A Big Day in Florida

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

 

The “bigness” of a Big Day is relative.  Ours was a modest affair, an inaugural venture into this world of semi-competitive birding.  Its scope and results cannot hold a candle to those with greater expertise and stamina.  The single day state record in Florida is 179 birds and was never threatened by us, but for Mel, Andy and I, it was a very satisfying day.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

For the non-birders out there a Big Day is merely a day where you try to see or hear as many different bird species as possible. Sometimes you may compete against other birders, as with the yearly World Series of Birding in New Jersey, but in our case we were the solo team–we couldn’t lose.

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus

It took me a couple years to convince Mel and Andy that this would be fun; it’s so different from the usual sedate pace.  This is hebephrenic birding, sort of like the frenzied feeding forays of the Reddish Egret or Kinglet, two birds, by the way, that we did not see.

Pied-billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps

One can have a Big anything, a Big Day, Big Month, or Big Year, sometimes confining your search to a specific geographic region.  You can even do a Big Sit, where you stay within a yard or small confined space and wait for the birds to come to you.  I aim to try that some day on my pool deck with friends, complete with barbecue, chaise lounges, sun umbrellas, pina coladas, and periodic cooling dips in the pool.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Mel picked us up at dawn and by the time we finished loading our gear and food into his SUV we had already recorded singing Cardinals, Blue Jays, and a Mourning Dove–a great start.  I had previously compiled a list of 153 reasonable target birds and created an itinerary for our route throughout southwest Florida.  By sundown we had driven over 150 miles and walked an additional eight.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

The first stop was right in our neighborhood, the Pelican Bay berm.  There we recorded almost all the target waders including Roseate Spoonbill, and had an additional surprise. Catherine, our tram driver slammed on the brakes and gave us time for photos of a Louisiana Waterthrush just off the path.  She was as excited as we were in finding this somewhat unusual bird who had not even made my target list.

Louisiana Waterthrush, Seiurus motacilla        photo by A. Sternick

Nearby Clam Pass on the Gulf of Mexico beach was up next.  We found the huge flock of Black Skimmers and Royal Terns that had been present all winter, with fewer gulls, smaller terns, Sanderlings, and Willets mixed in.  You get no extra credit for large flocks; all birds, rare or common, just got one tick on the growing list.

Black Skimmers, Rynchops niger, and mixed flock at Clam Pass

We picked up a few birds without even stopping the SUV.  Cattle Egrets and Grackles were seen at 30 miles per hour along the streets of Naples, and Mel spotted an American White Pelican in the Great Cypress Swamp at 60 mph.  We watched and counted copulating House Sparrows on a traffic signal on Marco Island, waiting for it to turn green.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

If you get a chance to bird this area check out Eagle Lake Community Park.  You can usually see 40+ birds there, but on our Big Day we had already seen most of them.  We did add the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Cormorant, Coot, Common Gallinule, and Blue-winged Teal and were treated to a flyover of a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Dendrocygna autumnalis

Marco Island was on our route to pick up the Burrowing Owls, digging in the sandy, vacant lots.  I was hoping for a quick drive-by, but Andy was captivated by the cute, photogenic birds standing there in perfect light–too good a picture to pass up.  We obliged.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia               photo by A. Sternick

Our main goal on Marco however was the famous Tiger Tail Beach where we hoped to mop up the shorebirds not previously seen at Clam Pass.  We did add a Black-necked Stilt, Western Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover, but were hoping for much more.  A consolation prize was an American Kestrel on a wire, posing for us as we left the island.  But just keep moving on; time waits for no man or birder.

Semipalmated Plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

The next stop was Ten Thousand Islands NWR.  It has a tall tower with commanding views of the expansive swamp–a great place to set up a scope.  Other birders on the platform were enthusiastic supporters of our Big Day and egged us on, pointing  out a Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in the distance.  Another birder had just seen and American Bittern down the trail, but it was gone by the time we got there, replaced by several huge gators.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

Sandwiches on the run, supplied by Andy, were devoured as we headed east into the Great Cypress Swamp.  By now Mel and Andy were admittedly having fun, and fully bought into the race for more birds.  I had initially planned on taking a long dirt road north through the swamp, but Mel rightly suggested that it would slow us down too much.  We opted instead for paved highway 29 as the fastest route to one of our favorite spots–Oil Well Road.  This is where we grabbed the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, and Western Kingbird.

Painted Bunting, Passerina ciris

I made another mistake in forgetting that the Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Center closed at 5 PM.  That was where we planned on adding most of our songbirds.  We arrived there just before 4 and hightailed it around the boardwalk.  A non birder showed us a picture of a Barred Owl she took right along the path.  We must have zoomed right by it, but didn’t have the time or energy to go back.  Still, we did tick off the Painted and Indigo Buntings, Ground Dove, Ovenbird, and another 10 songbirds there before finishing the loop right at 5 PM.

Ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla

After adding a Merlin on the access road to the Bird Rookery Swamp we headed home, birded out but satisfied with our tally of 85 birds.  But there were still numerous common birds we had not seen and Mel just wouldn’t quit as long as we had daylight.  He remembered seeing some Killdeer just off the road earlier in the week and sure enough, they were still there when we cruised by; #86.  This seemed to reenergize us for more birds.  We hoped for an Eastern Bluebird or Flicker at North Collier Park at dusk, but were rewarded with only a Brown Thrasher building a nest near the parking lot, our last bird, #87.

Brown Thrasher, Toxostoma rufum

Tired bones, sweaty bodies, chaffing underwear, and contented smiles all around ended our day.  You can’t pull this off alone.   You need good friends with a sense of humor and enthusiasm for the birds and process.  We had them all, and immediately began planning for another Big Day in 2020 when we’ll strive for 88, at least.