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Big Day (Bird Race)

16 May 1998

by Gordon Tans

Big Day Statistics:


“We have long known that a mid-May Big Day will produce more waterfowl and shorebirds than late May, but at the expense of late-arriving passerines.  For years we have debated among ourselves about the ideal date for a count.  In light of recent disappointments on later dates, we were eager to try an early date this year.  But when planning a south-central Alaska Big Day, one must consider much more than just the date.  The tides can rise and fall more than 30 feet each day, so hitting the right stage of tide is important, too.  The tide book forecast for May 16 couldn't have been better, so we selected it as the earliest ever date for our seventh annual assault on 110 species.  As the day approached, however, the weather forecast -- high winds -- was very disturbing.  Wind, of course, can send the birds into hiding and make hearing their songs impossible.  It could also make Kachemak Bay so rough that our thirty mile boat trip would be in serious jeopardy.

It was cause for immediate concern when, at 3:30 AM, we made our first stop in the dark to listen for sparrows and other songbirds.  The sound of wind was all we heard.  One stop and we were already 4 or 5 species behind expectations.  Nobody wanted to talk about it, but it was on all our minds -- this could be a very bad day.

When we got farther into Fort Richardson, the forest cut down the wind a little, and by dawn the birding was actually pretty good.  When we left the military reservations at 6:25 AM we had tallied a few species that can be difficult to find and a new bird for our Big Day efforts, a Solitary Sandpiper.  Our list stood at 37, two less than we'd found there in 1997, but within a few minutes the list grew by 6 more species at our first stop just off the bases, so we felt pretty good about that.

We were already behind schedule, though, and we wanted to spend considerable time at a new spot on the mudflats at the mouth of Campbell Creek (Anchorage), so we skipped a regular stop at Ship Creek and moved quickly through Westchester Lagoon, Earthquake Park, Lake Hood, and Spenard Lake.  We missed the Red-throated Loon that we had seen in previous years, and we saw only two shorebird species in these locations, so by the time we headed to south Anchorage, were 5 species behind 1997.  The winds were still blowing, and the count had slowed significantly.

The Campbell Creek mudflats involved about a 1 mile walk through the forest and out on the mudflats.  Of our group, only Dave Delap had ever spent any time birding this area.  On our tight schedule, spending this much time at an untested spot was a big gamble.  The day before the count we decided on the basis of Dave's recommendation that we would commit up to 2 hours to the flats.  On count day, Dave was downright worried about what we would find there.  As we emerged from the woods, our first glimpse was of a N. Harrier cruising over the flats.  We usually miss the harrier, so we began across the mud on a happy note.

The mud on the flats around Anchorage is not ordinary mud.  It is made of fine glacial silt.  The mud quickly forms a seal around your boot and you have to fight the force of suction with every step.  On this day it was doubly bad because we headed straight into a 30 mile per hour wind.  I was doubtful that we would see many birds out there in that wind, but when the tears finally cleared out of my eyes I noticed there were indeed hundreds of shorebirds spread out in front of us.  The only way to identify anything was to turn our backs to the wind so our eyes weren't exposed directly to the wind and our bodies shielded our scopes from some of the vibration.  Even so, my scope blew over right out from under my eyes, and only a instinctive grab saved it from falling lens-first into the mud.  When it was all done, we had added both dowitchers, three other shorebirds, and a few others to the list.  It had taken a lot of time and energy, but we had never before found both dowitchers on the same count day.  We were all pleased at what we had seen, but had we taken too much time?

A couple of woodpeckers at John's Park were encouraging, and a Rough-legged Hawk at Potter Marsh almost made up for the disappointment of missing the Red-winged Blackbird for the first time since 1992.  Girdwood yielded an Olive-sided Flycatcher and Portage gave us not only the important regulars, but also a Glaucous Gull.

When we left Portage at 1:30 PM, we were about an hour later than normal, but our species list totalled 83!  This matched our best ever effort at this traditional mid-day checkpoint.  An excellent day on the Kenai Peninsula and in Homer might allow us to reach our goal of 110, but only on a decent day and only if everything went right.  We were still very worried about bad weather on Kachemak Bay.  If the winds were like they were at Campbell mudflats, it was unlikely we would even be able to get out of the small boat harbor.

We expect to see Trumpeter Swan at Moose River on the Kenai Peninsula, but our usual vantage point had been closed to public entry.  We were now forced to look up river from the highway bridge.  We could still see the swans from there, but it would be impossible to pick out any passerine or anything but the most distinctive large shorebird.  Consequently, we were unable to identify anything but the swans and a Gr. Yellowlegs that wasn't more than a couple hundred yards off.  When we were just about to head back to the car, I noticed a large bird hovering over the river a long way upstream.  We trained our scopes on this bird and were able to add Osprey to the list for only the second time ever, an unexpected delight.

About 2 hours and only one more species later, we finally crested the big hill that brought all of Homer and Kachemak Bay into view ahead of us.  To our surprise, whitecaps were not visible on the bay.  When we reached the Homer Spit, the winds were down.  The bay had nothing more than the normal late afternoon chop, which can still make for a rough ride, but were going to be able to make the boat trip for sure.  Suddenly things were looking very, very good.  We had only about an hour to bird the huge Homer Spit before meeting our boatman, Carl.  In that time we found both Pacific and American Golden-Plover, Black-bellied Plover, Dunlin, two scoters and C. Eider.  We couldn't find the Eurasian Wigeon that had been seen earlier in the week, but we were lucky to see a Merlin at the base of the spit instead.

On the way out of the small boat harbor we asked Carl to go slowly around the harbor breakwater, as shorebirds often congregate there at high tide.  Within a minute we had added Surfbird, Ruddy and Black Turnstones to the list.  According to Richard's tentative count, we were now at 99.  We had about 2 ½ hours of light left for birding, and passing our old high total of 105 seemed a sure thing.  It was getting exciting.  Out on the bay we soon added Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Black Oystercatcher, the third scoter, three cormorant species, Harlequin Duck, Tufted Puffin, and Pigeon Guillemot.  We were now at 108 (tying the state May record) and needed only 2 more to reach our long-standing goal.

We continued across the bay into good areas for Marbled and Kittlitz's Murrelets, but were disappointed to not find Marbled Murrelets where they are expected.  As we approached Glacier Spit, some 7 miles across the bay from the Homer Spit, we knew we were running out of time.  Finally I thought I saw a murrelet near the spit.  I pointed, and Carl headed the boat in that direction, but in a few seconds he cut the throttle and glanced back at the engine with a very puzzled look.  It didn't take him long to announce that the boat's steering was gone!  We went in circles for a few minutes while Carl tried to do something to regain control of the boat.  It was eventually decided that all we could do was have Richard and me manually manipulate the huge outboard engine.  One of us pushed on the engine housing while the other one pulled on a rope from the other side.  In theory this ought to steer the boat well, but in practice it wasn’t so good.  Somehow the broken steering mechanism inhibited the movement of the engine, and it turned out that I had to spend most of the trip back painfully straining against that rope.  Visions of the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea began to occupy my mind.

Seven miles from the harbor, no other boats in sight, the light failing, and we can only putter along with a crude manual steering system.  Any thought of continuing the search for murrelets was now gone, and our hopes for reaching 110 species were dashed.  Tired and lost in our own thoughts about the day, we strained against the engine while Carl very carefully directed the broken boat back to the small boat harbor.  About midway back, Richard suddenly broke the trance when he leapt up and pointed out a pair of Parasitic Jaegers.  They made a dive and struck a Fork-tailed Storm-petrel.  The petrel fell in the water not far away, and the jaegers flew off.  Carl directed the boat in a circle to the right (it wouldn’t circle left), and after a couple of circling passes, we were able to capture the bird and bring it on board.  The jaeger had made it 109 species, but our birding was now limited to satisfying our curiosity about this injured petrel.  When we finally neared the mouth of the harbor, another boat came out to meet us.  They lashed us along side and safely escorted us into Carl's slip.  We had made it back safely -- the poor petrel was the only casualty.

By the time we got back to the car and out of our foul weather gear, it was 10:30 PM and the light was too far gone to identify anything at any distance.  We tried anyway, looking again for that Eurasian Wigeon, but we wouldn't sight another species.  Exhausted mentally and physically, we called it a day and headed for home and some food.  On the way a thought suddenly occurred to me.  I asked Richard, who had been making the tentative count all day, whether he noticed that I squeezed both the Pacific Golden-Plover and the American Golden-Plover onto the same line of our listing form.  In a few seconds, Richard had finally counted them all -- 110 -- and there was no mistake in this count!

Bad weather, near disaster, nothing spectacular bird-wise -- and yet we finally reached our goal, setting state records for May and for non-aircraft Big Days.  Was it superior planning?  Luck?  Persistence?  Probably all of that and more.  It was an eventful and extremely satisfying day that capped many years of effort.  A great adventure we will not soon forget.”


1 Pacific Loon
2 Common Loon
3 Horned Grebe
4 Red-necked Grebe
5 Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel
6 Double-crested Cormorant
7 Pelagic Cormorant
8 Red-faced Cormorant
9 Trumpeter Swan
10 Greater White-fronted Goose
11 Canada Goose
12 Green-winged Teal
13 Mallard
14 Northern Pintail
15 Northern Shoveler
16 Gadwall
17 American Wigeon
18 Canvasback
19 Ring-necked Duck
20 Greater Scaup
21 Lesser Scaup
22 Common Eider
23 Harlequin Duck
24 Black Scoter
25 Surf Scoter
26 White-winged Scoter
27 Common Goldeneye
28 Barrow's Goldeneye
29 Common Merganser
30 Red-breasted Merganser
31 Osprey
32 Bald Eagle
33 Northern Harrier
34 Red-tailed Hawk
35 Rough-legged Hawk
36 Merlin
37 Sandhill Crane
38 Black-bellied Plover
39 Pacific Golden-Plover
40 American Golden-Plover
41 Semipalmated Plover
42 Black Oystercatcher
43 Greater Yellowlegs
44 Lesser Yellowlegs
45 Solitary Sandpiper
46 Wandering Tattler
47 Spotted Sandpiper
48 Whimbrel
49 Hudsonian Godwit
50 Ruddy Turnstone
51 Black Turnstone
52 Surfbird
53 Sanderling
54 Semipalmated Sandpiper
55 Western Sandpiper
56 Least Sandpiper
57 Pectoral Sandpiper
58 Dunlin
59 Short-billed Dowitcher
60 Long-billed Dowitcher
61 Common Snipe
62 Red-necked Phalarope
63 Parasitic Jaeger
64 Bonaparte's Gull
65 Mew Gull
66 Herring Gull
67 Glaucous-winged Gull
68 Glaucous Gull
69 Black-legged Kittiwake
70 Arctic Tern
71 Common Murre
72 Pigeon Guillemot
73 Tufted Puffin
74 Rock Dove
75 Rufous Hummingbird
76 Belted Kingfisher
77 Downy Woodpecker
78 Northern Flicker
79 Olive-sided Flycatcher
80 Tree Swallow
81 Violet-green Swallow
82 Gray Jay
83 Steller's Jay
84 Black-billed Magpie
85 Northwestern Crow
86 Common Raven
87 Black-capped Chickadee
88 Boreal Chickadee
89 Red-breasted Nuthatch
90 Brown Creeper
91 American Dipper
92 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
93 Hermit Thrush
94 American Robin
95 Varied Thrush
96 American Pipit
97 Orange-crowned Warbler
98 Yellow-rumped Warbler
99 Townsend's Warbler
100 Wilson's Warbler
101 Savannah Sparrow
102 Fox Sparrow
103 Song Sparrow
104 Lincoln's Sparrow
105 Golden-crowned Sparrow
106 White-crowned Sparrow
107 Dark-eyed Junco
108 Rusty Blackbird
109 Common Redpoll
110 Pine Siskin


Marbled Murrelet
Hairy Woodpecker
Three-toed Woodpecker

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