One of the best things about participating in something like the VIIth Super Bowl of Birding is that there will undoubtedly be no shortage of post-game thoughts from the members of the team. So the question is do I have anything to offer that’s substantively different than what you might find at the blogs of my colleagues and teammates. Would a would-be blog enthusiast curious of the thrill of the competition find something on my blog as opposed to Christopher’s or Corey’s or Mike’s or John’s or Andrew’s? The question is probably dependent on how much time you have to spend browsing the blogosphere or whether you have any interest in reading about one event from six different and unique points of view. I mean, these should be blogs you’re reading anyway if your enjoy fine nature prose, knockout photography, and fascinating insights on bird science.
It would probably not surprise you to also learn that these guys are personable and friendly and sharp-eyed as well. It would further probably come as no shock that the actual birding is only a fraction of the fun involved in a competition like this. The camaraderie of the bird blogger is an interesting thing. For the most part, you only know these people through their writing, but as writing is such a personal medium you’re not at all surprised when the person you imagine behind the blog turns out to b a pretty close approximation of the actual person. So if you read the blogs of any of the members of the Bloggerhead Kingbirds you probably know that we all got along famously. And when the birders are such capital fellows, the birding, even bad birding, is a real treat.
But you know too well that the birding in Essex County, Massachusetts, is far from bad. It’s phenomenal. Spectacular, even. But you have to earn it, because those glorious gulls and sea ducks and alcids are paid for in full with wind straight from Nunavut and cold that would make even the hardiest Inuit yearn for pants filled with those chemical hand-warmers. When we stepped out of the van to spotlight for the only reliable American Coots in Essex County, it was 4 degrees. And that’s without factoring in the wind chill. I braved the wind and cold last year with little complaint, but this year, even with my double long johns and advanced layering technique, I felt ill-prepared. This was a chill that no amount of hot birding could thaw, but when an Eastern Screech-Owl responded to my whistle just before dawn, the cold abated just a tad.
We covered the coastline fast and furious once the sun came up, looking in vain for white-winged Gulls, but picking up some hot sea ducks and grebes off the coast of the little island of Nahant. Mike spotted the only Brant we’d see all day, a fine bird we missed the year before, but Nahant was largely a disappointment because of two birds we did not get. Teams that covered the island after us picked up Northern Shoveler and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, both 5 point birds that were absolutely achievable for us. We didn’t realize that the birds were around until we were well on our way to Gloucester, and by the time we got there, no amount of stunning Common Eider drakes could take away the sting. But they helped.
We whipped around Cape Ann to Niles Pond, where any number of great gulls had been seen in the two weeks leading up to the competition. Sadly, the pond was a complete bust with nothing but a handful of Herring Gulls and no amount of scanning and squinting could make the gull bounty appear out of nothing.
At a certain point, the day becomes a blur. We covered Cape Ann pretty thoroughly, finding great birds like a Thick-billed Murre (a lifer for me) than Mike pulled out of the haze from Granite Point, a flock of Sanderlings that Andrew spotted than contained a single Ruddy Turnstone, the Turkeys in the exact same place as they were last year. With the exception of the missing 5 pointers, we were feeling pretty good about things with no outstanding misses.
The biggest disappointment when we spotted a previously reported Dovekie off of Andrew’s Point. We did, in fact, get the requisite four teammates on it to get the 5 points, but those of us who got it were those who did not need Dovekie for a lifer. We got the bird for the day, but it would have been far more satisfying had more people seen it. The Black-legged Kittiwake, another lifer for me, that passed not 50 meters from us at the same spot was some consolation, but only for me and probably John. But there were Harlequin Ducks, did I mention the Harlequin Ducks? They make everything better.
The last part of the day was spent around Salisbury where we picked up the birds you’d expect around the phenomenal Parker Island Wildlife Refuge like Snowy Owl, a distant Rough-legged Hawk and American Kestrel. John picked a 5 point Turkey Vulture out of the sky on the way there but no amount of searching could find us something as common as Common Merganser, which was, for the second year in a row, the only 1 point bird we failed to pick up. As the sun set behind us, I found a solitary Iceland Gull looking like a dirty clump of of the ice it was sitting on. It was the last new bird we had for the competition, which ended for us with 70 species for 130 points, both improvements from last year.
We figured that it stood to reason that since we performed better than last year, that our position would be better. It was not to be, as New Hampshire was absolutely rocking this year and the several of the teams ahead of us (five to be exact) took in parts of the Granite State that gave them the species and points to pass us (though if we’d hit on the Shovelor and Sapsucker from the morning we would have been in a much better position). That said though, we ended up with the Essex County Excels award given to the team with the most points entirely within the county. We got gift certificates and the paparazzi were rightly swarming.
Now there are those who would say that we won the award simply because another team forgot to check the box including them in that particular competition, but you’ve got to be in it to win it and our victory is not soured in any way by the actions of other teams. We can only control what we do anyway.
The next day we returned to several of the spots to look again for the Dovekie and take some photos. The ones you see in this post actually, in the heat of the competition we didn’t have much time for photography and some of the birds were so close it was difficult to keep on target on game day. The next day is a nice consolation, and even though we couldn’t find the Dovekie (not for not searching, though!) it was a great way to wrap up a super weekend.
I encourage you to check my teammate’s blog for their takes on the day as well. It was truly a pleasure to be out in the field with them and I’m already looking toward next year with excitement. Maybe we can take that next step onto the podium.