When competing in a birding competition a team of birders will undoubtedly experience blissful highs whenever a new bird, especially a good new bird, is sighted. With those highs, however, come the lows whenever an expected bird is missed, especially when it is a good bird. Our Superbowl of Birding team, the Bloggerhead Kingbirds, were certainly not immune to the ups and downs of competitive birding which sometimes occur within minutes of each other. But it was how we handled the ups and downs that made us five a superlative team that, had a couple of breaks gone our way, could have won the competition (we finished sixth in points and fourth in species out of twenty-one teams).
Of course the first highlight of our long weekend of birding was the Northern Hawk Owl in New Hampshire that we made a beeline for once we all arrived at the hotel. The over-an-hour long drive there was spent getting to know each other, and, before you get to see a picture of my second Northern Hawk Owl in just under a month you get to learn a bit about each of my teammates. Patrick, the only member of the team that I had met prior to this past weekend, is, of course, a heck of a birder, even if he is from New Jersey. But I bet you didn’t know that he shares with me a predilection for peppermint patties. Quintus, another Jerseyite, in addition to constantly being mistaken for an Australian, has a tendency to lose track of his possessions on occasion (ask him where his wallet turned up). Christopher, the old man of our birding crew, not only knows the area the Superbowl of Birding is held in like the back of his hand, but quite possibly holds the record for the shortest time needed to drive across said area. If you ever get into a car with Christopher make sure to put on your seat belt (crash helmets are optional). Nate, the youngster of our birding crew, likes looking at dead birds almost as much as he likes looking at live ones and actually considered trying to get a dead gull we found into his luggage for the flight back to North Carolina (cooler heads prevailed). He also dealt with the cold New England winter with aplomb, not complaining more than the rest of us despite his delicate southern sensibilities. But enough about us, on to the birds!
The owl was a lifer for both Quintus and Nathan and they really couldn’t have asked for better looks (well, maybe if the sun hadn’t hidden behind the clouds). It put on quite a show, swooping low several times, and just generally being a hawk owl. It was a great way to start a weekend’s birding and really put us on a birding high and psyched us up for Saturday’s competition.
Despite the exceptional sighting on Friday evening when the alarm woke us up on Saturday at 3:50 AM we were not terribly happy. Coffee cheered us up a bit but what cheered us up even more were American Coots and Hooded Mergansers in a little opening in a frozen lake that we spotted associating with some common dabbling ducks by the light of a very strong flashlight at 5 AM, the official opening of the tournament. We were cheered even more when Nate managed to whistle up an Eastern Screech Owl for our first countable owl of the weekend and were even happier when another stop netted us a hooting Great Horned Owl. Our high quickly gave way to a low when we realized as the sky lightened that no Barred Owl was going to respond to anyone’s hooting attempts (and no matter what the other guys say my hooting was awesome).
A Brown Creeper put us back in a good mood, as did a Red-bellied Woodpecker and lots of other common feeder birds but when Christopher’s staked out Pileated Woodpecker failed to show we were right back in downersville again. More stops led to more good birds, and I think all of us not from the area were amazed by the looks we got at Common Eiders, especially the gorgeous drakes (though the hens have a certain muted charm of their own).
Adding both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls helped assuage the pain of not finding a Black-headed Gull, but nothing could really make the pain of not seeing an Ivory Gull go away. The bird was last seen on the Thursday before the competition and were we ever sad about not seeing it. Even adding Purple Sandpipers, Wild Turkeys, and a host of other birds didn’t bring us back up into a good mood. Then our low got even lower when Patrick and Nathan managed to find a Black Guillemot that would not appear for anyone else, a double bummer for me because it was really the only lifer I expected for the weekend and we couldn’t count a bird that the majority of the team didn’t see.
But our mood rebounded rapidly when Nate got a Dovekie that the requisite majority of us managed to get in scope view! We ended up being the only team with one for the entire day, and it was destined to be our only five point bird (actually, we got eight points because we were the first to find it). Add to the Dovekie the flock of Harlequin Ducks that we saw shortly thereafter, and (thank goodness!) a Black Guillemot that we all saw well, to say nothing of a Double-crested Cormorant and an Eastern Towhee at another stop a short time later, and we were cruising again!
And we were right back down again when we could not get the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a five point bird that had been regular at a local feeder, to make an appearance for us. When another five-point feeder bird that we were hoping for, a Lincoln’s Sparrow that a friend of Christopher’s had tipped him off to the day before, turned out to be a confusingly-plumaged Song Sparrow we were even more bummed. To make matters worse, at two different times we managed to spot Eastern Bluebirds but we never got a majority of the team on them, a horrendous three-point miss.
We built back up towards a high again with simple birds that we had inexplicably missed earlier in the day, birds like Red-tailed Hawk and House Finch. And while a stop at a set of feeders where a Yellow-headed Blackbird had been seen earlier in the week and a Dickcissel had been seen by other teams didn’t net us either out-of-place rarity we did add Common Redpolls to the day list, another lifer for Nate and Quintus.
Then, when we got a flock of Lapland Longspurs and a flock of White-winged Crossbills back-to-back that both gave great looks, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler too we were soaring again! Alas, that was almost the end of our highlights. We tried very very hard to add Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, and Snowy Owl but failed, and failed miserably. Our consolation prizes were a fly-by Northern Pintail and Black Scoters, both new ducks for the day, and the scoters allowed us to complete the scoter sweep.
Exhausted, beaten, and tired we arrived at the dinner and were cheered a bit by having three of our team win door prizes. Though we did not win we did learn more strategy for next year’s competition and had a great time with great company and really freaking great birds! That, and the knowledge that we had all day Sunday to try to pick up some of the birds we missed and take our time watching and photographing some of the birds we had to rush prevented us from all quitting birding on the spot.
Many thanks for Christopher for driving and doing all the logistical work for our stellar crew and to the rest of the team for making this past weekend one of the best birding weekends I’ve ever had…even if we didn’t get an Ivory Gull.