On May 6th, for the second year in a row, the Connecticut Young Birders Club Darth Waders competed in the World Series of Birding, an annual big day birdathon run by New Jersey Audubon. The event attracts teams from all over the region (and the world) in a 24-hour long, caffeine fueled race for conservation. Each team raises money for a bird-related recipient of their choice, and this year the CYBC gathered donations for the Clark Fund for Avian Research at UConn, a critically important resource that provides backing for research on Saltmarsh Sparrow, Ovenbird, etc. As with last year, our team made the decision to bird only within the confines of Cape May County. Having no time to scout, we understood this to be the logical choice– a full state run would like driving blind. With most of us having prior experience in the Cape May area and eBird providing detailed info on the region, we felt confident we could best our 2016 total of 150 species. Of course, we were also painfully aware of the previous year’s errors– we did lose three prime hours of birding time after all (In short, we got our car stuck in a swampy rut in Beaver Swamp and had to get towed back to civilization.)
Our team this year was similar to last year’s, with one swap-out. Brendan Murtha, Alex Burdo, and Jory Teltser all returned for a second year, with Preston Lust joining the ranks for his preliminary run. We also again enlisted the commitment of Sean Murtha, our diligent driver. In the days leading up to the World Series, despite being swamped in AP Test preparation, our team managed several phone conferences where we sketched out a rough draft of our route and meticulously scouted eBird for info on target species. When Friday rolled around, we piled into the car after school and began the traffic-plagued trek down to Cape May, during which we finalized our route. The goal this year was to maximize birding time and minimize time spent in the car. That goal was largely achieved, and our final plan resembled a large loop through Cape May County, requiring only short hops from place to place.
After reaching our campground at around 8 PM, we got an hour or two of sleep before getting up at 11:15 and heading out to our first spot: the South Cape May Meadows. We rolled into the parking lot just at the stroke of midnight and raced down the path out to the wetlands, where we quickly added our first bird: Least Sandpiper, calling creep from the marsh. Very quickly we realized the wind would be an opponent of ours– it whipped across the marsh, making listening difficult. Despite it, we heard two Virginia Rails calling and at least some nocturnal migration was occurring as Indigo Bunting and Chipping Sparrow called down from overhead.
We then raced to the State Park, where we listened for nocturnal migrants from the hawk watch platform. No luck– too windy. We did the same thing at Coral Ave., and just managed to add Swainson’s Thrush as it went over. We then did the muddy, buggy walk out to Pond Creek Marsh from behind the magnesite plant and heard both Saltmarsh Sparrow and Sora call briefly. Some staked out owls in West Cape May did not cooperate, and Higbee Beach was absolutely silent (aside from the ever present whistle of the wind.) A little disappointed with our pace, we decided to head up the bayshore to the reliable habitat around Jake’s Landing and Stipson’s Island. We left Cape Island at 2:00 AM and, after one of the longest drives of the day, arrived at Jake’s at around 2:30. There we began a rather lengthy vigil, picking up several night calling birds: Laughing Gull, Black-crowned Night Heron, Clapper Rail, Seaside Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Veery (NFC), etc. Our next vigil at Stipson’s was even better, producing Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Common Nighthawk, Yellow-breasted Chat, and a slew of shorebirds including Semipalmated Plover, both Yellowlegs, and Willet. Alex’s incredibly sharp ears also picked up a distantly singing Nelson’s Sparrow, a really awesome pull. At 3:45, we packed up and made a quick swing through the Pea Fields outside Belleplain, where we added night-singing Horned Lark and Chuck Will’s Widow. Entering Belleplain, we were dismayed to see the wind had permeated even the densest reaches of the forest. We hadn’t heard a single owl all night, and as the day began to break we realized we’d have to leave all three expected species to the second night shift. We crossed our fingers and, clearing that issue from our minds, opened our ears to greet the dawn chorus (only after tallying several Eastern Whip Poor Will’s however.) As low, gray light accentuated the silhouettes of towering oaks and crooked pitch pines, birds began to join our list in quick succession: Ovenbird, Wood Thrush, Great Crested Flycatcher, Carolina Chickadee, Pine Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, etc. We put ourselves in position to pick up Belleplain’s specialties, and soon they began to sound off: Acadian Flycatcher and Prothonotary Warbler came first, followed by White-breasted Nuthatch (yes, that’s a tough bird in Cape May,) Eastern Wood Pewee and Summer Tanager. We made a pass by Lake Nummy and added Eastern Kingbird, Fish Crow, and a flyover Common Loon, then swept through the campground, tallying Hairy Woodpecker, Red-eyed Vireo, and Louisiana Waterthrush. On our way to a reliable Blue-winged Warbler spot, we finally heard a Hooded Warbler. The Blue-winged never sang, and, a little behind schedule, we headed out to the meadows on the eastern end of Belleplain. Here, we picked up Black-and-white and Prairie Warblers, both Orioles, and American Goldfinch (a bird we actually almost missed last year.) With the clock approaching 7 AM, we swung by a gas station to pick up both gas and coffee (necessities) and heard Northern Parula, White-throated Sparrow and Chimney Swift while doing so. Next we returned to Jake’s Landing in the daylight, adding Blackpoll and Black-throated Blue Warblers on the way in and a plethora of new birds on the marsh: both Egrets, Great Blue Heron, American Black Duck, Osprey, Forster’s Tern, Glossy Ibis, Spotted Sandpiper, and Bald Eagle. We left Jake’s Landing at 7:45 AM, with our list already over 100 species. We’d forgotten about our lack of Owls. We were going strong.
We briefly returned to the Pea Fields and added Blue Grosbeak, Eastern Meadowlark, and Black Vulture. Then we began our journey south, back down to Cape Island. We added a Wild Turkey along the road, and a minute long stop at the CMBO Goshen Center added us Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Brown Thrasher. Then we shot off to Reed’s Beach, where all of our targets materialized in short order: Boat-tailed Grackle, Red Knot, and Ring-billed Gull. We also added Brant, Dunlin, American Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone, and Semipalmated Sandpiper before continuing south again. In Villas we stopped on the side of the road to check out some flowering Oaks, adding Black-throated Green Warbler. We were already painfully aware of how few migrants were around, so even a common migrant like BTG Warbler was a relief.
Next up, we did a brief walking loop through the paved trails of Cox Hall Creek (Villas WMA,) trying to scrounge up whatever migrants we could find. Although it was pretty quiet, we managed to add a few good species including Red-shouldered Hawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Magnolia Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, and Purple Martin.
It was now mid-morning, and around 10:45 we rolled back into Cape Island, where we’d stay until early afternoon. Our first stop was Higbee Beach, where we went straight to the jetty to look for the ever reliable Purple Sandpipers that linger there. It took some work, but we eventually scoped out two birds near the end of the jetty as they flew up from the rocks. We then took a brief walk through the meadows, but the lack of migrants was so absolute we left after a short time, picking up Field Sparrow as our only new bird. A staked out spot for Belted Kingfisher on our way to the Meadows did not produce. Neither did the Beanery, where a collection of good migrant warblers had been reported. The Meadows did, however, and we added Least Tern, Killdeer, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe, Eastern Towhee and Solitary Sandpiper on our circuit around the wetland. We stopped by the State Park, but Bunker Pond was devoid of any new birds and zero hawks were moving. Cutting our losses, we zipped over to the Coral Ave. Dune Crossing for a seawtaching stint. The ocean was also pretty devoid of birds, but I finally managed to pick out a flock of Black Scoter and Jory locked on to a nice close Parasitic Jaeger. We stopped by Sunset Beach for a little more sea-watching, where I was surprised to pull out a very unusual Great Cormorant among a large raft of Double-crested. On our way out, a Cooper’s Hawk went over the car, our only accipiter of the day. We stopped by the Cove Street Pools to look for Blue-winged Teal with no luck, but did add Bank Swallow and Cedar Waxwing. With our slated time on Cape Island running low, we made a frantic attempt at the lingering Iceland Gull on the beach of 2nd avenue, but despite some hard looking couldn’t make the bird materialize. We were compensated, however, in the form of both Lesser Black-backed Gull and Royal Tern.
We’d missed some key birds on Cape Island, but our schedule demanded we head north up the Atlantic coast. We were wary, too, as a large storm system was moving into the area. It loomed behind us as we crossed the bridge onto the barrier beaches of the Atlantic coast, and as we swung by two-mile landing to pick up Common Tern the winds and clouds picked up in imminent fury. However, we were not deterred. A sea watch from Hereford Inlet netted several Northern Gannets. We moved onto the Nummy Island causeway, where under spectacular lighting we pulled off on the roadside and picked up Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover and Tricolored Heron. Around this time, our phones began to light up with reports of good birds being pushed in by the storm system: both White Ibis and Anhinga had been spotted making landfall in the area. We were on high alert for a rarity, and as we peeled off down the causeway Preston yelled out: “Red-necked Phalarope!!”
Woah! We jumped out of the car and enjoyed point blank looks at at a gorgeous, high-breeding plumage female RN Phalarope foraging in a roadside puddle. We knew there was a mini influx of these birds on the bayshore (outside the county at Heislerville) but this find was spectacular surprise. We knew right there and then what the bird of the day would be, and we spent a disproportionate amount of time admiring it. We couldn’t escape the ticking clock, however, and had to reluctantly pull ourselves away after a few minutes of observation. Our next stop was the Wetlands Institute, where we added Little Blue Heron, Red-throated Loon, and Peregrine Falcon. Preston, already on a roll, had what he thought was a Marbled Godwit, but it disappeared from view before anyone else could confirm it. Racing just north of the inclement weather, we jumped up to Avalon and hit a staked out night heron rookery. We saw plenty of Black-crowns, but no Yellow-crowns. Feeling a bit defeated, and worried we’d miss a typically easy bird, we walked back to the car, but just before we ducked inside Preston again yelled out- “Yellow-crowned Night Heron!” as two birds flew over the trees and alighted in the roost. Phew.
We stopped by a reliable beach for Piping Plover and had a bird within minutes, as well as a cool Eagle just inches from the surf, eating a fish.
At this point it was getting late, and with only two or so hours of daylight left we had some decisions to make. Our original plan had called for us to continue north to the very top of the county, where we’d get a staked out Raven nest, and end the day in the extensive marshes of Tuckahoe WMA. However, we were aware we’d missed several birds in the south, and reports kept flowing in of action picking up south of the canal. I made an executive decision to change the plan and turn back to Cape Island, spending the last moments of daylight at the Meadows instead of Tuckahoe. This is the gamble of a big day– snap decisions will need to be made, routes altered, birds sacrificed. Ultimately, I believed we’d get more birds back on Cape Island than we’d get if we continued north.
We turned around and cut inland on our way south in order to stop by Beaver Swamp for Wood Duck, but the normally reliable stop was empty. This is the second year we’ve missed Wood Duck… I sense a vendetta forming.
At this point we were driving back into the storm that had been dogging our tail, and were met with torrential rain as we pulled back into two-mile landing. Wiping water from my scope lens, I finally picked out a Red-breasted Merganser in the channel. Fortunately, en route to the state park the rain abetted and the skies began to clear. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, and then raised a collective cry of elation as we spotted Cape May’s celebrity Northern Bobwhite foraging in the shrubs under the lighthouse. This bird was most likely released (somewhere, by someone) but had been deemed countable and was a wonderful bird to see regardless.
With daylight receding quickly, we took one last spin through the Meadows (our third visit of the day, fitting for such a consistently good location.) We diligently picked through every muddy pocket available, and managed to turn up Green-winged Teal, White-rumped Sandpiper and Stilt Sandpiper in the last few moments of daylight.
As the sun faded from the sky and waterfowl came in to roost, we watched the sky frantically for Blue-winged Teal or Green Heron, both birds we were missing, but they never appeared. We were consoled, however, by the two American Woodcock that began to peent after dark.
Having entered our second night shift, our thoughts returned to owls. We had spots for Screech and Great Horned in the northern part of the county, and were preparing to take the haul back up (granted, we were all very tired and didn’t want to endure an hour-long car ride) when we stumbled upon reports from the Beanery that seemed promising. Still intending to head north, we stopped by just to see what was up. Within minutes, Barred Owl and Eastern Screech Owl both sounded off. Woohoo!
Great Horned was the only real target left. We’d received word they were also in the area, although we didn’t know exactly where… until one suddenly sounded off from the woods across the street from the Beanery’s entrance. We were ecstatic– a trip north had just been avoided. And with that, we concluded our day with all three owls at one spot. It was 10:30 PM, and we pulled into the finish line in good spirits. We finalized our checklist over good food, and there it was– our final tally! 162 species.
We were satisfied. And, as it turned out, that result would have satisfied many others– we came in 3rd place overall in the youth category (up against teams that did full state, meticulously scouted) and, had we been competing in the Cape May County sector (only open to adult teams) we would have come in 2nd. More important than placement, however, we raised a good amount of money for a cause near and dear to our hearts and spent a wonderfully intense day in the field. All our team members had fantastic finds and shone in their own niches.
As this is my last year as Club President (and also my last year doing the WSB– at least with the club,) I am optimistic about the years to come. I’m sure that future Club teams will handily best the record we’ve set this year. To all who’ve contributed their support, thank you so much. And to my Dad, our intrepid driver, thank you for putting up with our frantic directions and sometimes seemingly illogical decisions. Also a huge thank you to NJ Audubon and the Cape May Bird Observatory for orchestrating and operating this crazy, awesome event for so many successful years.
– Brendan Murtha, Club President
(*addendum*– On our way home the next day, the Club birded Brigantine for several hours and enjoyed a plethora of species new for the trip list. Highlights included Black-headed Gull, Black Skimmer, Caspian Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Snow Goose and Blue-winged Teal.)