Sunday, May 19, 2013

24 hours of fun with Mass Audubon, my birdathon experience, part 1

A group from the Drumlin Farm bird-a-thon team walks along Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
This past Friday and Saturday I competed in my very first Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon, a 24 hour birding competition that brings together a great group of people who are very dedicated to both birding and environmental conservation.  Although this was my first experience with the competition this was the 30th year that it has been running, providing a fun opportunity for people who love birds to get outside, see some amazing animals and raise money for Mass Audubon. This year I was part of the Drumlin Farm team, with a group led by veteran birder Strickland Wheelock which covered the very end of Cape Cod in a well-planned effort to see as many species as we could between 6 PM on Friday evening and 6 PM on Saturday. We birded mainly in Provincetown and Truro, and along  the way we saw more than 100 species of birds, several species of mammal, explored numerous beaches, wetlands and forests and had a lot of laughs. I will be writing about this adventure in two parts: this first post will cover the first part of bird-a-thon on Friday night, and then I plan to pick up with a second post, covering our attempts to add many migrating warblers to our list, as well as see pelagic birds and a final stop at a truly beautiful place right along the coast.

Race Point Beach on Cape Cod was one of the first stops for our bird-a-thon team. Here we saw our first Bonaparte's Gull of the day as well as an Ocean Sunfish and Harbor Seal. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

On Friday morning I woke up early, excited to begin my bird-a-thon adventure, so I headed over to Drumlin Farm, hoping I might have a shot at seeing a reported Black-billed Cuckoo, a bird I wanted to add to both my life list and my New England birding big year list. The weather was absolutely perfect - clear blue skies, warm and with a light breeze - as I searched the sanctuary for the cuckoo. One of the education staff told me where it had been seen, and then I ran into Pam, the volunteer coordinator who had seen the bird and she told me the general area where she thought I should look. I birded for about 45 minutes with no luck, and then headed over to meet the rest of the team. I could tell right away that I was going to have a good time when I met the other birders, an enthusiastic and highly-knowledgeable group who had all done bird-a-thon before. After introductions we all piled into two minivans and headed south so that we could check into our motel, do a little scouting and grab dinner before the 6 PM start time.

After a quick stop for dinner at the Provincetown House of Pizza, our first location of the evening was Herring Cove Beach, where we hiked out a pretty good distance from the parking area to scan the waves and shoreline for whatever might be around.The beach was a quiet place to start our fevered competition and I think everyone appreciated the beauty of the spot, with gently rolling waves, White-winged Scoters winging past us, a large group of Red-breasted mergansers floating easily in the surf and the sun beginning its daily descent. Driving along the roads of the outer cape I was struck by how different the landscape looked than in other parts of Cape Cod - maybe it was the light, or the time of year - the dunes looked perfectly formed and un-trampled, many covered in pastel grasses and beach plants. And everywhere around us, even in the forests we visited, a sense of the sea, of the vastness of the ocean that surrounds this narrow peninsula was omnipresent.

After we finished at Herring Cove Beach we drove to a nearby wetland which was filled with birdsong. It was here that we were hoping to find several species which are normally quite secretive and difficult to detect.

This wetland proved to be an excellent spot to look for a wide range of wading and marsh birds, from song Sparrow and Red-winged Blackbirds to Virginia Rail and Greater Yellow Legs. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
The wetland was quite beautiful in the evening light, and we all stood in silence listening and watching the tall grass, waiting to see what would appear. It wasn't long after we got there that we spotted Greater and Lesser Yellow Legs on one side of the road, followed by a Wilson's Snipe and Virginia Rails on the other. the rails were a particularly exciting find - a new life bird for me, and one which is know for being hard to find. We got to hear and see them as they flew from one spot to another in the wetland in short bursts, seemingly appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing again back into the vegetation.

A spectacular sunset sets the dunes and marsh on fire with a red, yellow and orange glow at the end of Cape Cod. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
After about an hour we decided to move on to look for American Woodcock, but as we drove down the road we stopped as our team leader seemed to hear something out of an open window. We all got out of the vans and were amazed to see one of these odd-looking birds sitting in a small opening at the edge of the wetland, beside a short, scrubby a pine tree. The bird didn't seem bothered at all by our presence, and there was till enough light left for us to get excellent looks at him as he tentatively warmed up for his evening performance. Looking at this bird through the scope I was blown away by what a strangely beautfiul creature the woodcock is, a shorebird that's typically found farm from the ocean, with a long bill it uses to probe the earth for worms and a large wary eye set in its compact head.

Encouraged by the woodcock and other finds of the evening we went on to look for Whip-poor-wills, a nocturnal bird whose distinctive call used to cover much more of the New England landscape at night. I personally have great memories of camping in western Massachusetts and falling asleep to their unique, plaintive cry. Our destination was an old cemetery tucked away at the end of a dirt road, perhaps a mile or two from a main road. Birding in cemeteries has never been one of my favorite things, but it's a common practice and we had heard it was a good place to listen for nocturnal birds. Standing out in the evening chill we listened intensely for any sign of our quarry.  In the distance someone heard a Barred Owl, and overhead I saw a bat, but otherwise the air was quiet. We waited a while, then drove back down the road, windows down and listening. Suddenly the song was there, and we stopped the vans, got out, and listened with delight as we heard this signature singer of the night let loose its distinctive call.

With the Whip-poor-will found we called it a night, and headed back to the Cape View Motel to catch a few hours sleep before we would head out for the morning at 4:15 AM for a full day of birding. On the drive home we added one more wildlife sighting to the day's list, as a Red Fox ran across a lawn by the side of the road. Back at the motel I collapsed into bed, thinking about all of the birds we had seen that evening, and excited to see more the next day.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

1 comment: