Like every aging birder, I look forward to a good owl movement in the morning. When a barred owl flew through our headlights in Milford at 2:20 a.m. on May 24, The Raven Loonatics were off to the races with the first bird of a very, very long day. To some folks, the idea of trying to find as many different bird species as possible in one day seems a little obsessive. To me, it’s the best day of the year.
OK. Best two days. I’m just insane enough to be on two birdathon teams. My other team, The Cardinal Sins, chose May 28 to go out for its birdathon. Birdathons are also called Big Days. If you saw the movie “The Big Year,” it’s 1/365th of that, but without Steve Martin.
Ostensibly, the birdathon is a fundraiser for Maine Audubon. Supporters pledge a few pennies per bird for every species positively identified within 24 hours. In reality, it is also a loose competition between several local teams with names such as The Babeolinks, Clay’s Pigeons, The Lame Ducks, Wing Nuts, and even a children’s team called the Fledgling Pledglings. The more serious teams try to top each other, but most just try to top what they did last year.
Finding and identifying birds isn’t actually the biggest challenge. Like waging war, it’s really all about logistics. The most important thing to do is to choose the right day. Bad weather ruins everything. But when you have four people who have busy lives and conflicting schedules, typically you pick a day well in advance and cross your fingers. Which doesn’t work.
The Cardinal Sins have gotten wet for many years in a row and this year was no exception. One year we went out in the remnants of a tropical storm and finished the day staring through the windshield at a Winterport bird feeder during a deluge hoping to break the hundred species mark. We did, but barely. We finished dead last that year.
Picking the right day is also a delicate matter of timing. Birdathons throughout the country are customarily timed to take advantage of migration. Teams rack up impressive totals if they can snag not just their own resident birds, but also the birds heading north to their breeding grounds. The biggest event is the World Series of Birding in New Jersey. This year’s affair occurred on May 12. Maine’s own Luke Seitz was on the winning team which identified 207 species in one day, besting 62 other teams. Competitions along the east coast flyway get to count a lot of birds that actually belong to us, not them.
Similarly, competitions in southern Maine occur a week before ours. Portland also takes advantage of migrating birds that will eventually settle into nests in northern Maine, and a team might expect a day’s total to exceed 150 species. Teams located above Route 2 have to make a more difficult decision, and can only hope to exceed 120. If you pick an early date, you might snag some birds that are heading north, but miss some birds that haven’t arrived yet. For instance, purple sandpipers leave our coastline around Memorial Day; Nelson’s sparrows arrive about the same day. A perfect day catches the sweet spot when our summer birds are just arriving but our winter birds haven’t left yet. If you know when that precise day is, please call me, because I never get it exactly right.
The next step is route planning. The secret is to hit as many different habitats as possible. But don’t overdo it. The more time spent in the car traveling between great locations, the less time spent actually birding. For a good score: stay out of the car. I usually don’t get that exactly right either.
A well-planned route is an oxymoron. Despite the best planning, the timetable goes awry immediately.
If the first few stops are productive, it’s hard to leave. If the stops aren’t productive, it’s hard to leave. “Gosh darn it, those target birds have got to be here somewhere!” Within minutes, the team is behind schedule, which typically leads to a day full of arguing about how to make up time and what stops to drop from the itinerary. Nothing adds heat to a debate like sleep deprivation.
Which brings me back to The Raven Loonatics and The Cardinal Sins. Both teams want to win, and neither is likely to. Next week, we all find out what happened.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.