Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mississippi Big Day - The Results

This past Monday, April 24, three friends and I made a run at the Mississippi Big Day record of 175 species. I ain't gonna lead you on: we didn't break the record. Everything needs to go right to set a Big Day record, and not everything went right for us. Migration just sorta didn't happen, and it was windy, and well certain species just didn't cooperate.

But we had a hell of a time, and saw some amazing birds, including one of only a handful of state records of Black-whiskered Vireo. Most importantly, we raised nearly $6k for the shorebird habitat conservation group a bunch of us work on, Delta Wind Birds.

The team was myself, and excellent Mississippi birders Jason Hoeksema, JR Rigby, and Hal Mitchell. Here are some photos and recap.

  • Midnight to 12:40 AM - Ross Barnett Reservoir, outside Jackson, MS.
Go time. We started out along the freshwater marsh, picking up two species we couldn't get anywhere south of these: King and Virginia Rail. We got them, and felt good heading out.

  • 1 to 1:30 AM - Jackson vicinity
This was a pretty funny stretch, where we ran around to a bunch of pre-scouted nests. There aren't a ton of birds to find in the middle of the night, but we knew we needed to do our best to find certain species that were really hard to come by in southern MS. Jason and JR had done a ton of legwork to find occupied Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, and Eastern Screech-Owl nests, and all we needed to do was get to the nests and shine a spotlight on the sleeping birds. It worked perfectly. We scampered under a random bridge to see a phoebe. We shined a light for about two seconds on a nesting Robin, and an owl cooperatively poked her head out of her nestbox for us in someone's backyard. We capped this session by spotlighting a female Mallard in a pond in front of PF Chang's and lighting up a Yellow-crowned Night Heron. Birding is funny sometimes. Here's Jason stomping through some tall stuff to the phoebe nest:

  • 1:30 to 5:30 AM - Driving south
I drove this long overnight section south towards the coast. The only bird we could really pick up at this hour was Wild Turkey, and the team had bold plans to "shock gobble" some turkeys, supposedly accomplished by playing loud noises at a bunch of turkeys roosting somewhere in the woods and having them reflexively gobble back. I tell you, we shock-gobbled the heck out of south-central Mississippi -- playing owl calls and screaming coyote sounds -- but got nothing. It was funny, but a big waste of time. We probably should have been napping.
  • 5:30 to 6 AM - Bethel Bike Trail
Pre-dawn among some long-leaf pines, at this Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman's Sparrow spot. We recharged ourselves after the long drive south and got a bunch of easily missable species like Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat and Brown-headed Nuthatch.

  • 6 - 8 AM - Breeding bird spots
We needed to find some important local breeders singing on territory, and so scoured a couple spots for cool southern warblers like Prothonotary, Swainson's, Kentucky, Hooded, and Yellow-throated. It actually took us a little longer than we wanted, but we ended up seeing some good species like Louisiana Waterthrush, Belted Kingfisher, and the Wild Turkeys we had spent all morning trying to shock out of the woods.

  •  8:30 to 11 AM - Seaman Rd. Lagoons
The Seaman Rd. Lagoons is a huge wastewater complex on the coast. Tons and tons of good species here: Least and Gull-billed Terns, some lingering ducks, all the herons and gallinules we could shake a stick at, and our best looks at freshwater shorebirds like yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, and others. We did okay here, but remember it more for the birds we missed, like Bank Swallow, Bobolink, Savannah Sparrow, kites, and others that we knew could make or break our attempt.

  • 11-2 - Singing River Island
Jason and JR had arranged to get onto Singing River Island, an incredible coastal area managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The mudflats on the south side of the island were incredible, hosting a ton of shorebirds like a bunch of Whimbrel, Wilson's Plovers, Greater Scaup, and a Red Knot that was a life bird for Hal and JR. Nice! We drive to another berm location to look for migrants taking shelter from the wind, and though we saw almost no migrant songbirds we did find a Black-whiskered Vireo! The bird is one of only a handful of records for the state. We were frigging pumped.

  • 2 - 6 pm - scrapping along the coast
At this point we knew we were in striking distance of the record, but also knew we needed to hit everything left and also fall into some migrants. We stopped at a lot of little spots on the coast looking for urban birds (Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow), lingering passerines (unsuccessful attempt at American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and White-throated Sparrow), lingering other birds (missed the scoters, got the Horned Grebe), and coastal specialities (Ring-billed Gull, Marbled Godwit, Sedge Wren and Seaside Sparrow). We did just okay on this stretch, and headed to the coastal chenier at Ansley in hopes of a late migrant fallout.

  • 6:30 to 8:30 PM - Ansley
Well, we didn't really find a huge concentration of migrants at Ansley. It's a beautiful spot: a slight coastal ridge covered in live oaks and marsh, but it wasn't the migrant bonanza we needed. We got Ovenbird (a state bird for me), Painted Bunting, Swainson's Thrush, and the Bronzed Cowbirds that always hang out down there, but it wasn't enough to put us over the top. We ended our day with a beautiful sunset on a stinking fish pier. We were tired, happy, delirious, a little disappointed, and a lot hungry. We went and got some beers and called it a night. See ya next year.


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