A Florida Big Day

Athena with the other big day essentials… the Granola bar was just for show! ;)

Athena with the other big day essentials… the Granola bar was just for show! ;)

Ever heard of a big day?… It’s a grueling 24 hour bio-blitz where teams of birders race against the clock to try and see as many bird species as possible in a single day (midnight to midnight). On April 5th, 2014, Athena, the Wandering Ultravid, joined in on her very first birding big day, a local effort confined solely to Charlotte County in the state of Florida. The route had been carefully plotted and planned to maximize chances at seeing the highest mix of resident birds, late lingering winter visitants, as well as more recently arrived breeding species. It’s always best to bet on the resident species than to gamble on those fleeting migrants that are seen only when the winds are perfect. Since this local initiative required less travel time, our fortunate team, the “Beasts of Birding” (thanks for the name Keith), loaded their gear and sugary snacks at the sensible time of 3:30 AM. Before driving off though, they would walk into the backyard and pick up bird species number 1, an Eastern Screech-Owl perched near a nest box with young. The Charlotte County big day had begun!

male Eastern Screech-Owl near nest box

male Eastern Screech-Owl near nest box

A short 1/2 mile drive to the second stop, a gravel drive and gate with a tree-lined slough at a local park. The team let out a cacophonous, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hooo, Hoo-hoo-hoo-hooaaaah!”. Silent moments passed before a shadowy figure glided in from the corner of a well-lit courtyard, and swept up to a sturdy horizontal Oak branch, making not a sound. It was 3:35 AM and Barred Owl was bird number 2. The trend continued at nearby local ponds where Least Bitterns “coo-coo-coo-coo”ed, Chuck-will’s-Widows called out their name, Soras whinnied and Great Horned Owls hooted. At a well lit boat launch, adult Yellow-crowned Night-Herons hunted fiddler crabs among Mangrove roots and a Spotted Sandpiper disappeared into a curtain of darkness giving a sharp “peet-peet” as it flew off. Muscovy & Mottled Ducks were partially lit by the soft glow of streetlights as we headed to yet another marsh that would provide King Rails, American Coots, & Common Gallinules calling alongside a Great Egret. It was 6:30 and the sky was starting to move ever so slightly away from black as we headed toward the spot we’d selected to spend those ever so important first hours of the day with it’s morning chorus – 18 species had been tallied under the shadow of night.

Limpkin in a light fog

Limpkin in a light fog

As the sky continued to lighten, Northern Cardinal song began to emanate from every bush along our route. It was 25 minutes before official sunrise but there was plenty of light for Athena… after all a 7×42 Ultravid HD is perhaps the best low-light binocular in the Leica line! We ticked young Bald Eagles (dangerously close to fledging) silhouetted in a roadside nest, while Limpkins wailed in the distance. Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks squeaked by in strings, and the season’s first Common Nighthawks (possibly having just flown in off the Gulf of Mexico that night) peented from above as they bounded along with snappy wingbeats.

adult Red-headed Woodpecker

adult Red-headed Woodpecker

Patches of morning fog impeded our view from time to time but the birds’ morning chorus rang through it all. Northern Bobwhites sang out their names, White-eyed Vireos & House Wrens provided syncopated rhythm, and feeding flocks of small songbirds dominated by Palm Warblers, Northern Parulas and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers added to the high range. Sorting through these flocks though also provided views of less common birds like Black & White and Prairie Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, and not one but two Painted Buntings! A small flock of Chipping Sparrows also fell into the “unexpected surprise” category as did a Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on roadside Coral Bean blooms. Four doves offered their differing takes on coo’s at these first stops – diminutive Common Ground-Doves, Mourning & White-winged Doves, plus Eurasian Collared-Dove – an introduced Old World species which has rapidly expanded across America becoming a familiar resident throughout.

Crested Caracara in AM light

Crested Caracara in AM light

The sun finally burnt through the intermittent fog illuminating many new species like Red-tailed Hawks, Sandhill Cranes, and Crested Caracara! The latter was a species that only occurs further inland near the far edge of the county (where we were now), if we missed this bird here it wouldn’t be seen on the day. American Crow was another in this category that we picked up, but alas the Wild Turkey was not seen or heard here meaning it didn’t make this list. Three hours later we’d completed our morning chorus crawl, covering about 15 miles of road and adding additional birds at each stop and with every passing mile: American Kestrel, Red-headed Woodpecker, Rough-winged Swallow, Yellow-throated Vireo, Florida Scrub-Jay, Savannah & Bachman’s Sparrows…  Our goal was to beat the all time high county record count of 121 species and by 10:15 AM our total for the day had climbed to 84 species. A great start with many different habitats yet to cover. However, the temperatures had also climbed and with mercury approaching the mid-70′s, bird song activity would be dropping sharply.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Red-cockaded Woodpecker digiscoped through Leica APO Televid scope

We’d gambled and left the pine flatwoods for later in the day than usual. Many teams like to start here to insure they tally enigmatic resident specialty species, but we’d felt for the sake of a more streamlined route, it made more sense to hold off until later in the day. With Bachman’s Sparrow & Eastern Towhee already tallied, our target list for this pinewoods stop read pretty simply: Northern Flicker, Eastern Bluebird, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-cockaded Woodpecker and maybe a final shot at lingering Grasshopper Sparrows which had eluded us at other pre-scouted locations. Quick views of ponds near the entrance failed to produce anything new and another recent Grasshopper Sparrow spot came up empty. Perhaps this gamble would backfire after all, things were seeming very quiet near 11:00 AM and 80 degrees. We decided to head straight for a scouted Nuthatch nest site, stopping only if we saw feeding flocks of birds. One of these passing flocks provided more views of of Pine & Palm Warblers and one of our targets, Eastern Bluebirds. As we hustled back to the car one, then two, and then three little sparrows popped up at our feet. Light brown backs short tails and buffy-faced, these were all Grasshopper Sparrows. Whew, tallied by the narrowest of margins!

male Eastern Bluebird digiscoped thru Leica APO Televid spotting scope

male Eastern Bluebird digiscoped thru Leica APO Televid spotting scope – Babcock Webb WMA

Northern Flicker and Downy Woodpeckers called as we rolled through the flatwoods. Our staked out Brown-headed Nuthatch nest was still active with parents coming and going feeding hungry babies. Unfortunately, this was our 2nd of three possible spots for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker that had come up empty. It was after 11:30 and we had to go. We’d make the briefest of stops at the final RCW territory on the way out. “Three minutes only, and we leave” there were still many places to visit and MANY more birds to be found. We couldn’t waste extra time on any one species, no matter how special. On a big day it still only counted as one no more important to the effort than a common House Sparrow. Happily, we only needed 2 minutes, as the fabled RCW let loose with a shrill “chirr!” call giving away its hiding spot high on the trunk of a slash pine. It was 11:39 AM and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was species #100 on our list.

Burrowing Owl out at midday another stroke of luck!

Burrowing Owl out at midday another stroke of luck!

An adult Cooper’s Hawk flashed by with prey for our only Accipiter sighting of the day, and we’d also get lucky on another gamble; waiting until near noon to see Burrowing Owls. Again, we’d be assured of seeing these birds easily in the morning, but at the hottest part of the day this is a lot less likely. However, an AM visit would have cost us much additional driving time and our biggest challenge as with any big day was to fit in as many different habitats and territory as possible in the limited daylight hours. Delays of 10 minutes here and there meant missed opportunities later. As you can see from the image above, one of the two nests we’d drive by held a sun-worshipping owl!

an Aythya party in South Florida in April!

an Aythya party in South Florida in April! – digiscoped with iPhone

At this point, we’d left the interior of the county behind us once and for all and would work coastal areas for the rest of the day. This was another strategic decision as we know songbird activity is at it’s best in the cooler morning hours, while waterbirds are comparatively easy to find midday. Our first coastal water spot provided a typically rare occurrence for south Florida in April, lingering groups of diving ducks in the Aythya genus. Record numbers of these birds invaded from the snowy northern states this winter and even into April and amazing number of these birds were still present. From left to right the image above depicts a male Lesser Scaup, 3 Redheads (male, female, male) and a male Greater Scaup. Much like a page of a field guide all lined up for careful study. Alas, it’s a big day and there was no time for that the last Ring-necked Duck we’d seen weeks before didn’t stay though (it would be a miss). Back to the car after adding a lone female Hooded Merganser and a male Magnificent Frigatebird sailing overhead.

Spotted Sandpiper digiscoped along Charlotte Harbor

Spotted Sandpiper digiscoped along Charlotte Harbor

Spotted Sandpipers could be seen by daylight here and we added our first Royal Terns, Ring-billed & Laughing Gulls. Monk Parakeets screeched raucously as they built their massive stick nest in a palm tree. Chimney Swifts twittered overhead and new passerines feeding in area ornamental trees were added: Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-throated & a long overdue Yellow-rumped Warbler. An additional 7 Frigatebirds circled high over the harbor with Brown Pelicans skimming the water’s surface below. Our count had risen to 110 species at 12:39 PM. Seven hours of daylight remained with nary a cloud in the sky and mild winds - within 12 of breaking the record, things looking good. Now, where are those sugary snacks again?!?… I need a boost!

Least Terns freshly returned from South America to breed!

Least Terns freshly returned from South America to breed! – Leica V-lux 4, April 2014

Next we would add Rock Pigeon, our fifth & last “dove” species we’d see, and then on to our “Least” spot. It was the consistent, scouted spot for Least Sandpipers on a thin sand spit and Least Terns perched on pilings beyond, both species were right where they had been in the days prior. Don’t you love it when birds act as expected?!?… Also, here were Forster’s & Sandwich Terns mixing with numerous Royals, and a pair of Ruddy Turnstones. By 1:14 PM the tally had reached 120 species and finally at 1:39, a House Finch (very localized this far south) became the record breaking species #122! We were in uncharted territory and actually ahead of our scheduled time on the route by nearly 30 minutes. We decided to add an extra stop where we had chances for Clapper Rail & Sedge Wren, and where there had been at least one Nelson’s Sparrow about 10 days earlier. It meant getting our feet wet and investing nearly 20 minutes in a brisk, power walk in the near 85 degree heat, but once again, our scouting served us well as Clapper Rail called from the muddy marsh ahead of us, and a Sedge Wren sang away in the blazing heat. No sparrows were noted but we were rewarded with nice views of a Great Horned Owl.

Eastern Screech-Owl, April 5, 2014, Leica V-lux 4 camera

Eastern Screech-Owl, April 5, 2014, Leica V-lux 4 camera

After this we’d have our first periods of tough luck with multiple stops with no new species. First a tidal flat that held hundreds of shorebirds the day before including an unusual Whimbrel that was now completely empty. Then a stop that held hopes for Oystercatchers, Roseate Spoonbill, American White Pelicans, and Reddish Egret only produced a lone Willet. A migrant spot that was good for Spoonbills and had held a pair of Green-winged Teal just days prior, also produced nothing new. Instead we had yet another Sora here and a mystery warbler that chipped at us from heavy brush but never showed. It sounded most like a Worm-eating Warbler but wasn’t quite right for this or any other species we’d seen. The clock and fatigue were taking a toll we had to leave it as the one that got away. Indigo Bunting stakeouts failed as well but we heard another Great Horned Owl and another migration Hotspot produced yet another Screech-Owl, but no new species. Perhaps we could have slept longer after all. Are there any more Mountain Dews?… we’d been birding for 14 hours and counting.

a few Common Loons were still present

a few Common Loons were still present

Stuck at 125 species for hours we finally gave up on the migrant spots, convinced that the wind & weather were not on our side here and hadn’t brought in any new migrant species. Near 5:45 PM we finally moved to our last new habitat of the day, gulf waters and barrier beaches. Unlike the muddy-edged shores of the rich, mangrove-lined Charlotte Harbor, the Gulf of Mexico had  blue-green waters and white sand beaches which typically provided different fish & wildlife including birds. Our first scans of this water produced multiple Common Loons and Red-breasted Mergansers. At long last, we were adding birds once again!

Osprey feeding on Stump Pass stump! 4/5/14

Osprey feeding on Stump Pass stump! 4/5/14 – Leica V-lux 4

After striking out on our previously staked-out Gray Kingbirds for a third time, we were down to our final stop of the day, Stump Pass State Park and its 1.3 mile hike down a sandy trail to the southern tip of this beautiful barrier island. The massive sand flat at the tip attracts numerous birds due to swirling currents that provide many nutrients and a large area roped off for breeding shorebirds and terns insures they can rest without being disturbed or scared off. We began the hike shortly before 6 PM happily exhausted and fueled by caffeine, sugar, and the continuing adrenaline provided by each new bird we tallied along the way. First a Black-bellied Plover feeding in the surf,  then as many as five Northern Gannets feeding offshore. As we worked our way along the nature trail that winds to the southern tip, we imagined what we might be seeing in the Sea Grape and mangrove bushes that lined the way if those winds had been from a different direction. In our mind’s eye all of us could imagine the place hopping with Hooded & Kentucky Warblers, Redstarts & Black-throated Blues… but this day the winds were not right so all of this would remain in our imaginations. The thoughts of “what if” were enough to carry us to the end of the trail though which at long last opened up, exposing a massive sand flat loaded with birds.

Short-billed Dowitcher mixing with Willets 4/5/14

Short-billed Dowitcher mixing with Willets 4/5/14

The first new species that was painfully obvious were the dozens of Black Skimmers which stood out harshly against the white sands. Blending better, were the Wilson’s & Semipalmated Sandpipers, mixing with the numerous Willets. Slate gray-backed Dunlin were beginning to show the first splotches of black on their bellies and a lone Short-billed Dowitcher were our final shorebirds of the day. Then 2 Caspian Tern were found mixing amongst the dozens of roosting Royal Terns and gulls. As we were watching, and scanning the flock (as if willing a new bird species to appear) a sleeping adult Herring Gull stood up and appeared from behind the many standing Laughing Gulls. Four voices in unison called out “Herring Gull” species #137 tallied near 7:20 PM. As the light faded, we realized we couldn’t reach anywhere else before dark, and we assigned ourselves to continue scanning from here for any more species. There were many possibilities: Snowy or Piping Plovers, Oystercatchers, Red Knot, Long-billed Curlew, Western Sandpiper, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Common Tern, American White Pelican, even a Barn Swallow zipping by… We also realized that we’d already gotten every chaseable nocturnal species so had no hopes after dark. With precious few minutes of light left, we  called it and threw in the towel and decided to stroll back leisurely while light still remained rather than a mad dash at twilight. Our count of 137 species in Charlotte County had bested the previous record by 16 and still left room for future improvements by us or others! ;)

the "Beasts of Birding" road weary after 16.5 hours of hardcore birding!

the “Beasts of Birding” road weary after a long day of hardcore birding! 4-5-14, Stump Pass 7:45 PM

A fitting introduction for Athena on her first ever big day, perhaps she’ll partake in another.