October Big Day 2019

Who doesn’t love a Big Day? Any excuse to get out and count birds in the name of science is a worthwhile cause in my book. eBird has been orchestrating Global Big Day events each May since 2015, an international effort to record as many of the world’s species as possible within a 24 hour period. Last fall, the Cornell-based team launched an October Big Day initiative as an autumnal counterpart for the new spring tradition. With a clear schedule and a near perfect forecast on the horizon for the 19th, I was eager to contribute my own observations to the worldwide total this year. Stephane shared my aspirations, and he reached out to see if I wanted to coordinate our efforts to maximize coverage in Nassau County. We settled on a tentative plan which had him surveying woodland and grassland habitat on the North Shore while I searched the barrier beaches and coastal locations on the South Shore, meeting up in the evening hours for owling and celebratory brews. When I settled in for the night on October 18th, the northwest winds were blowing and the radar was lighting up with migratory activity. There were sure to be birds awaiting in the morning!

Daybreak at the Beach

I left the house under cover of darkness, arriving at the Jones Beach boat basin just before 6:30 AM. The first signs of activity came from the skies above me: the nocturnal flight calls of Hermit Thrushes, sparrows, and warblers passing overhead. As the glow of dawn began to color the landscape, I busied myself tracking down and counting up birds. The local oystercatcher flock began to assemble on the sandbar, joined by an attendant group of Marbled Godwits that been following them around for the past few weeks. A rattling call drew my attention to the black-and-white form of a Red-headed Woodpecker flitting into the dense branches of a pine tree. It quickly became apparent that the hoped-for morning flight of migrants was in full swing, with hundreds of birds winging their way westward down the shoreline. It was shaping up to be quite the Big Day indeed.

I began scouting my usual circuit, which takes me through a range of micro-habitats and explores the best areas pretty thoroughly. The weedy fenceline behind the hedgerow produced a decent variety of sparrows, and I heard a Dickcissel near the road that leads down to the fishing parking lot. American Redstart and a Red-eyed Vireo both put in appearances just late enough in the season that they tripped eBird’s rarity filter. Cormorants, robins, kinglets, and flickers were on the move in good numbers, and I saw my first Brant flocks of the season as well. The stars of the show in terms of sheer spectacle were the Yellow-rumped Warblers. Keeping a careful count of the birds I observed over the course of the day, I racked up over 1,000 individuals, certainly only a fraction of the total migrants on the move along the coast. 

There were plenty of other birders out and about on this fine fall day, and I crossed paths with a number of familiar faces. I was finally able to connect with my first Clay-colored Sparrow of the year along the park entrance road thanks to a timely tip from Tom and Gail. On my way back towards the parking lot, I mentally outlined a route for additional stops where I could search for as-yet-unseen targets. A westbound bird caught my eye as it flew by to the north of my position, a slim, gray passerine with reddish-orange plumage on its lower belly. Wait a second, is that a Say’s Phoebe!? I quickly raised my binoculars as the bird stayed its course, trying to note as many field marks as possible before it departed. Long, dark tail, half-tucked wings between flaps, a faint hint of pale wingbars…whoa! The bird disappeared from sight behind the bath house, and I jogged after it in the hopes that it would perch up somewhere. Unfortunately, it was nowhere to be found when I arrived. Subsequent search efforts in promising habitat revealed several of its Eastern cousins, but no further sign of the unexpected vagrant. This was my first sighting of this western species in New York after several missed opportunities in the past, and while I wish it had stuck around for others to enjoy it was still a fine prize for my October Big Day efforts!

Coastal Cleanup

A few more birds of note found their way onto my Jones Beach checklist while I lingered to look in vain for the Say’s Phoebe. Shrill begging cries alerted me to the continuing presence of a young Caspian Tern, begging its parent for food and attention as they loafed about on the sandbar. Surf and Black Scoters floated calmly across the waters of the bay, both important ticks for my South Shore sector. Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Winter Wren also joined the growing ranks of my Big Day total, and a pair of Eastern Meadowlarks circled over the parking lot lawn as I prepared to leave. When I finally hopped back into my car, a good bit later than I’d originally planned, my tally for the morning stood at 76 species.

I decided that a quick drive down the Ocean Parkway followed by a visit to the JFK Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary would give me the best chance to pick up some of the local specialties I was still missing. The marshes at the refuge proved quite productive, adding both night-herons, both egrets, and Great Blue Heron to my list. The usual flock of Green-winged Teal were present on the hidden pool, and I picked up a Northern Harrier coursing over the brush. Belted Kingfisher was another welcome find, and I was surprised to see some Northern Pintails flying overhead with the flocks of American Black Ducks. A friendly little Pine Warbler foraging on the edge of the lot bid me farewell as I departed.

Driving back west past the Jones Beach tower, I witnessed an aerial dogfight between two Peregrine Falcons. A pair of Common Ravens, recently established locals who apparently bred nearby this year, were working the edge of the roadside in all their burly, shiny glory. I kept my eyes peeled while motoring along the parkways, scoring the ever-reliable Mute Swan and Red-tailed Hawk for the inventory. Despite the truncated timetable, I did pretty well with the secondary targets I specifically sought out. After a brief lunch break, I set my sights on the North Shore and drove off to meet Stephane.

Evening in the Woods

The remaining Big Daylight was dwindling quickly when I met up with Stephane in the late afternoon. He explained that he had already finished his survey circuit, which turned up a number of great birds that I had missed. His list included Bald Eagle, Wood Duck, Turkey Vulture, Marsh Wren, and American Kestrel, as well as the more common forest species that I failed to find along the southern coast. We briefly strolled through some grassy plots on the edge of the woods, where I added Red-bellied and Hairy Woodpeckers to my personal count. Sizable sparrow flocks flushed ahead of us as we walked along, while jays and hordes of grackles passed overhead.

As the shadows grew longer, we headed into the forest to listen for owls. We struggled to find the desired nightbirds at first, but we did hear a family group of Southern Flying Squirrels, the chattering cries of a Raccoon, and a yowling Red Fox that approached us quite closely but remained hidden in the gloom. A little mammal action is always a welcome addition to any birding trip! When our primary site failed to deliver, we made a quick jaunt to a secondary location where I tried my hand at some whistled impressions. The silent silhouette of an Eastern Screech-Owl swooped out of the darkness to perch right above our heads for a few moments before it returned to the trees and began its own tremolo calls. As we quietly celebrated this encounter, a male Great Horned Owl finally began hooting further back in the woodlot. Excellent!

Stephane and I retired to a nearby Manhasset pub where we raised a few pints to the Big Day’s victories. Between the two of us, we’d racked up over 100 species, which was the tentative goal for our combined tally. We talked at length of birding’s full scope, from eBird to Christmas Bird Counts to world listing to taxonomy. The conversation meandered between future goals and recent successes, and we each swapped our share of humorous stories from outings gone by. It certainly would’ve been a fittingly delightful end to a wonderful day in the field, but I had one more site to visit before heading home. Since I was on the North Shore anyway, I dropped by a traditionally fruitful owling location in the hopes of securing one final prize to close out the list. Working my usual transect line, I detected a trio of Northern Saw-whet Owls and a bonus Great Horned! I even got to see another Flying Squirrel sailing between the trees. THAT’s how you finish a Big Day!

Final Results

All told, my personal total for the October Big Day finished at 93 species and over 4,770 individuals, with the collaborative list reaching 104. Preliminary results for the whole county’s worth of birders are over 130, and the international totals can be observed at eBird’s stats page. As of this writing, the worldwide number is solidly above the goal of besting last year’s 6,331 species, thanks to the combined efforts of more than 18,000 participants. It’s safe to say that my OBD experience was a wild success, not least of all thanks to the self-found state bird! I look forward to seeing the final write-up for this fantastic fall stock take, and I eagerly await the next opportunity to take part in a Big Day count. CBC season is right around the corner!