Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Mississippi Big Day Attempt

I spent just a single year living in Mississippi but the impact has been much greater. My largest continuing connection is through a group called Delta Wind Birds, a non-profit started by friends that works to protect shorebird habitat in the floodplains of west Mississippi. It's been a real pleasure to see the group go from its kitchen-table beginnings to helping protect hundreds of acres in this under-conserved region. (Plus they released an awesome collection with my favorites at Bird Collective.)

For the past several years, Delta Wind Birds has tried to raise funds by attempting to break the Mississippi Big Day record. I joined them in 2017 where we fell just short of breaking the then-record of 175 species. They tried again the next year without me (look, it's fine), and succeeded in setting a new record of 179 species. They continued to refine the route, but COVID threw things off a bit, but in 2022 they were back, and once again invited me along.

I love everything about these Big Days. I love being in Mississippi; the landscape is so open and beautiful and different from what I'm used to. I love the atmosphere down south and the food. I love the dudes I'm birding with -- Jason Hoeksema, JR Rigby, Hal Mitchell, and Andy Bell -- who are all much better than I am but also all funny as hell and don't ever let things get too intense or serious. 

They've also planned things down the last detail. The team had changed the route from previous years, and instead of starting up near Jackson in the middle of the state and slogging through a brutal pre-dawn drive to the coast decided to just start along the Gulf. The other big addition (for me, anyway) was a mid-day boat trip to Round Island, a dredge island wilderness that offered us a shot at a whole bunch of great birds. 

We made our run on May 2, 2022. Long story short: we didn't break the record, but had a great time. More importantly, we raised some good money to help us protect birds in the delta. I had the time of my life, again, and hope that I get another shot someday. Below is Jason's writeup of the day.
Our total of 154 was well short of the current record of 179, set by our team in 2018. Indeed, it is our lowest total since we began trying these statewide Big Days back in 2015. So, what happened?

First, the good news: We found 9 species this year that we missed in 2018, including some nice rarities such as Neotropic Cormorant and Western Kingbird, some rare/new coastal breeders such as Cave Swallow and Gray Kingbird, and some can-be-tough-to-find-on-a-big-day species such as Cedar Waxwing and Seaside Sparrow. By focusing only on the coastal counties, we were able to greatly reduce total driving time (our previous route started in Jackson and required a drive to the coast between 2am and 5am), and we incorporated some new, very productive sites in Hancock County. Eastern Phoebe is one species we gave up by sticking to the coast, but on the coast we were able to almost all of the other birds we normally got pre-dawn in the Jackson area (e.g., King Rail).

Unfortunately, we also missed a whopping 34 species that we found in 2018. The main reasons?
1) Songbird migration was almost completely absent. We did not give ourselves maximum flexibility on choosing the date (which can mean that the weather conditions were not optimal; however, we had a nice storm system hanging over the coast the day before), but reports from the Mississippi coast the entire spring have indicated a strange and low-diversity songbird migration, likely due to the prevailing east winds over the Gulf of Mexico. These winds have pushed Florida migrants such as Cape May Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler west into MS, but pushed many of our normal migrants further west into Texas. As a result, we had only 11 total warbler species, only two of which (N. Waterthrush and Magnolia Warbler) were transient migrants. We also missed other key migrants such as Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, and Gray-cheeked Thrush. Veery and Swainson's Thrush were only detected by their flight calls just after midnight, and none of the Catharus thrushes were seen at migrant traps on the coast, which is bizarre for this date.

2) Very few wintering birds lingered, compared to previous years, so we found few diving ducks (Red-breasted Merganser being one of our bigger misses), few sparrows (missing Swamp Sparrow most notably), and no other winter lingerers like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Virginia Rail, Bonaparte's Gull, and Northern Harrier. This is just bad luck--some years, these kinds of wintering birds hang around longer.

3) Our preferred dawn spot for bottomland breeding birds, Wade-Vancleave Rd over the Pascagoula River, was inaccessible due to major bridge repairs. Instead, we started at Spence's Woods on the Pearl River. This site was pretty good, but we missed some key breeding birds there (such as Wood Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher), only some of which were made up using an extra stop at Ward Bayou WMA later in the day, which of course took time away from birding other spots.

4) Around a half dozen key species were present during scouting on May 1st, but absent on May 2nd, including some tricky but important shorebirds on our target list, such as American Oystercatcher and White-rumped Sandpiper. Sometimes that's just how it goes.

5) Late-day route inefficiency: Late in the day, after it became clear we would not be breaking any records, we made some inefficient route choices that we would not have made otherwise. For example, we decided to drive to Bellefontaine Road to look for the Gray Kingbirds nesting there, even though it is quite out of the way, and it was unlikely the oaks there would reward us with migrants to make it worth it. We also visited an unscouted site looking for American Coot and Bank or Tree Swallow, late in the day, and (besides not yielding the Coot or swallows) it caused us to arrive at our longleaf pine site too late for Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

So, it was a bit of a perfect storm for our lowest total ever. But we did manage to have a blast, and we also learned a LOT. This is the best thing about conducting a Big Day--it forces you to learn so much about where and when birds occur, and how to efficiently find them. This was our first time trying the strictly coastal Big Day, and we definitely feel it has a TON of potential in a good migration year. Next time, we'll be much more efficient, having been through it once, and will almost certainly have better luck.

Here's a great article from Pete Dunne that makes that same point about how much you learn from doing a Big Day, in his "Blueprint for a Big Day" article:

We'll be back next year to try again! In the meantime, we're already scheming to improve next year's effort.

Thanks for reading. Some photos below.

And we're off! Just after midnight.

Owling at a private sporting reserve we had access to. Incredible spot.

Trying for Limpkin (why not??) along the Pearl River

dawn in Mississippi

working it

looking for, what, House Finches I think?

Round Island. This place was a trip. No Man's Land. Birds could have cooperated better, but I had never visited any of the Gulf islands so this was a treat.

Tough end-of-day dip on Red-cockaded Woodpeckers ... but a gorgeous forest.



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