Alabama big day

A White-breasted Nuthatch at Sehoy Quail Plantation was one of our good finds during the 2015 big day.

Alabama may have the longest standing, essentially unchallenged big day of any state in the U.S. On April 24, 1983, Dwight Cooley and Mark Brown tallied a mind-blowing 202 species in Mobile and Baldwin counties. I think that the magnitude of this mark has only been fully appreciated as decade after decade has passed with no big day team coming close to toppling the mark. In 1991, Greg Jackson, Bob Duncan, Bill Bremser, and Phil Tetlow attempted an inland to coastal big day and managed 181 species. That is the closest anyone has come to the unassailable Cooley-Brown big day record. Other big day attempts fall off into the 170s and 160s. On April 26, 2015 Barry Fleming, David Carr, and I decided to climb into the batting cage and take our best cut at the record.

Since I moved to Alabama in 1993, I’ve been doing small-scale birding big days within the state during Christmas bird counts and various spring counts. I had never attempted a statewide big day, but I had been thinking about this particular big day route for a long time. My plan was to start with morning birding at Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge and nearby forest reserves in extreme east Alabama for upland and freshwater birds in the morning and then to drive to Dauphin Island in the extreme southwest corner of the state for coastal and estuarine birds as well as trans-Gulf migrants in the afternoon and evening. The geographic scope of the big day—stretching along about 330 miles of highway—was daunting. But I know the Eufaula/east Alabama area really well, and I knew we would get many species that we could not get near the coast. On the previous weekend I ran a practice big day starting at Dauphin Island and ending in east Alabama (not even making it to Eufaula before dark!) and totally only 143 species. That practice day convinced me that this route had to be run north to south to get the most birds.

I proposed the idea to my friend since boyhood, Dave Carr, who is now a professor at the University of Virginia. Dave was in. Both of us have lived for expeditions and challenges since we were little kids. I then asked Barry Fleming, long-time Alabama birder and fellow Auburn Professor and Eric Soehren who I’ve known since he was a master’s student at Jacksonville State University and who is now a Senior Biologist with Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and a longtime Alabama birder and bander. Barry was in but Eric couldn’t get away in the middle of the night for the full big day. He would join us around 11am and do half of the big day with us. So, Barry, Dave and I agreed to rendezvous at 2am on April 26 at Dave’s motel in Auburn to make a run at the four-decade-old record.

American Robins are tough birds in the southern Alabama in the late spring and summer. We got our one and only American Robin of the day by voice at 2am.

We got off to a very inauspicious start. On my way down College Avenue at 1:45 a.m., I heard a Common Nighthawk at the traditional spot on the Auburn campus. I continued down the street, picked up Barry and Dave, and swung back up the half mile of College Avenue to the nighthawk spot expecting an easy tick. Instead we got silence. We waited. We drove around the area with the windows open. We begged the birding gods. The nighthawk wouldn’t peent, and we ended up missing that bird for the day. While we were dodging intoxicated college students on Auburn’s campus listening for the nighthawk, however, we heard an American Robin, which turned out to be our only robin of the day. He who taketh giveth back.

We then spent the next 2.5 hours in fruitless pursuit of night birds. The inauspiciousness of our start was growing. We went to a stakeout for an Eastern Whip-poor-will, and not only missed the whip, but all other night birds. We rolled into Eufaula at 430 am, feeling a bit depressed with only a Barred Owl to show for our hours of playing hoots and trills. But as the predawn glow rose over Eufaula, the night birds started to sing. We got several Chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern Screech-owl, Great Horned Owl, and Virginia Rail in quick succession. King Rails, which are common breeders on the refuge, eluded us, and we missed that species for the day; nevertheless, we were feeling better about our night birds. The day rose to fantastic clear calm weather and a fine parade of birds. While we were listening to and seeing Least Bittern, an incredible 4 American Bitterns flew past us. This was no flock of 4—it was four birds over a 30 minutes period, each seemingly a totally independent event. I’ve been birding Eufaula for 22 years, and these are the first American Bitterns that I’ve ever seen in flight except the few that I’ve flushed. Ibis were everywhere—over 50 White Ibis and 8 Glossy Ibis. White Ibis are rare at Eufaula but Glossy Ibis are simply unknown. We would get both species again, ten hours later, at Blakeley Island, making two of the harder species on the list oddly trivial on this day. We had singing Sedge Wren and White-crowned Sparrow, both unexpected, and we found a Hairy Woodpecker, a really tough species for this route. We got the great majority of target species for Eufaula and a nice list of unexpected birds.

We expected Glossy Ibis to be a tough bird and hadn't counted on it being one of our big day birds. But we found them easily both inland at Eufuala NWR and on the coast.

We followed up Eufaula with a fantastic stop at a private quail plantation near Hurtsboro. This tract is a relocation site for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCW) and we went to an active nest tree, which we located using our superior birding and woodsman skills (and by looking for the tree with foil wrapped around its base). As we pulled in, I heard an RCW about 200 feet from the nest tree. Barry and Dave didn’t hear it, but no big deal. They would just watch it fly to the nest tree. Unfortunately, it turned out that the bird I heard was moving away from the cavity not toward it, and the wait for the birds to return drug out past 30 minutes. This might be a good place to mention that, on a big day, I am the taskmaster, the keeper of the time. I had carefully worked out an agenda for this day and it allotted a specific time for each stop. Discipline was essential. We had half a state to cover and every stop was critical. Getting 30 minutes off schedule would mean skipping the migrant trap, salt marsh or beach at the end of the day and all of those options were unacceptable. So, I spent the day exclaiming, “time to go” and herding the team into the car.

This 30-minute wait for one bird had me staring at my watch and calculating lost birds at the end of the route. It wasn’t wasted time though. As we waited for the RCW we got our only Wild Turkey, Sharp-shinned Hawk, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Northern Flicker of the day. Finally, I told Barry and Dave “Woodpecker or no woodpecker, we’re leaving in 2 minutes”. Ninety seconds after I drew my timeline in the sand, two RCWs flew in and we were off again.

Tuskegee National Forest is a treasure trove of breeding forest birds, but we had done so well with warblers and other woodland birds, that by the time we got to Tuskegee we had only three primary targets left: Swainson’s Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, and Hooded Merganser. We dipped on the merganser but easily got the other two. Our quick trip to Tuskegee allowed us to make up 20 minutes, and we were off again.

The next stop was to pick up our half-day participant, Eric. Our route took us right past Eric’s house in Shorter, so with the efficiency of an Indy pit crew, we picked up Eric and sped south.

The long drive from Shorter to Mobile was boring and mostly birdless. We did manage to see a few Broad-winged Hawks but that was it for big-day listers. We got to Blakeley Island with about 130 species (we didn’t have an exact tally) and a lot of easy birds yet to pluck. This is not a banner year for Blakeley Island. The best shorebird ponds have too much water and shorebirds are generally scarce. But we did get some key species—Long-billed Dowitcher, Western Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, both yellowlegs, and Yellow-crowned Night Heron. While we were watching the night heron, a Merlin flew in and landed in the shallow water. In our big day frenzy, however, we were disappointed. We had already seen a Merlin in the morning and found ourselves mumbling—“why couldn’t you have been a kestrel or a peregrine?”. Big days are not about spectacular wildlife events; they are about ticks on a checklist. And one tick we missed at Blakeley Island was Black-bellied Whistling Duck—a species that had been seen in recent years by everyone who visited the area (including by me, twice, the weekend before) and that seemed unmissable. Big days teach you that virtually no bird is unmissable.

After a quick, dangerous, and highly productive 2 min stop on the bridge to Dauphin Island looking at the flats at the end of Little Dauphin Island, at 4pm we pulled into the parking lot of the primary migrant trap in the state—the Shell Mounds. This is a tiny half-acre of protected woodland that draws any migrant woodland birds that put down on the island. Birds tend to “fall out” on Dauphin Island only when faced with north winds or storms, so on many days, Dauphin Island and the Shell Mounds hold few birds. You can usually judge whether it is a good migrant day or not from the postures and faces of the folks standing in the parking area when you pull in. Smiles and lots of binoculars pointed up is a good sign. Scowls and binoculars hanging unused is not. What I saw on the faces of the birders leaving the Shell Mounds did not give me reason for optimism. “Forty-five minutes and we’re out” I called as we stepped onto the trail of oyster shells. And then the dam broke. In succession we all started to call out birds “black-throated green, chestnut-sided, what is that…bay-breasted! There’s an oriole—Baltimore oriole. Scarlet Tanager…oh lots of them.” The birds were coming almost too fast to get everyone on each new species. We got warbler after warbler and then the thrushes started. “Gray-cheeked” Eric called out and then “Veery..Swainson’s…and that’s a Wood Thrush.” We stayed tight together and we each saw each species except Barry had missed black-and-white in the first frenzy of new species. We looped around to relocate the black-and-white and easily found it. While we were looking at the warbler, I started focusing on the vireo singing over our heads and smiled. It was a very atypical Red-eyed Vireo song, giving a distinctive two-note repeat at the end. I knew that song well from two recent trips to the Florida Keys-- Black-whiskered Vireo. I asked everyone to listen. No one else knew Black-whiskered Vireo song but they all agreed it was a weird vereo song. So I got out my iPhone and quietly (so as not to disturb either the bird or other birders) I played the Black-whiskered Vireo song. There was no doubt about the ID. We tried for a few minutes to see it, but it was hopeless. A sound ID is as good as a visual ID, and it was time to move. A check of Fort Gaines and the airport got us nothing new but a calling Clapper Rail and then we pulled into our last stop—the public beach parking lot and a long walk on Pelican Island.

The beach was emptying fast this Sunday evening with everyone filing past us on his or her way out. While Blakeley Island has declined in shorebird habitat with high water this spring, Pelican Island remains fantastic. The huge pool closest to the parking lot is great habitat and it is big enough that birds can move away from people without leaving the pool. We instantly got the unmissable species like Dunlin and Sanderling and then as we walked the beach, goodies started to present themselves—Reddish Egret, Snowy Plover, Piping Plover, Red Knot (in full breeding plumage), Northern Gannet, Sandwich Tern. About a mile into the walk, Eric spotted a Baird’s Sandpiper, a great find in the spring. Our list was now bulging and the possibility of new birds was fading with the daylight. One bird that we had missed on this day and that I had missed on the entire previous weekend on Dauphin Island was American Oystercatcher. Given the lateness of the hour, it seemed that we had missed it again. But, as we came around a sand dune near the very end of the island a pair of oystercatchers greeted us.

Now we had only the tip of the island to check out, and we were elated to see a flock of 43 American Avocets in full breeding plumage sleeping on the beach. There were lots of terns on the tip and out on a couple of sand spits in the Gulf there was a prodigious number of Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and Laughing Gulls. I don’t know if anyone in our group tried to count them, but it was certainly many hundreds of birds. With our last strength we started to go through the terns right in front of us, and we quickly picked out several Common Terns for out last birds of the day.

The sun had set behind a band of gray clouds and as we limped back to the car we started to discuss our total. We had last tried to tally before we the wave of migrants washed over us at the Shell Mounds, and we had been at about 150 at that time. We had ticked a lot of species since then and no one knew for sure where we were. We each guessed our total. Barry and I thought low 180s; Dave and Eric thought high 170s. The answer we knew, lay with a glass of beer at Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Restaurant when we could fill in the checklist and tally up.

The total put a smile on our faces and gave us a reason for a toast—182 species that Barry, Dave, and I had all detected. In addition, I had seen a Song Sparrow at Eufaula that I couldn’t get Barry and Dave on and I had heard Common Nighthawk before I had picked Barry and Dave up and the big day started. The nighthawk could not be part of the big day totals since it was detected before we started our big day, but on reading the big day rules, I realized that the Song Sparrow could count. It had been seen when we were birding together and I had made a concerted effort to show it to Barry and Dave. So the big day ended at 183 species.

Our fun and productive big day really underscores just how daunting the Cooley/Brown big day record is. I think that we could run our Eufaula to Dauphin Island route for the next 20 years and never surpass the Cooley/Brown record. We had perfect weather, good birds in the north with few misses, a warbler and thrush fallout at the Shell Mounds and great shorebirds on Pelican Island. We certainly missed some “easy” birds like King Rail, Belted Kingfisher, Anhinga, and Black-bellied Whistling Duck, but we also got many unexpected birds like Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Green-winged Teal, and White-breasted Nuthatch. I don’t seen 20 more species being added to this route. The answer is probably a Baldwin Co/Mobile Co route with more birding and less driving. I’m already thinking about the possibilities. My next personal goal is 190. From 190, 203 may not look so impossible. For now, hats off to Dwight and Mark.