HundredQuest: Global Big Day 2021

It’s finally May, and May means migration! There is no single month that can top the action and excitement of peak spring birding here in New York. This mad dash to the breeding grounds is the most intense time of the year for many species. As much as I adore fall migration, the southbound movement of birds is a more prolonged affair that spans several months. The blitz of activity when Neotropical migrants surge northwards only last for a few weeks, and birders are always eager to make the most of it. With a combination of sky-high anticipation and a limited window of opportunity, it’s easy to understand the popularity of events like eBird’s Global Big Day.

This year, I had the pleasure of partaking in not one, but two high-intensity birding efforts within the first few days of May. Teaming up with fellow NYC birders Ryan Zucker, Efua Peterson, and Dmitriy Aronov, I set out to achieve an especially daunting goal: recording 100 or more species on one day in Central Park alone. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we were certain it was going to be a fun challenge!

The Trial Run – May 2nd

Our first attempt to crack the triple digit mark developed gradually from humble beginnings. I began the first Sunday of May at dawn, meeting with Ryan by Summit Rock and gradually meandering towards the Ramble. There were decent numbers of birds singing throughout the area, and we also spied some lingering waterfowl on the Reservoir. At this point I wasn’t expecting anything beyond a pleasant day of classic spring birding, but things began to heat up when we reached the woods. Once we were joined by Dmitriy and Efua, our species total started to climb steadily. 

The day’s first surprise was a one-two punch, with a report of a Cerulean Warbler near the Met promptly followed by news of another individual discovered by chance in the Ramble. We happened to be close by when the second alert came in, and we quickly rushed over to the eastern edge of the park for a double dose of this beautiful bird. Ceruleans are sought-after, infrequent visitors in New York City parks, so the opportunity to enjoy two singing males within the space of a few minutes was an unexpected delight!

By mid-morning, it was clear that this was an especially productive day for avian activity. We were already up to about 20 warbler species, plus a solid mix of other migrants including Orchard Orioles, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Indigo Buntings. A heard-only Evening Grosbeak and the long-staying Barred Owl were welcome rarities for our checklist. We began to speculate about what kind of numbers we could rack up if we kept birding for the rest of the day. At nearly 70 species tallied, 80 was clearly within our grasp, but what about 90? Dare we dream even bigger? We decided to commit to the objective of maximizing our total, and we set out for the North End to see what else we could find.

I thoroughly enjoyed birding with such a talented team, and each one of us made some great contributions to the cumulative list. Ryan found a rare-for-Manhattan Purple Martin wheeling overhead with some Chimney Swifts, mere moments after noting that we should be on the lookout for aerial insectivores. Dmitriy managed to pick out a well-hidden Wood Duck drake lurking in the dense vegetation along the far shore of the Lake. I sniped a late Sharp-shinned Hawk circling at a great distance, which subsequently turned our way and passed directly overhead. Efua spotted a handsome Hooded Warbler which had given us the runaround for most of the day, much to our collective relief. Perhaps the most unexpected encounter of the day was a White-crowned Sparrow with pale, unmarked lores: a bird from the western “Gambel’s” subspecies. Its association with a standard eastern individual provided a great comparative study opportunity, as well as plenty of  jokes about the amusing “dark-lored”/Dark Lord homophone.

In the midst of our focused counting effort, we intentionally made time to savor the little moments along the way. A cooperative male Black-and-white Warbler foraging along the southern edge of the Pool was every bit as delightful as the rarities and lucky finds we crossed paths with throughout the day. Even at its most extreme and competitive, birding is still about enjoying the natural world around us!

We continued to chase after potential checklist additions as daylight dwindled, with mixed success. We secured a handful of high-quality late pulls like Savannah Sparrow, White-eyed Vireo, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but we also missed out on low-hanging fruit like Carolina Wren and Song Sparrow. The final hours of our outing proved to be especially productive for mammals, featuring sightings of Common Raccoon, Eastern Red Bat, and the elusive Central Park Groundhog. 

Sunset found us standing on the shores of the Harlem Meer, searching in vain for a previously reported Green Heron and scanning the skies for last-minute flyovers. By the time we all parted ways and headed home, our in-the-field tally stood at 95. Subsequent confirmations on a few bonus birds, including long shot photos of a distant Merlin at dusk and a recording of a singing Orange-crowned Warbler at dawn, resulted in a final total of 99 species. It was an impressive number, to be sure, but it stung just a bit that we had come so close to hitting 100 and fallen short. This disappointment was amplified by the handful of observations that we’d had to let go of, such as high-flying unidentified swallows and a heard-only Golden-winged Warbler-type song. After much discussion over the course of the week, we made a command decision to give it another go. The following weekend’s concurrence with Global Big Day offered a perfect opportunity to try for the coveted 100 species checklist again.

The Big Day – May 8th

To kick off our official GBD efforts, the four of us convened at Summit Rock well ahead of sunrise on Saturday. The dawn chorus of robins was gradually joined by catbirds, cardinals, and sparrows, and we counted over 90 Chimney Swifts emerging from their nightly roost at first light. A high point of this early listening session was a pair of male Cape May Warblers who stirred from their slumber in the tree branches directly over our heads and started the day with a song. We began our search on a similar route to the previous weekend, and it was quickly apparent that overall activity levels were somewhat reduced. There seemed to be fewer obvious newly-arrived migrants, and a number of species had evidently moved on since Sunday. The Buffleheads, Northern Shovelers, and Ruddy Ducks that had lingered on the Reservoir were nowhere to be seen, and we found only single-digit numbers of Hermit Thrushes where we’d encountered dozens a few days prior. Initial morale took a bit of a hit regarding our chances of surpassing 100, but we weren’t going to give up that easily.

Conditions remained largely overcast throughout the day, with sporadic rain showers and short periods of sunshine mixed in. Though this weather pattern wasn’t especially agreeable for us camera-toting humans, it may have helped us in the long run by encouraging increased activity in our quarry. Many birds tend to vocalize more during breaks in the rain, and precipitation often keeps insects close to vegetative cover, meaning that birds will forage low and near trail edges. Throughout the Ramble, we encountered a decently diverse array of Neotropical migrants, including Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and another briefly-glimpsed Cerulean Warbler.

Despite the slow start, we realized that we were ahead of schedule when we left the Ramble around 10 AM with 70 species already under our belt. This productive pace continued as we worked our way north, picking up continuing “de-rrupting” Evening Grosbeaks in the Pinetum, the last American Coot hanging around the Reservoir, and a number of singing White-crowned Sparrows. Breeding activity was conspicuous throughout the park as well. We found nests with young for American Robin, Common Grackle, Northern Mockingbird, and Northern Cardinal, and territorial disputes were observed between Baltimore Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird, Warbling Vireo, House Sparrow, and a number of other species. In our sleep-deprived states, we excitedly cheered on these battles whenever we encountered them, but none held a candle to the legendary bee fight witnessed on the 2nd. There’s plenty of silliness involved in any big day, and this attempt was no exception. From appallingly bad bird puns to sea shanties about our search for a sapsucker, the camaraderie and laughs were a huge part of what made our HundredQuest so memorable.

Although we failed to locate several birds we’d seen on Sunday, we also managed to connect with a number of species that had given us the slip during our first attempt. Blackpoll Warbler, which had been missed by everyone but Dmitriy, and Fish Crow, which only Ryan and I observed, were enjoyed by all members of the party this time around. The discovery of Song Sparrows along the southern shore of the Lake and a Carolina Wren near the Compost Pile elicited disproportionately exuberant celebration after those earlier dips. We ran to catch a report of Green Heron at Duck Island, only to find that it had flown off just before we arrived. Following up on the direction of its departure, fortune smiled on us when the bird made a short flight between hiding places at the moment we came around the bend. We likely never would have spotted it fishing in the shadows of the shrubberies were it not for that perfectly-timed appearance. Other “redemption birds” that joined the day’s tally included Eastern Kingbird, Canada Warbler, and Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

The hits kept on coming throughout the afternoon. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was a Yellow-breasted Chat, a perennial favorite of mine, which Ryan spotted skulking around the bushes on the Grassy Knoll. Unsurprisingly, it immediately disappeared once he called it out, stirring up a fair amount of stress for those of us who had missed it. Other birders quickly gathered to join the hunt, and once it was refound we were all treated to fleeting but fantastic views of the wonderfully weird charmer. On the subject of unexpected discoveries, we observed no less than 5 different Worm-eating Warblers scattered throughout the park. According to eBird records, this total is apparently a new high count for New York County. One of these individuals was uncharacteristically cooperative, flipping dead leaves right at our feet along the trail around the Pool. Gotta enjoy the little things!

We broke into the 90s in the early afternoon, and we knew we would have to be strategic with our remaining hours of daylight if we wanted to achieve our goal. Roving around the North Woods turned up a few additional species, but our accumulation rate was clearly beginning to slow. Yellow-throated Vireo continued to elude us for a second time, and we also failed to find a reported Fox Sparrow and a smattering of hoped-for additional warblers. When we got word of a male Summer Tanager at the Great Hill, we full-tilt sprinted from the Blockhouse and successfully connected with this uncommon southern overshoot migrant, which was a lifer for Dmitriy. After considering our options, we decided to return to the Ramble to seek out some species we’d missed during the morning.

By the time we arrived at Tupelo Meadow, we were all a bit anxious about whether we’d made the right choice in scrambling after specific missing birds. Is it better to chase known individuals that require some long-distance slogs in between, or to roam about in a potentially productive area and hope for the best? When time is of the essence, it can be difficult to know what plan of attack will be most effective. Just as we were beginning to question the soundness of our strategy, we stumbled upon an unexpected Field Sparrow which was followed seconds later by the Lincoln’s Sparrow we were seeking. That was just the adrenaline rush we needed, suddenly putting us at 99 species. With only one more bird between us and victory, we double-timed it down to the extreme southern end of the park. We didn’t pick up any new additions during the long hike over, but once we reached the Pond I immediately spied our target: a Spotted Sandpiper working the rocks on the shoreline. We’d done it! 100 species in one day! We celebrated our success with cheers and high-fives atop the Gapstow Bridge before moving over to the ice rink to watch the skies for any final additions. Against the odds, we finally secured our Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, flying overhead towards the park border and diving into the street trees. Better late than never!

As we reviewed the checklist and finalized our numbers for the observed species, we realized we’d made a small mistake. We had neglected to account for the Purple Finch that we heard singing at the Point early in the morning. It turns out we’d reached the triple digit milestone earlier than we thought, when we picked up the pair of sparrows in the Ramble! All things considered, however, I have no regrets about our manic rush to track down the sandpiper, especially since it netted us a bonus sapsucker and put us comfortably over our goal. The final tally was a whopping 102 species, a truly impressive total for a single park on a day with no appreciable migratory influx. Global Big Day 2021 was an absolutely insane and exhausting undertaking, but I loved every single second of it. This accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible without the teamwork of my fantastic accomplices, and I’m so thankful that we all got to share in the glory together! What a way to celebrate May migration!

Miscellaneous May Updates

The rest of my weekend in the wake of GBD featured some pleasant, if markedly less intense, additional birding adventures. On Sunday morning, I accompanied Dad to visit the Bald Eagle nest a short distance from my childhood home. I remember a time not too long ago when seeing this species around NYC and Long Island was almost unheard of. To watch them raising offspring in our own family neighborhood is an incredible treat that I never could have imagined as a young birder. I also made a trek out to Westhampton in search of a vagrant Wood Stork which has spent the past week plying the waters of Beaverdam Creek. It took a bit of legwork to track it down, but I picked up a few marsh-dwelling year birds in the process. I greatly savored the views once I did finally connect with my quarry; a new state bird of such high caliber is always a welcome sight. Furthermore, while I was in the process of writing this post I received word of a wayward Clapper Rail lounging on the lawn in Bryant Park. Naturally, I had to extend my commute to drop by and visit this out-of-place migrant. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a bird that looked more obviously out of its element. 

With the recent additions of Cerulean Warbler, Purple Martin, and Clapper Rail, my long-neglected New York County list now stands at 199 birds, just one away from the 200 species milestone. It’s pretty crazy to think that I observed more than half of that total in a single day of migration magic! May is simply fantastic. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the month will bring!