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Notes from a Super Bowl (of Birding)

February 4, 2011

I freely admit that I have been exceptionally lucky as a birder.  I’ve been some fantastic places; southeast Arizona (before it went all crazy), the Lower Valley of Texas, much of Florida.  I’ve done Costa Rica and the Galapagos and heck, even got invited to spend a few days in Guatemala last year.  I’ve seen some great birds in some fascinating places, but none of those experiences are quite as rewarding as the few days over the last three years I’ve spent in Massachusetts in January.

On the surface that seems like a very odd thing to say.  Massachusetts in January is, in the barest possible terms, super freaking cold.  It’s certainly not the kind of place one would choose to get away, unless you’re a birder of course.  Because Massachusetts, specifically Essex County north of Boston is just crawling with birds, good ones too.  Gulls and alcids and owls and bizarre sea ducks.  There’s scarcely a nicer place on the continent to freeze your kiester off if flashy birds are your modus operandi.   But it’s not just birding that brings me here every year, though that would be enough, it’s something more.  Fellowship and camaraderie and competition.  It’s a little game called the Super Bowl of Birding, and five other bird bloggers that play along.  All things considered, it’s just about the best time I have all year.

Six bird bloggers make up the Bloggerhead Kingbirds.  Six individuals from all across the eastern seaboard from nearby in Massachusetts (Christopher of Picus Blog) to  New Jersey (John of DC Birding Blog) to North Carolina (yours truly) to New York (Corey of 10,000 Birds and Andrew of Birding dude) to er… another part of New York (Mike of Feathers and Flowers).  From 5 AM to 5 PM we are birding machines; every chip note is scrutinized, every distant blur on the horizon is scoped, every bathroom break is denied.  Routes are analyzed, tossed out, revised, and analyzed after the fact.  We do not mess around, people.

In the end, we rarely win.  It’s hard for a team with only one local member to adequately scout an area like Essex County, a limitation that invariably leads to our undoing.  But we’re always competitive, and if blast-having was incorporated into the final score, we would no doubt be blowing the roof off the leader-board every year.  As yet, our petitions have been ignored.  This year we ended the day with 73 species and 142 points.  Corey at 10,000 Birds has pretty adequately covered the play-by-play, and more to that end can be found by Andrew at Birding dude and John at DC Birding Blog, so I don’t think I can re-hash the already hashed.  Instead here are a few snapshots from the day that stuck out.

  • Predawn. We drive into the snowbound Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary looking for owls, which have always been difficult for us.  We tend to call for them from smallest to largest as the smaller owls will keep quiet if they think the big ones are around.  Saw-whet is first, and I unleash a furious bout of whistled hoots.  Seconds later a distant Barred Owl responds instead, scrubbing our chance at Screech Owl but adding a species we’d never picked up before.  Not a bad start!

  • Immediately after dawn we visit the home of a friend of Christopher’s who has some nice feeders set up.  We pick up several new species for the day, including the only Hairy Woodpecker we’d end up with.  While most of us are focusing on the brush piles around the feeders though, Corey has his eyes on the skies and spots a flying duck.  He yells but only Mike and John are able to put glass to bird before it passes beyond the treetops.  For a group of six a solid majority has to see every bird, we’re one short.  The consensus is that the bird was a Shoveler, a crucial five pointer that we’d regret missing.  But that’s birding, and more, that’s competitive birding.
  • It’s still early when we get to Jodrey Fish Pier in Gloucester Harbor.  Scanning the massive gull flock near the fish processing plant nets us at least two juvenile Iceland Gulls, and the harbor itself hosts a Black Guillemot and a Thick-billed Murre.  We’re feeling pretty high on the Murre, a four point bird that is certainly not the easiest to get, when Andrew quietly pulls his eye from his scope and gestures for Christopher to come over and check out something he’s found far out in the harbor.  It turns out to be a Dovekie!  A five-pointer that came with a welcome three point bonus for being the first team to call one in.  Better, it’s a life bird for both Mike and John.

  • Scoping Bass Rocks from the Elks Lodge in Rockport.  We have a broad expanse of sea to search so we’ve all got eyes to scopes in the hopes that something good passes by (in retrospect though, having one person looking for land and shorebirds is probably more useful, even if certainly less glamorous).  Corey spies a bird against the rocks and asks “what is that Guillemot with the orange bill?”.  I turn my scope to see a full adult King Eider, the bird, incidentally, that had been ABA 500 for me the day before when scouting with Mike and Christopher.  In his honor, King Eider is forever known as Corey’s Guillemot.  Now to get the AOU on board…
  • There’s no other bird that has vexed us for the previous two years like Common Merganser has.  Last year, when I arrived in the morning and did some scouting with Christopher, we had no trouble finding several birds on the river near Newburyport, but on game day they’ve always been no-shows.  Given that we’d already written off Brant for the day (they’re only reliably seen at Nahant, and that’s way too far away to justify going there for one bird) we couldn’t really afford to intentionally miss another three point bird.  Christopher routes in a trip to the Chain Bridge, and a short one way street later, we’re looking at all the Common Mergansers we could possible want.  Bald Eagles nearby too.

  • I got two lifers over the weekend.  The King Eider mentioned above (number 500 for the ABA area), and a Northern Shrike.  The Shrike is a funny story as we were camped out on Salisbury Point scoping the water and looking for whatever we might see, when three of the group got fleeting glimpses of a Merlin flashing by.  Once again, this was a bird we needed a fourth on so the Merlin would go untallied (a frustrating 3 point miss), but we spotted a bird on the far side of the river, probably close to a 1.5 kilometers away, perched atop a pine tree.  Was it our Merlin?  Was it an American Kestrel?  The light was poor and the bird was giving away nothing for free.  We watched and debated for some time, until it dropped from it’s perched, and instead of the long lanky dismount of a falcon, we saw the rapid whirring of something else.  A Shrike, and by range it was a Northern Shrike.  Lifer #501, even if it was hardly an ideal sort of look.
  • Less a high point of the day and more a general observation of birding in Massachusetts in the winter; the abundance of white-winged Gulls, Glaucous but especially Iceland, is amazing.  Gulls get a bad rap, and maybe that’s deservedly so.  They’re gregarious and catholic in their dining preferences and they pose some of the most difficult identification issues of any of North America’s – the world’s for that matter- avifauna, but white-winged gulls are nothing short of breathtaking.  in the past I’ve only seen the juveniles, generally first cycle birds, but this year I was able to see my first adult Iceland and Glaucous Gulls.  The silver mantle with wings unblemished by black is the avian personification of winter.  I may never see an Ivory Gull or a Ross’s Gull, the two definitive arctic Larids, but they’ll be hard pressed in my mind to beat the sight of an adult Iceland Gull.  A real stunner.  Of course, that attitude may well be self-preservation after dipping on two(!) Ivory Gulls in 2009…

It was another fantastic weekend in Massachusetts.  Cold, yes.  Exhausting, absolutely.  But worth every second.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

  1. February 4, 2011 9:40 am

    Congrats on the new life birds!

  2. February 4, 2011 9:40 am

    Didn’t they have in Red Crossbills for you to see there?

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 4, 2011 3:57 pm

    @Robert- Nope, missed Red Crossbills again. One of these days…

  4. February 4, 2011 4:04 pm

    More scouting and more time out of the car will make all the difference in world.

    Wait ’til next year!

  5. February 4, 2011 6:27 pm

    Nice write-up Nate!

  6. February 7, 2011 1:22 pm

    I wonder if the “solid majority” rule does not help teams with odd numbers of birders….it’s probably easier for 3 out of 5 birders to see a bird, than 4 out of 6…

    congrats for the lifers!

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