If not for owls, my two birdathon teams could sleep late. But owls are the reason both teams — The Raven Loonatics and The Cardinal Sins — assembled at 2 a.m. this year. There are a handful of night birds that need to be found if the team is going to uncover more birds in one day than any other team.
It’s a little ticklish for me to be a member of two competing teams in Maine Audubon’s annual fundraising event. Obviously, both teams can’t go out on the same day because they would have to fight over me. The last time that happened, they flipped a coin and the loser had to take me. Still, whichever team goes out second gets the benefit of my knowledge of where the first team went and what they saw. That’s unavoidable.
The Loonatics started hot May 24. A barred owl flying across the road was the first bird of the day, followed by an ovenbird calling at 2:30 in the morning. The elusive northern saw-whet owl was heard before 3 a.m. and, by then, the team had notched several other songbirds singing long before they were expected. By 5 a.m., the team had already positively identified 34 species. But on May 28, The Sins got off to a slow start in the rain. After an hour, the team had yet to grab its first bird. By 4 a.m., there were only eight birds identified. Uh-oh.
Then the rain stopped. In rapid succession, The Cardinal Sins heard the barred, saw-whet, and great horned owls, plus whip-poor-will, common nighthawk, and American woodcock. But no Wilson’s snipe — a big miss! By 5 a.m., The Sins were only at 25 species.
A funny thing happens after the rain stops. Birds start singing. The Sins started gaining on The Loonatics and by 7 a.m. the teams were tied at 67. At Essex Woods in Bangor, the score remained tight as The Sins sighted a secretive black-billed cuckoo that The Loonatics had missed four days earlier, then fumbled the ball when they couldn’t locate a Baltimore oriole in Bangor’s easiest location.
By noon, the teams were still close. The Loonatics led by three with 105 species on the tally sheet. Leaving Bangor behind, the Loonatics hurried to the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden while the Sins elected to try their luck through Winterport. Their luck was bad until they reached Frankfort and picked up a Nelson’s sparrow in the saltmarsh — a bird the Loonatics hadn’t even tried for. Both teams snapped up the peregrine falcon perched on the old bridge on Verona Island and headed Down East to search some ocean habitats.
Here’s where everything changed. The Loonatics headed to the mudflats and caught the tide just right, adding a few shorebirds that The Sins never saw. On Schoodic Point, they sighted a few lingering purple sandpipers and a beautiful red-throated loon in breeding plumage. Red crossbills alighted in trees above them and the team surged ahead. By 3 p.m., they totaled 118 species and were ahead by two.
Meanwhile, The Sins had made up some time and decided to roll the dice and head back into the forest for one more try at woodland species before hitting the coast. If it was a bust, all hope was lost. Instead, boreal chickadee, ruby-crowned kinglet, and ruffed grouse were added to the list, and the team scored a broad-winged hawk and American kestrel through dumb luck. A vesper sparrow in a blueberry field tied the score at 124 at 5 p.m. By 6 p.m., a different red-throated loon in nonbreeding plumage at Schoodic Point put The Sins in front at 129.
The last two hours of daylight during a birdathon are spent in sheer desperation. There’s so little time left and so many embarrassing misses. Pine warblers and pine siskins are both easy birds to get, yet somehow The Loonatics missed the former and The Sins missed the latter. Both teams missed northern harrier and bank swallow.
The last hour is usually a search for “one more bird” not yet listed. For The Raven Loonatics, it was a calling upland sandpiper at nightfall — bird number 133. For The Cardinal Sins, species number 136 was a pair of green-winged teal at sunset. Both teams had set new team records.
And neither team had won, or even placed second. Top honor goes to The Three Jays — John Wyatt, Jim Hinds and Jerry Smith, who somehow extracted 138 species from the ether. Darn it.
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 email@example.com.