird of the day, and possibly the most exciting moment ever in my years of birding in Fairfield. It was when James and I were rounding a bend in the meadow, walking down the main trail back to the entrance, that the unmistakable song of a Kentucky Warbler rang out from what seemed like mere feet away.
Immediately halted, we stood and waited for a good while, waiting for the bird to call again. In the meantime, we put a call regarding our find into our good friend Charlie Barnard, who then posted the information of the sighting to the Connecticut Birding List. Despite the fact that other birders were present at the location for much of the day, and the notion that James and I put as much as our precious big day time as we could into listening for it, the Kentucky Warbler never sang again, much less ever provided a visual. It was one of those magical birds that you just had to be in the exact spot for, at the exact time, a combination that James and I were lucky enough to enjoy throughout the day, both with the incredible Kentucky Warbler, but also with less rare, but other unexpected species.
By the time we departed Grace Richardson, we were over a half hour behind schedule. And as we turned on to the eastern portion of Hoydens Lane, en route to our next stop, it seemed the birds were not finished delaying our pace. While driving along, we were halted by the song of a Black-throated Blue Warbler, which was followed in quick succession by my first Tennessee Warbler of the spring, as well as our third Chestnut-sided Warbler of the day. Incredibly, we had already reached twenty warbler species on the day, and it was not yet 8 o’clock. If the notion that this was Fairfield’s finest hour didn’t completely sink in with the Kentucky Warbler, any doubts that we might’ve had were crushed by our pickup of the Tennessee.
Arriving at Hoydens, our list of migrant species we were lacking had dwindled by so much, that we were actually able to concentrate on residents for a change. During our forty minutes here, we netted birds like Savannah Sparrow and Indigo Bunting, as well as huge pulls like White-eyed Vireo and Field Sparrow. The former species was not present in its normally dependable spot within Lake Mohegan, and thus this was an enormous pickup for the big day effort. A somewhat worrisome miss at Hoydens came in the form of Eastern Bluebird, one of our major targets at this location, which has always provided this bird in past big days.
Moving on we hit Hemlock Reservoir, picking up Cliff Swallow and James’ first Pine Warbler of the day.
Following Hemlock, we made our way to the Larsen Sanctuary, where we undid our harrowing miss at Hoydens with a clutch pickup of Eastern Bluebird, but added another big miss to the table in Wood Duck. Other new birds included Wild Turkey, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks and Great Crested Flycatcher. We also notched our fourth Blackburnian Warbler of the day, a singing male in the trees at the edge of Wildlife Pond that spoiled us with terrific looks.
The more touted east side of Brett Woods failed to provide any new birds for the effort, but the west side came through with some pretty lucky finds in Yellow-throated Vireo, Swainson’s Thrush and Nashville Warbler.
Cutting out most of our allotted time at Brett Woods, as we had simply picked up the vast majority of our possibilities there, we found ourselves back on schedule when we arrived at our next stop, Morehouse Lane in Southport. Here we picked up our first Turkey Vulture and Fish Crows of the day, along with another singing Field Sparrow.
Continuing south, we stopped at Bulkley Pond in Southport, cutting out Wood Duck from our list of misses.We also notched our first Mute Swans and Black-crowned Night-Herons of the day. But like a game of whac-a-mole, with one miss there comes another, and as we left Bulkey we realized we had yet to see Great Blue Heron.
Up next was Southport Beach, our first true coastal site of the day, and with it birds like Brant, Osprey and Least Tern. We took the time to finally tally up the birds we had seen thus far, and when I was done counting, I said, “ninety-eight.” James responded with, “ninety-nine, Common Tern.” Soon after, we picked up bird #100 in the form of a Great Egret flying over the beach.
We kept the Southport trend going, heading east from the beach to the Southport Harbor area, in order to get a view of the harbor and the nearby Fairfield Country Club. It was there that we finally picked up our first European Starling of the day for bird #101, as well as birds #102-104, respectively, in the form of Greater Yellowlegs, Willet and Killdeer.
Moving on we hit the Southport Harbor Bridge, where bird #105, Purple Martin, soon fell. Surprisingly enough, Purple Martin was our 104th bird on each of the previous two big days. Because the 2013 route was nearly identical to this year’s, it can be surmised that we were nearly on the same pace as the previous year at the time, despite feeling (in the midst of the day) as if we were crushing all previous totals.
After the bridge, we again moved north, this time to the house of our friend Kathy Van Der Aue, who graciously allowed us to enter her beautiful property to view her hummingbird feeders, in hopes of picking up Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a species that we did not yet have for the day, and which had eluded us on previous big days. While waiting for the hummers, we picked up a flyby Broad-winged Hawk, an incredible surprise, as well as flyover House Finches. An exquisite male Ruby-throated Hummingbird soon flew in, putting us at 107 species for the day, allowing us to surpass the initial Fairfield Big Day Record set in 2011.
Bidding Southport farewell, we headed across town to the Fairfield Metro Conservation Area, ready to begin a new portion of our big day route. Fairfield Metro again came up big, delivering four new species: Snowy Egret, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper, birds #109 – 112, respectively.
We then moved on to Upper Ash Creek, which was rather quiet. Ash Creek Open Space gave us bird #113, a sharp male Black-bellied Plover roosting out in the marsh.
The craziness of the Jennings Beach Carnival could not deter us from reaching 115, as we picked up our top two targets here, Willow Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher, despite the crowds.
Two uneventful stops, at Sherman and the Birdcraft, followed Jennings. This is now the third straight Fairfield Big Day in which the Birdcraft has utterly choked. Granted, we already had most of the birds we could pick up there, but it wouldn’t have helped us out if we weren’t in such good a place species-wise. It might be time to reconsider the Birdcraft’s current importance, in terms of time allotment, in the big day plan.
Pine Creek was up next. Typically, this is the spot we save for the end. It’s usually terrific in the evenings, and the marsh birds, big targets here, seem there most active at that time. But because of how the tides were positioned, we found ourselves at Pine Creek hours before one’s definition of “evening” would begin.
Soon after arriving, we picked up bird #116, American Black Duck, tying the 2012 Fairfield Big Day record. We then surpassed it with Marsh Wren. Unbelievably, we had tied a very respectable big day record, and it was only 4 o’clock. With hours left to go, we had high hopes of smashing the 2013 mark into oblivion as well.
We matched 2013 with Clapper Rail, with a couple of calling birds out in the marsh. At this point, we were well into our Pine Creek visit, and it appeared as if we would once again miss Belted Kingfisher. Having checked all of their favorite sites, we planned on working the Old Dam Road Open Space area adjacent to the Pine Creek Golf Course before departing. It was while walking along the canal in the aforementioned open space area, that I heard the record-breaking bird, Belted Kingfisher, faintly calling in the distance. It was bird #119, setting a new Fairfield Big Day record. But James had not heard it, which was similar to when Dave didn’t see last year’s record breaking bird.
So much like 2013, we needed a bird that we could both enjoy, one that could cement the record in both of our minds. And we soon got that bird at our next stop, Sasco Beach, in the form of a flyby White-winged Scoter, our 120th bird of the day. Great Black-backed Gull fell soon after.
Moving on to the Sunken Island, we made a short detour to the Pine Creek Marsh, adding Saltmarsh Sparrow and one of the best pulls of the day, Bank Swallow, first spotted by James, amongst the throngs of its congeners foraging out in the marsh.
Sunken provided us with our 124th bird of the day, Red-breasted Merganser, and the Penfield Reef gave us #125 with American Oystercatcher.
Up until that point, we still had not seen or heard Monk Parakeet. With time dwindling, we stopped at Jennings Beach, for a last-ditch effort at this glaring miss. It wasn’t long before we heard two calling Monks, erasing another big miss.
By this time in the day, we still had over an hour of daylight left. We had completed all of our coastal routes, and thus decided to deviate from our plans (which has never happens on Fairfield Big Days), in order to return to the Grace Richardson Open Space Area. There we hoped to hear and even see the Kentucky Warbler, and also to pick up an Alder Flycatcher that had been seen there during the day, but which we had missed in the morning.
As we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset, reveling in our insane success, we notched our 127th, and final bird of the day, in the form of the aforementioned Alder Flycatcher working the edge of the meadow and occasionally vocalizing. It was a fitting end, the icing on the cake to such a glorious day; with hardly any daylight left we were still picking up new birds, keeping our rampant pace going.
Things changed once the second night shift began, however, and over the course of the next several hours, we proceeded to dip on all three of Fairfield’s breeding owls. Those three species included Barred, a species that we had a staked-out nest site for, and is practically a given in any of the well-forested parcels of preserved land in Northern Fairfield.
By the time I returned home at midnight on May 18th, I was utterly exhausted. Yet, I was immensely satisfied, the feeling a result of not only beating a previous record, but destroying it.
Upon waking up the next morning, the first thought that came in to my head was, “jeez, this is going to be a tough one to beat in 2015.” Yep, it’s already time to start thinking about next year…
Scouting: Scouting was fairly limited this year, not truly beginning until the onset of May. But unlike previous years, the fruits of my scouting labor were far more bountiful for the time I put in. Multiple raptor nests were found, and many possible breeders noted. Like 2012, I once again embarked on a Fairfield Big Scouting Day on the weekend before the big day, putting up a total of 21 Wood Warbler species, besting my total on that day during the aforementioned year by one. I should note, however, that I don’t believe any of my scouting allowed for us to add an extra species to the list. Such was the luck of the day that most scouted birds were seen before we even arrived at the scouted locations, and thus those spots were either cut out entirely, or we simply didn’t put in the effort for the scouted bird.
Weather and Migration: As one can tell just by looking at our Wood Warbler total for the day, the weather and migration conditions before and during the big day were nearly perfect. Weather was only an issue at the very beginning of the day, when thunderstorms and heavy rain caused us to make a somewhat delayed start. Nevertheless, birds were still moving through the difficult conditions, as evidenced by the morning we enjoyed.
The fact that James and I both reside in town was also a big help. We were able to be somewhat flexible with dates, keeping both weekend days (May 17 and 18) open, and thus allowing us to choose the one with the more optimal conditions. In the past, Dave and I would normally have to choose a Big Day date well in advance, in order to ensure that it worked with our schedules, and that he could make the drive down from Massachusetts before our planned Big Day. The little sliver of added flexibility this year was huge, and certainly aided in our breaking of the record.
As opposed to last year, the scheduling of a Big Day on the third weekend of May, instead of the second, allowed us to pick up some of the later migrants, including Willow Flycatcher, Saltmarsh Sparrow and Indigo Bunting, all of which were missed in 2013. Thanks to this year’s pace of migration, it also allowed for a much greater volume of migrants to be seen. It is my belief that migrants may have singlehandedly put us well ahead of the record this year, as they were out in force over the course of the day. This year was a major deviation from the Fairfield Big Day norm in that regard, as I have often found migrants difficult to come by on previous efforts (as evidenced by the fact that we have never broken 20 Wood Warbler species on a Fairfield Big Day before this year).
Planning: This year’s Big Day plan was nearly identical to last year’s, with just a couple of spots, such as Morehouse Lane, Kathy’s and Sasco Beach, added in. Our friend Charlie Barnard was once again instrumental to the planning process, and graciously provided tips and advice leading up to the big day. Many of the same resources that have come in handy in previous years were again useful this time around. These resources include the indispensable Walking Through Fairfield’s Open Spaces: A Guide to Fairfield’s Walking and Hiking Trails by the Fairfield Conservation Commission.
As noted last year, “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.” Also, as I’ve said in the past, “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: With our unbelievable big day total from this year, we have certainly put quite the challenge in front of us going into next year’s effort.
The name of the game will once again be scouting, as we will have to pin down as many breeders and lingering wintering birds as possible in order to have any hope of surpassing the total.
My Big Day Team will also be altered. With James off at college, and Dave again scheduled to be in Alaska, I will have to take the time to look into putting another record-breaking team on the ground. Brendan Murtha, expect a call!
This year’s Big Day pointed to a notion that I have held for some time now: that 130 species is definitely possible in one day in Fairfield. With a lot of preparation and a little bit of luck, 2015 could be the year in which we finally see that come to fruition.
Best Bird: Kentucky Warbler.
Biggest Miss: Barred Owl. Great Blue Heron isn’t too far behind though.