The Howard County Bird Club
A Chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS)
Howard County Big Days
It was a lot of fun embarking on our mission of doing a Howard County Big Day in every month of the year! The three of us thoroughly enjoyed "setting the bar" in each month, the only exception being June when we could not find a weekend day that worked for all three of us.
Harry, Matt, and I (Russ Ruffing) did an official ABA rules Big Day in the Howard County today, January 26, 1013. What a blast we had! We were able to tally a very respectable 75 birds, even with all the lakes being frozen for the most part and not getting a lot of puddle ducks as a result.
We missed a couple of easy birds, like grackle and slightly tougher birds like creeper and Great Horned Owl. However, we more than made up for it. While scanning a thousand or so geese at Springdale quarry pond, a single Lesser Scaup appeared followed closely by a Snow Goose that flew in and landed among the geese. We also pulled a Cackling Goose out of that flock. We were glad to find the goldeneye still on the ever-diminishing open water at Centennial Park, as well as the Canvasback at Wilde Lake. We also had an 11 sparrow slam (if you include juncos and towhees) for the day, including a whopping 33 Savannah's at the Conservancy swale. On the way to the silage pit, we had a stunning Merlin perched high in a tree before you make the turn to the silage pit. It sat there for a good half hour. At the silage pit, we had 33 Rusty Blackbirds, our only accipiter of the day (Cooper's), and cleaned up on the rest of the sparrows we needed (Fox and White-crowned). We added five new birds for the day at the pit, with only minutes to spare before sunset. Then it was off to Annapolis Rock which turned out to be the best spot for a few reasons. While standing at the woodcock spot there, we first heard an Eastern Screech-Owl, then two Barred Owls. Even though I've been there at least a dozen times squeaking for Long-eared Owls, tonight for some reason I wasn't even thinking about Long-eareds. Nevertheless, precisely at 6:00 p.m. I decided to do one squeek and wouldn't you know a Long-eared immediately came in to investigate! It took three passes right over our heads at treetop level, providing Matt with his life bird and me with my county bird! What a GREAT way to end this big day! Thank goodness for the bright sky even at 6:00 p.m. due to no clouds and the snowy ground cover. We then stopped at Hipsley Mill and then MPEA in the dark trying to hear a Great Horned, but to no avail. Odd to get screech, Barred, and Long-eared in one day but no Great Horned!
It was a very enjoyable day and we can't wait to do another one sometime in February!
Sites Visited (in order) 1/26/2013: Cavey Lane, Waverly Pond, Centennial Lake, Wilde Lake, Lake Kittimaqundi, Lake Elkhorn, Sebring Drive, Assateague Drive, Springdale Quarry Pond, Brighton Dam, Linden Church Road, U of M Farm, Howard Conservancy, Crest Lawn Memorial Gardens, Alpha Ridge Park, Underwood Road, Daisy Road, silage pit, Annapolis Rock, Hipsley Mill Road (after dark), MPEA (after dark).
Matt, Harry, and I (Russ Ruffing) did our February installment of Big Days yesterday, February 23, 2013. It could have been called "Big Day in the Mist." Despite that, we had a decent day and tied our January number of 75. We just couldn't pull out one more bird no matter how hard we tried.
Once again we had 11 sparrows counting towhee and junco, with 10 of 11 coming before 9:30 a.m. The Conservancy provided everything but Chipping which we got at Harry's feeders later in the afternoon. Pine Siskin in my yard was a surprise as I haven't had one in a couple of weeks. We also got our only creepers and Red-breasted Nuthatches for the day at my feeders. Race Road (which was frozen in January) helped the cause by providing Wood Duck, Gadwall, and American Black Duck, as did the gull spot by providing Great Black-backed Gull. We were surprised by a Horned Grebe at the GE retention pond (which David Cummings reported later in the day), but then we picked up three more Horneds at Elkhorn. Three Canvasbacks were neat and surprising at Wilde Lake, and these were the only real "bonus birds" we got for the day. We spent five minutes each at Sebring Drive and then at Joe Hanfman's house, but the Summer Tanager eluded us again. We then went to Springdale Pond and Triadelphia but the only birds of note were the American Coots at Springdale. Last month, Springdale really helped us out with a Snow Goose and Cackling Goose. Not to be this time around, though.
We then checked out the University of Maryland Central Farm (with permission) from the road and saw our only Red-tails of the day, then headed to Centennial around 3:00 p.m. sitting at 66 birds and not looking so hot to reach our goal of 80. Centennial Park was great though, as we got seven new birds for the day (Yellow-rumped Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Barred Owl, Ruddy Duck, Wilson's Snipe, Winter Wren, and the 15 American Wigeon which we later found out had been reported by Mike Kerwin earlier in the day). Yes, we actually avoid checking emails all day because that's against the rules! There were a lot of wigeon at the Daisy Road pond as well. At Underwood Road, we exchanged Horned Larks for American Pipits; last month we saw pipits but no larks! A quick stop at the silage pit around 5:30 p.m. yielded no Rusty Blackbirds. We ended up at Annapolis Rock at 5:50 p.m. and were soon treated to at least 6 woodcock peenting and displaying. We had one peenting within 10 feet of us and could actually see it on the ground under a pine tree in the dim light that remained. No owls to close out the day this time around. We made a late try for owls at Big Branch, but it was pretty quiet.
Our big misses included Cooper's Hawk, Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech-Owl, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Kestrel, Hermit Thrush, and American Pipit.
Sites visited (in order) 2/23/2013): Cavey Lane, Waverly Pond, Howard Conservancy, Race Road, Jessup area, GE Retention Pond, Lake Elkhorn, Lake Kittimaqundi, Wilde Lake, Sebring Drive, Martin Road, Linden Church Road, Springdale Quarry Pond, Brighton Dam, Pigtail, U of M Farm, Centennial Lake, Underwood Road, Daisy Road, silage pit, Annapolis Rock, Big Branch after dark (for owls).
At precisely 6:17 a.m. we (Russ Ruffing, Harry Fink, Matt Rogosky) began our March Big Day in Russ's yard with the hopes of tallying 80 or more species. The day started strongly with one of the first birds being a twittering American Woodcock overhead - only the second time Russ has had this species in his yard. We then got a lot of the usual winter species but were happy to tally both Red-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper before leaving for the Conservancy. After a quick stop to check Waverly Pond, we walked across Route 99 into the Conservancy property and promptly picked up an easy-to-miss-on-a-Big-Day American Kestrel . The swale in the large field yielded about a dozen Savannah Sparrows, but we could not kick up any Meadowlarks anywhere in the field despite Bonnie Ott having had them here just a few days prior. We did not get our fill of all the likely sparrows here, including Tree and White-crowned, both of which were misses for the day.
We then tried Waverly Mansion Pond in vain for Wood Ducks, and Alpha Ridge Park for Wild Turkeys and Rusty Blackbirds with no luck. Then it was off to Race Road, which yielded Woodies, N. Shovelers, Gadwall, A. Black Ducks, Green-winged Teal, N. Rough-winged Swallows, and an American Coot. The Jessup gull site was next on our list, and we got there at exactly the same time that the whole flock of gulls lifted off the Trash Transfer Station roof and flew into Howard. We had at least two Great Black-backed Gulls here along with a handful of Herrings. It was lucky for us, because the entire lot was full of vehicles and no gulls landed there like they typically do. We also saw a surprise Merlin fly over Dorsey Road on the way to this location.
The GE Retention Pond yielded up nine Lesser Scaup, and then Elkhorn gave us our first Fox Sparrow of the day at the east end. We scooted down to Fulton Pond and got a Wilson's Snipe, our first Bufflehead, and more Green-winged Teal. Brown's Bridge was almost desolate save for a few Ring-necked Ducks, two American Black Ducks, and two geese. From there, it was on to Triadelphia with a brief stop first at Springdale Quarry Pond. Three more American Coots and a couple of Lesser Scaup were all that were present. Triadelphia was underwhelming but did provide 10 Double-ccrested Cormorants and a couple of Common Mergansers at the dam. Pigtail and Big Branch were not too birdy. but we did get our only Horned Grebe and Pine Warbler of the day at the latter. Surprisingly, no Bald Eagles at any of the Triadelphia locations.
From there, it was over to Harry's house so he could let his dogs out and we could get our Chipping Sparrow for the day, which we did. Harry's has been a lock for Chippings on all three of our Big Days so far. Centennial was a colossal disappointment - no Great Egret or even a Belted Kingfisher - and no new water-dependent birds for the day. We did get Tree Swallows here though. Wilde Lake and Kittimaqundi were no more productive, and with us quickly running out of options for Belted Kingfisher, this species looked like a potential miss for the day.
We then made an unplanned stop at Gwynn Acres Path for Rusty Blackbirds; we didn't see any of those, but did get our only Hairy Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the day here, at the exact same moment. We also tallied a Howard Patterson at this location! At the U of M Farm, we finally got our Bald Eagle for the day, then it was off to Fox Chase where we didn't see much but finally did hear a Belted Kingfisher. Whew! Underwood Road was completely dead for Horned Larks and American Pipits, but in a field along MD 99 just west of MD 32, we had 55 Killdeer! We searched the flock in vain for a Northern Lapwing - too bad!
A quick scan of the ballfields at Western Regional also failed to turn up any Horned Larks, but luckily at Daisy Road we found both American Pipits and Horned Larks much to our relief. A late stop (6:30 p.m.) at the silage pit on Florence Road revealed at least 40 Song Sparrows but no White-crowneds or Rusty Blackbirds. However, on the way out, we had our second Merlin of the day perched in pretty much the exact same branch of a tree as we had it on our January Big Day. Finally, Annapolis Rock had a number of displaying American Woodcock at dusk but no owls until later when we were standing in the parking lot looking at stars and heard a Barred Owl calling off in the distance.
A nice day totaling 79 birds and 29 stops altogether! Grueling but satisfying!
Big misses on the day included American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck, Great Egret, Screech and Great Horned Owl, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler (!), White-crowned Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark.
At around 5:15 a.m. on April 26th, we (Russ Ruffing, Harry Fink, Matt Rogosky) began our April Big Day in Russ's yard with a target number of 100 species on our minds. We knew we would have to get lucky with some waterfowl, shorebirds, and some decent warbler numbers to get there. The primary targets at Russ's place were Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, which had all been regular at his feeders recently. One of the first birds of the day was a Barred Owl calling in the distance — the first time in four Big Days that we've had any owls to start the day. It was also our only owl that day. We got a handful of Purple Finches, but no Siskins or Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thankfully we picked up a single Red-breasted later in the day. Next, a quick stop at Waverly Pond netted us a continuing American Coot as well as Spotted Sandpiper. The coot was one of a few "water birds" that helped our totals on the day.
Next, it was off to the U of M Farm where we quickly added Orchard Oriole, Northern Harrier, Wilson's Snipe, American Kestrel, Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Bobolink, among others. We left after only about 30 minutes to go to MPEA. While we found a few new birds at MPEA, such as Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, and Yellow-throated and White-eyed Vireos, overall it was quite a disappointing and unproductive stop. We soon realized that migrants were going to be hard to come by. Also, we later found out that others had a few species —Wild Turkey, Marsh Wren, Sora, and Grasshopper Sparrow —at the Farm later in the morning which we missed for the day. We should have stayed longer at that location!
The next eight stops were all "water stops," including Triadelphia Reservoir, the Columbia lakes, Fulton Pond, and others. Best birds at those locations were a very late female Canvasback plus a single Common Loon at the reservoir and a small group of Lesser Scaup at Centennial. We also had a second coot at a pond on Lime Kiln Road, and Lesser Yellowlegs at Fulton Pond. Overall, though, the birding was slow on the lakes. Patapsco at Marriottsville Road next failed to produce a targeted Yellow-throated Warbler but did yield our only American Redstart of the day. Patapsco at Henryton Road turned out to be the best stop of the day, as it yielded Black and White, Black-throated Blue, and Black-throated Green Warblers. On a lark, we re-checked Waverly Pond on the way to the Howard County Conservancy and were happy to get our only Green Heron of the day perched in a far willow along the shore.
The Conservancy was our best bet for Prairie Warbler and Eastern Meadowlark, but we missed the latter despite combing the fields extensively. By now it was after 6:00 p.m. and our only real hope of adding any other passerines was Patapsco near Woodstock Road, but we wisely stopped back at Russ's yard for one last try for Siskin. A single bird turned up immediately on the feeders, rewarding our efforts. We did not expect much in the park at such a late hour (6:30 p.m. by now), but we easily found two Yellow-throated Warblers, our only Wood Ducks, and a singing Wood Thrush.
Though we missed the 100 species target, we did net 96 species for the day.
Our biggest misses on the day included Green-winged Teal, Great Horned Owl, Blue-headed Vireo, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, Pine Warbler, a number of other warblers that should have been present by now, and Eastern Meadowlark.
Saturday, May 11, 2013 was a day of great anticipation for the three of us (Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink). This was the day we were going to make our best try to break the unofficial Howard County Big Day record of 119. We had originally scheduled this day for the previous Saturday but had to rescheduled—it was a good thing we did because the neotropical migrants had been thin or even absent for the month of May so far. Would this day prove to be different? We would soon find out! A forecast of intermittent rain in the morning with thunderstorms in the afternoon did not dampen our enthusiasm.
As with all of our Big Days so far, we began the day birding Russ's yard and the Cavey Lane area. While it was still basically dark and we were listening to the first birds of the day from Russ's driveway, Matt suddenly called out "White-crowned Sparrow!" In the dim light, we could make out a beautiful specimen in a bush about 10 feet away from us. This was not a bird we expected to get; it was clearly in our "maybe" category, so this was a good start to the day. As the light came up, we soon heard a Northern Waterthrush singing from the low area of Russ's yard. Would this be a sign of a migrant fallout ahead of the rain? We soon discovered the answer was a resounding yes!
The recently-discovered and probable breeding pair of Black-billed Cuckoos in the area called soon thereafter. This species would normally not be on an expected list for a Howard County Big Day, but we were hopeful we would get them this morning because they had been present daily for a solid week. We were happy they obliged. We spent the next two hours birding Russ's yard and Cavey Lane, and quickly ticked off a high number of warblers and others. A feeding flock at the top of Cavey Lane produced a nice array of warblers including Black-and-white, Magnolia, American Redstart, Blackburnian, Worm-eating, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Yellow-rumped, an unexpected Tennessee, and an unheard-of Hooded for this location. Clearly, we were in the midst of a fallout condition. It couldn't have happened on a better day!
Our foray down into the Patapsco Valley proved short-lived, as a train moved in and occupied the sideling track. Not only did this cut off our access to the floodplain, but it prevented us from walking on the one open track due to multiple other trains passing by. This situation caused a shuffling of our plans for the morning, which meant we ended up missing Yellow-throated Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo — both near locks for this location —as we did not encounter either species the rest of the day. We added Louisiana Waterthrush and a sometimes-difficult-to-find Belted Kingfisher here before walking back to Russ's yard, and on the way were treated to our only Veery of the day as it kept a Swainson's Thrush company along the horse trail. A major miss to this point was Brown Thrasher; Russ had multiple singing individuals in his yard for weeks prior but none on this morning. It was a species that would elude us all day.
Our next stop was the Howard County Conservancy, but as usual we checked Waverly Pond for shorebirds first. Expecting at least Spotted and Solitary Sandpiper here, we were disappointed to find a landscape crew mowing the shoreline of the pond. Needless to say, birds were absent. Our targets for the Conservancy were Blue Grosbeak, Prairie Warbler, both Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows, and possibly Yellow-breasted Chat or Lincoln's Sparrow. Prairies were everywhere here, and Harry picked out a Lincoln's along the stone wall behind the main building. We also ticked a singing chat here, and though behind schedule we decided to make a try for Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows in the west field. We felt we would get both at the U of M Farm, but fortunately we made the effort at the Conservancy because it was the only place we encountered either species the entire day. Back at the parking lot, Matt heard a Cape May Warbler singing in a cedar tree; a five-minute search finally netted this bird for all three of us. We also had three White-crowned Sparrows feeding under the same tree! Our only miss here was Blue Grosbeak.
Next, the U of M Farm, which gave us our only Bald Eagle, Cooper's Hawk, and American Kestrel of the day, plus hundreds of Bobolinks. We also had a single Lesser Yellowlegs fly over the marsh, our only one of the day. A Marsh Wren, seen the day before by others, made a brief appearance in the swale. We then heard and saw one Sora at the second pond, and then had a Sora and Virginia Rail perform an auditory duel at the third pond. On the way back down the swale, we encountered our one and only Swamp Sparrow and Wilson's Snipe of the day, and got a bonus with a calling Willow Flycatcher.
We then headed west, stopping first at Annapolis Rock to tick Pine Warbler. Moving quickly now, we watched a Barred Owl fly across the road in front of us on the way out, and Matt "Radar" Rogosky pulled a Rose-breasted Grosbeak's harsh chip note out of the treetops along Annapolis Rock Road. A quick stop at Hipsley Mill netted our primary target there, Kentucky Warbler. This stop, planned for about 1:30 hours in duration, was limited to ten minutes due to our wonderful success with warblers and thrushes earlier in the day—and being behind schedule.
A quick stop at Triadelphia Dam got us the expected Cliff Swallows, Double-crested Cormorants, and one Common Loon but no Osprey, gulls, or other waterfowl. Springdale Pond was completely bereft of birds. Our next scheduled stop was Fulton Pond, and what a stop it proved to be! As we approached the pond from the west, we could see a half dozen birders lined up along the sidewalk and we instantly knew that something good was present. The white heron walking in the grass was easily seen with our naked eyes from the car as we passed by—Cattle Egret! Definitely not a species on our target list for the day! The pond also produced Least, Solitary, and Spotted Sandpipers, and while we were scanning Russ had two Semipalmated Plovers land in his scope view. The only real misses here were recent Semipalmated Sandpipers and Purple Martins that had been here recently.
Because we were now almost three hours behind schedule, we nixed a trip to Rocky Gorge for nesting ravens and went straight to Lake Elkhorn. No continuing Pine Siskins at Allen Lewis's feeders, but we did add a late Pied-billed Grebe here. As dark storm clouds gathered over west Columbia, at Harry's urging we made two unscheduled stops—the GE Retention Pond and the field along Columbia Gateway (hoping for Blue Grosbeak at the latter site). We were delighted to find our only Greater Yellowlegs of the day at the retention pond, making that stop worthwhile, but no grosbeaks showed for us.
At this point, it was now after 5:00 p.m. and we stood at 113 species, needing seven to break the record. Then the storm began. A colossal downpour complete with lightning drenched the whole of Columbia, and we still needed Centennial Lake to provide a handful of our target birds, especially Great Egret, Green Heron, Osprey, and our best remaining chance at Brown Thrasher. Every bird was important at this stage. After much discussion and disagreement as to what to do during the heavy rain, we decided to make a non-unanimous try at Centennial in the heavy downpour. We walked in from the west end, soaked to the bone within about 30 seconds, but we did see our only Great Egret of the day—number 114. Amazingly through the sheets of rain, Matt spotted a dark blob high up in a tree on a small island: Black-crowned Night-Heron—not a species on our expected list for the day! As the rain lightened a bit, we drove to the boat ramp and added a Palm Warbler (our 24th warbler species for the day!) along the walking path, a flyover Green Heron, and a very wet Purple Martin (#118). We also got seconds of Pied-billed Grebe and Common Loon on the day, both resting on the lake. Needing two birds to break the record and with the time now 6:00 p.m., we decided to spend the rest of the day at MPEA with many possible remaining targets including Wood Duck, Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Brown Thrasher, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Yellow-throated Vireo, and any other warblers. MPEA had other plans, however.
Since the rain had now let up, we felt sure the place would be buzzing with activity. We couldn't have been more wrong. Virtually nothing was singing until we got to the river, and then it was only a Northern Parula here, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher there. Our collective mood darkened with the dimming light, but eventually a Wood Duck pair (#119) flew past us over the river and raised our hopes of breaking the record. As darkness was rapidly falling, Russ finally heard the harsh "pick" note of a Hairy Woodpecker twice, but neither Harry nor Matt picked it up as they were further behind on the trail. Nevertheless, we were now in record territory. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo finally sang once way off in the distance, putting us at #121.
After being soaked from either wet grass or downpours for most of the day, we were tired but happy to have broken the record. We decided to make a desperate attempt in the dim light at Harry's feeders for one last bird - perhaps a lingering Red-breasted Nuthatch? Instead, an Eastern Screech Owl called from close range and popped up in a tree not 40 feet from the end of Harry's driveway as we chatted loudly. It was accompanied by one other and gave us great scope looks just as darkness set in.
One hundred twenty-two birds and a new county Big Day record—what a great but tiring day!
Our biggest misses for the day were Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Yellow-throated Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Meadowlark.
We scheduled our July Big Day for the last weekend of the month (7/27) in order to take advantage of some potential early shorebird migrants while still getting as many breeders as possible. After reviewing eBird bar charts, as we usually do when planning Big Days, we felt a reasonable goal for the day was 90 species. We met at Russ' house at 5:00 a.m. sharp but for the first time we did not include Cavey Lane in our Big Day plans. Instead, we opted for as many dawn-singing forest species as possible, and so we headed to Patapsco/Henryton and arrived at exactly 5:30 a.m.
Wood Thrushes, Acadian Flycatchers, and Eastern Wood-Pewees were here by the dozens but very few warblers were heard. We did get a couple of Louisiana Waterthrushes but heard only one singing Parula and spotted one non-singing Ovenbird just as we finished up at this location. We also had a family group of American Redstarts here, but missed our best chances at Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, and Worm-eating Warbler, all misses for the day.
On the way to West Friendship Park, we stopped at Sandhill Road for a recently-reported Eastern Meadowlark, but no luck. A walk in West Friendship Park turned into a hot, muggy, tick-filled, and exhausting marathon of 3+ miles that included the Fox Chase Wetlands and back. We had more than 50 species here including at least five Willow Flycatchers, a singing Warbling Vireo, and a Blue Grosbeak. Alpha Ridge Park turned up our only Red-shouldered Hawks of the day and a single Grasshopper Sparrow that we scoped perched on a valve box way up on the landfill. Next, Waverly Pond held no shorebirds but did produce a Double-crested Cormorant, very unusual for that location. A small family of young Wood Ducks had been frequenting this pond recently but was not present today.
We ticked a few Orchard Orioles along Davis Branch at the Conservancy, but then left for Centennial Lake with the thought of returning to the Conservancy in the late afternoon hours. Centennial got us our Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, and Mallard for the day but still no Brown Thrasher. We next headed to Fulton Pond which held a Spotted, a few Leasts, and one Solitary Sandpiper, but our real interest was Lime Kiln Pond which we had heard had been recently drained. This spot displayed a lot of mud and should be a good spot over the next month as shorebird movements pick up. We added at least one, possibly two Semipalmated Sandpipers here. On the way to Browns Bridge, Russ noticed a few small ducks in among the hundreds of geese in a pond on the left side of the road and insisted that Matt turn the car around since we still needed Wood Ducks. Matt and Harry grumbled about this but were happy when the ducks turned out to be five Woodies, our only ones on the day.
Our best birding of the day came at Triadelphia. From Brighton Dam, we picked up a lone Cliff Swallow but immediately noticed a small spit of land way out in the reservoir that held a Ring-billed Gull and three terns! One appeared to be a Caspian, but two much smaller terns were too difficult to ID at that distance. Small terns in Howard at any time of the year are good birds, so we quickly drove to Greenbridge and hoofed it up the pipeline to see if we could get closer looks. By that time the gull was no longer to be found but we did confirm the Caspian and two Forster's Terns, the latter being first county records for the year. We definitely had not anticipated getting either species on this Big Day. Harry also pulled a lone Osprey out of the sky here but no Bald Eagles(!), a species we would miss for the day.
With our good fortune, we decided to try Cattail Creek to see what else the reservoir might yield. Well, there were no other shorebirds of note there, but, unbelievably, a female Merlin landed on the rock island just inside the county line! This species has never been reported in Howard County during "fall" migration prior to early August, so we were very happy to add this bird. A nice sidebar while at this location was having a young Black-billed Cuckoo land within 20 feet of us on the Montgomery County side, allowing us to tick a difficult species for that county. We left Cattail Creek at 3:45 p.m. sitting at 85 species for the day and feeling confident we would exceed our target of 90 birds.
After a few non-productive stops at Warfield Ponds, Big Branch, and U of M Farm, we decided to go back to the Conservancy but first stopped at a small pond on Frederick Road just east of Marriottsville Road. Harry quickly scanned it and noticed a sandpiper on the extreme east edge of the pond. He called Russ out of the car and we both noticed a small, very pale shorebird that we could not ID with binoculars. We quickly ran for our scopes and were back in no more than 30 seconds, but when we looked again the bird had vanished. We could not believe it, especially since about 15 Killdeer were still standing around that edge of the pond. How or why could this mystery bird have been the only one to up and leave at that precise moment? This really upset us because we both thought this could have been something very unusual; perhaps a Sanderling? We will never know. Just to be sure it was gone, Harry walked the perimeter of the pond hoping that it would flush from a depression or vegetation, but we never saw it again.
By the time we got to the Conservancy, a MAJOR downpour burst but not before we briefly ticked our only American Kestrel for the day from our car windows as it flew over the main building. Rather than wait out the rain here, Harry suggested we drive to Tar Bay Pond, which we did but only after a stop at Race Road first. Race held one Great Egret but nothing more. The bird was up to its belly in water and vegetation, making it look small and slender and prompting Russ to try to make it a young Little Blue Heron to no avail. Perhaps exhaustion was setting in by now! Tar Bay Pond held only two very wary female ducks, which we surmised were one female Black Duck and one female American Black/Mallard hybrid. We counted the one as a good black duck—#87 for the day.
A quick check of the Jessup gull site turned up nothing, as did a visit to the GE Retention Pondin Gateway Business Park. Sitting at 87 species and with about 1.5 hours of birding left, we decided that the Conservancy would be our best way to finish up, with good possibilities of still-needed Hairy Woodpecker, Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Brown Thrasher, and maybe a Black-billed Cuckoo or Eastern Meadowlark. We soon happily ticked two or three chats and thrashers each all in the exact same location amongst the east cedar grove, but could not find or hear a single Prairie Warbler. A last-ditch effort to hopefully hear a Black-billed Cuckoo along Davis Branch on the west side of the property proved fruitless as well. We found out later that one had been seen there earlier in the day!
By this time it was 8:45 p.m., and we were tired, wet, and exhausted but satisfied nonetheless with a total of 89 species and a few unexpected birds for the day. Twenty-seven stops was easily the most in our six Big Day efforts so far. For those interested, we walked approximately 13 miles total, so Big Days can be very hard work!
Our biggest misses were undoubtedly Bald Eagle, Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Prairie Warbler, and Eastern Meadowlark. We may have been able to add Pine Warbler if we had tried for them at Annapolis Rock, plus we did no owling at all this time around.
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
We scheduled our August Big Day for the last day of the month (8/31) in order to maximize our chances at fall migrants while hopefully ticking some shorebirds as well. We started the day at 5:45 a.m. at Russ' house with a projected target list of 95-100 species. The forecast called for very hot and muggy conditions, and we later found out how accurate it would be! One of the first birds of the day was a lone Common Nighthawk sailing low over our heads in the dim morning light. We spent a solid two hours surveying the Cavey Lane area and got almost halfway to our goal for the day with 45 species sighted, but only three warbler species (Black-and-white, American Redstart, and Northern Parula) were noted. We did glimpse one Cooper's Hawk, which can be hit or miss on a Big Day, plus one each of Hairy Woodpecker and Brown Thrasher. It is surprising how tough the latter two species can be when you really need them for a Big Day, so we were glad to get them out of the way early.
On our way to Waverly Pond, we got our only Red-shouldered Hawk for the day along Woodstock Road. The pond turned up nothing unexpected, so we made our way to MPEA with a quick stop to view the U. of M. Farm from the road. We were lucky to see a flock of Mallards flush from pond number two with a lone (and tough to find at this time of year) American Black Duck in tow. Arriving at MPEA at 8:50 a.m., we were able to add Ovenbird, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Cape May Warblers along with our only Yellow-throated Vireo of the day. Fulton Pond was up next, netting some needed shorebirds such as Lesser Yellowlegs and Pectoral, Least, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Triadelphia Reservoir was next in line, and just as it did for our July Big Day, it provided one each of Ring-billed Gull and both Caspian and Forster's Terns for our enjoyment. A Common Loon was a nice surprise, and we also got our Double-crested Cormorant, Bald Eagle, Spotted Sandpiper, and Killdeer for the day here. Just up the road a bit, the Cattail Creek area of Triadelphia produced our only Great Egret and Solitary Sandpipers of the day.
By this time it was around 2:30 in the afternoon, and the sun was just blazing down on us. The temperature was in the high 90's and we quickly wilted and lost our enthusiasm for birding in those conditions. Nevertheless, we pressed on, with stops at Big Branch, Centennial Lake, Wilde Lake, Lake Kittimaqundi, GE Retention Pond, and Race Road. The latter stop netted our only Wood Ducks and Red-tailed Hawk for the day. Out of water and out of energy by this time, we agreed to make one last stop at the Howard County Conservancy with hopes of finding Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Yellow-breasted Chat, Prairie Warbler, and Eastern Meadowlark; surely we would also find a lousy Field Sparrow which we had somehow managed to miss throughout the day. Arriving at 6:15 p.m., we were successful in finding a handful of young Blue Grosbeaks and two Indigo Buntings, but everything else eluded us despite us walking several miles around the property. We were quite miserable by this time, but it was a treat to watch two dozen Common Nighthawks cavorting over the fields at dusk.
We ended the day with 84 species but all agreed that this was easily our least enjoyable Big Day of the seven we had completed this year. The conditions were truly difficult and we had lost most of our steam by mid afternoon. Our biggest misses included Tree Swallow, Eastern Kingbird (although it is getting late for them), Wood Thrush, Prairie Warbler, Scarlet Tanager (of all species!), and the aforementioned Field Sparrow. Normally we would include Eastern Meadowlark on that list but having not seen even one meadowlark on any of our Big Days so far, perhaps we should just downgrade that bird to a non-target. At least that might ensure that we see one the next time!
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
Next to the May Big Day, on which we had set our sights on breaking the unofficial Big Day record for Howard County (and succeeded!), our most anticipated Big Day was September's, which we scheduled for the 14th of the month. Much like May, our timing was impeccable; we couldn't have picked a better weather forecast. A major cold front had passed through the day before so that temperatures were expected to start out in the low 50's with 9 mph winds out of the northwest overnight and throughout the day. The day proved to be spectacular, with a clear sky and low humidity throughout.
We decided to start at Russ's house at 5:45 a.m. to listen for owls and migrants. However, we didn't hear a thing until precisely 6:11 a.m., when a Wood Thrush called from the bottom of the yard—it proved to be our only Wood Thrush of the day! Things started slowly and didn't really pick up until 6:45 a.m., but when it did, the sky literally burst with warblers. In just over two hours, we estimated that at least 100 individual warblers passed through or over the yard, many going unidentified. Nevertheless, we tallied a healthy 15 species, including rare-in-fall Yellow-throated and very-hard-to-get-in-the-county Wilson's (and two individuals at that)! We also had a flyover Osprey, both expected accipiter species (Cooper's and Sharp-shinned), and a single Least Flycatcher.
Waverly Pond, which had been exceptionally low for weeks, was our next stop; it yielded four shorebird species that had been camping there for weeks—Killdeer, Spotted, Least, and Pectoral Sandpipers— along with Great Blue and Green Heron. A Belted Kingfisher, which can prove difficult on any Big Day, was also present. Just up the road, we quickly checked Waverly Mansion Pond for Wood Ducks and were not disappointed, as seven were resting on the submerged logs. We then quickly scanned the University of Maryland Farm from Folly Quarter Road—the Farm is now off limits to birders thanks in part to meddling from out-of-county birders —and heard a surprising Marsh Wren out in the marsh and added three Horned Larks in the fields.
MPEA was next on the schedule. Harry pulled five Broad-winged Hawks out of the sky here plus we had the day's only Acadian Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, and Veery. Next, a tour of the Columbia Lakes produced nothing exceptional at Wilde Lake. but a lone Great Egret was found at Lake Kittimaqundi. At Fulton Pond, the Merlin that had been hanging around for weeks was present, as was a Lesser Yellowlegs to add to our shorebird checkmarks. At Triadelphia Reservoir, we added our only Common Loon and Ring-billed Gulls of the day. At the Cattail Creek portion of the reservoir, which had extensive mudflats, we also spotted nine species of shorebirds, with Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and Greater Yellowlegs all new for the day. A lone Bald Eagle also was spotted here.
The Fox Chase/West Friendship wetland mitigation site did not hold any shorebirds whatsoever, but our time there produced a singing Warbling Vireo and a shy Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the only ones of the day. We left this site with a total of 98 species, already exceeding our goal for the day. Could we top 100 for only the second time in our Big Day efforts? We headed to the Howard County Conservancy needing three new species, with perhaps a 17th warbler species, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, flyover Common Nighthawk, or a lingering Tree Swallow as our top candidates. Eastern Meadowlark was also a possibility, but since we have whiffed on this species on every single Big Day so far, we didn't have high hopes for it.
Things were slow at the Conservancy at first. We walked all through the west field hoping to spring a meadowlark without success. However, Matt spotted a low-flying Northern Harrier, a bird we did not expect here - #99! Then, while walking along the stream below the main building, we added both Indigo Buntings and a single Blue Grosbeak in the same bush - #101! As we walked back to the car in the dim light, we finally spotted three Common Nighthawks over the fields at 7:11 p.m. - #102 and a great way to end our second-highest Big Day!
The day could have been even better if not for several big misses: Hairy Woodpecker and Common Grackle the most prominent. Since everything went well for us on this day, we really had nothing to complain about!
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
For our October 4th Big Day, we anticipated ticking approximately 90 species, but exceptionally warm weather put a real damper on migration movements. We planned to begin our day at West Friendship Park and walk all the way through to the Fox Chase/Nixon Farm wetland mitigation site. Our three and a half hour sojourn there netted six warbler species but not exceptional movements of birds as we had hoped. Only two Blue-headed and one Red-eyed Vireo were noted, and that was all we had of those species for the day. Even the sparrow numbers were low, although we did tick all of the targeted species and were able to spot a single White-crowned Sparrow that was traveling with a small flock of White-throateds. While sorting through that flock, our pulses quickened when Russ and Matt got very brief and obscured looks at a potential Connecticut Warbler that was creeping through a deep tangle of vines near the ground. This would have been a life bird for both Russ and Harry. We never got back on the bird to get diagnostic looks despite concerted efforts, but we spotted a female Common Yellowthroat in the same spot shortly thereafter. That bird may have been what we had seen skulking through the tangle earlier. A single Blue Grosbeak was a nice surprise, and a bit of effort chasing a flock of sparrows through the brush at the mitigation site eventually turned up our only two Lincoln's Sparrows of the day. At least four American Kestrels were in the area, and a single Sharp-shinned Hawk was spotted.
Western Regional produced two more warbler species for us - a handful of Cape Mays of all ages and plumages and a lone Tennessee. We enjoyed exceptional looks at all of these birds at extremely close range. A search of the ball fields turned up no Horned Larks, a species that we would miss for the day. The entrance pond, which earlier in the week had produced a Clay-colored Sparrow and an Orange-crowned Warbler, did not prove to be very productive.
Triadelphia/Cattail Creek was next and it proved to be quite productive in an unexpected way. We knew the water levels were very low and hoped for a good variety of late shorebirds. Upon arriving, we saw perhaps the largest acreage of mudflats that any of us have ever seen at one place in the county; however, save for a few Killdeer and a Great Blue Heron, the mudflats were bare of birds, with most of the shorebirds having moved through weeks ago. Almost immediately, however, Russ heard the croak of a Common Raven and we easily spotted it soaring over the reservoir. This was Matt's first county record and a year bird for both Russ and Harry! In the next few seconds, we added single Bald Eagle, Osprey, and Red-shouldered Hawk, all of which proved to be our only sightings of the day for each species. So what we missed in shorebirds we made up for in raptors. Just to be safe, we thoroughly scoped the mud and Harry eventually found a small group of Least Sandpipers totaling 13 birds way off in the distance.
At the dam, we were hopeful of spotting gulls or terns on the exposed sand in the middle of the reservoir, or perhaps a Common Loon as we had on several previous Big Days at this location, but it was not to be. We quickly checked Springdale Pond which was bereft of birds, but we did spot three Red-tailed Hawks soaring over it as we drove away. Short stops at Brown's Bridge (extraordinarily dry) and Lime Kiln Pond turned up nothing, but Fulton Pond produced several Pectoral Sandpipers along with one additional Least. This would be our last tick of a shorebird on the day, with only three total species in that category.
At this point, temperatures were approaching 90 degrees, and as in August, our energy and enthusiasm were challenged. We decided to proceed to the GE Retention Pond with a stop in Jessup along the way for a quick look for gulls. Both locations were completely empty of birds. At 3:30 p.m. we arrived at Lake Elkhorn not hoping to add much, but instead were rewarded with an American Coot that Russ saw under the vegetation on a distant bank after carefully checking the shoreline of the lake. This bird was flagged by eBird, so Harry took a documentation picture through his scope with his iPhone. Matt found a Chestnut-sided Warbler (our ninth and final warbler species for the day) in the low vegetation along the water below the spillway, and then spied our only Green Heron standing motionless along the water line. We left Elkhorn at 3:50 p.m. with 73 species.
Kittimaqundi was our next stop and we immediately spied a Great Egret on the far bank in the exact same spot that we saw one on the September Big Day. We hoped for Ring-billed Gull and Fish Crow here but neither materialized. Wilde Lake and Centennial both proved to be fruitless stops as well. At this point, we actually started to worry that we did not have even one American Robin for the day yet, but a stop at Matt's house to walk his dog produced dozens of them. Missing a Robin would have been a tough pill to swallow!
We added Meadowbrook Shopping Center to our itinerary in hopes of getting Ring-billed Gull and Fish Crow for the day, and were not disappointed. Meadowbrook wetlands, however, added nothing to our totals, not even one Brown-headed Cowbird even though we carefully checked through a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds numbering several hundred birds. We got some relief on the way to MPEA though, as Harry spotted a single Brown-headed Cowbird landing on the back of a sheep in a farm field along Route 108! MPEA produced a Barred Owl which was sitting right out in the open; it was mobbed by Jays and Crows soon thereafter. This is a species, as are all owls, that we usually manage to miss on most of our Big Days.
Our total for the day was only 79 species. Big misses included Wood Duck (a species we've recorded on all but one of our Big Days this year), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (though it was getting late for them), Horned Lark, Cedar Waxwing (!), and Common Grackle (a species we've managed to miss on three Big Days this year). Overall, the low numbers of neotropical migrants, shorebirds, and waterfowl caused us to fall far short of the day's goal. The heat and unfavorable overnight winds suppressed passerine movements; the timing seemed to fall right in the "dead zone" between the end of shorebird migration and the beginning of any noticeable waterfowl movements.
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
We chose November 23 for our second-to-last Big Day of 2013, and the day proved to be exceptionally challenging not only in finding birds but in dealing with the weather. It was a clear, sunny day but temperatures remained in the low 40's with significant winds in the 20 mph range all day long. It made for an extremely cold day in which none of us ever felt warm, and the birding was, quite frankly, dismal.
We began at Russ's house around 6:15 a.m., with a goal of 75-80 species. We were curious to see if November would be able to top the 75 birds we got in both our January and February Big Days earlier in the year. Once again, no owls were heard in the pre-dawn darkness, which has been typical for most of our Big Days. The first bird, a Northern Mockingbird, gave an alarm "chuck" at 6:23 a.m., as if to warn us what kind of day we were going to have. A Cooper's Hawk zoomed over just as the light was coming up, and both a Red-tailed and a Red-shouldered Hawk followed soon thereafter. We added the usual yard birds over the next hour or so—28 species in all—with a few Common Grackles at the feeder. It is surprising how difficult grackles can be on some Big Days, and so we were happy to get them out of the way early. At Waverly Pond, we ticked our geese and Mallards for the day and Harry picked out a Belted Kingfisher sitting quietly in one of the willows, low to the water. This is another species that can easily elude you on a Big Day; so far so good!
The Howard County Conservancy was next on our itinerary, but only after quickly checking Waverly Mansion Pond for Wood Ducks, to no avail. This proved to be a species we missed this day. The Conservancy is our prime Big Day winter sparrow site, and we hoped to get Tree, Fox, and Savannahs here. Russ spotted a lone American Tree Sparrow after hiking a short distance off the back end of the property, but both Harry and Matt failed to get on the bird. No Savannahs were present, but we did pick up two Fox Sparrows near the end of our hike. We were also able to add a couple Swamp Sparrows and one Yellow-rumped Warbler prior to departing for Race Road.
Race Road was empty of waterfowl save for a few American Black Ducks in with the Mallards. We added a Bald Eagle flying overhead along with a Winter Wren that flew across the road in front of our car. The Jessup gull site was good for Great Black-backed, Herring, and Ring-billed Gull, just as Russ's scouting trip there yesterday afternoon had panned out. At the GE Retention Pond, we added Hooded Merganser and Ring-necked Duck, but we were starting to get the feeling that the day would prove to be slow for waterfowl in general. This was proven by visits to Wilde Lake and Centennial, where we ticked only a lone drake Bufflehead at the former, along with a single Ruddy Duck and one Double-crested Cormorant at the latter.
Lake Kittimaqundi and Fulton Pond were essentially absent of birds other than Ring-billed Gulls and Mallards; Browns Bridge was a vacant mudflat, and Springdale Pond was completely bereft of birds. Brighton Dam and Pigtail were all but empty save for a few gulls and Hooded Mergansers. By the time we got to the U. of M. Farm (from the road only), it was 3:00 p.m. and all of us were pretty miserable and cold. By this time, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not likely to tally even 60 birds for the day. Russ saw one Horned Lark here and spotted a Northern Harrier cross through his scope while scanning Pond #2 from Folly Quarter Road, but once again neither Matt or Harry got on either of these birds and we felt that we might not make the Big Day requirement that each participant identify at least 95% of the total species observed.
We next hit Western Regional Park with hopes of Savannah Sparrow in the dry pond and larks on the soccer fields, but failed to find a single one of either species. On the way out of the park, we noticed hundreds of geese coming in to feed in the farm fields opposite the park. There were at least 500-600 birds here and so we took a few minutes to scan for a rarity tucked in among them. Russ soon picked out a small, short-necked bird in the flock closest to us, and we were able to confirm this individual as a "Richardson's" Cackling Goose, easily our best bird of the day. This find failed to improve our mood much, as it was now a foregone conclusion that we were not going to top 60 birds. Nevertheless, we headed out to the silage pit in western Howard County with just a few minutes of light left. After a few moments of looking for hoped-for White-crowned Sparrows, Matt found two Rusty Blackbirds a short distance out in the marsh. This was a nice way to end the day, even if we only got 59 species total. Due to the 95% ABA Big Day rule, the official total we can claim is only 58 species.
The number of common and expected birds that we missed on this day was quite high. Our misses included such "easy" birds as Killdeer, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Chipping and Savannah Sparrows, and—the worst misses—Red-winged Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird!
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
It was a lot of fun embarking on our mission of doing a Howard County Big Day in every month of the year! The three of us thoroughly enjoyed "setting the bar" in each month, the only exception being June when we could not find a weekend day that worked for all three of us. Our final Big Day of the year was set for December 21st, and we appreciated that the forecast was for warm and dry weather. Compared to the bone-chilling day we had in November, temps in the 60's were a welcome change. Also, a number of different waterfowl species had been present in the county over the past week, so we were confident we would improve upon our dismal total of only 58 birds in November. We were hopeful for at least 70 species. Secretly though, all of us were hoping to encounter a Snowy Owl somewhere in the county today. Over the past few weeks, they had been spotted in many of the counties surrounding Howard County, so perhaps a long day afield would turn one up in Howard?
We began at Russ's house around 6:30 a.m., and once again we did not hear any owls before dawn. Once the flight of crows began passing over the house around 7:00 a.m., Matt pointed out a distant adult Bald Eagle, a species which can be easily missed on a Big Day. A primary reason for starting at this location was that Russ had had three American Tree Sparrows the day before; today, they were nowhere to be found. We also were hoping to tick the three expected blackbird species (Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, and Brown-headed Cowbird) on the feeders, but were disappointed to only get the latter even though all three had been around all week. Unless you've tried a winter Big Day, you'd never guess how difficult it can be to find a blackbird when you really need one! Amazingly, we had missed both Red-wingeds and cowbirds on our November count!
Russ had done quite a bit of scouting the day before, and Centennial Lake had held a good number of waterfowl, so we decided to explore that location before the large crowds of walkers and joggers arrived and stirred up the birds on the water. We got off to a slow start here as it seemed many of the ducks had moved on, but eventually we were able to turn up six species including the single Greater Scaup that had been present throughout the week. Unfortunately, the two drake Canvasbacks and three drake Redheads from the day before were nowhere to be found. The "Cans" had moved over to Wilde Lake, as our next stop discovered, and we got our only Ruddy Duck for the day at that location as well. Kittimaqundi had nothing of note except we heard the distinctive "chip" note of a Yellow-rumped Warbler as it flew over the lake and then landed in a lakeside thicket right in front of us. This was a bonus bird and not one we were counting on getting today at this late date.
Next it was on to the Howard Conservancy for sparrows and other passerines. We walked a little over a mile and added Hairy Woodpecker - another species that you can easily whiff on when doing Big Days - plus two Horned Larks, three American Tree Sparrows, and one Fox Sparrow, all of which were specific targets. We saw no Savannah Sparrows here, our most likely location for this species on the day's agenda. From Russ's scouting, we knew that the Race Road wetlands were ice-free and were holding a nice flock of Gadwall. We headed there expecting to tick that species and hopefully some other waterfowl. Nothing new from the previous day was present but while we scoped, a drake Northern Shoveler dropped out of the sky and landed among the Gadwall! On the way out of this area, Matt spotted some blackbirds in a low marshy area adjacent to the road. They proved to be three Red-wingeds. We weren't going to miss that species again! Next we added Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls near the Jessup transfer station, which is a lock for these species in winter months.
We were a little behind schedule at this point so we departed from our agenda by scratching the GE Retention Pond and going straight to Lake Elkhorn. There was nothing of note or new at this location, but on a tip from Allen Lewis the previous day, we had a bead on an Eastern Phoebe that he had seen a quarter mile down the Patuxent Branch Trail. We gave it a try and Harry spotted the bird literally within the first few steps we took. That was probably the easiest chase we've had on any of our Big Days. Fulton Pond was next on our list, and it offered up one solitary bird - a lone Killdeer -which we were beginning to think we would miss on the day. A quick stop at Browns Bridge in hopes of Wood Duck was futile, as no waterfowl of any kind were present. Springdale Pond followed and provided our first American Black Ducks for the day. One of the homeowners was kind enough to invite us to view the lake from her back deck! We got amazing views of the water but unfortunately it was on a day when not much was present.
Triadelphia Reservoir dam was quite fun. Immediately upon exiting the vehicle, Russ spotted a Bonaparte's Gull wheeling below the dam with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls. This was quite unexpected and was the first and only "Bony" we've had on a Big Day. As we combed through the massive (> 1,000) flock of Common Mergansers, we eventually picked out a hen Red-breasted Merganser. Interestingly, there were at least 20 Bald Eagles of varying ages sitting on a sand bar way out in the middle of the reservoir. At this point, we were once again falling behind schedule - agendas are very tough to stick to on Big Days for some reason! - and so we decided to just do a drive-through of the West Friendship Park entrance road in hopes of Savannah Sparrows or a American Kestrel. To no avail. On the way to our next stop at Alpha Ridge Park, Russ thought he heard the plaintive call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker along the road near the intersection of Route 144 and Route 32. Thankfully it was warm and we had our windows down! We turned around, parked at the Shell Station, and within seconds had one just a few feet off the road. This bird gave us an excellent photo-op and Russ and Harry were able to take exceptional photos of this hard-to-photograph species from a mere 20 feet or so.
We included Alpha Ridge Park for the express purpose of scanning the northern section of the landfill for Snowy Owls. Nothing doing though. Still needing House Finch at this point, we decided to deviate from plan and make a quick stop back at Russ' house, where we ticked at least six of them on his feeders. Then it was off to Underwood Road in hopes of a Snowy Owl and American Pipits. No Snowies there either, but we did get one pipit flyover! Daisy Road produced our expected American Wigeon for the day, and we then made a stop at Waterford Farm, the first time this location was included on one of our Big Days. We entered the farm sitting at 65 species with only about 35 minutes of good light left. Within two minutes, we had 68 species. Two Savannah Sparrows, a lone kestrel, and a Northern Harrier all appeared within seconds of one another along the drive in. We hustled on to the Florence Road silage pit further west, and by the time we got there it was essentially dead. No sparrows were moving at all by this time, nor were any Rusty Blackbirds present. We were able to entice a Winter Wren into brief view though - #69 for the day.
Our last stop was Annapolis Rock, where we hoped for owls and possibly—given the warm temperatures—some displaying early American Woodcock. No dice on the Woodcock but we spotted a very small goose in with one of two large flocks of Canada Geese that flew overhead in the darkening sky. Russ took a quick photo and the bird looked to be about half the size of the Canadas it was with—a Cackling Goose! Heading back to the car in the darkness around 5:50 p.m, we got our last and 71st species of the day - a calling Barred Owl. The day had turned out better than expected overall, and very well for waterfowl, as we had 15 species of that group which bested our previous high of 14 back in January.
All in all, it was a satisfying way to end our "Big Day Year." We could have had a few more birds - misses such as Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cedar Waxwing, Chipping Sparrow, and Common Grackle among them - and that would have made the day more successful, but we weren't complaining. Looking back over the past year, we had set the baseline for Big Days in the county in every month but June, broken the unofficial Howard County Big Day record with 122 species in May, made some nice seasonal discoveries along the way, and had a boatload of fun doing it. With Matt's wife due to give birth to their first child in January, our team may not be as active in 2014 but we hope to be able to do a couple next year, with our biggest goals being to break the record of 122 in May, fill in the missing month of June, and perhaps extend our numbers in a couple of the other months!
Russ Ruffing, Matt Rogosky, and Harry Fink
* Due to the 95% ABA Big Day rule, the official total we can claim in November is only 58 species.