Big Day (Bird Race)
16 October 2000
by Floyd Hayes
Big Day Statistics:
Having accumulated more than four months of birding and ornithological research in Tobago during the last 7 years, I decided it was time to assault the 26 December 1993 Big Day record of 86 species set by Blake Maybank et al. At 0430, British expatriate Martyn Kenefick, Guyanese student Bryan Sanasie, my 9-year-old son Brett (who had just recently become obsessed with birding and did NOT want to be left out!) and American expatriate your's truly left our guesthouse with Martyn behind the wheel of our rental car. While driving along the Northside Road we flushed up several White-tailed Nightjars--our first species of the day. On our second stop I whistled a few times for Common Potoo and--bingo, one responded! Just before dawn we searched in vain for Barn Owl along the Roxborough-Parlatuvier Road.
At dawn we hiked along the Centre Hill Trail, slowly picking up forest birds while traversing along the island's highest ridge in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. By 0700 we had 26 species, including the endangered White-tailed Sabrewing, which is far more common than the published bird literature suggests (I've banded 78 individuals since 1996). Next we birded by the Forestry Hut and then proceeded to the popular Gilpin Trail, picking up most of the forest birds that we anticipated seeing. By 0900, when we left the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, we had tallied 35 species.
While driving along the Windward Road to Speyside, Bryan spotted our first rarity of the day: a Black Vulture soaring directly overhead, presumably the same individual seen periodically by others during the past several years. By 1000 we arrived in Speyside, where we patiently waited an hour for the Forestry Division officers to arrive and prepare the boat to take us out to St. Giles Islands. While waiting we noted two White-winged Swallows, the first for Tobago (present for several weeks), flying over a field and perching on a goalpost. Martyn found a limping Buff-breasted Sandpiper, which allowed close approach for photographs. We also carefully studied an egret with puzzling features; we decided not to count it but later concluded it was most likely a Little Egret. Although we enjoyed exhilarating views of seabirds at St. Giles and were grateful to the Forestry Division for taking us there, the trip took up an agonizing amount of time and failed to produce any Masked Boobies--our primary target. We then visited Little Tobago, where we picked up two Blackpoll Warblers and a few other birds. By the time we left Speyside at 1345–-well behind schedule--we had tallied 65 species.
Worried about time, we sped along the Windward Road to western Tobago, pausing only briefly to pick up a few new birds along the way. At Turtle Beach we picked up several expected coastal birds. At Buccoo we hiked into the swamp, rapidly accumulating more waterbirds plus two more Blackpoll Warblers, but disappointingly few shorebirds were present. A Northern Waterthrush provided our record-breaking 87th species. While walking back to the car I found an elusive vireo high in a tree. Viewing it through binoculars we all thought we saw a dark whisker stripe, but to be certain we focused our telescopes on it, eventually obtaining splendid views. Nailing Tobago's first Black-throated Vireo cost us 20 precious minutes, but was worth the extra effort. We then drove to the beach at Buccoo and picked up more coastal birds, including a bona fide Little Egret to make up for the questionable bird in Speyside. We left Buccoo at 1700 with 94 species and only an hour of daylight remaining.
Desperately short on time and waterbirds, we decided to forego Crown Point International Airport, where we had seen Yellow-headed Caracara (plus Buff-breasted Sandpipers) the evening before. At Tobago Plantations we picked up an Osprey and several Black-crowned Night-Herons at a large pond–-numbers 95 and 96, respectively. In dismay we found the fence outside the Bon Accord Sewage Ponds covered with vines that blocked our view, but fortuitously the gate was unlocked and a maintenance worker graciously allowed us to enter. Several Least Grebes and two Great Egrets boosted our tally to 98 species. With the sun low on the horizon we sped to Pigeon Point, the last stretch of sand where we hoped to pick up Black-bellied Plover, Willet and Ruddy Turnstone. Because of the high tide we hoped shorebirds would be congregating at the end of the point. But alas, only a few species previously seen were present. Just as the sun and our hopes of reaching a hundred were sinking below the horizon, a Ruddy Turnstone caught our attention as it landed on the beach–-providing species number 99. We needed just one more to reach a hundred! If only we'd seen Barn Owl before dawn.
Or a White-lined Tanager, an unimaginable miss, in the forest. But there was still a glimmer of hope...
Although we had searched in vain for nighthawks the previous evening, we desperately searched again while driving to our guesthouse in Plymouth. As we passed through Bon Accord, a slender bird with pointed wings suddenly materialized on my side of the car and gracefully flew across the road just in front of us. "Hey, nighthawk--Merlin!" I shouted. "No, nighthawk!" insisted Martyn as he quickly pulled over. Leaning out the windows to get a better look, we all concurred with Martyn as the bird disappeared, but were uncertain whether it was a Common, Lesser or even an Antillean Nighthawk. Though we couldn't identify it to species, it was our HUNDREDTH different species of the day! We could have searched more for Barn Owl but had an all-night ferry trip ahead of us to prepare for. We were satisfied with an excellent effort that won't be easily surpassed--though surely somebody will someday...