The alarm went off at 2 a.m. The power went out at 2:05 a.m. If those events had happened in reverse order, I would have slept right through my favorite day of the year. As it was, we dressed in the dark and my birdathon team hustled out the door to begin 20 straight hours of birding. A birdathon is an attempt to find as many different bird species as possible in one day, often in competition with other teams.
The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon coordinates the annual contest as a fundraiser for Fields Pond Audubon Center. My team is called The Cardinal Sins. It has existed for a dozen years. You would think by now we would be better at it. The Cardinal Sins finished first in 2003, but we have found a way to lose every year since.
For one thing, it always rains on us. Always. Ideally, we should pick a day when the forecast is promising. But when four people have to juggle work schedules, that’s not possible. So we always select a day far in advance and hope for the best. Somehow that day is always wet. So consistent is our bad luck that the Old Farmer’s Almanac calls me up to find out which day we’re going birding, just so that they can predict rain for that day.
Nonetheless, we started strong this year. The first bird of the day was a common loon, yodeling across the lake. Within minutes, a barred owl joined the chorus. We stopped at a marsh for rails and were greeted instead by an unexpected saw-whet owl. Before dawn, we snagged whip-poor-will, snipe and woodcock in their expected places, and brown thrasher and indigo bunting in unexpected places. So far, so good.
Naturally, the rain began. By noon, we were way behind. In order to achieve a good total, a birdathon team hopes to hit at least 100 species by midday. We were barely past 80. Team member Linda Powell exclaimed, “This is the earliest we’ve ever been this late!” And it continued. We couldn’t find easy Bangor birds like northern mockingbird and downy woodpecker. Who misses downy woodpecker?
Soon, it became apparent that another factor was weighing against us. We were too early. Many migrants were slow to return to Maine this year because of poor weather. Warblers, flycatchers and thrushes were bottled up down south waiting for favorable winds. Wouldn’t you know it? In a year where we were forced to go early, the birds were forced to arrive late.
As it turns out, many wintering birds were also forced to leave late. We may have missed some of the spring birds, but when we reached the coast in midafternoon, it was apparent that many sea ducks were still present, stuck in the same lousy weather pattern. At Schoodic Point, we hauled in two horned grebes and a long-tailed duck in full breeding plumage. I hadn’t seen them in that plumage since I visited them on their nesting grounds on Hudson Bay in Manitoba a few years ago. Lingering purple sandpipers and all three species of scoter were still at hand. Our luck was turning around after all.
If you need evidence as to what lengths a birdathon team will go, consider this. Hitting the right tide can be critical. We were dangerously close to missing the optimal tide at one of my favorite shorebird places and decided that we would have to forego a bathroom break if we were to make it to the mudflat before it was too late. With legs crossed and eyes watering, we arrived just in the nick of time. Five different species of shorebirds were clustered along the water’s edge. Around the corner, a full view into the ocean revealed a red-throated loon and common tern. A nearby bird feeder hosted a single pine siskin and a female rose-breasted grosbeak. Suddenly, our total species count had gone from abysmal to merely dismal.
As daylight faded over the ocean, a northern gannet appeared on the horizon — bird number 127 for the day. We made several failed attempts to find a great horned owl on the way home, but had to content ourselves with an average score. In an average year, an average score would not be good enough to win.
But this was not an average year. Every other team ran into the same bad weather pattern. For the first time in a decade, The Cardinal Sins had won!
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.