Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The WSB Scouting Chronicles, Day One

Someone recently lamented birding competitions like the World Series of Birding can be so impersonal: you hear about "the team," then you hear a final number, and if you search, a species list. What you don't hear are the details of the human experience, how those species were added, and how others were missed. Those stories are arguably the most interesting part of a Big Day. Though I can't offer all the details on what happened on the Big Day I can highlight some tales from the scouting trail.

06 May 2009, Milford, PA
I pulled into Milford right at 6:00 PM. After fitting a full work week into two-and-a-half days I could now shift my focus to helping the Sapsuckers scout the northern New Jersey counties for the Big Day competition, which kicked off in a mere 54 hours.

First problem: where was everyone?

The others arrived in Jersey between the Sunday and Tuesday before the Big Day. Priorities change minute by minute so the plan was for me to call the other northern scouts when I left Ithaca to find out the latest. As I headed south on I-81 former Sapsucker captain Ken Rosenberg (Director of Conservation Science), debuting in an advisory role, relayed the birds he was listening to in the Delaware Water Gap as we talked.

"When you arrive - Cerulean - at the motel, why don't you - Worm-eating - give a call - Blackburnian - and we'll figure - another Cerulean - out where to send you." Giddiness kicked in, I pressed the accelerator a bit harder. For someone who birds sporadically and briefly, immersing myself into solid birding for two days of spring migration was going to be heaven.

When I arrived at the Milford Motel the clerk had no idea who I was, and more importantly had no reservation for me. I started to wonder if I should be in Milford, NJ instead of Milford, PA, though the NJ one is a bit far south for where I'd be scouting. Eventually it all worked out, I was in the right place, now I just needed for someone to get back into cell phone range. Rather than wait in a lonely motel room I crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey to re-visit my old stomping grounds. I'd scouted Sussex county extensively between 2000 - 2004, and I was anxious to see what changed.

Not much, it turned out. Really, everything looked familiar. The soundscape was subdued, the evening chorus quiet compared to what the morning would bring. This evening held a Hermit Thrush's song here, a Blue-headed Vireo's there, but mostly quiet. I finally got word to meet the crew at the Sussex Queen Diner at 8:00 PM for the daily debriefing and to receive scouting assignments. Almost an afterthought, we could grab a bite, too.

Because of the way roads are laid out in this area it's a slow, winding meandering to get anywhere in Sussex county. I stopped at a small marsh in High Point State Park to listen for anything interesting. I verified a Yellow Warbler singing its secondary song, one that mimics a Chestnut-sided Warbler, while cars blew past the turn off. When one turned in I guessed it would be another WSB-affiliated birder. Birders from all teams are crawling all over the northern counties, concentrating on a target areas. Much like a fall out of songbirds in a patch of good habitat, you can get congregations of birders at these hotspots.

I was right. The car stopped, and there was Ken. Not just any WSB-affiliated birder, but the one I was looking for. We caught up for a few moments, then headed off independently for a couple last minute checks before meeting at the diner. Ken sent me to a small wetland to find out if any marsh birds were calling, he followed up on a report of needed birds at a different marsh. His site was a bust, I couldn't find my site at all. Using the New York DeLorme to get around northern NJ might not be a good idea.

Thirty minutes later I walked into the diner. Current Sapsuckers Marshall Iliff (eBird Project Leader) and Tim Lenz (eBird programmer) were poring over their NJ atlases, Ken highlighting historic territories of some much-needed species. Lewis Grove (fellow scout, flight-call researcher), was relaying his experiences from the day to Sapsucker Andrew Farnsworth (project leader on flight-call research and terrestrial acoustic monitoring). All looked somewhat frazzled, and it was only Wednesday.

Cloud-covered moon over New JerseyClouds rolled in covering a near, but not quite, full moon.
Unfortunately, they brought rain. A lot of rain.

Over dinner the Sapsuckers explained the strategy they were planning for this year and where some key birds were staked out. Around 9:30 I headed out for my evening assignment: visit three sites known to have Northern Saw-whet Owls, listening for any spontaneous calling. Saw-whets are certainly present in NJ in May, but whether they'll call during the time allotted for a stop is always questionable.

Given I just had to stand quietly and listen it was a relatively easy evening. The hard part was standing in a steady downpour, at times torrential, listening from the narrow shoulder of the road. Traffic was minimal, but each time a car approached my mind wandered to every horror story and urban legend I ever heard. I recalled a disproportionate number of them that take place on rainy nights on isolated roads.

The rain let up a bit at my second stop, where I parked and hiked in to the site. It was startlingly black, no town lights, street lights, headlights; no moon or stars. Half a mile later I didn't hear any owls, probably because no owls called, possibly due to a loss of hearing when I crossed a wetland full of Spring Peepers. The third stop was equally unproductive for owls, but helped me reorient myself to some sites I'd be visiting again in daylight hours for different birds.

When I returned to Milford (PA) it was nearly midnight. I reviewed my plan for the next morning, which would start by listening for Ruffed Grouse at 5:30, a perfectly reasonable time of the morning. Previous years started much earlier. The extra sleep would be welcome.



jan m said...

That does make the event much more interesting, to hear more than the bird count at the end of the day.
Thanks for sharing Mike!

noflickster said...

@jan_m - My pleasure - admittedly, the retelling of the stories are as enjoyable as collecting the experience. More so, perhaps: you stay dry and you can have some "we can laugh about it now" moments that seem less painful as time passes!

More to come . . .

dAwN said...

Great stuff..I always wondered what went on..the logistics related to the event.
I suppose you will continue the story..I am hoping anyway...want to know if you heard the grouse..etc..
I subscribed to your blog via email
Thanks for adding that!

noflickster said...

Hi dAwN - thanks for the comment! I've written the bulk of the next couple of posts, but need to finish organizing and reflecting on everything that went on. After a rushed trip with very few hours non-birding it's hard to remember what happened and when, luckily I have bird lists, photos, and some notes. More to come shortly - I won't spoil the grouse-listening just yet . . . .

And thank you for providing the instructions for the email subscription!


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