My annual tradition of spending an entire day finding as many bird species as possible is always one of my favorite days of the year. This year it was especially looked forward to because of my grueling work schedule that has allowed zero time for birding, except for evenings in the yard. My ears are out of tune for singing migrants and my mental field guide of eastern birds is dusty from lack of use. But the anticipation for a day spent looking for birds at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge was equal to that of a child on Christmas Eve. Although my alarm would sound at 3:00am (and a backup for 3:05am) , I was struggling to fall asleep at 10:00pm.
I arrived at the refuge at 4:30am and I was hearing Chuck-will-widows before I parked. I was on my bike going north on Wildlife Dr. by 4:40am. I wasn’t treated to the spectacle of birds flying around me in the dark, visible only by the reflection of their eyes from my headlamp, like I was last year but many birds were calling and singing. Whip-poor-wills and Woodcocks were both heard by the time I reached the observation platform at the experimental pond. I stayed on the platform for a few minutes and waited for some light and hoped for Nighthawks to be bounding overhead but they never appeared.
I continued On my bike and made my way to the marsh along the north dike of Wildlife Dr. I started ticking shorebirds off my list and heard the aggressive chatters of Marsh Wrens and the grunts of Clapper Rails. Couple those sounds with the buzzy calls of Seaside Sparrows and you have the quintessential sounds of sunrise in the marshes of South Jersey. I waited on the dike, picking up birds like herons, egrets, terns and gulls until the sun broke the horizon.
Sunrise from the North Dike
I backtracked to wooded area along Jen’s Trail where migrants were flitting through the shrubs and trees and breeders were marking their territory with raucous calls and emphatic singing. Catbirds and White-eyed Vireos made it difficult at times to pick out other bird songs. I saw a Wilson’s Warbler before 6:00am and I immediately thought, “If I already have a Wilson’s, then it’s gonna be a great day for migrants!”. I typically only see 1 or maybe 2 Wilson’s Warblers per year, I ended the day seeing 5! Warblers were plentiful along Jen’s trail but diversity wasn’t great. There would be 5 birds in view but I could only identify 1 at a time. My eyes kept landing on Parulas, Redstarts, Yellows, Common yellowthroats and Magnolias. I think I missed some birds here. There were reports of Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Cerulean and Black-throated Green Warblers from the refuge headquarters but I was unable to get any of those birds.
I slowly made my way back to the car. I picked up a few tough birds along the way. Bobolinks, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue Grosbeak and a very brief flyover by a lone Cedar Waxwing. A Red-breasted Nuthatch was unexpected but not completely surprising on the heels of an irruption year. The birds were so plentiful that it took me 4 hours to cover less than 2 miles on my bike. It was a bit frustrating too. There were unfamiliar songs I was hearing but I couldn’t locate the bird singing. I had an all-too-brief look at a Bay-breasted Warbler that I didn’t feel 100% confident on calling. I heard what I believed to be a Hooded Warbler but I never got visual confirmation. Same goes for Chestnut-sided Warbler. I left all 3 birds off my list along with a likely Cooper’s Hawk I was unable to confirm with absolute determination. The better I get at birding, the more stringent my standards become for putting birds on my lists. If there is any seed of doubt, I just can’t live with it and force myself to leave more boxes unchecked.
I made it back to the car around 10am. I refueled with food and coffee then drove out to Wildlife Drive. I stopped at the short boardwalk first where I spotted a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and heard a Willow Flycatcher calling. Along the drive I quickly tallied Spotted Sandpiper, Caspian Terns and Oystercatchers from the car. Just beyond the observation tower I encountered the continuing rarity, Black-head Gull, which is native to Europe.
The view from Wildlife Drive, South Dike
The rest of the loop was pretty uneventful and led to a prolonged period no new birds.
I made my way back to the refuge headquarters and looked for the birds reported earlier in the day. 3 people I encountered in the afternoon told me they just had a Blackburnian Warbler and told me exactly where to find it…no luck. Fortunately 2 guys told me they just had Pheobes and a White-crowned Sparrow which I promptly relocated. I was also able to pick out a few Bank and Rough-winged Swallows from the bridge at the entrance of the refuge. This is where I heard a Least Bittern last year but I wasn’t so lucky this year. Later in the day I saw what I believed to be a Cliff Swallow but the tiny bit of doubt I was unable to surpass kept it off my list. The late afternoon was very quiet bird-wise and I spent much of it looking for Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Starlings, a Mockingbird, Baltimore Oriole and House Sparrows. All but 1 of which were missed entirely for the day.
I headed back out to drive the loop on Wildlife Dr. again. I went very slowly, pulling over every couple hundred yards to scan through my scope. My patience and determination paid off in the form of Ruddy Ducks, Brant, Red-breasted Mergansers, White-rumped Sandpipers and a lone Lesser Yellowlegs. Some very talented birders possess the ability to scan through thousands and thousands of shorebirds to pick out a single Curlew Sandpiper, I’m not there yet but I got several hours of practice in today.
Around 7:30 pm I was wiped out and had the urge to call it quits but I soldiered on. I set myself up on the observation deck at the experimental pond hoping for Nighthawks. I got lucky and a small flock of Starlings flew over. The sun set and I was eventually rewarded with half a dozen Nighthawks bounding about the darkening sky.
I enjoyed the last bit of light from the same spot that I anticipated the day’s first light, 16 1/2 hours ago. I pressed my luck hoping for owls but to no avail. I thought I ended the day at 120 species, it wasn’t until 2 days later that I realized I never added Snow Goose to my list, of which there was a pair. Official total: 121 species. A damn good day for an amateur. A group of better birders than myself could have easily racked up 130 or even 135. It was a beauty of a day and I relished every moment of it. It’s one of my favorite days of the year and a tradition that will hopefully continue for a very long time.
My complete list can be viewed here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36920488