For those that don’t know, a Big Day is an attempt to see (or hear) as many bird species as possible in a single day. This was the 4th year that I did a Big Day at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge located in Galloway, New Jersey. Experience at this location helped me find more birds this year than previous years but it’s mostly due to recent weather patterns that have funneled migratory birds through New Jersey this spring. Last year, 2015, the majority of migrating birds traveled to their northern breeding grounds on a path much further west than New Jeresy. Weather patterns and a deluge of rain kept 2015’s total to 101 species. My highest total was 112 bird species in 2014. My goal this year was 115, which was met and exceeded.
I arrived at the refuge at 4:40am and I was greeted by the emphatic, repetitive calls of Chuck-wills-widows. By 4:50am I was on my bicycle, riding along the dirt road through the woods with Chuck-wills-widows all around. They were on the road, on tree branches and road signs and flying across the road. Their eyes were reflecting the light of my headlamp. Following their erratic flight pattern, solely by the glare of their eyes will hopefully be a memory that sticks with me for a long time. It wasn’t until shortly after first light that I heard the hoots of a Great Horned Owl, by then I had dismissed the likelihood of adding an owl to the list. By this time I was adding many birds, identifying them mostly by their songs and calls. Some of those birds included Catbirds, Cardinals and Robins. Mostly nesting birds claiming their territory. The first bird that got me excited was a Common Nighthawk that I flushed out of a small shrub before sunrise. Immediately after that I heard the calls of several Bobolinks, a beautiful blackbird of grasslands that are not very common in New Jersey and always a pleasure to see. I was determined to reach the dike road that extends into the marsh for sunrise to experience the marsh come to life. The sounds of Clapper Rails, Seaside Sparrows and Marsh Wrens were coming from every direction.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in the marsh. I scoped shorebird flocks and recorded the common birds; sandpipers, plover, whimbrel, etc… before heading back to the woodland for songbirds. On the way out of the marsh I saw a swallow coming my direction, my eye caught a glimpse of rust color on the bird. I watched it closely as it approached expected another Barn Swallow but something felt off for that species. As it passed low directly overhead I clearly saw a dark throat and a square tail. A Cliff Swallow! A tough bird to get and my first unexpected bird of the day.
Dawn is an important time to get a lot of birds, usually. They typically migrate at night and refuel by hunting bugs at sunrise for the an hour or two. Then, a lot of times they find a place to hide so they can rest for the next night’s flight, thus making the early morning the only time to get a look at these species. That was not the case on this day, the bird action never really stopped. Even in the hottest time of the day birds were foraging through the trees and the understory. Not knowing what the day would hold, I tried my best to get as many songbirds as possible during the first few hours of the day. I managed to see about 12 warbler species, both orioles, a tanager, a grosbeak, sparrows, swallows and a couple vireos. I was off to a great start. My favorite sighting of the morning was watching a male Bay-breasted Warbler gleaning insects from the foliage from low branches of an oak and a pine. It’s a truly beautiful bird I rarely get to see in spring plumage.
I made it back to the car around 9:30am to refuel and record the species I had seen so far. I had more birds than I thought, 93 already with several easy species still to be found. My strategy is basically try hard to find the difficult birds and I will incidentally see the common birds along the way. I was now heading back into the marsh, this time from the comfort of my car along the south dike.
On the way to the south dike I stopped at gull tower, a 20 foot high observation tower. There is a group of birders that sit atop the platform and does a Big Day from there. I always make a few visits throughout the day and we share sightings. While up there, I saw 2 Little Blue Herons, #94. I continued on driving along the south dike to another lookout tower about a mile to the east. Here I found a loon far into the bay and Ruddy Turnstones on Turtle Cove Beach. I scanned the sky to the west and managed to pick out a Black Vulture soaring high, several miles away. I was sure to take a look at the ever-present Peregrine on its nest platform. Many times have I cursed that bird for flushing the shorebird flocks but I was glad to see it today. I enjoyed the view for awhile before I soldiered on.
When I returned back to the parking area I looked closely at my list to see what birds I should be focusing on. I needed many common birds; House Finch, Bluebird, House Sparrow, Bluejay and a few others. I decided to work the trails around the visitor center and parking area. After about an hour or so I found myself next to the lake waiting to get a better look at a few swallows to confirm they were Bank Swallows when I heard an unfamiliar call coming from the reeds. I went through a mental checklist, Sora? No. American Bittern? No. Least Bittern…yes, that’s it! I never got to see it but I was very happy to add this bird to my list, I’ve only ever seen/heard one once before.
Around 2pm I started to repeat my morning route. I stared from the visitor center and rode my bike along Wildlife Drive passed the experimental pool, back to Jen’s Trail. I finally picked up a Blue Jay, by the time I reached Jen’s Pond I had 111 species, 1 short of tying my record and 4 away from my goal. That area had the goods! #112- Blackburnian Warbler, #113- Canada Warbler. Two of my favorite birds.
I headed out to the marsh along the north dike with a good bit of momentum. I watched a beautiful male Nothern Harrier cruise by as I entered the marsh. I scanned through over 1,000 Semipalmated Sandpipers and managed to find one bird that was slightly larger and had streaks along its flanks. I didn’t need to see its white rump as it flew away to know it was a White-rumped Sandpiper, but I watched anyway. I could see far to the west the sky was darkening. I decided it was best to start making my way back to the car. As I wasleaving the marsh, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew across the road and exceeded my expectations for the day. It was # 116.
I briefly stopped at the edge of the huge field in the NW corner of Wildlife Drive on my way back. It’s a beautiful sight and I was just standing next to my bike taking it all in when a colorful little sparrow landed on an exposed branch about 15 feet away from me. I looked through my binoculars and saw a bird I almost didn’t recognize, I may have gasped a bit. It took me a moment to put all the pieces together. Orangish breast with crisp streaks, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. A scarce migrant in spring. I’ve seen one recently, in my own yard, but the breast color is typically a dull buff color, this individual was almost bright. Not knowing what the bird was for just a moment, and figuring It out, is one my favorite things about birding. It’s a challenge and a scavenger hunt.
The rain started as I arrived back at my car. I drove to a spot I knew I could find a Night-heron. While waiting for them to leave the roost I got a good look at a Wilson’s Warbler and heard a Kingfisher. I managed to pick out a Night-heron among the Egrets. The rain really started coming down at this point, around 7:30pm. I almost called it quits but decided to stick it out and drive along the south dike once more in the pouring rain. I was rewarded with another bird, Boneparte’s Gull roosting with the other gulls. This was #123. I waited out the rain at the end of the dike, when it passed I was treated to an incredible sunset. Looking over the bay towards Atlantic City there was a double rainbow, come on, now that’s just overkill.
There was one more species added to the list, Whip-poor-wills started calling at about 8:30pm. After 16 hours of nothing but looking for birds, I ended my 2016 Big Day. I thought I had #124 species. When I got home I realized I never counted the Bay-breasted Warbler that had me mesmerized for 10 minutes early in the morning.
Final tally, 125. I remember in 2014 I said 125 birds is possible for 1 person if it’s an excellent migrant day. I know of 7 birds that were reported in the refuge that I didn’t get. A better birder than myself could have had 130 or more. There were 3 more species I thought I had but I’m only about 90% sure they were what I thought, so I didn’t add them to the day’s list. I set the bar pretty high for myself at 125, it will likely remain there for many years.
Here is a link to my complete list:
Written by: Jon Stippick