Maine Audubon’s Birdathon season kicks off next Saturday, May 17. A birdathon is also known as a “Big Day,” and it is an attempt to find as many different bird species as possible in 24 consecutive hours. For a birdathon, team sponsors are asked to pledge money for each bird species found. But birders are notoriously shy about asking for money, so too often, it is done just for fun. I’m guilty.
Doug Hitchcox took over as Maine Audubon naturalist in Falmouth last fall, and he is coordinating the Maine Audubon birdathon fundraising effort. However, there is a world of difference between Portland and Bangor … or at least a difference of one degree latitude. Even in birding, there are two Maines. Up here, we set our own schedule.
Southern Maine times its birdathons to take advantage of migrating songbirds. In mid-May, teams flock to places like Evergreen Cemetery in Portland to look for birds that have momentarily settled down after a long night’s flight.
By contrast, teams in northern Maine head into the field after most of the migrants have arrived at their nesting grounds. Around here, birdathons occur a week or two after Portland’s.
I captain a team called The Cardinal Sins. It is one of several teams within the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon that competes for the highest total each year. Several teams within the Downeast Chapter scour the region from Blue Hill to Southwest Harbor in equal pursuit of glory and fund-raising.
Most Americans would name a December holiday as their favorite day of the year. However, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. I cherish holidays that emphasize overeating. Likewise, my absolute favorite day of the year, exceeding even Thanksgiving, is our birdathon day, because I also cherish overbirding.
We’ll start looking for owls at 2 a.m. and won’t stop until someone collapses at about 10 p.m. The Cardinal Sins totaled 127 species in one day last year, and we hope to do better this year, especially if we don’t get rained upon for the 20th year in a row.
On the surface, doing a birdathon may appear daunting, but most teams do far less than 24 hours. There aren’t many of us diehards out there dying hard. If you’re interested in giving it a try, here is an abbreviated list of tips from Doug Hitchcox:
— Form a team or contact Maine Audubon to ask about teams you can join. (In Eastern Maine, call the Fields Pond Audubon Center at 989-2591.)
— Gather pledges from friends, family, neighbors and co-workers.
— Count birds only if they are alive, outdoors and unrestrained.
— You can count birds at feeders and attract birds by using recorded bird songs.
— Identify birds conclusively by sight or sound. If in doubt about a bird’s identity, don’t count it.
— Be mindful of breeding birds and their habitats. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment must come first.
— Pack binoculars, sunscreen, bug spray, comfortable shoes, water, layers of clothing, field guides and maps.
— Plan to take frequent breaks and bring plenty of snacks.
— Come up with a fabulous and fun name for your team.
— Decide what your route and time frame will be for your birding expedition. How much time do you want to spend out in the field? Where do you want to go? What time of day is optimal to see the birds you want to see?
— Pat yourself on the back. You’re raising money for a great cause: the conservation of Maine wildlife and habitat!
That penultimate tip is important. Planning the route and timetable is the key to success. You want to visit the greatest number of different habitats at the best time to find the birds at their most active. If you’re thinking “that’s impossible,” you’re right. The Cardinal Sins get into vehement arguments every year. You can’t be everywhere at once. In fact, you’d prefer to be at as few places as possible. By its nature, a birdathon is competitive carpooling. The more mileage you can eliminate from your planned route, the more time you have for actual birding.
Fortunately, I’m full of free advice. If you need some guidance, my email address is at the bottom of this column. Meanwhile, I echo the counsel of Doug Hitchcox regarding plenty of snacks. Bill Thompson of Birdwatcher’s Digest opines that every serious birder pauses only long enough to eat something that ends in “tos”… Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos …
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 mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at email@example.com.