For the Birds Radio Program: Big Day 1995

Original Air Date: June 2, 1995

What kind of person gets up at 2:30 in the morning to go birding and doesn’t quit until almost 11 at night? 4:06

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The jolliest birding event of the spring is the Big Day—the day when birders team up to see as many birds as they can in a 24-hour period. Duluth Audubon sponsors our Big Day as a fundraising birdathon for Hawk Ridge—the bravest birders ask for donations per species seen, and the rest of us cough up $20 ourselves to participate. My team this year was a new one made up of Gary, Tony, and me. Big Days are competitive, and we had our work cut out for us as an expansion team against such seasoned veteran groups as the Tall Boys and the Weasels.

I got up at 2:30 to be at Tony’s by 4. We made his yard the starting point since it’s in the middle of a great swamp where it’s possible to hear rails and Saw-whet Owls. Unfortunately, we scheduled this year’s Big Day for the windiest Saturday of the month—maybe the century—and birds apparently figured singing wasn’t worth the effort against the wind. No rails, but we did hear a Killdeer—our first bird of the day—along with one bittern, a robin, a couple of dueling Song Sparrows, and, after playing a recording over and over, a very brief Saw-whet Owl tune.

The wind and cold weather caused an interesting phenomenon—birds flooded along the North Shore going the wrong way. It felt exactly like an October day—leafless trees, cool temperatures, and birds moving south on a blustery northwest wind. Bazillions of warblers winged past at Stoney Point, virtually all unidentifiable as they zipped by at full speed without lingering for even a glimpse. Little by little, we filled in our checklist, but by day’s end we had only 17 species of warblers and a single vireo when we were shooting for at least 20 warblers and four or five vireos. Our best sighting of all was a female Wood Duck sitting in a tree. Her mate flew in nearby and the bright sun showed his incredible breast spotting to perfection.

One by one we found new birds, but although we never had a completely dry period, neither did we have any incredible waves of cooperative singers or warblers feeding in the trees. The wind was so fierce at the dikes at 40th Avenue West in Duluth that our eyes were pelted with grit and we were almost blown away. It was virtually impossible to hold binoculars steady enough to identify the plovers in the ponds, but Terry Wiens’s bicycling team managed to pick out a longspur among the Chipping Sparrows literally blowin’ in the wind. Birders make lots of pishing calls to attract birds in for better looks, and since Terry’s team was on bikes, they called themselves the Pedal Pishers.

We wended our way through the harbor and along the St. Louis River, and then went down to the Floodwood Sewage Ponds where we saw lots of neat things, including one Wilson’s Phalarope at the water’s edge, lots of singing Bobolinks, and hundreds of swallows darting and weaving above the ponds along with three Black Terns and one kestrel acting like a nighthawk. I suspect all the swallow activity seemed so fun that the kestrel simply joined in—it clearly wasn’t hunting. We didn’t make it to the Sax-ZIm Bog until late in the afternoon, and by then things were absolutely silent, but we found a magpie at the Meadowlands sewage ponds, two Gray Jays on the road, and our only Hermit Thrush.

We ended up in fifth place, with 117 species, knowing we’d have won easily if only we’d started out at the bog, or timed some of our stops differently, or the wind wasn’t blowing, or… Well, anyway, it wasn’t a bad finish for an expansion team.