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Big Day (Bird Race)

17 May 1997

by Randy Hoffman

Big Day Statistics:


When we left Al's house, just north of Sun Prairie, at 11:50 pm to reach our first stop at midnight, little did we know we were embarking on an incredible day of birding that we will never forget.

Big Days are always a challenge.  Are the weather conditions right?  How is the migration progressing?  Is it early or late?  These questions need to be coupled with knowledge of habitat preferences, locations of rare species, and life history information about each possible species.  Consideration of all these bits of information forms the basis for selecting a route.  Of course, a Big Day alternative is to explore new areas by picking an area, making random stops, and permitting nature to determine the results.  This final process is basically how part of this year's route evolved.  On May 15, 1996, Randy and Mark Peterson had just completed a Big Day route using a time honored route in southern Wisconsin.  That Big Day was a bust.  Cold weather and windy conditions kept the count down to 150 species, whereas two years previous they had had 178 species.  Somewhat dejected over those results, Randy decided to explore a new route one full day later on May 17, 1996.  An incredible migration occurred that day with 188 species recorded from 3:30 am to 3:30 pm.

During the winter of 96 - 97, Randy and Al discussed the results of this new route several times over coffee, and decided to give it a try in May 1997, at about the same time period.  In mid-April we met and set a tentative time for the Big Day of May 16, 17 or 18.  This would give us flexibility if one or two days were extremely cold or windy.  As the Big Day approached, we communicated on weather and scouting.  Friday's forecast was well below freezing over night and a low pressure system moving rapidly through.  Saturday's forecast was for high pressure, light northwest winds, possible fog and light afternoon winds under sunny skies.  Sunday's forecast had another low pressure moving through with southerly overnight winds and a chance for severe thunderstorms.  We decided on Saturday to optimize viewing conditions; although traditionally we would have picked Friday or Sunday's low pressure conditions.

On Friday, May 16, we scouted portions of the route.  Randy did a first run of the night portion and scouted the stops between in Jackson, Juneau, and Wood Counties.  Al scouted the late morning and afternoon portions in Sauk, Dane and Columbia counties.  We then retired early to arise at 11:00 p.m.

The Big Day started in fine fashion with a Eastern Screech Owl at 12:01 am.  The night sky was clear, moon three-quarters and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, a light 2-5 mph NW wind.  We headed north the east end of Mud Lake for our second stop.  Between the time we opened and closed the van doors, our second bird, a King Rail called.  We played a tape of Least Bittern calls with no success; a miss that would come back to haunt us.  However, when we played the King Rail calls, both Sora and Virginia Rails responded, along with three more King Rails.  A Great Blue Heron, Canada Goose, Mallard and Swamp Sparrow rounded out the site.

Onward, we drove to the south side of Grand River Marsh.  A stop near the grassy areas produced Henslow's and Savannah Sparrows.  We whistled for Upland Sandpiper and Whip-Poor-Will with no success, although calls of Barred and Great Horned Owls were heard.  The sky was still very clear.

However, by the time we reached our next site, Comstock Bog, the wind had picked up and low clouds and higher humidity rolled in.  The night before at Comstock, Yellow Rails called vociferously - maybe 7 or 8 (their calls blended too much to get an accurate count).  When we jumped out of the vehicle in anticipation, we were greeted with silence.  A Sedge Wren called, then a few migrant chips.  The tape was imperative tonight.  A few seconds of tape produced a Yellow Rail.  We listened for other birds recording only Song Sparrow, but 2 or 3 more Yellow Rails called.

Our next stop was Buena Vista.  The drive gave us time to reflect on the birds so far, what was missed and where we could get them.  The night before Whip-Poor-Wills were calling at Grand River and Comstock.  We had one more chance in the morning - west of Buena Vista, but this could throw us off schedule.  Within moments, there was a flash of red eyes and a few flaps in front of the car -- we had our bird.  Little did we know at the time, this serendipity would be the norm for the day.

Several target birds were at Buena Vista.  We had scheduled a full hour of stops.  At the first stop on County Highway F, we heard a lot of noise; unfortunately, it was power lines.  They were making loud chattering noises due to the high moisture content of the air.  All but one of the five stops on County Highway F had power lines making noise.  On the one stop that did not, we heard a Greater Prairie Chicken.  This was only one of the target birds.  We again whistled for Upland Sandpipers, squawked for Short-eared Owls and played tapes without success, although we added Western Meadowlark and Killdeer to the list.

From Buena Vista the route swung west through Nekoosa.  Arriving about 4:10 a.m., we checked off American Robin and Chipping Sparrow in town on our way to the Cranmoor cranberry bogs.

A stop was made where an American Woodcock sky-danced the night before - it was listed without leaving the vehicle.  The value of scouting paid dividends.  The Cranmoor area is mostly in active cranberry production with virtually no bird life directly associated with the production beds.  However, the water retention ponds contain good habitat.  Another major complication occurred and again it was noise.  With low temperature at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, many growers were spraying their beds to prevent frost damage.  The sounds of high powered diesel engines made listening difficult.

This was a crucial area, occurring at the earliest part of dawn when marsh activity peaks.  Several common birds were tallied of in rapid succession:  Pied-billed Grebe, American Bittern, Blue-winged Teal, American Coot, Ring-billed Gull, Sandhill Crane, Common Snipe, Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Marsh Wren, Gray Catbird, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.  The target birds were harder to get.   Another tape session playing failed to produce Least Bittern.  A LeConte's Sparrow was difficult to discern against the drone of diesel engines, but we did pick one out.  Quite unexpectedly, a Common Loon tremoloed in the distance.

The route now took us west to the Bear Bluff area with several stops in between.  The first was a flood plain area along Hemlock Creek where a Prothonotary Warbler and a Wood Duck obliged us.  Travelling west through the Sandhill Wildlife Area, Randy shouted swan.  A hurried stop produced an excellent bulrush reflection of a swan shape.  While Randy was grovelling over the misidentification of plant for a bird, Al was on top of the van scanning pond and discovered a Red-necked Grebe.  This was a sure stakeout bird later in the day that required a twenty mile side trip, so this fortunate sighting saved us time.  The stop also produced a Northern Flicker.

From here the route took us directly west through the Wood County Wildlife Area.  The focus of this stop was a remnant population of Sharp-tailed Grouse.  A low lying area with abundant water, Wood County Wildlife Area has only a few areas where the grouse live.  A stop at the favored lekking area produced the grouse in minutes.  In addition, we recorded Bobolink, Northern Harrier, Least Flycatcher, Nashville Warbler, and Yellow Warbler.

Our next stop was eerie and bizarre.  The west end of the wildlife area contains flat open bog with scattered tamarack and black spruce.  The temperature hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and low clouds closed the sky.  The previous morning Hermit Thrushes were singing and that was our focus.  Attentive listening did not produce the thrush, but a combination of other songs made the setting surreal.  First, a Golden-crowned Kinglet sang, then a White-throated Sparrow, followed closely by an Orange-crowned Warbler, then at very close range, a Harris Sparrow burst into song.  Were we in Wisconsin or northern Manitoba?  A slow drive to Bear Bluff added Black-capped Chickadee, Belted Kingfisher, Cliff Swallow, American Crow, and American Goldfinch.

A right turn out of the bogs brought us into upland oak forest, and after two miles we entered agricultural land.  Species added were Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brewer's Blackbird, Horned Lark, Barn Swallow, and Blue Jay.  Another important portion of the route began after leaving this area.  The plan was to drive slowly and add heard resident birds or stop for any wave of migrants.  During the next eight miles to Mather we stopped for four different waves of migrants and added the following:  Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Double-crested Cormorant, Mourning Dove, Brown Creeper, Crested Flycatcher, House Wren, Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, Veery, Solitary Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Golden-winged Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Pine Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Towhee, and Baltimore Oriole.

Stops at three different feeders in Mather recorded Purple Finch, House Finch, Clay-colored Sparrow, House Sparrow, and a Chimney Swift overhead before birding Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  The next 1.5 hours took is slowly in and around Sprague Mather flowage.  Three more waves of warblers were seen and extensive scoping of the flowage produced Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveller, Ring-necked Duck, Bald Eagle, Spotted Sandpiper, Rough-winged Swallow, Swainson's Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Northern Parula, European Starling, Rock Dove, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Black and White Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush.

A swing through an open barrens restoration areas added Common Raven, Connecticut Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, Field Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow.  Closely following the exit from Necedah several feeders in Sprague were observed.  After viewing several regular species such as Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Indigo Bunting, and White-crowned Sparrow, the bird of the day appeared.  We were looking at several tightly packed feeders containing numerous Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, when Al excitedly pointed out a different looking bird.  We both focussed on a female grosbeak with buffy throat and chest and light flank streak.  The head marks were much more contrasting to the neck - a first state Black-headed Grosbeak for both of us.

After this stop our traditional 9:00 a.m. count commenced.  We traditionally count the species seen at 9, noon and 3 to assess how we are doing.  We also look at the remaining potential species to modify our route if necessary.  At 9:00 a.m., we had recorded 122 species.  This was OK especially since the morning up to this point was 40 degrees and low clouds and moderate NW winds.  However, the weather began to change rapidly and so did the bird activity.

The route was to circle a five mile reach of the Yellow River.  A few more waves of migrants ticked off Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler.  The important event revolved around the residents as they became active.  Displaying and loudly calling Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks dominated the sky, and Pileated Woodpeckers called from the woods.  At one feeder a Ruby-throated Hummingbird appeared and a singing Cerulean Warbler was in the adjacent woods.

The route proceeded through City of Necedah where we saw a Bank Swallow, to the upper reaches of Castle Rock flowage where a quick stop produced a nesting Osprey.  Farther down the flowage at the causeway a Broad-winged Hawk was circling, a Herring Gull was lounging on a water soaked log, and an Red-breasted Merganser was foraging in the bay, (this bird again saved another twenty minute trip later in the day).  A few miles down the road a circling Cooper's Hawk and a foraging Eastern Kingbird were seen.

Onward to the Baraboo Hills!  Approach Devil's Lake from the north we saw the obligatory Turkey Vulture making our noon total 139.  On the way, we scoured the list for misses.  Thirty species of non-water birds were regular enough to be considered possibilities before 3:00 p.m.  We birded the south shore looking for and finding a Winter Wren.  We also had a Blackburnian Warbler singing from the pines.  The south shore was quiet with little song and as we were ready to leave a single bird emerged from the rocks - a Lincoln's Sparrow (totally out of expected habitat).  Next a quick drive to the springs on the east end produced a Louisiana Waterthrush within seconds.

Returning to the beaver pond area, several previously seen birds were tallied; except one, an Olive-sided Flycatcher that was foraging over the pond.  We headed up the hill to Burma Road.  More migrant waves contained many previously seen species, plus Scarlet Tanager, Mourning Warbler, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Canada Warbler and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  Surprising to us were two singing Kentucky Warblers and a Worm-eating Warbler.

Although we had not planned on it, we made a trip into Baxter's Hollow.  Since we missed Acadian Flycatcher at Devils Lake, this was our only chance.  Past experiences made us conscious that we could waste a lot of time looking so we gave ourselves fifteen minutes.  Near the entrance a quick stop produced a Wilson's Warbler almost instantly.  Conversely, it took nearly fourteen of our fifteen minutes, but we landed an Acadian Flycatcher mid-way up the valley.

South through the sandy farm land, brought us to Schluckebier Prairie for two target birds.  A farmer working his fields directly south of the prairie conveniently flushed a covey of Northern Bobwhite for us.  The second was a chipping Grasshopper Sparrow at the same location Al pinpointed the day before.  We continued west a few miles to the PF dump for Lark Sparrow.  Fortunately, we stopped at a small barrens one-half mile east of the dump and flushed a Lark Sparrow, before the car stopped; at another barrens area we saw a Palm Warbler.

Our next target was the Mazomanie Barrens and Bottoms area.  We noticed we were missing Purple Martin and proceeded for a former colony area.  The house we knew that contained martins was now a House Sparrow condo, but maybe another existed.  Our hunch paid off notching this increasingly hard-to-find species.

The next stop was the Mazomanie Barrens area where Randy had seen chats two years previously.  An excellent wave of migrants was present, but no chats, and our first stop with no new species.  One mile down the road at the canoe landing we heard an Orchard Oriole.

The final stop before we changed our focus to water birds was Mazomanie Bottoms.  As we approached the road's end, a hoard of beach users had the parking area overflowing.  We found one spot open in front of the gate and proceeded to the dike.  A Black-billed Cuckoo called to our right, then a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to our left, although, for the most part, the trees were very quiet with little song.  Al considered leaving, but Randy insisted flycatchers were regular at the first corner.

On the way, we picked up a Common Moorhen cackling in the marsh, and then proceeded to the flycatcher spot, and soon had a calling Willow Flycatcher.  Several least's began "singing" although one sounded different.  We keyed in on the different one and it turned out to be a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  Now it was time to leave.  Migrants were not encountered until nearly out the woods when one warbler sang out - a Black-throated Blue; the only non-rare warbler we needed.  In addition, we also picked up a Red-headed Woodpecker and had recorded 29 of the 30 species considered possible, missing only Cedar Waxwing.

Our route would now focus on water birds.  With 168 species at 3:00 p.m., the day's success depended on this group.  The weather had improved dramatically; clear skies, upper sixties, and light wind set the stage for the next 3 hours.  Buoyed by our prospects, we headed east towards Fish and Crystal Lakes.  The first stop was a mudflat where Al had a Franklin's Gull the day before.  The gull was gone, but Short-billed Dowitcher, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Least Sandpiper were there.  The lakes gave us Forster's Tern, Common Tern, Ruddy Duck, and two bonus Horned Grebes.  Migrant warblers were seen in high numbers along the shore of Crystal Lake, although no new species were added.

A pond on Madigan Road was very productive with American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper and American Pipit.  A mudflat off Schumacker Road produced Long-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpiper, Baird's Sandpiper, and a Western Sandpiper with the most distinctively drooping bill tip we could recall.  The always-productive pond on County Highway V had Bonaparte's Gull, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Black Tern, Gadwall, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.  Stops at County Highway "I" pond had a Greater Yellowlegs, but the other "I" ponds contained nothing new.

Our next stop was a huge mudflat near County Highway DM and Harvey Road, and it was loaded with shorebirds.  Hundreds of peeps and Dunlins, and perhaps 100 Lesser Yellowlegs and dowitchers were present; in addition Lapland Longspurs and more pipits were observed.  As we were scoping the pond from different vantage points, we both requested the other to look at this browner bird.  We switched scopes and amazingly found we had both focussed on the same Stilt Sandpiper.  The east end of pond was even more spectacular with Black-bellied Plover, Hudsonian Godwit, and Marbled Godwit.   The previous two hours were phenomenal, bringing our total to 198 as we headed to Goose Pond.

Pulling into the drive we were pumped.  Randy began glassing the pond.  Al looked at the uplands, then he shouted "kestrel!".  A male was perched on the pole above the nest box - #199 was recorded.  Within seconds a Ring-necked Pheasant crowed - #200.  We approached each other for a high five.  The slap and excitement must have been the cause for a covey of Gray Partridge to flush - #201, and only the second time ever for this species on any of our Big Days.  We then birded the mudflats by the east pond pulling a Wilson's Phalarope out of the grass - #202.

A decision had to be made should we go west to Jamieson Park for a Tufted Titmouse or head to Horicon.  More opportunities were at Horicon, so the decision was easy.  The forty mile trip was unlike any we have ever experienced.  Usually, on Big Days this is panic time - so many birds, so little time.  This year it was euphoria time.

Our effervescence could not be contained.  We were laughing, reflecting, and smiling a lot.  All weariness from the long day was gone.  Things had fallen in place for the improbable.  Everything past 8:00 a.m. clicked.  Why stop now!  A Green Heron flew along side the van - #203, and we saw a Common Nighthawk perched on a roadside post - #204.  Reaching Horicon the Great Egret - #205 and Redhead - #206 were almost instant.  Another flock of Hudsonian Godwits added luster.

The final stop was the end of the main dike.  While driving out, two Black-crowned Night-Herons flew by - #207.  Upon reaching the road's end, and as the sun was setting, a flock of five Cattle Egrets flew north along the ditch - #208.  We weren't done.  Several more attempts at adding Least Bittern failed.  We concluded at 8:30 p.m. for a well deserved celebration.

Our return trip home was jubilant.  We recaptured many of the days events.  In total, we travelled 428 miles by van and two on foot visiting all of the known habitats in southern and central Wisconsin.  The keys were the resident birds and lingering early migrants.  Though it does not seem possible, an even larger total could have been achieved.  Counting the birds we discovered the day before in scouting and birds known to have been seen by others on Saturday within five miles of the route - 224 was possible that day.

Missed were pre-big day birds Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Hooded Merganser, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Franklin's Gull (also seen by others at one of our Saturday stops), and Caspian Tern.  Other birders observed Eared Grebe, Least Bittern, Canvasback, American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper, Alder Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing, and Tufted Titmouse on the same day within five miles of the route.

Hindsight can add clarity or lead to more questions.  In our case, we believe the latter is closer to the truth.  The success of this 208 species Big Day was probably the result of several factors.  The more northerly route probably added several species such as Common Raven, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Common Loon, and Hermit Thrush.  The migration was late which helped with species such as Bufflehead, Greater Yellowlegs, and Orange-crowned Warbler.  However, migration on the Big Day seemed relatively poor compared with the day before and after.

Conversely, most of the expected migrants were tallied, including late species such as Connecticut Warbler, Black-billed Cuckoo, Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  One group that seems to stand out is the resident birds especially raptors and gallinaceous birds.  Were the more favorable afternoon viewing conditions critical in the day's success?  Several more Big Days on this route may answer the questions.