Eagle Optics Team Bird So Hard wrapped up a 24-hour extravaganza of birding at 12:00am on Sunday, May 28, by listening to a chorus of two Chuck-will’s-widows and several Eastern Whip-poor-wills singing to a beautiful full moon on the dividing line of Walworth and Jefferson Counties in the South Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Chucks represented species number 183 for the day, and when the clock struck midnight we all exchanged handshakes and hugs in congratulation of a job well done. Despite absolute fatigue from the marathon of birding, we weren’t done. We headed straight for the Yellow-breasted Chat found a week earlier by Cynthia Bridge in the South Kettle Moraine. The bird was singing his head off when we arrived, and we marveled at the experience of listening to a chat under a huge moon. Someone suggested “Chat and Chucks are both singing; maybe we should scrap our big day total and start again right now." Not the worst idea, but complicated by our inability to stay awake any longer, and the fact that some of us had work to do on Sunday--but otherwise we knew we had a great route that would only be made better by a few tweaks in timing and placement. In the end we voted to keep our 183 and make our adjustments in 2014.
It all started almost twenty-six hours earlier, around 10:30pm at the Mud Lake Wildlife Area in Columbia county, where a still-moonlit night was promising big things. We were still scouting for owls and were pleased to have a Barred and Great Horned giving calls from different parts of the marsh, and Whip-poor-wills in the distance. As the night progressed, though, the weather changed right before our eyes. Clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and by the time midnight arrived the tops of trees were swaying, cattails were bending over, and a cold wind threatened to shut down our nocturnal birding. Tom cursed every weather person within a 100-mile radius (including all of his iPhone weather apps) as we kicked off our Big Day. Despite the winds, two of our target birds (Virginia Rail and Sora) could not resist the calls of both Michael and Tom. We left Mud Lake with several birds under our belts and a renewed optimism of birds to come. The next four hours would take us through marshes and bogs listening for owls, rails and sparrows, with our final nocturnal destination being Comstock Bog-Meadow State Natural Area. We picked up an Eastern Screech-Owl and a young Great Horned Owl giving food begging calls in Marquette County, as the wind finally died down. Comstock holds a lot of potential for rare birds such as Yellow Rail, Long-eared Owl, and Le Conte’s Sparrow, but when we arrived we noticed newly posted signage prohibiting our entry into the bog and none of these species could be heard from Edgewood Rd.
For me (one who loves sparrows), Buena Vista is second to none. Clay-colored, Henslow’s, Savannah and Grasshopper are thick as thieves in this grassland/marsh complex. Their songs overlap with the bubbly Bobolink, both Eastern and Western Meadowlark, and when combined with a bass-line provided by booming Greater Prairie Chickens, it's an auditory experience that every birder should have at least once. Add to this the occasional Upland Sandpiper and Brewer’s Blackbird and you have a grassland specialty sweep. A Common Nighthawk in the headlights would become a great sighting, since it was our only one of the day. The only species missed here was Short-eared Owl, which has been in short supply this entire spring. We then shot down to the 8th Avenue/Leola Marsh area where we picked up Mute Swan and a lingering Canvasback, stopped at a few locations for migrants, and then down to Adams County for some sandy pines specialties.
We checked our scouted Lark Sparrow spots but none turned up, although we lucked into an encounter with 20+ Red Crossbills (Type 3) drinking from a puddle at the side of the car before turning south onto a sand road. Perhaps our most unexpected find of the day was a Northern Mockingbird feeding along the road in northern Adams County. After a Baja-style adventure in our minivan, narrowly avoiding getting trapped in the sand, we killed the engine and immediately heard the song of our target bird: Kirtland’s Warbler. We stuck around long enough for Jess to get her lifer look at the bird, and Michael to get his first look at the species in over 20 years. It’s so wonderful to have them breeding in central Wisconsin, and doubly so to include them on our big-day tally. But big days are about the numbers, so after a few brief minutes we sped off for a Blue-headed Vireo present just the day before (missed it!), and then back up for another shot at Lark Sparrow (got two!). We then turned west to Cranberry Country where we picked up a pair of Common Loons and Trumpeter Swans, and down Ball Road for breeding warblers and boreal species (White-throated and Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher (presumably a migrant), Palm, Golden-winged, and Yellow-rumped Warblers).
At this point, we were running more than an hour behind our planned route, so we decided to cut Baxter's Hollow and Devils Lake in favor of the sites along the highway. Our decision paid off on Hooded Warbler and a makeup on Red-headed Woodpecker, which we had missed earlier, but we came up short on others species we hoped to pick up by cutting out some key Baraboo sites. But that’s how things go on a Big Day--and we just pushed through to our Prothonotary spot near Portage. Some excellent intel from Sean Fitzgerald turned us onto this site last week, and when we scouted it, we encountered at least two singing Prothonotary Warblers (a species easy to miss on this route). In addition, there were two calling Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers which were again present on the Big Day. We hadn’t anticipated the water level that had been well under flood stage when we scouted, was now flowing across the road (complete with surfacing carp) on Saturday. Not willing to miss an important bird, we parked our van and waded across the flooded road to the other side where we not only picked up Prothonotary Warbler, but also both Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes!
Now it was time to high-tail it to the Columbia County ponds to pick up Eurasian Collared Dove in Arlington, Red-necked Grebe and a host of other birds at Schoenberg Marsh, and some lingering ducks and shorebirds at various flooded fields (including two Red-necked Phalaropes on Harvey Rd). We continued our flooded-field birding through the Beaver Dam/ Fox Lake region where we picked up Wilson’s Phalarope among other needed birds. Our second to last daylight spot would be Horicon Marsh, where several days of scouting promised a serious bump in our day list.
Horicon is a special place; from eye-level it can appear very two-dimensional, a sea of grass not unlike the Florida Everglades. Also like the Everglades, from above it opens up into a vast landscape mosaic. Horicon has grasslands on the overlooks, and a patchwork of open water, marshes, wooded islands, and mudflats below. We first made our way around the Auto Loop in search of migrants and marsh birds, and were treated to several fleeting single-observer (Michael) glimpses of a Least Bittern, and then to some excellent views of a single bird perched on a cattail clump for the whole group. American Bittern and Common Gallinule were both heard, the latter also seen, and we picked up Black and Forster’s Tern before wrapping up the drive. Highway 49 gave us a boost in shorebird sightings (Black-bellied Plover, Black-necked Stilt, and several peep species) as well as some ducks we had been missing (Gadwall, American Widgeon). We all agreed that if we spent the rest of the day there picking through birds, it would be totally enjoyable, but we had to push on. A race up to Stumpf Rd. yielded a Lesser Yellowlegs, a Great Egret (finally), and a surprise American Black Duck after which we high-tailed it towards Sheboygan.
En route to Sheboygan, we did some tallying and came up with an idea to pick up a few songbirds on the way. Our target location was the Greenbush Picnic Area in the northern Kettle Moraine. Theoretically, it would have been right off of the highway and promised easy detections for Cerulean and Mourning Warbler, as well as Acadian Flycatcher. As of this writing we’re still not sure whether we found the picnic area or not, but it’s safe to say that we picked up no new birds during this excursion, and lost about 30 minutes of precious daylight in the process. Feeling dejected, we got right back on the highway and pointed our van towards Sheboygan.
Tom directed our van to the circle at the end of South Pier Drive where we quickly assumed positions to maximize our collective vantages of the lake. Tom picked the Peregrine off of the nest box atop the power plant, several of us got on a few lines of Red-breasted Mergansers offshore, Jess picked a lone Common Goldeneye lurking under our noses, and a Ruddy Turnstone called to help round out our shorebird numbers. Then Michael picked a good bird offshore with a group of Bonaparte’s Gulls; an adult Little Gull complete with telltale dark under-wings and near-complete dark hood. Once we all got on the Little Gull, we piled back into the van and headed north for the municipal beach. Sanderlings were quickly located running along the surf line, while Michael picked a 1st year Lesser Black-backed Gull from the loafing birds. Caspian Terns were present and calling loudly, but no Common Terns could be found as the last available light faded. We ran down to North Point Park to take one more shot at a new gull, but when we arrived they all flushed and flew back toward the beach--and light gave way to dark. As darkness fell, we were all reeling from the last-minute flurry of new birds. Our total stood at 182, and we knew the Chuck-will’s-widow and Yellow-breasted Chat were still within reach. We headed into town for some sustenance and a little cleaning up before the long drive to Jefferson County. In the end, we would get the Chuck-will’s-widow, but would miss the Chat by 9 minutes! So it goes.
As I write, it is several days later, with the Great Wisconsin Birdathon behind us. Who knows what next year will bring? If the last two years have told us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. And that’s one of the beauties of the Great Wisconsin Birdathon, you’ve got an entire month to strategize, to optimize your chances at a record total. We learned a few lessons this year--some new, and some just reinforced. We learned to keep an eye on the moon phase, as it can be your friend in making birds sing at night, but it can also hinder others from exposing their location. Also, we'll be much more aware of the potential for strong wind, especially during the night. Lastly, good scouting is paramount to anything else, including luck and skill. Scouting familiarizes you not only with the target species, but also increases your ability to hit sites quickly and efficiently. It was the sites we hadn’t scouted that cost us the most time and birds on our route. Scouting is critical.
So on that note, we must thank Eagle Optics for sponsoring our team, which allowed us to get out and do some scouting prior to the event. Without their support we would not have been able to compete at the level we did. Eagle Optics also provided us with scopes and tripods to use during the event (and car window mounts, which are awesome), ensuring that each team member was prepared to pick birds at every opportunity. Eagle Optics Team Bird So Hard would like to thank all of the people who pledged toward our team to raise money for conservation of Wisconsin birdlife. So many of the places we visited are supported by public funds and would not exist if not for the hard work and dedication of conservation organizations at all levels. Your tax-deductible donation willsupport projects aimed at conserving these precious resources, including the true poster-child for bird conservation: the Kirtland’s Warbler.
On June 1st a name will be chosen from our pool of contributors who donated or pledged at least $25 towards our team. This person will receive a brand new Eagle Optics 8x32 Ranger binocular donated by Eagle Optics of Middleton, WI. You still have a couple of days to make your last-minute contributions and help us reach our fundraising goal of $3000! So please, if you haven’t already, head over to the donation page at this link, make your pledge!
Last, but certainly not least, thanks to our friends and co-birders who shared information with us throughout the weeks leading up to the event. Since every species means more conservation dollars, this rising tide of working together clearly lifts all boats. A special thanks to Sean Fitzgerald who was practically part of the team, given the number of places he scouted for us prior to the event.
Thanks again for all of your support, and until next year, BIRD SO HARD.
Eagle Optics Team Bird So Hard
David La Puma
Here is the our final list of species seen or heard in the 24-hour period (note that NO tapes were played to attract birds):
American Black Duck
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Le Conte's Sparrow
Red Crossbill (types 3 and 4)