Pennsylvania birder Matt Sabatine, a new addition to this year’s Nemesis Birders line-up for the Shaver’s Creek Birding Cup competition, offers his perspective on the team’s Big Day attempt. Gordon Dimmig provided a few photos he took while birding with us during the afternoon of the Birding Cup. Follow links to eBird checklists!
The days leading up to the annual Shaver’s Creek Birding Cup were, for me, a bit of a paradox. On one hand, I was super excited to do a Big Day in central Pennsylvania and really enjoy spring birding like I always do. But on the other, I felt like a May Big Day being done so early in the month (May 3) would undoubtedly prove to be way too early for some of the migrants. As such, it was very frustrating trying to figure out our route and planning for which species we’d be able to get pretty much knowing that we’d have no chance at some late arrivals like Eastern Wood Pewee, either of the Traill’s flycatchers, Blackpoll Warbler and so forth. I knew in the back of my mind that if the Birding Cup were held in the 2nd or third weekend in May, we could probably expect an additional 10 species from what is attainable this early in the month, but knowing that we’d have to work really hard to get some of the migrants was pretty much a blessing in disguise…because when Ian Gardner, Alex Lamoreaux, Mark Mizak and myself set out on the evening of May 2, we were fully prepared to engage in an incredibly intensive 24-hour birding blitz.
Actually, the blitz began much sooner than the unique 7pm start date (for Big Days, which are customarily from midnight to midnight). All of us scouted fairly intensively on Friday morning. We also took full advantage of the dusk start date and did some birding around Bald Eagle State Park before retreating to our official starting location at the MacElhatten Bridge in Clinton County to tick the nesting Peregrine Falcons. At Bald Eagle SP, we were able to turn up some key Big Day birds that we were hoping to still be around when we swung through the area later in the evening before it got too dark to see. We netted Caspian Tern, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-necked Grebe, Red-throated Loon and Northern Shoveler, Canvasback and Gadwall at nearby Curtin Wetlands. Add in a surprise American Black Duck at a flooded area near our starting point, and there was good reason for optimism. When the clock struck 7:00pm, we called out some common species around the bridge, including nesting Cliff Swallows, and waited the necessary 5 minutes in the vicinity of a raptor nest (the Peregrine) before being able to officially count it, per the competitions rules. To our dismay, the American Black Duck which was present just minutes before our start time was absent when we swung through on our way to some other Clinton spots, which was a frustrating start to the evening.
Stop #2 was at the Central Mountain High School Wetlands, also in Clinton County. We were delighted to pull up and be able to see, without even exiting the vehicle, that the Glossy Ibis found here on April 30 by Alex and Ian was still present. Our efforts walking (running?) around the marsh netted us nothing else of particular note except the continuing male Northern Pintail, another clutch bird for a May Big Day. While we spread out in the marsh hoping to flush a bittern or something of the like, Alex spotted a Virginia Rail. Unfortunately, the rest of us were unable to corral the bird to be able to get a visual on it. During a Big Day, speaking for myself, it’s hard to be able to relish in the good times, like ticking clutch birds such as the ibis and pintail, and instead I often find myself getting frustrated over the misses, like the phantom black duck and the unobliging Virginia Rail. Even still, there was no room to really think about much of anything. Onward we went.
Next stop was at the Mill Hall wetlands just down the road from the high school, which during scouting efforts in the preceding days produced some key marsh birds, such as Common Gallinule and American Bittern. In our haste to bird this area quick enough to be able to arrive at Bald Eagle with enough light to ID birds, we were able to flush the continuing gallinule and a bonus Sora during our efforts running around the marsh. This turned out to be a very efficient and key stop along our route.
After literally running back to the vehicle and driving faster than anyone ever should when not in a medical emergency, we arrived at the swimming beach at Bald Eagle with enough light to be able to notch, among others: Least Sandpiper, Red-necked Grebe, Horned Grebe and Bonaparte’s Gull.
A quick stop at the Martin colony in Howard netted an awe-inspiring look at half of the head of a Purple Martin sticking out of one of the boxes. A run down to the park in Howard produced the Caspian Tern and Red-breasted Merganser we’d found during scouting, another sign of good fortune. The tern looked as though it was just leaving the lake for the evening, perhaps to continue its migration northward.
Our next and final stop of the evening with enough light to see was Curtin Wetland, where we were heavily depending upon getting some of the notable lingering waterfowl here. Although we did arrive in time to see the continuing Canvasback, Northern Shoveler and Tundra Swan, we missed the Gadwall we’d seen before official start time earlier in the evening, which combined with the black duck near the bridge at start time, caused quite a bit of frustration. Wrapping up the remaining minutes of daylight was a bit of a relief, as getting around to all these areas before sunset was, quite literally, a race against time. When we weren’t squealing tires to and from our stops, we were literally running around during them, and when night fell it was a nice sigh of relief to be able to mentally and physically downshift a couple gears.
Our first night time stop was at Julian Wetlands, where everyone but myself suggested we avoid. Since I have heard Virginia Rail easily during the day, even during high winds, I figured they’d be a piece of cake here. Of course, I was dead wrong–the spring peepers were deafening and we heard and saw nothing save for some Canada Geese.
Our next stop was Black Moshannon State Park, where we’d hoped to get some of the owls. At our first stop, a Northern Saw-whet Owl vocalized briefly within a minute or so of us getting out of the car. This would turn out to be one of the highlights of the day for me, as I don’t recall having encountered saw-whets during the breeding season in PA before. Add a couple vocalizing Barred Owls and this stop was a great success, and a very timely one at that.
Up next in line was the German Settlement grasslands in SGL 100, also in Centre Co. We heard our target Henslow’s Sparrows almost immediately upon walking up the path to the grassland, and even had some extra time to listen for nocturnal flight calls of migrants….or maybe for myself, relishing in how cool it was to experience hearing Henslow’s Sparrows singing at 11 o’clock at night.
Our next stop was a known Long-eared Owl location at one of the nearby reclaimed strip mines, and netted us exactly that, a Long-eared Owl. Except that Ian and I were the only ones to hear it, and under the rules of having at least 3/4 of the team hear or see a bird to count it, we drove away without being able to add our 3rd owl of the night. Nevertheless, we were incredibly efficient with our stops up until this point, and were ahead of schedule and primed to make a serious run during daylight. Our next destination was, for me, the most anticipated of the entire day–a spot near Mifflintown at a location where Barn Owls nest. After being told that the owls were easily seen the year before during the Birding Cup, I was a bit disappointed to see nothing more of a Barn Owl beyond a feather of theirs and some whitewash. That was just as well, however, because we were still able to park our car outside the building where they nest and wait for 5 minutes, counting the bird the same as we would have if we’d gotten crippling views of them.
After we shot back up to State College in the wee hours, we duplicated our approach for a known Great Horned Owl nest in town and sat quietly in our car for 5 minutes before driving off and notching the bird just the same. By this time, it was around 3:30am, and there wasn’t a whole lot left to do before the dawn chorus. We all agreed that the best plan of action would be to head up to the ridge at Jo Hays Vista to listen for nocturnal flight calls prior to spending daybreak at the Scotia Barrens. The conditions were nearly perfect – calm, low cloud cover with light southerly winds, but my suspicions for it just being a bit too early for a lot of the migrants were confirmed when we were able to note nothing more than a passover Swainson’s Thrush and a vireo, the latter of which may just as well have been a local Blue-headed singing in the night. My stomach at this juncture was just about in a knot…what are we going to do? Where are we going to get migrants? What are we going to do if there’s hardly any around? At that point all we could do was drive down to the Barrens and wait patiently, hoping that sunrise wouldn’t be nearly as disappointing as I’d suspected it would be.
But it was. After successfully netting whip-poor-will during the pre-dawn, the morning chorus at daybreak at the Barrens was, to say the least, unimpressive. In addition to hearing and seeing hardly any migrants, even some of the breeding birds were apparently not back yet, including birds like Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. We did pick up 42 species for our drive along Scotia Range Rd., but it was a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from this normally incredible migration hotspot, and we were left with mounting pressure to pick these birds up later in the morning at our only other stop for warblers and migrant passerines, the Lower Trail in Huntington.
A quick stop at the Haugh Family Preserve outside the Barrens proper got us Vesper Sparrow and our only Greater Yellowlegs and Northern Waterthrush for the day. Our stop for field birds at S Nixon Road provided all of our target species in an incredibly short amount of time, including Savannah Sparrow, Horned Lark and American Pipit. Although we failed to nail down some key migrants in Scotia Barrens, we’d set ourselves up with being way ahead of schedule to really be able to work hard for the birds at our other spots.
Our next and really only other spot for warblers and migrants was the Lower Trail in Huntingdon County. It was my first time here, and upon pulling into the parking lot I was largely unimpressed with the lack of diversity via vegetation and habitat types, and internally was preparing myself for another dud of a stop for migrants, which at that point I figured would be representative of a dud of a day in general. How could you do a successful Big Day in May in Pennsylvania and miss a significant number of warblers and other passerine migrants? I didn’t want to think about it. It was time to hit the Lower Trail hard, and we did with all of our birding might.
Immediately upon walking the trail, I was blown away at the diversity of breeders here–3 species of vireos, Yellow-throated, Worm-eating, Cerulean, Parula and migrant Nashville, Palm and Blackburnian were all evident within minutes of walking the trail and in an instant my mind was at ease. We were able to pish down most of the birds from the canopy, allowing incredible and often rarely gotten fantastic looks at species like Worm-eating, Cerulean and Yellow-throated Warblers. They seemed very agitated at my imitation of Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee, and at one point one of the Yellow-throated Warblers was as close as he could’ve possibly been above my head without actually being on it! We netted 13 warbler species total, and although it was nice to be able to regain some of the momentum we’d had prior to the barrens by getting some much needed passerines, it was also just a really awesome experience getting such outstanding looks at all of the birds here. The only downside of birding the Lower Trail was not being able to stay longer–only during a Big Day would I look at a stunning male Blackburnian Warbler sitting right above my head for only a couple seconds. Although we were doing incredibly well on time and still ahead of schedule, we had to continue on.
Our next major stop at Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County produced a Lesser Scaup Alex picked out feeding along the shore line. Next in line was a wetland on SGL 420 near Raystown Lake, where we were fortunate to pick up Broad-winged Hawk, Hooded Merganser, two American Bitterns we were all able to see well, and our only Great Crested Flycatcher of the day. Raystown was a rather time-consuming but productive cluster of stops, where we were able to notch some more critical birds like both Orioles and Herring Gull. The next stop was another one I was highly anticipating, the Old Crow Wetland. Though I’d only been here a few times in the past, I always recognized this location as having excellent potential for good marsh birds. Except Marsh Wren, we were able to hit on our targets of Bufflehead and Bobolink. The true surprise though was seeing Ian waving his hands and shouting across one of the ponds, pointing at an adult Black-crowned Night Heron he’d just flushed. We all got great looks at the heron before it retreated to a dense thicket, and out of sight. Any unexpected rare birds are a welcome addition to a big day attempt.
The early afternoon stops yielded a number of new birds here and there, like Golden-winged Warbler, Red-shouldered Hawk and a key stop at Shaver’s Creek to quickly notch a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the feeder. The late afternoon stops were still quite productive, as we were able to pick up some more targets like Canada Warbler, Black Vulture, White-crowned Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow (which we’d somehow missed to that point). A drive-by of the Duck Pond in State College brought with it the continuing female Redhead and a coot. Once again I’d convinced the team that we should stop back at Julian Wetlands, determined to not miss perhaps the easiest of our marsh bird targets, Virginia Rail. At first we heard nothing at all, but as soon as Ian clapped his hands loudly one grunted back, and thus we were sprinting down the road and back into the car. By this point in the afternoon, we’d realized that we had racked up a serious species total, enough to know that beating the Birding Cup record of 160 species was completely within reason. If we weren’t doing things at warp speed already, we were now. The car was moving fast, and so too were our mouths – the car-time conversation previously containing jokes and small talk was now fervently discussing our next plan of action, where exactly we would go, how we would get there, how long could we spend there, and for which species. With just two hours to go, we made the decision to head back up to Black Moshannon State Park for Purple Finch, Ring-necked Duck and Pied-billed Grebe, a risky move considering how distant it was for everything else. At Black Mo, we picked up Ring-necked Duck but our spirits were unwavering, as we knew we’d still be able to make it to Bald Eagle SP with enough time to bird it thoroughly for any remaining birds for the day.
Our first stop of the Bald Eagle State Park area was a grass field that abuts Curtin Wetland, where we were drawn in by a large gathering of Ring-billed Gulls. While scanning through them, Alex noticed a completely hooded gull with large, broad white eye arcs and excitedly exclaimed, “There’s a Laughing Gull with them!”. We got on the bird at, pretty much the same time and in an instant, I saw the bird’s head poking up above the grass, and with its diminutive, slender bill, I responded immediately with, “uh, you sure that’s not a Franklin’s?” As expected, a bit of chaos ensued and, as they say, the rest is history. We all got looks through the scope, took a couple pictures and continued onward as dedicated Big Day birders. More information on the Franklin’s Gull can be found here.
The park proper didn’t fail to produce either – a Blue-winged Warbler sang almost immediately after we shut off the engine at Upper Greens Run, Pied-billed Grebe was conveniently conspicuous, and the mid-day rainstorm had dropped in two male Surf Scoters that really rounded out a small Bufflehead flock.
As it would turn out, we fell short of the record of 160 species, with an official 158 species on the day, but it was incredibly enjoyable and successful, with respect to being a Big Day but also just birding in general. The calendar was our enemy, as we basically had no chance at some of the later returning birds and still hard to work really hard for the passerines we did get. But we played the hand we were dealt fantastically. We had a great route planned, we stuck to it and were incredibly efficient in terms of time at each location, and it’s of my belief that we saw and heard what was around. As in all Big Days, there were some misses (Black Duck, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Magnolia Warbler, Prairie Warbler, etc.). But we did the best we could, found some great birds, enjoyed seeing others, and just had a blast in general. And most importantly, we raised money for Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, which is an incredible organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation and advocation for the natural world. There are some things I’d like to forget, like having missed American Black Duck that we saw just a couple minutes before start time. Or the fact that if the Big Day were a week or two later, we’d probably have netted an additional dozen species or so. But the Birding Cup of 2014 is not one to be forgotten.