L>R: Tom Presby, Max Henschell, Eric Wood, Jessica Gorzo and David La Puma
It has now been couple of days since our team finished the 41-hour birding event known as the BRRRRdathon, a fundraiser to support conservation efforts in the Sax-Zim Bog of Minnesota. In the last ten minutes of the competition we stood silently on Skyline Drive, above Duluth, attempting to pick up a last species with a flyover or evening call note (none were heard as the clock struck 5:00pm). Standing there in the cold (hovering around 10° F) with our ears trained on the hillside I couldn’t help but think back on the week we had just experienced together. Birding from the wee hours of the morning until after dark, and then doing it again and again and again, all in anticipation of an epic adventure.
Admiral Rd. covered in ice
Our day started with a 3:00am wake-up and the realization that freezing rain had rendered all roads treacherous. Max Henschell, our token “Yooper” (lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for six years) was our designated driver and did an amazing job of keeping us on the road and out of any ditches. At one point during pre-dawn owling we literally got caught between two rises on a tertiary road; it was pure glare ice and we slid forward and backward as we tried to make our way back out to the main road. After owling for five minutes from the bottom of the street, Max carefully executed a 15-point-turn-around and finally got us out, at which point we vowed to drive only on main roads even if it cost us some owling time… just one small screw-up in those conditions could have ended our chances of winning the competition.
At first light we were in position at the Sax-Zim Bog in search of bog specialties such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Great Gray Owls. The gray overcast skies and steady rain resulted in very little bird activity and it wasn’t until around 8:25am (nearly five hours after we started) that we found our first birds: Black-capped Chickadee, Common Raven and our first bog specialty, Black-billed Magpie. We also spotted some of our competition, Chris West and Alex Stark, driving down the bog roads. We passed their pulled-over car while driving north on McDavitt Rd. as we headed for the Great Gray Owl area.
Great Gray Owl
Max spotted the owl first as it lifted off its perch and moved back into the bog, but quickly perched again and was refound by Tom Prestby. At this point we all got on the bird as it lifted again and flew out of view into the spruce and tamarack. Great Gray Owl, a bird that would elude us three out of four days during our scouting, gave us a quick view and a huge adrenaline shot as we hooted and hollered the rest of the way down McDavitt Rd.
For the next hour we made the rounds to pick up Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, and many other birds of the bog including the hard-to-miss Northern Hawk Owl on Kolu Rd.
Finding the Great Gray Owl so quickly, though, bought us more time to search for a species that eluded us on all of our scouting forays, Sharp-tailed Grouse. We searched all of the recent sighting locations to no avail… apparently grouse don’t like to feed out in the open in freezing rain. As we made our way down Arkola Road toward Owl Avenue Max would make the first of many clutch picks from the driver seat: two birds transiting across an open farm field toward the road in front of us. Those two birds? Sharp-tailed Grouse! Not only were they the first ST Grouse I’ve seen in the bog, but also they were the first ST Grouse I’ve ever seen. Life bird, and bird number 15 for the day! We made our way through the Sax-Zim feeders picking up but a couple of the expected species (notable misses were either of the two Brown Creepers we had staked out at Owl Avenue, and the Ruffed Grouse that had been hanging around the Blue Spruce Rd. feeders just a day before). We were out of the bog on time, just after noon with 22 species under our belts, and heading back to Duluth for an afternoon of gulls and waterfowl, or so we hoped.
When we reached our duck spot the fog on the partially frozen bay was so thick we couldn’t even see half the distance to the open water. Doing well with water birds is imperative to score big in the BRRRRdathon and we knew we’d have to come back here on day 2 or find these birds elsewhere if we were going to keep in the running. A quick run around the corner added us Ring-billed, Herring, Glaucous and Thayer’s gull loafing on the ice, after which we shot down to Canal Park hoping for more gull species. As we arrived we ran into last years champion, Dave Benson’s Grousing Twitchers, and exchanged misinformation regarding our exploits. Dave’s team consisted of himself and John and Alex Ellis, father and brother of our 2012 teammate Jesse Ellis. Dave is a renowned guide in the area and all three of those guys are some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. After our quick exchange, the Twitchers drove away and we walked under the bridge and got our Bufflehead right where we had her during scouting (species # 31).
As we were getting ready to leave because of the lack of gulls, one of the local bird photographers showed up to feed the gulls and birding went from zero to sixty in about three minutes. In rapid succession we added Iceland and Great Black-backed Gull to our list, but the real cool part wasn’t the number of new species but the fantastic looks at both adult and sub-adult Glaucous and Kumlien’s Iceland gulls.
The rest of the daylight hours were spent cruising habitats and feeders in Duluth and Superior looking for half-hardy species such as American Tree Sparrow and Northern Cardinal (both missed on day 1). We finished the evening with a soot-stained and bander painted and tagged Snowy Owl at the Superior Airport and a beautiful Barred Owl in the Superior Municipal Forest (species #37). The latter was an in-the-dark drive-by pick by Jessica Gorzo from the back seat while the rest of us were either looking at the road or our maps for directions to the next spot.
Adult Iceland (Kumlein's) Gull
Great-horned would elude us on both days keeping our owl total at four for the BRRRRdathon. We retired to the Thirsty Pagan pub in Superior where we were met by our fifth teammate, Eric Wood, who was sick the day before and had to come up a day late. Several toasts were made and the first real food of the day was consumed. The mood was celebratory but we knew we’d have our work cut out for us with the forecast of plummeting temperature and fierce winds for Saturday. We all agreed that doing the bog in freezing rain was probably a better idea than trying in strong winds. We hoped this would give us an edge in the end.
The two-day event can be summed up in two words: weather extremes. When we walked outside at 5:00am on Friday the wind was already blowing 20+ mph out of the west and the temperature was a balmy 34° F. On this day we would spend most of our time in northern Wisconsin trying to clean up on field birds (still missing Snow Bunting, Wild Turkey, Rough-legged Hawk and Ruffed Grouse at this point) and half-hardies and some vagrants at feeders, as well as some lingering waterfowl. In the afternoon we would return to Superior and Duluth for our final attempt at birds we missed due to weather on the first day.
Under the cover of dark we raced east to Ashland where we hooted in vain in the woods behind the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center; it was just too windy for any self-respecting Great Horned Owl to respond. We then raced (literally, from the car, down a long ice-covered road and a shorter ice-covered path) to Prentice Park where we ticked a lingering Mute Swan in the dark, a most exciting feat previously scouted by our friend Nick Annich along with Tom Prestby a few nights prior. We moved methodically to the hot pond at the Ashland Power Plant where we got skunked on ducks and on to the Northland College ravine where we scored both Northern Cardinal and House Finch.
A drive down to a private feeder near Mellen got Jess her lifer Varied Thrush, and most of us our Wisconsin Varied Thrush. There were actually two present! The best part of the this tick was the Ruffed Grouse that Max spotted heading down the gravel road en route, second only to watching the thrush in the comforts of a warm house (the temperature at this point had already dropped to 25° F).
Female Varied Thrush
We then ran back to the open areas south of Ashland where we worked every field we could find for field birds and hit our first long dry spell of the day (dipping on Snow Bunting and American Kestrel, both of which had been seen in previous days). I picked up a Ruffed Grouse under a conifer tree in someone’s yard but since we already had it, it didn’t count for anything accept the reassurance that I was still competent after all that staring out the window going 55 MPH. Bald Eagles were everywhere, and combined with all the ravens and crows we had many brief moments of excitement leading to no gain in species seen. We finally spotted a distant hunting Rough-legged Hawk, ending our dry streak of finding new birds. A small distant flock of Turkeys seen from US 2 at 65 MPH were a relief as well and brought our total to 45 species.
Back in Douglas County, we stopped at a feeder near Poplar that had been hosting a White-throated Sparrow but the bird didn’t show for us that day, likely due to most of the snow melting in the previous day’s rain. We did pick up White-winged Crossbills at that location, though, which proved to be harder than we had expected elsewhere. A run down to Gordon got us our Canada Geese, Trumpeter Swans and Golden-crowned Kinglet, but failed to produce the Brown Creeper that was there during scouting. Possibly the coolest bird at that location was one we already had (twice) by now, but the sound and feeling of a drumming Ruffed Grouse behind me as I scanned for the geese was something I won’t soon forget. As the Florida/New Jersey birder listened to his first grouse drumming, the Wisconsin and U.P. birders remarked about how bizarre it was to hear in January and that the bird needs this time to practice because it’s drumming was far from an acceptable standard for April! As we left, we became more nervous that we would miss Pileated Woodpecker if one did not flyover on our way back up to Superior (it would not).
With our total list at 49 species, we hightailed it back up to Wisconsin Point in Superior in an attempt at Barrow’s Goldeneye and both open-water Merganser species. With the recent warm-up much of the waterfowl had dispersed and the large rafts which were common at this location just days ago had been quickly fragmenting. When we arrived on the scene the point was devoid of almost all waterfowl save for a few (as in 6) Common Goldeneye, a bird we got the day before. Common and Hoary Redpolls were present as usual, and as we ran back to the car after seeing nothing on the open water, the flock flew up ahead of us in a flurry of chips and flight notes. Tom stopped in his tracks and cocked his head to one side and said “wait - I think I heard a ‘kip-kip’ of a Red Crossbill”. We listened for a second but all we heard were the redpolls, and Tom just wrote it off as his hopeful imagination at that point. Back in the car, we headed one parking lot down to where we could scan more of the big water in hopes for Common and Red-breasted Merganser. There again all we saw was big water… no birds at all. This was too weird. We folded up our scopes and began sprinting for the car again; this time Tom called out “Red Crossbill” and pointed to the pines where he had heard the call. He pished for a moment and several Red Crossbills flew out into some smaller Jack Pines. They were soon joined by a dozen more and everyone got good looks. Species #50 for the day reinvigorated the group and we raced the car down to Parking Lot 1, the sight of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s annual Jaegerfest, where last October we hatched our plan to compete in this BRRRRdathon event. I felt like we had come full circle and I knew we had a few more chances to strike big before the clock struck 5pm.
Max and Jess scanning Wisconsin Point
From the dunes overlooking Lake Superior we scanned the big water once more, and once more all we saw was water. This was crazy, insane even, considering how active this area was just a few days ago. Then it happened. Eric Wood said “I’ve got something here; Red-breasted Mergansers!”. They were so far out we each left our posts and lined up behind Eric’s scope so we could each get a look and add the species to our total. Species #51 was confirmed. Still missing Common Merganser we knew we would have a shot at it in the harbor later, so we ran back to the car and headed for Robbye Johnson’s house where she has been hosting four American Tree Sparrows since the fall. It took a few minutes to locate them but one popped up out of the brush pile and gave us all good looks and we were out of there almost as soon as we had arrived. Species #52.
Our next stop was the hot pond in Duluth where we struck out the day before because of fog. This time the air was clear and visibility was excellent… and our competition was waiting for us. Erik Bruhnke and Jackie Ramsey (team Lagopus) were leaving the site as we were running in. Erik is a great local birder and just an awesome all-around guy, not to mention he helped us scout on multiple days before the event… but that didn’t stop me from giving him a hard time for poaching our duck spot. While the spot had at least five good species for the competition, at this point we only needed one of them: Hooded Merganser, of which there were 3 males in alternate plumage. Species #53, tying the previous year’s winning number and the highest count in the two year history of the event.
After finally deciding we could gain no more at the hot pond we raced back to the Aquarium and began scanning the harbor for Common Merganser. Several scans produced only the regular Common Goldeneye and the Bufflehead we had the previous day… light was beginning to fade and we considered where else we might find a lingering Common Merg. Just then Tom said “Everyone check out these two birds over here; they’re far across the harbor near the pilings; I think they’re Common Mergansers; yes, they ARE Common Mergansers”. Again we lined up at the scope and took turns identifying the birds. The long-bodied, white-sided, dark headed, long-red-billed male Common Mergansers brought our total now to 54 species. We had broken the previous year’s record by one species. A quick round of high-fives and hugs ensued followed by us running to the car and on-the-fly strategizing about what species we could still pick at this late hour (4:40pm).
A final run to Canal Park produced nothing, although we did see Chris West and Alex Stark apparently trying to find their last species as well. A quick shout “see you at the finish line!” and we were gone. We decided to wrap things up at the top of Duluth, on Skyline Drive, where some lingering fruit might bring in a last-minute Bohemian Waxwing, or a chuckling American Robin on its way to roost, or a Pileated Woodpecker, or maybe even a sounding-off Great Horned Owl. Our final minutes of the event were spent in silence, standing outside our car in a gravel pull-off, trying really hard to pick one last species. Max announced 4:59… then 5:00… and just like that the 2013 BRRRRdathon was over. Team Eagle Optics Badger Irruption had succeeded in breaking the previous year’s record set by the excellent birders on team Grousing Twitchers. A few hours later we learned that we did indeed win first place in the 2013 event.
In the end our team raised nearly $2,000 for conservation in the unique and important bird (and plant) area known as Sax-Zim Bog. Bird-a-thon records are meant to be broken and I have no doubt ours will be challenged next year, especially if the weather proves to be more cooperative, and especially because we plan to be back in The Bog gunning for 60+ species ourselves. Thanks to everyone who supported us financially, morally, and through information on bird whereabouts. eBird has become a game-changer for events like this and I credit many of the species we were able to get to Tom Prestby’s ability to scour the eBird records for important sighting information. Thanks to all of the birders who enter their sightings into this fantastic database. We couldn’t have done so well in Northern Wisconsin if not for the help of Ryan Brady and Nick Annich, and Erik Bruhnke was instrumental in showing us around Sax-Zim Bog and parts of Duluth and Superior prior to the event. Lars Pomara joined us during scouting and his extra set of eyes and birder intuition gave us a great edge during the planning process. Frank Nicoletti suffered through several frantic phone call about half-hardy species when we decided to change our route in the final hours before the event. Robbye Johnson was critical to us getting locations for a number of half-hardy and nocturnal species in the Superior area. Also, Andy Paulios provided intel for Burnett County Wisconsin which we had planned on visiting in our route. It turned out being intel of where not to go because scouting there was a bust but that is important info nevertheless! It goes without saying that this would not have been possible without the support of Eagle Optics who made sure we had somewhere to sleep and gas in our tank during the scouting days and the big event.
Until next time, Bird So Hard,
The Eagle Optics Badger Irruption
p.s. the official 2013 BRRRRdathon results for all categories can be found here.