I don’t know what is wrong with me. After a wonderful day last Saturday doing a Big Day in Queens I decided to do another Big Day upstate this past Saturday with Will from The Nightjar. The last two years when Will and I have done the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club’s Century Run we ended up with 123 species total each year. So our goal was pretty easy to figure out: get more than 123 species. We had a full day’s itinerary planned out with several options for the end of the day depending on how the first three-fourths of the day went.
We woke up at 1:30 AM after having fallen asleep at 11:30 PM. We were out of the house by just before 2 AM and playing owl tapes hoping to get a response pretty quickly after that. No matter where we went we could not get an owl, any owl, to respond. Spots that we always convinced an owl to respond were absolutely quiet. Our first bird wasn’t checked off the list until 4:15 AM, and that was a psychotic Song Sparrow singing in the dark. At that point we had seen four species of mammals (Red Fox, White-tailed Deer, and two species of small rodent, one that hopped across the road in front of the car and one that scurried). We would not get an owl at all for the day but we wouldn’t miss much else.
We were at Black Creek Marsh in western Albany County as the sun came up and we quickly started hearing and seeing birds left, right, and center. We did not hear any bitterns but Sora, Common Moorhen, and Virginia Rail all obliged us by calling from the thick marsh grass. We also ran into a couple of other teams of Century Run participants, including the team we beat by one bird two years ago (the same team that beat us by two birds last year). They were pleased to report that they had managed to hear a Barred Owl and we weren’t pleased to hear it (there is no prize for getting the most birds and the Century Run isn’t even a contest but, hey, who doesn’t want to get the most birds in one day?). We left Black Creek Marsh with just over sixty birds for the day but nothing terribly surprising except for the Peregrine Falcon that had whipped over the marsh at high speed.
Rather than head straight up into the hills like we normally do Will and I decided to take some back roads over to a small county preserve and try to find the Hooded Warbler that hung out there last year and had already been reported this year. En route we tracked down some Bobolinks, a couple of common wood-warblers, and some Turkey Vultures. The Hooded Warbler was right where it was supposed to be, singing its heart out, and we picked up the added bonus of an Indigo Bunting, a bird that we had inexplicably missed last year.
male Common Yellowthroat
Then we took to the hills where the spotting scope I borrowed from Mike (again) came in very handy in finding us a breeding-plumaged Common Loon on Lake Myosotis. We added wood-warblers one by one as we hit their known breeding spots. Blackburnian Warbler? Check. Black-throated Blue Warbler? Check. Canada Warbler? Check. While we were waiting for the Canada Warbler to show we were also pleased to see a Ruffed Grouse cross the road ahead of us. White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos cooperated by singing from their usual haunts and we came out of the hills pretty much right where we wanted to be, except neither of us could remember how to get to the cliff overlook where we found Common Ravens each of the last two years. While we drove around aimlessly trying to find it we managed to hear an Eastern Meadowlark singing from a big field and I made Will nail the breaks when I spotted Bank Swallows flying over a creek. Those Bank Swallows were quite well-placed, as when we stopped to look at them a hen Wild Turkey flushed from a field, the only turkey not in cold-cut form that we would see all day. We were over one hundred species by just after noon and had lots of easy birds that we knew we could find left to see!
Our next stops weren’t stops at all but slow drive-bys of the Alcove and Basic Creek Reservoirs. We got extremely lucky at Basic Creek by spotting not only individual lingering Greater Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks, but a pair of Mute Swans, our second Common Loon, and a couple Bald Eagles as well. Not only that but on our way there we found two Common Ravens feeding on a road-killed deer carcass!
Common Raven on a deer carcass
Stanton Pond, always a good spot for lingering puddle ducks and some shorebirds, paid off handsomely with both Gadwall and American Wigeon, as well as Least Sandpiper and our only Green Heron of the day. On to a back road where Will knew Eastern Towhees always hung out and, sure enough, we heard one singing almost immediately. A bit further up the road we stopped again, hoping that the Eastern Wood-Pewee Will always hears there would sing but we had no luck, and Eastern Wood-Pewee, a late migrant, would remain unchecked for the day (though I heard one the next day at my parents’ house).
A quick stop at the Coxsackie Reservoir added a single lonely Ruddy Duck and then at the Coxsackie Grasslands we got very lucky when a Fish Crow flew over calling. We also found our first Solitary Sandpiper and Savannah Sparrows of the day as well.
A stop for lunch on the side of the road next to some thick woods where we hoped to find a Pileated Woodpecker was tasty, but new-bird-less. We did take stock of our list and planned out the rest of the day, deciding to stick with our usual late afternoon/early evening route with the exception of skipping the Dunne Memorial Bridge as we didn’t need to try to track down the Peregrine Falcons there.
Heading north to Albany we saw nothing new until we headed over the Hudson River to Rensselaer where we got our first gull of the day, a Ring-billed Gull. We quickly followed that up with a singing House Finch (how it took us until 3 PM to get a House Finch I have no idea). At Papscanee Island the fields were dry and no shorebirds were lingering so we headed into the woods and heard tons of Veery, Wood Thrush, Yellow Warblers, and American Redstarts, all of which we already had. The Carolina Wren that we still needed, and that we had managed to miss the last two years, was silent.
I had come prepared though, and played a tape of the wren’s song. No response. I played it again and again there was no response. Frustrated, we continued down the trail and not ten seconds later heard the “teakettle teakettle teakettle” we had been waiting to hear!
After that a quick stop at the Cohoes Flats cleaned up the common gulls and added a couple of Lesser Yellowlegs to our rapidly growing list. Heading over to Vischer Ferry I counted up our total and realized that we had already tied our record of 123 species and everything new we found would only add to our personal record!
Walking in the main path at Vischer Ferry we started talking about the birds we still needed and Will said “A White-crowned Sparrow would be nice right about now.”
I agreed and replied, “I had one right here last spring.”
No sooner had the words popped out of my mouth than a White-crowned Sparrow popped up onto a branch directly in front of us. Number 124, our new record! The Pileated Woodpecker Will spotted next was icing on the cake. Quite a bit more walking around Vischer Ferry led to lots more birds but all species we had already spotted. Back in the car Will asked me to recount our list to make sure that I hadn’t accidentally over-counted. I did, and was amazed to come up with 127. So I counted again and came up with 127 again! Turns out that it was actually either a Herring Gull or a Great Black-backed Gull that had put us over the top and we hadn’t even noticed.
We drove back to the Cohoes Flats in the hopes of ending the day the same way we had the last two years, with Common Nighthawks. We got down to the river’s edge and immediately heard and saw a flock of four Cedar Waxwings, bird species number 128! Then Will picked up first one, then two Bonaparte’s Gulls flying low over the water catching bugs. We waited and waited for Common Nighthawks to appear but they wouldn’t come out and my folks were awaiting me at a gas station to give me a ride back to Saugerties so we had to call it a night.
When I got to my parents’ house I slept like the dead!