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On the Wing: In One Big Day, 90 Species and a Life Bird

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 11:47

On Global Big Day a cliff swallow at last, eastern towhee an elusive ‘nemesis’

Ruddy turnstones show up along the shores of our bay beaches in the spring on their way to the tundra.
Jay Rand

Birding is an immersive experience. I stumble about the woods, as if in a trance, following birdsong and staring into the architecture of trees. The surroundings absorb me, and I get a sense of how things could have been.

Sometimes, I admit, I wonder why I’m not out making money, or something.

However, on a “Big Day,” birding is just about numbers. It is spent, dawn to dusk, in search of birds; the goal to see as many different species as possible. May 13 was Global Big Day. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 58,700 people submitted 150,000 bird checklists to eBird and as a group found 7,636 species.

For the last five years, I have birded Global Big Day with my eldest daughter and friends Bruce Horwith and Evan Schumann, in a rough rectangle I consider my “patch,” bound by Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge and Mecox Inlet to the west, and Havens Beach and Sagaponack Pond to the east. This year, we hit 10 spots within that patch and walked six miles.

In the days leading up to the event, I make a list, divvying the birds in my Sibley Guide into four categories: definite, likely, unlikely, and insane.

The goal is always to find 100 species: We’ve never gotten there. In 2018, we got to 99. Another year, we hit 94. In bad years we’ve been in the high 70s. We hoped that 2023, with a solid weather setup, light southwest winds, no rain, and no fog, was our year to get to 100.

We met at the trail head to Long Pond at 5:30 a.m. Shortly afterward, we hit our first group of warblers, which included two migrants (birds only passing through that won’t stay here to breed): a black-throated green warbler, and, low to the ground, a magnolia warbler.

A mystery man, maybe 75, whom I often see walking the Sprig Tree Trail, passed at 6:15 a.m. I felt compelled to greet him. “I always see you carrying that bag!” I said, loudly. Expressionless, he continued walking northward. As usual, I inadvertently embarrassed my daughter. “That’s the worst thing you could say to some random person in the woods,” she said. An awkward silence fell over our group.

“This is as birdy as I’ve seen it in here,” said Mr. Horwith, breaking it up. The songs of orioles and red-winged blackbirds crossed invisibly above us, competing for the airwaves. I imagine they’re either saying “Mine!” or “Love me!”

Over Long Pond, a clatter; two eastern kingbirds in a territorial battle. We ambled down the trail, as the conversation turned to favorite books about birding. I snapped a picture of a box turtle, sadly, the first I’ve seen all year. At Little Long Pond an oriole yanked a silver strand of spider web from a bayberry bush.

Two hours later we had tallied 45 species. A decent start.

After a quick coffee at Grindstone, and a few “trash birds” in Sag Harbor Village — rock doves on the windmill, European starlings nesting at Sag Harbor Books, house sparrows drawing sustenance from the sidewalk — we drove to the South Fork Natural History Museum.

Surrounded by grasslands, we picked up new species like indigo buntings and singing blue-winged warblers, who breed here. Purple martins circled their gourds.

But we missed out on some expected birds. This is where it became clear that the eastern towhee, a bird I categorized as “definite,” would turn into our “nemesis” bird for the day. Of the 57 birds I identified as “definite,” that was one we couldn’t find.

We also failed to see or hear an orchard oriole, which I had categorized as “likely.”

There’s lots of downtime for conversation on a Big Day. “You remember that time we saw a golden-winged warbler here?” Birds are tied to places, and to the people you see them with. A day spent birding is a way to catch up with friends, take a walk, and get covered with ticks. “Is that an oriole I’m hearing?”

We didn’t encounter any more humans until 10 a.m., at the Sagg Swamp Preserve. The white-eyed vireo, a tough bird to find, breeds there. As we entered, we thought we heard the insect-like trill of a worm-eating warbler, which would have been an “insane” bird. We bushwhacked toward the call but didn’t see one. Five hours into our day, new birds were getting hard to find.

After the swamp, we stopped at Sagaponack Pond for piping plover, Northern gannet, and both varieties of loon, before a quick stop at Smith Corner Preserve, hoping for an odd sparrow, or perhaps an insane bobolink. Here we got lucky. As we watched a group of barn swallows hawking insects over water, a cliff swallow coasted by. The cliff swallow was a “life bird” for me, one I didn’t even bother to put on my list. For the uninitiated, a life bird is one you’ve never seen before. I was thrilled.

At noon we were at 70 species and hungry, and, perhaps because my brain had stopped working, I made a tactical error. I ordered lunch at What the Falafel in Sag Harbor but failed to give us enough time for a quick swing to Mecox Inlet, which could have produced one or two extra species.

Nonetheless, lunch gave us a much-needed second wind and we walked from Havens Beach all the way to Little Northwest Creek for low tide. A Tennessee warbler sang from some trees that bordered the beach. On the extensive sand flats, a greater yellowlegs bobbed. I helped a mother and her two young boys look through my scope at some ruddy turnstones, exposing the parallel world that surrounded them. Over at the creek, a talented mockingbird sang an extensive repertoire of birdsong, including a very convincing rendition of a belted kingfisher.

It was close to 2 p.m. when we left Havens Beach. The sun and the beach walk had tired us. Needing shade, we birded Mulvihill Preserve, where we heard a blackburnian warbler before we walked Trout Pond. After 12 hours, we were only at 90 species. Dinner called.

In one final attempt for more species, we went to Clam Island Preserve. I scanned the eastern shore of Jessup’s Neck, hoping to see either a black-bellied plover or an American oystercatcher. Had either bird been present, perhaps we would have tried one more spot. As the tides would have it, the birds weren’t present, and we called it a day.

“It’s been fun,” said Mr. Horwith. And I drove home, wondering, as I do, if there was anything I could have done differently that would have changed the outcome.


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