Author Archives: pthompson234

July 2017 Trip Report – 7/22/17

It’s been just about a year since I’ve been able to be a part of a CTYBC trip, so I was really excited when everything worked out for me to make it down to the shore for the July trip this year. This trip would be centered around shorebirds, and Jory Teltser would be leading this day-long quest for rare fall migrants. We would begin in New Haven and move west, ending around Westport where Jory lives. Jory, Preston Lust and I arrived at Sandy Point at 6:30 to meet Grace Bartunek, a new club member. Grace got into birding recently but she has spent lots of time working with falconers and raptor rehabbers, making that group of birds her favorite.

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Mute Swans were found in many locations today. Photo by Michael Aronson.

Sandy Point immediately began to produce cool birds, as a Clapper Rail poked its head out of the marsh near the parking lot. We walked out onto the beaches where we hoped to see some migratory shorebirds, and we ended up seeing some breeders as well. Piping Plovers were quite abundant on the beaches, and these adorable little birds seemed to have had a good summer at Sandy Point. We got good views of a mudflat that in this morning’s low tide was full of shorebirds. Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers dominated the flocks, as they almost always do this time of year. The search for a Western Sandpiper was on, but nothing jumped out at any of us. One of the highlights of our time at Sandy Point was when Grace spotted a young Clapper Rail in the back of this mudflat near some marsh grass! The four of us all got great looks at another one of these elusive birds before it quickly retreated to the safety of the marsh. Other notable birds in the marsh included good looks at a Saltmarsh Sparrow, a flock of Short-billed Dowitchers, and a good number of Semipalmated Plovers.

Moving down the beach we kept running in with more Piping Plovers. Some Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings were on the beach as well, and since it is still quite early in the migration period, these birds had preserved most of their lovely breeding plumage. A bunch of swallows, including a few Bank Swallows, were feeding on the beach as well. Ospreys and Common Terns flew out over the ocean, and we also noticed a Least Tern faintly calling out over the water. Sandy Point had not disappointed at all this morning! We made our way back to the parking lot, as a few more yellowlegs and dowitchers flew over, to wait for the arrival of some other club members. A distant Peregrine Falcon was spotted from the parking lot, sparring with some terns in midair over the ocean.

A couple other members, Will Schenck and Michael Aronson, arrived, and now that we had everyone, we were clear to leave for Milford Point. This is a spot I have been to numerous times in my time as a birder, so I was not surprised to have a hoard of Purple Martins surrounding me as soon as we got out of the car. A quick scan of Wheeler Marsh revealed that the tide was just too high behind the Audubon Center for any shorebirds. This pushed us out to the main attraction at Milford Point, the expansive sandbars.

With recent reports tallying hundreds of shorebirds, we knew we would be faced with some ID challenges when we reached the Milford Point sandbars. We immediately got our scopes out, but before we did, a Bank Swallow (a lifer for Will!) flew over. Once we peered into our scopes at the sandbars, we realized that the reports showing hundreds of peeps were very accurate. Along with some Brants and American Oystercatchers, the beaches were draped with Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, with a sprinkling of Semipalmated Plovers as well. Scanning through these birds proved to be difficult, especially when people walking out on the beach flushed hundreds of birds at once. We decided that a relocation was in order, and we moved farther to the left, where we could see the other side of the beach. Even more shorebirds were here, but we still couldn’t find anything special hidden in the flocks. As we left, our overall Semi-Sand count totaled up to about 400 birds.

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Yellow-crowned Night-Heron by Michael Aronson

We crossed the county line in to Fairfield County shortly after leaving Milford Point, where we would spend the rest of the day. This part of the trip would be mostly composed of shorter stops of variable birdiness. The Stratford Marina, a small area that usually hosts good shorebird numbers, was our first of these many stops. Yellowlegs and dowitchers filled up the docks, standing near the water. Both species of night-herons were also quite abundant here, and differentiating the juveniles of both species was a great learning opportunity for Grace. We then checked the Birdseye Boat Ramp, Stratford Greenway and the Animal Control Marsh, all of which were fairly quiet. Probably the most interesting part of those locations was a distant tire that we though was a large snake! Our next stop, Stratford Point, would hopefully be a little more profitable, as we planned to spend more time there.

Upon arrival at Stratford Point, we immediately encountered a medley of swallow species on some powerlines near the parking lot. This included Barn, Bank, Northern Rough-winged and Purple Martin. As far as shorebirds went, it was the same as everywhere else; massive quantities of Semipalmated Sandpipers and little else. One of the other main attractions at Stratford Point though, was the terns. Recent reports of Gull-billed, Royal and Caspian had our hopes up for this spot, and when Preston began waving his arms at Jory and I from a distance, we got a good feeling that a rare tern was moving over the water. Our predictions were confirmed when we got our eyes on a pale, beautifully clean tern. This was a Roseate Tern! It was only my second time ever seeing this rare bird, and it was a great find for the trip.

After Stratford Point, we took a little break to hang out at Jory’s house in Westport, get some food and beverages, and talk about birds. It was a fun time to bond with the new members that had joined in the year that I had been gone. I also enjoyed hanging out with Jory and Preston, who I had not seen in such a long time. A few short stops in Westport followed, highlighted by Gorham Island. Here we got great looks at an adult Bald Eagle, which I’m sure Grace was happy to see. We also began to hear a lot of Marsh Wrens, and a bout of pishing brought them in for some brief views. Our trip ended not long after that, and we parted ways by discussing everybody’s favorite bird and favorite moment of the day. From Bald Eagle to Clapper Rail, the choices were very diverse. It’s certainly great to be birding with other young people who have the same interest as you.

– Peter Thompson

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Snowy Egret in flight, by Michael Aronson

Coventry Big Day 2017

Wow, it’s been far too long since I’ve posted on this blog! I was away at school but I did a big day in my home town of Coventry a couple weeks ago as soon as I got home. Jory’s amazing post inspired me to share my own Big Day experience, even though I didn’t do as well. I also don’t have any pictures since my camera died, but I’ll try to make up for that with imagery to describe my day.

I got home from college on Thursday, May 18 around 2:00 PM. It was a couple hours after that when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do my big day that weekend, and I decided to do it the next day. It was a lot all at once, but I decided to scout some areas that afternoon before going to bed extra-early Thursday night. My goal for Friday would be 90 species.

I woke up on Friday at 3:00 AM, excited and ready to go. I planned to begin my day by checking off the easy Barred Owls outside my house, but nothing was calling. I had to move on to Creaser Park, where I would try for Great Horned. In an ironic twist, I heard no Great Horned there but a couple Barred Owls began calling. After striking out on owls at a couple more spots, I headed to a marsh on South Street Extension to search for rails. When I got there Swamp Sparrows (a big miss from last year) and Yellow Warblers were already calling, and when I played the grunt calls of the rail it didn’t take me long to get a response. I officially got Virginia Rail – and I was already on a roll. My next stop was Brigham Road, where I would listen for owls as some songbirds began to wake up and sing. Once again Barred was the only owl calling here, but Louisiana Waterthrushes, Veeries, Eastern Wood-Pewees and Scarlet Tanagers had begun to sing. After spending so much time on a college campus, hearing the natural chorus of breeding birds was very refreshing. Unfortunately, I was too early for the Black-throated Green Warblers and Blue-headed Vireos that breed here, so I had to come back later.

A large chunk of my morning would be spent at Hop River Road, where the lovely trails there offer for some great migrants. The beginning of the trail was somewhat annoying, as I had trouble finding anything interesting. As I headed back to the parking lot, I heard and saw a Northern Parula singing – a bird I didn’t get last year. After that I was in the zone. I got great looks at a Worm-eating Warbler singing, chased down a male Blackpoll Warbler in the treetops, and picked out a Belted Kingfisher flying over. I also saw another Barred Owl, along with nabbing Pine Warbler and Canada Goose at the end of the trail. Really the only thing I missed there was Field Sparrow, which I could deal with. This success at Hop River set the tone for most of the morning, as I quickly got Black-billed Cuckoo, Alder Flycatcher and Canada Warbler at Creaser Park. I was amped to be getting tons of birds I missed last year, and felt that 90 or 95 would be in reach.

However, I felt that it was already time to alter my plan. Missing Black-throated Green Warbler was an unprecedented problem, and I had not added another visit to Brigham Road in my itinerary. But I figured that I would have time for it, so I stopped home to get some breakfast (adding Hairy Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird in the process) and moved on to Brigham for the second time that day. The BT Greens were singing now, but I still couldn’t hear any Blue-headed Vireos. Maybe they just weren’t there this year? Whatever the case, it was time to check on some waterbirds. This was a horrible shortcoming last year, as I had not seen a single gull, cormorant or sandpiper during my entire 2016 Big Day. I would check off the sandpiper, getting a Spotted Sandpiper at Eagleville Lake. Missing Mute Swan was annoying, but hopefully Coventry Lake would add some species I didn’t get last year.

That would not happen. Checking from multiple viewpoints, I found that Coventry Lake had one Mallard on it and nothing else. I realized that Ring-billed Gull may have been less of a terrible miss and more of a bird that doesn’t show up here in May. I headed back to the Virginia Rail marsh to see if any marsh birds were around. Wood Duck and Green Heron were two other birds I didn’t see last year, but they both had a chance to be seen now. Unfortunately neither of them were around, but a singing Northern Waterthrush and two dozen Bank Swallows made up for it. The Bank Swallow numbers were truly impressive; they were the most abundant bird there! I think they’re coming from a colony a few miles south in Columbia, but I didn’t see nearly as many here last year.

Heading into the dreaded mid-day nap period, I was still doing pretty well. As the temperature climbed into the 80s, I stopped at the Babcock Hill Road powerline cut in search of Prairie Warbler. I heard it before I even got out of the car, and a bonus Field Sparrow put my total up to 76. As I watched a Black Vulture fly over the landscape below me, I began to hear a weird sequence of calls coming from a bush. It sounded like some sort of mimid, but did not resemble a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird. These raspy calls intrigued me, but in the back of my head I realized that it may just be a catbird messing with me. Nevertheless, I pished a little bit and waited for a few minutes as this bird eventually revealed itself, and when it finally did, I gasped.

Yellow-breasted Chat. Holy sh*t.

I assumed I would see some good birds on my big day, but I never thought I would get a life bird. I never thought I would see a bird that hasn’t been recorded in the spring in northeastern CT since 2012. But here I was, eyeing a lovely Yellow-breasted Chat that quickly disappeared into the brush once again. As it continued to call, I stood there speechless; this was one of the rarest birds I’d ever found by myself. This was one of the defining moments of a great morning of birding, and as I headed to Silver Street with utmost confidence my day list was already above 80.

Silver Street was another defining moment of my morning; I had four targets there that I got within one minute of leaving the car. Before I even got out I noticed a Bobolink on the power line, and once I opened my door, I could hear Northern Mockingbirds and a Willow Flycatcher calling. Shortly after that, a Killdeer flew over the car, announcing its presence with a loud call. It was about 11:30 AM, and it was time for lunch. I headed to my mom’s house and ate my lunch outside, hoping a raptor would fly over. I only had 3 hawks on the day (Turkey and Black Vultures, Red-tailed Hawk), and I got my Red-shouldered Hawk last year at my mom’s house. Sitting at 84 species, I was already only 3 birds short of last year’s total, and I felt pretty safe about beating it. However, the afternoon would be very slow.

The long, hot afternoon saw me work at a pace of roughly one bird per hour, and I was working hard. Beginning to feel the effects of waking up at 3:00 AM, I headed to Creaser Park to do a thorough examination of all the trails. I earned a Pileated Woodpecker, Ring-necked Pheasant and Yellow-billed Cuckoo from this, but it took nearly two hours. I was excited about the cuckoo, which was my biggest miss from last year. They’re honestly hard to find in Coventry, but with all the great habitat I’m really surprised we don’t see more. After that I returned to Babcock Hill, where the chat was still calling. I also heard a Magnolia Warbler singing (bird number 88!) but I was really looking for hawks. Babcock Hill is a great place to hawkwatch as it overlooks a huge portion of south Coventry, but nothing was in the air.

After moving around a little bit more, I realized that it was pointless to actually look for hawks. I don’t know where these birds are nesting, so if I’m going to see them I just have to let it happen. I moved to Hop River to check on migrants there as it had cooled down a little. It was dead, so I stood on the bridge by the river to kill some time. I remember patience being a virtue for me last year, but standing on this bridge for 20 minutes got me nothing of note. I moved on to Brigham Road, in my final search for the Blue-headed Vireo. Sitting in the forest for a good amount of time got me nothing, and when I reached the end of the road I was annoyed. I decided to turn around and go back up, and this would prove to be influential. Just as I turned around a Broad-winged Hawk flew across the road and into the woods! My total now stood at 89. I picked up my dad so he could see the chat, and we got looks at it once again at Babcock Hill.

After that we drove to Creaser, when on the way there I heard a probable Blue-headed Vireo. With a car tailgating us, we couldn’t stop or turn around easily, and we would never encounter the bird again. I didn’t count it at the time, but listening to more recordings later that night made me realize that no Red-eyed Vireo sounded like that. So I had got to 90 but I didn’t know it at that point. Anyways, Creaser Park itself was boring and we headed back to my house to drop my dad off before the second night shift began. Going into that night, my worst misses were both raptors: Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawk, along with Green Heron and Ring-billed Gull.

I planned to spend my twilight at the Virginia Rail marsh, where hopefully some marsh birds would begin to call. But before that, I noticed a duck flying over the marsh. This bird was too small and chunky for a Mallard – it was a Wood Duck! Exited to get my 90th bird and meet my goal, I couldn’t believe I had finally got this bird that had eluded me for all of last year and most of this one. As the swallows and blackbirds quieted down, I played the tape for Marsh Wren, Least Bittern, Sora and Eastern Screech-Owl. Unfortunately, none of them responded. But in the 45 minutes I spent there, I noticed that the Virginia Rail numbers there were truly impressive. Some of these birds were doing grunt duets, a strong indication that they may breed there. I was excited to see breeding Virginia Rails in my town, as this bird had not been reported in Coventry before.

After striking out on those rare marsh birds, I headed to some other marshy spots in search of them. It soon became clear to me that these places were all too populated, as cars driving by made it difficult to call in a Sora or a Marsh Wren. I decided to focus on Great Horned Owl, a bird I had seen many times in Coventry, for the last part of my big day. I drove around North Coventry for a while, but nothing but Barred Owl was calling. Heading back to Nathan Hale State Forest seemed promising, but I couldn’t get anything but Barred there either. (Barred Owl was very common in case you couldn’t tell.) At around 10:45 PM, I decided to call it a day, finishing my total at 90 species. The total would actually become 92; the Blue-headed Vireo I added on later as well as a counting error in my list gave me two extra ticks.

Highlighted by a chat and an amazing morning, this was one of the best birding days I’ve ever had. I had some regrettable misses (Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Ring-billed Gull) but the good birds I found definitely outweighed the misses. I’m particularly excited about the possibility of Virginia Rails nesting in Coventry, as well as finding a rarity in my own town. If I can get home around May next year, I figure 95 is a good goal, but I still think 100 is a possibility. It’d require a nearly perfect day, but I’ve seen 98 species in the last two years, so I don’t see why not. More scouting will be done and improvements will be made to the plan, and I think it’s definitely possible to get to the century mark.

-Peter Thompson

Jamaica Bay Trip Report: Shorebirds and Heat

We had decided on Saturday, July 23rd for our trip to Jamaica Bay, NY for a while as our next club trip. But, we had no idea how hot it would be that day. We arrived at the visitor center at around 8:00 AM, where I met up with Brendan, Jory, Aidan and Brendan’s dad. We had decided to take a break from birding in CT to check out some of the great shorebirds that are attracted to the southern shores of Queens, NY. It may only be July, but shorebirds that have gave up on their nests early are already on their way south, and we would see them in massive numbers. Jamaica Bay is also home to lots of other wading birds such as herons, and many species of terns and skimmers. Gull-billed Tern, which would be a lifer for all of us except Brendan, was a good target. Personally, I was hoping to get my New York state list up to 200, since it was at 186 and I’d never birded in NYC or near the coast before. We picked up Black Skimmer and Forster’s Tern (state birds for me), both hard to find in Connecticut, before we even left the parking lot, a display of Jamaica Bay’s unique value.

We immediately started down on the trail up to the West Pond, stopping when we had viewpoints of the pond itself. The trail wasn’t too bad, as we added a Brown Thrasher and a bunch of Eastern Towhees in the brush. Terns were constantly flying over, and we quickly picked up on how much more common Forster’s was than Common here. Thorough scanning didn’t yield any Gull-bills yet, but we did add both species of night-herons fairly quickly. Hoping to have 60 or 70 total species on the day, even Willow Flycatchers and Glossy Ibises were good ticks. Another bird that is hard to find in CT, Boat-tailed Grackle, proved to be pretty common.

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We spent some time photographing Forster’s Terns at the West Pond. This one was taken by Aidan.

The West Pond isn’t very shallow so we didn’t have many shorebirds there (many congregate at East Pond), but we did hear Least Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs on the trail. Most of the West Pond trail was closed off, so we quickly made our way back to the visitor center.

One cool non-bird we had at the visitor center was a Swamp Darner, an enormous dragonfly that I had never seen before. This widespread resident of wetland habitats was stuck in some netting near the windows (to keep birds from colliding with the glass) and we eventually helped get it out, enjoying good views of this massive bug. Unsure of what to do next, we decided to head to the East Pond and its surrounding trails. The Big Johns Pond, a smaller pond near the East Pond, got us some good looks at towhees, catbirds and night-herons. We added a couple new species at East Pond such as Gadwall (which nests here). We saw tons of shorebirds in the distance, but we couldn’t really access them so we decided to look for another viewpoint later. The light still wasn’t great for scoping them, so we decided to spend some time doing the rest of West Pond and check those shorebirds later.

The West Pond trail was incredibly long, and it was a mistake to have brought all our scopes along. It was very hot and we didn’t use them much, so they only made us feel more dehydrated and tired. We did get really close to an eastern diamondback terrapin laying its eggs on some sandy beach; unfortunately this turtle was a little late in its nesting. We got some photos and quickly moved on. Some Brants were nearby, another solid bird for the day. We heard a couple Marsh Wrens, which wasn’t bad at all. Some more shorebirds were on the other side of the trail, but they were just Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. It was about 12:30 PM now, and by the time we returned back to the parking lot, we were incredibly thirsty and tired. A lunch break was in order, but after that we were ready to scour the East Pond shorebirds for a rarity.

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Brendan photographed this terrapin laying eggs. Right now it’s probably hiding them below some dirt. It is a little late in the season to be laying eggs, but hopefully it does well.

All sorts of awesome birds danced in our head as we made our way to East Pond. Ruff? Avocet? Western Sandpiper? What if we got a stint? How many Stilt Sandpipers will we see? The Gull-billed Terns have been seen there, what if we get them? Unfortunately, it took us a while to actually find the place with access to the pond. More useless walking around with no water and scopes on our backs wasn’t good for us, and we got a little annoyed as we became lost on some random trail. The temperature had made its way into the triple-digits, and the sun was relentlessly shining.

Finally we got to the correct viewpoint. Shorebirds were everywhere, and there was a huge group of terns and gulls farther out on the mudflat. Even with our boots on, we still learned the hard way that some of the mud was too deep to walk in, but we found a good place to start scanning. Very quickly, we picked up a large, odd shorebird in the distance. Was this our Ruff? We watched its odd, side-to-side feeding motion with eager excitement, only to realize that the bird was just a yellowlegs. This would happen later with a different bird, when I noticed another yellowlegs that looked very Ruff-like in its feeding motion. Unfortunately, these birds both had to be dismissed. But we did have lots of Stilt Sandpipers! Hanging out with the yellowlegs, we separated them by their more curved bills, smaller size and more brightly marked facial pattern.

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Semipalmated Sandpiper by Jory

They are also more willing to wade deeper into the mud, making them look even shorter. Many of these birds were coming quite close, and they allowed for some great photography. Jory had came prepared for photos, bringing long pants (in 100 degree heat?!) and a camera holder for laying down in the mud. It was worth it – look at these shorebird pictures! I took some photos, but most of my time was spent behind the scope.

We spent a long time scanning these birds. A couple times our hearts jumped when we thought we had a Gull-billed Tern, but I was too unfamiliar with this bird to realize that juvenile Forster’s can have pretty thick black bills! Thankfully Brendan helped with a lot of the IDs on the terns. Feeling very thirsty and tired, we pushed on and decided to walk out into the mud a little farther. We noticed a large flock of dowitchers to go with tons of peeps, yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plovers. Unfortunately, we turned up nothing, and gave up. But we did get a taste of some truly awesome shorebirding even this early in the season, leaving us only to imagine how good this could be in late August. If you’d like to view our eBird checklist, just click here.

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Stilt Sandpiper by Jory Teltser. When it’s next to these Lesser Yellowlegs, you can really tell the difference – the Stilt is the second from the right.

-Peter

My Trip Report from Churchill, plus other news!

A couple weeks ago my dad and I had the glorious opportunity of visiting Churchill, Manitoba for a week. This Canadian birding gem is located on the Hudson Bay and combines a large variety of habitats that makes it uniquely full of birds. Throughout our week we not only saw new species we’d never encountered before, but we experienced things I never thought would happen. Churchill was an excellent trip so of course I made a big trip report about it. The full report is accessible on my blog (petesbirdblog.wordpress.com) but if you would like to begin reading part 1 of 4 click here.

There are a lot of places to bird in Churchill, but most of them require driving down some long and bumpy roads into the spruce forests or deeper out to the wet arctic tundra. In our travels we had excellent views of all sorts of shorebirds such as Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitcher; all of which nest in these areas. The waterfowl diversity is incredible in the tundra, and it is augmented by the nearby Churchill River which houses hundreds of eiders, scoters and mergansers. Gulls such as Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, Herring, Little and even Ross’s can be found in Churchill as well. Arctic Terns are everywhere in the tundra, and are not afraid to make their presence known. As far as passerines go, you may still see Yellow Warblers and Swamp Sparrows in Churchill, but White-crowned Sparrow and Common Redpoll are more common than anything else.

As you travel south from Churchill you pass the treeline and enter the spruce forests that cover all of northern Manitoba. I have birded spruce bogs before, but I have never seen species such as Fox Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing on their nesting grounds. Birds like Red-winged Blackbird and Black-capped Chickadee are replaced by their Rusty and Boreal counterparts, while the sparrow diversity is magnificent – we tallied ten species over the course of the trip including Nelson’s and Lincoln’s. As a little sneak peek, I’ve also included some wonderful photos my dad took of some of Churchill’s amazing birdlife. These are the pictures that just missed the cut for the TR so you won’t see these anywhere else!

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In other news, our monthly club trip will be next Saturday!  We will be traveling down to New York to visit the lovely shorebird diversity of Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Shorebird migration is just beginning, but it’s already heated up. I’m sure we will catch large numbers of all sorts of shorebirds, and the possibility of uncommon shorebirds such as Stilt Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper or even a Ruff is always there. We are excited to get back on track with club trips with this exciting adventure!

-Peter

The World Series of Birding

“Guys, it’s midnight!”

As Brendan had pointed out, the clock on Alex’s car had officially changed to 12:00. We rolled the windows down in hope of hearing some miraculous birds from outside the car. The wind made us a little cold and we were all operating on insufficient amounts of sleep, but birds were the most pertinent thing for our team for the next 24 hours. This is the World Series of Birding.

We drove down a backroad in northern Cape May County on our way to our first location. Some car trouble early in the day made us a little late, but that would not affect our total at all. We headed to a boat launch in Tuckahoe where we had the possibility of finding some owls, nightjars or rails. When we arrived at the remote little parking lot, we opened the doors and were surrounded by a pitch-black sky. The only sounds were wind and moving water. And a whippoorwill! Our first bird of the day made a distant call repeatedly. Our first bird was a life bird for me – this is surreal. Even more interesting was the loud “peent” of an American Woodcock, a great bird for this early in the day. But shortly after that, we heard the most dreaded noise in all of birding.

“Tsip.”

Oh God. Flight calls. Now we were good with almost all bird sounds but one thing our team was weak in was the nocturnal flight calls of warbler species. We would have to get used to hearing wonderful warblers pass by us overhead without being able to identify them, and it was hard. We knew the experienced teams could ID these, and they would have a significant advantage on us from the start, but luckily Alex could nab one of them. “That’s a Savannah Sparrow,” he said. Alex was good with most groups of birds except warblers, so we hoped that NFCs wouldn’t be too devastating.

After the realization that our night shift would put us at a disadvantage, we moved on to a location for Eastern Screech-Owls. Alex noted that he has been “screech-owl cursed” for the last few years, and we all agreed that it would be a difficult bird. No screech-owls showed up (what a surprise) but we did have a bunch of Chuck-will’s-widows calling around us. This was a bird that Jory needed as a lifer, so four birds (and half an hour) in Jory and I each had one lifer – a different eastern nightjar.

Before leaving Tuckahoe we decided to check up on one last spot in the area, a bridge on Tyler Road that could get us King Rail. It was important to stay on schedule; if we got behind it could ruin our route. We stood on the side of the road at 1 AM listening for rail calls for a while; unfortunately all we had was a Clapper. In hopes of still getting King, we waited around a little more, and we were rewarded by a Great Horned Owl calling in the distance. After a little more frustration over warbler NFCs, we got out of there and moved on. We began to move south towards Cape Island, searching Stipsons Island Road for more rails or night-calling shorebirds. As soon as we got in we were bombarded by tons and tons of Clapper Rails – the only way to properly describe this amount was an “orgy” of Clapper Rails. Seriously, they seemed to be everywhere. We added a few birds by voice – nothing we wouldn’t see during the day – and moved on.

Jakes Landing was right nearby, and we hoped to get some more rails or calling birds here at night. We also hoped that nobody was there getting drunk – birders have been hit with beer bottles there at night before. We cautiously pulled up to the boat launch and noticed we were in the clear – phew! However Jakes was sort of quiet, and we headed down to Cape Island to finish off the night shift.

The Cape Island night shift was also slightly annoying – mainly because of the WhatsApp. The WhatsApp seemed like a convenient tool to help birders make their sightings known quickly to others. However, it somewhat killed our night as people began reporting rails and owls north of the Cape May Canal. Should we go back to Tuckahoe and bird the same spots we already had, or continue owling on Cape Island? We decided for the former, and it killed us. We spent an hour up in Tuckahoe seeing absolutely nothing, and upon return to Cape Island we also saw nothing. Heck, at one spot we saw a bat looking for that cursed Eastern Screech-Owl and I got excited just to see an effing flying object.

After missing screech-owl for about the millionth time, we went back north to begin our day shift – starting out at the lovely Belleplain State Forest. We got out of the car and the singing had already begun (whippoorwills were still singing too); Wood Thrushes had already made their appearance and it wasn’t even 5 AM yet. We turned a corner and heard an Acadian Flycatcher calling – life bird! However with passerines I don’t count it as a lifer until I see the bird so I waited around. “C’mon, Peter, we have to go!” Well, guess I’m not getting my life bird. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little annoying. It was here where I got my first taste of World Series birding – no time for trying to see birds that you’ve already ticked, and the paramount matter is always the species count. (You will notice there aren’t any photos on this – we were too busy birding at an awesome clip and seeing great birds to take any.) Adding birds at a feverish pace, we rushed from spot to spot at Belleplain, adding all sorts of warblers and other breeders. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it – I did get to see my life Yellow-throated Warbler and Black-billed Cuckoo – but it was a little stressful. Belleplain is a big place, and we had a lot of spots to hit. It got a little frantic when we weren’t even hearing the goddamn Hooded Warblers at their super-reliable spot, but we got one song and got the heck out of there – we had already wasted enough time waiting for those birds. Overall Belleplain was awesome – we got most of what we wanted along with some extra surprise birds. We added an awesome array of passerines that included Prothonotary Warbler, Summer Tanager and Blue Grosbeak – all hard to see in Connecticut.

The two-hour long stay at Belleplain was followed by some quick stops elsewhere in northern Cape May county. We efficiently added Solitary Sandpiper and Horned Lark, before heading to Jake’s Landing to dip on Saltmarsh Sparrow. (Note: Jory had what he was quite sure was a junco on the road somewhere, and we really should have gone back to check on it – oh well.) Having got up at 12, we felt like it was already afternoon at 8 in the morning, but we were still running on adrenaline. Our next stop was Beaver Swamp where we planned to look for Wood Duck. We pulled in the dirt road and saw some pretty good-sized puddles. Brendan’s dad’s Subaru easily went through them and they weren’t that deep, making a big splash for each one. Splash, splash, splash…

The car started sinking. This puddle was deeper than the other ones.

We tried. But we couldn’t get out.

Remember when I said, “The most paramount matter is always the species count”? Yeah, this would hurt our species count. I’m not sure which sank faster, the car or our hearts as we realized that our big day may be over. We thought about all the potential this day had and that it had been vanquished all because of one stupid puddle. We sat there for hours waiting for the tow truck to come, watching the tow truck leave because it couldn’t get to the car correctly, getting annoyed when the cab couldn’t find us and many more fun things. We did get a Red-shouldered Hawk, the lone highlight of this terrible experience. Driven to finish the day if only to fulfill the per-bird fundraising donations people had pledged, we eventually made it back to Alex’s car at about 11:45, sleepy and cynical.

Having to cut places like Reed’s Beach (goodbye Red Knots) and our Cattle Egret spot for the day, we decided to pick up where the schedule had us right about then, in Stone Harbor at the Wetlands Institute. This spot was pretty good, and before we even parked we had good looks at Tricolored and Little Blue Herons on the side of the road. The shorebird pools were even better, getting us some coastal birds we’d been missing including a few White-rumped Sandpipers. If the World Series really was like a baseball game, we might be on our way to a big inning late in the game. After that Nummy Island yielded some roadside shorebirds, one of which was the Whimbrel we were looking for. We were coming up on 130 – would 150 still be in reach? Driven by our late resurgence, we confidently pushed on.

Stone Harbor Point was our next spot, and Alex and Jory wandered away in search of Piping Plovers while Brendan and I seawatched. Feeling good after having spotted a Brown Thrasher here, we were confident that the plovers could be around. Common Loons were new for the day and we added a couple out on the water; unfortunately Alex and Jory could not get to them since they were looking for plovers. They were unsuccessful, but more importantly, we realized the importance in staying together no matter what. Only 5% of the birds that our whole team didn’t see would count! Another lesson came at the US Coast Guard ponds – don’t break the WSB rules when the NJ Audubon people are around. We had to make sure they didn’t see Alex driving when we pulled up in search of Northern Shovelers. Not only did we get the birds, but they didn’t find out, and we continued on our separate ways.

More craziness ensued after a short stop at Wawa, where a little car trouble turned into a locked steering wheel and a troubling experience. We eventually figured out how to start the car, but we all felt the ominous feeling that the big day was ending early once again. Thankful that the car had started but slightly worried about the rest of the day, we continued on.

A few more quick stops took care of themselves quickly, and in a blink of an eye it was 3:00. A couple lucky birds like some Black Skimmers on the shores of the Cape May Canal, some Lesser Black-backed Gulls seawatching from Cape Island, and a Roya Tern at Stone Harbor had got us back in the game for 150. It was time to focus on some key birds we were missing, like Red Knot, Green-winged Teal… and goldfinch?! It’s 3:00 and we still didn’t have a goldfinch yet! We checked the feeders at the Northwood Centre, and there was nothing there! How could we go an entire day without seeing one? Then again, a goldfinch isn’t that big of a deal – it’s worth just as much as any other species here. A little extra seawatching got us our second scoter species of the day – we now had Surf and Black. Lily Lake didn’t have any Warbling Vireos – a surprisingly hard bird to get down here. A quick stop at the Cape May Point State Park was important not for birds, but because we would reunite with Brendan’s dad and his rental car. We left Alex’s car at CMPSP for the moment and continued towards Higbee Beach.

The entire area around Higbee was quite dead, and this was unfortunate as we were still missing migrants such as Black-throated Green and Chestnut-sided. Because we had focused our morning on the nesters at Belleplain (which was still a good idea) we had missed some of the good morning birds that Higbee had turned up. Sitting on 134 species, we headed towards the Cape May Meadows.

The Cape May Meadows is the best! Immediately upon arrival we picked up some dabbling ducks we needed, like Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Gadwall and Mute Swan. And most importantly, some goldfinches flushed from some bushes near the trail entrance – finally we picked up that darn bird. As the evening came upon us the light was getting really nice for birding, and just as we neared the end of the trail we noticed a couple things. First, there were a pair of Stilt Sandpipers in the pond and they allowed for awesome views of a great bird. Second, an enormous rainstorm was coming. This is the type of storm that leaves the entire sky covered by dark blue clouds. This is the type of storm that would drench all of Cape May County in no more than an hour. And at this time the clouds were halfway towards us, so the sky was split right down the middle between beautiful late afternoon and menacing storm. Even more breathtaking was the ghostly second-year Iceland Gull that flew in front of the stormy clouds. Not only was this a day bird, but the contrast between this all-white gull and the dark sky was astounding. If we weren’t on a tight schedule, that would be a moment to just sit and think, “Can you even believe we’re here right now?”

It was a good thing we didn’t sit around and reminisce – the heavens opened up not long after that. We hurried for the shelter of the rental car and killed some time driving around the island. What could we even see in this type of rain? We sat around at Higbee Beach taking turns jumping out of the car, realizing the rain was worse than we thought, running for cover, and repeating. Soon enough the rain lightened up to the point where we could bird Higbee once again, and we heard a Yellow-rumped Warbler chip which was somehow a day bird. Right was we left I picked a White-throated Sparrow out of some bushes, a fairly late bird that was also new. Having cleaned up on some birds here, we headed right back to the Meadows (where else?) but before we even made it there we had some awesome news.

I had been keeping the list, so I always knew exactly what our species count was. On the way to the Meadows we were at 142, and 150 would be a stretch and would involve an amazing second night shift. But I realized that the list app didn’t count birds that got flagged as rare until comments were included, so some of our birds didn’t count to the list! In one second we had improved from 142 to 147, and our outlook had drastically changed. Three new birds at the Meadows would get us our goal!

When we got to the Meadows for the second time, the views were just heavenly. After the storm had quickly swept through the area, the entire landscape was painted with a brush of ethereal color. All the greens, blues and even browns we could see were intensified and saturated. But we had business to take care of, and we quickly did. We added a Common Nighthawk flying low over the observation platform (148) and heard a peenting American Woodcock (not new) in the distance. Watching the sun set, we sat on the platform with some other teams, watching the ducks and shorebirds retreat to sleep (or migrate north). Calmly enjoying the twilight scenery, we were happily greeted by calling Black-crowned Night Herons (149!) flying over. Their silhouettes gave us comfort and excitement – we were only one away.

As the last slivers of light disappeared from the sky, Alex and Jory’s ears perked up. “I think I just heard a Virginia Rail,” Alex calmly commented. Jory affirmed; he had heard it too. Although Brendan and I didn’t hear it, we had done such a good job sticking together that we had lots of room for 95% birds. We hadn’t seen or heard a Virginia Rail yet today, and this was bird number 150.

But not so fast! For this to be our milestone, our goal, and more importantly, a species count in an actual competition, we had to be positive that it was a rail. Since Brendan and I didn’t hear anything, we mostly just listened to Alex and Jory discuss whether it was really a rail. But as the two of them contemplated, they only became more sure, and we counted it as our milestone bird. We left the Meadows to commence our second night shift, realizing how truly humbling this was to have worked so hard despite our setbacks and achieve our goal.

The second night shift was mostly a bust – searching for Nelson’s Sparrows and Yellow-breasted Chats got us nothing but wet and muddy. The second night shift is tough (especially when we were already content with 150) since we are all tired and have already added most of our target birds. In fact I even started hallucinating a little, or at least I was the only one who was alert enough to notice the strange rodent-like creatures jumping from blade to blade of grass every so often. The finish line gave us the opportunity to finally breathe, eat some good food, and celebrate the best birding experience we’d ever had. This emotional roller coaster that was the World Series of Birding was an unforgettable experience for all, and I’m glad to have went through it with the CTYBC.