“Pull over,” I said. “This is where a whip-poor-will was calling last year.” Sandi hit the brakes and the car skidded to a stop. We rolled down the windows. Sure enough, a whip-poor-will was next to the car. Why can I remember obscure stuff like that but not where I left the car keys?
My annual Bird-a-Thon took place May 23. Our team of four, the Cardinal Sins, assembled at 2 a.m. For the next 20 hours we would count every bird we could find, hoping to beat last year’s record of 132 species identified in one day.
It would be a daunting task. Spring came slowly this year, and so did the birds. Worse, we were doing our Big Day a little earlier in May than usual, due to the near-impossibility of finding a date when all four of us — myself, my wife Sandi, Linda Powell from Skowhegan and Julie Keene from Hampden — were available.
Things started reasonably well. The whip-poor-will was bird No. 1 for the day. A Wilson’s snipe, American woodcock and common nighthawk quickly followed. But owls gave us trouble. We couldn’t find a saw-whet or great horned owl anywhere, and we would have been skunked altogether if not for a single barred owl calling at 4:30 a.m., just as the horizon began to glow.
Sunrise inspired more birds to sing. By 5 a.m., we were up to 31 species — not bad for a daybreak total. Yet something was wrong. The dawn chorus was muted. Apparently, some birds were sleeping later than a jazz musician. Some of our expected species were missing completely. The spring’s cold weather had diminished the food supply. Blossoming trees had not blossomed. Bugs that would normally be attracted to the blooms had not hatched yet.
Throughout Maine, this spring has seen a rash of birds going to backyard bird feeders, trying to survive on suet and seeds when they had expected to be dining on insects. Scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings have been gathering at feeders in record numbers. That was evident during our Bird-a-Thon, because they were not in their usual woodland places. We missed both.
Still, we were in the game. We visited Bangor City Forest just in time for a warbler wave, stumbling over several birds still in migration mode. Bay-breasted warblers and blackpolls prefer nesting in thick spruce forests farther north, yet there they were, near the Orono Bog Boardwalk. Amazingly, by 9 a.m. our list had grown to 85 species.
Americans can make a competition out of anything. Birding is a gentle pursuit, but a Bird-a-Thon is extreme birding. It’s like bungee-jumping or paragliding, but without the immediate threat of death. Mostly. The team charges from place to place, identifying birds by sight and sound, sampling as many different habitats as possible. Vigilance through the car window is mandatory. Napping is forbidden.
Arguments ensue over how to best manage time at each location. We often have to tear away from one terrific site, to stay on schedule for the next. We manage weather and tide conditions, and assess the likely migration schedules. I lost 2 pounds on this Big Day. I’m just 20 more Big Days away from my goal weight, assuming I could survive on Cheetos, black coffee and no sleep for another 20 days.
By 11 a.m., we had reached 95 species. My rule of thumb is that we need to hit 100 by noon if we’re going to challenge the record. At 11:55 a.m., a peregrine falcon on the side of the I-395 Veterans Remembrance Bridge pushed us up to the century mark but not over. It was going to be tight.
Yet we were optimistic. Victory was within reach. On the way to the ocean, we had time to stop at Fields Pond Audubon Center, collecting three more species. Then at Schoodic Point, we grabbed a few easy ones, like common eider and black guillemot. We added more difficult ones, like black scoters and a white-winged scoter, and spied some truly tough ones on the wing. Purple sandpipers and northern gannets pushed our total to 126 by 6 p.m.
We had fair weather all day, but rain was predicted after 8 p.m. If the rain just held off, we could break the record.
But no. It was already drizzling at 7:30 p.m. when we heard the day’s last bird — a Swainson’s thrush. Hope departed as the rain intensified. After 20 hours of nonstop birding, we ended up with 130 species … two short of our record.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.