For the Birds Radio Program: Big Day 1992

Original Air Date: May 22, 1992

What’s it like to start birding at 3 am and not quit until 9 at night? (4:01) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


My alarm clock is seldom set for earlier than 4 am, but Monday it was set for 2:15, and I actually woke up by myself at 2:05.

The author of Wisconsin Birdlife and my personal hero, Sam Robbins, had arrived at my house the night before, and we were about to search the area within 30 miles of the Blatnick Bridge to find every kind of bird we could in a single day. Although birding Big Days can be jolly fun anytime, in this case we had an additional motive: our Big Day was also serving as a Birdathon for Project Loon Watch. People were pledging money based on how many species Sam and I could see or hear that day. Every time we found a new bird, it was going to provide needed money for Loon Watch’s education and research programs.

I was glad to wake myself because that way it’s easier to drag myself out of bed. I’m no coffee drinker, but a robin singing outside my bedroom window and anticipation of the fine birding ahead were the only stimulants I needed. At 2:55, we went out to load up the car as a sleepy Sam Cook, Duluth News-Tribune outdoor writer, appeared on the doorstep. Off the three of us set to listen for nocturnal marsh birds and owls.

A couple of woodcock were peenting, and we heard a distant bittern, Sedge Wrens, and a Swamp Sparrow at Allouez Bay marsh. An almost full moon illuminated the predawn sky, and the cloudless horizon was pinkish by 4:15, bright enough to quiet any Saw-whet Owls that might have been around. We did hear Great Horned and Barred Owls, and for one brief moment Sam Robbins and I both clearly heard a distant Great Gray Owl, one of our best finds of the day. Douglas County’s wet woods and bogs were rich with bitterns pumping everywhere we stopped.

As the sky brightened, the symphony of warblers, vireos, and thrushes started up, along with that most lovely song of all, the Winter Wren. We had great fun distinguishing each instrumentalist’s voice in the orchestra, and our list was growing by leaps and bounds. By the time Sam Cook went back to his newspaper work at 10, we were up to 89 species. We’d been glad to have him around. Not only is he fun company, but he also pointed out our only snipe of the day, plus finding Red-tailed and Broad-winged Hawks that we might well have missed.

By the time he left, song birds were quieting and woodland birding was slowing down. We had 110 species by two, when we stopped for a quick lunch at Hardees on Park Point. and plotted strategy for the remainder of the day. Erie Pier was good for rarities: both Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits and a Black-crowned Night-Heron. A gorgeous White-fronted Goose was tipping up at Indian Point. We still didn’t have a loon for the day, so next stop was Brighton Beach.

We were so keyed in on finding new birds that we weren’t as tired as you might have supposed as the afternoon waned, especially considering that Sam Robbins is 70 years old and recovering from a serious illness. We checked out a few feeders for staked-out birds and then headed back to Highway A before the sun set. Le Conte’s Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks were singing in a lush meadow as the ripe sun oozed into the horizon. We wanted to finish the day with a nighthawk, but apparently they were still hanging out in tropical Minneapolis.

We gave up at 9:15, with energy enough to hit Perkins for dinner. We finally arrived home at 10:30, 18 1/2 hours after we’d left.

Our finally tally was 140 species, lots of jolly memories of good birds, and stories about the easy ones that got away. I hope enough people pledged a few cents per species to give Project Loon Watch a good boost. It was the most fun I’ve ever had raising money for a good cause.