Though no one can deny that the peace and tranquility of observing birds in beautiful settings alone in the field is one of the best experiences of birding, the Big Day is a close contender. Sleepless nights, heat-stopping chases, and the smell of victory on the horizon… hard to beat!! That’s why the annual New Haven MegaBowl is such an awesome event for the CTYBC! This competition takes place the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday every February. A Big Day within the limits of New Haven County, it’s special in that each species is assigned a point value; teams add up their seen species’s points to determine their score, so in theory, a team with less species but more points could win against one with more species but less points.
The birding scene in Connecticut lately has been slow, with few rarities around and passerine birding being quite the dud due to weather conditions. Also, with Brendan at college and Jory competing in a science fair, the CTYBC team, the “Darth Waders”, was down to three members – Preston, Aidan, and I. Still, the CTYBC had won last year, our team of Fairfield County youngsters beating out crowds of veteran birders on their home turf. It was epic. The CTYBC team this year was determined to bird our hardest for the win. Our legacy depended on it.
The competition began at 6:00 a.m, and as the clock stuck the beginning of the Big Day, our team was out at the dark, wind-blown Wheeler Marsh in Milford in the attempt to hear such specialties as Marsh Wren, Clapper Rail, and Long-eared Owl, the last of which our team had heard hunting at this very spot last year. The first bird of the day – the flocks of American Black Ducks quacking noisily in the predawn light, mixed with Hooded Mergansers and Canada Geese. We quickly played for Marsh Wren and Clapper Rail, but yielded no results. The rules of the MegaBowl ban playing for owls, and we would eventually end up with no vocalizing owls.
Our next stop was Milford Point, where the marsh, stones, and even the very sand of the beach was glassed in ice. The birding on the sandbar immediately yielded results- we had good views of a flock of pale Snow Buntings among the dead beach plants, and in no time at all, we had found Snowy Owl roosting atop the beach. We skirted in carefully to seawatch, where we found Common Goldeneyes, Horned Grebes, Common Loons, and innumerable Greater and Lesser Scaups bobbing in the freezing surf.
Next was our first rarity chase of the day, for a Harlequin Duck that had been seen at the mouth of the Oyster River in New Haven. The bird was known to be drifting between two locations – one a public beach, one a seawatch off a residential road. At the beach, we found nothing but the first Mallards of the day, but Holcomb Street was immediately successful – the beautiful adult male Harlequin Duck, a lifer for both Preston and I, showed brightly in the morning sunlight. Accompanied by very close Red-breasted Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks, we additionally found a surprise Northern Pintail – an adult male, no less! As this species is usually a denizen of Connecticut’s ponds, lakes, and saltmarshes, we were pleasantly surprised to see this one at a coastal seawatch.
Next came a quick stakeout at the small Beaver Pond Park. Though the sign in the park claimed patronage of such species as Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, and Least Bitterns, we did not find any of these, but instead sought out three furtive American Coots that huddled secretly in a thick reedbed.
Looking over old eBird reports, Aidan had found a mysterious spot in New Haven by the name of Proto Drive, that in the past had yielded such birds as Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Virginia Rail. Upon our arrival, we found the habitat to be very intriguing: an extensive cattail/Phragmites marsh. Unfortunately, the entire marsh was completely frozen. On a strange ice path through the middle of the marsh, we were surrounded by the tall plants like walls, where we played for Virginia Rail and Marsh Wren without success. In fact, the whole area – which did seem like good habitat, was dead in the water. The only new species added were Carolina Wren and Northern Flicker.
Last year, the strange and unexplored Branford Dump had been our saving grace. Not even a hotspot, we had discovered such birds as Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, and Fox Sparrow on its brushy trails – and none other than a Black-crowned Night-Heron lurked on the shores of its large central lake. With passerine birding being as quiet as it was, we hoped that this spot would again show us good nature. However, the freeze was the death of us again. The lake that we prayed would host the night-herons was solid as stone. The passerine plague had reached here as well – though we did add Eastern Bluebird, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and White-breasted Nuthatch, the spot was otherwise very quiet. With a species total in the mid 40’s, we knew we had to pick up the pace if we wished to get a winning total.
Leetes Island Road in Guilford had been host to Killdeer in the past, but when we checked it out, the deadly cold had pushed out any waterfowl that once may have resided in the marshes there. However, luck was on our side when we decided to step out of the car at a random location – a young Bald Eagle was cruising over the marsh, a flock of Cedar Waxwings foraged in suburban trees, and a couple of Common Ravens flew high above the woods. We were all glad to add three good birds to our list, before quickly continuing on to Tuxis Island.
Tuxis Island, a tiny nearshore island of rocks and surf, was blue and clear. A Barrow’s Goldeneye has wintered here for years, and we were quickly able to pick out a beautiful male Barrow’s Goldeneye among a small group of Commons. After scanning the rocks for Purple Sandpiper, we headed to Hammonasset Beach S.P – which would ultimately be the best spot of the day, our kind of saving grace.
As soon as we arrived at Hammo, we spotted a large flock of Horned Larks swirling around the short grass of the parking lot area. It took no time at all to get our scopes onto the plain little birds to pick out a Lapland Longspur, with its intricate face pattern, that lay hidden among the flock. A great bird and a good start, we continued quickly to the Moraine Trail, where we would scout out our seabirds.
With their harlequin bills and prominent white-backed heads, Surf Scoters immediately stood out to us from the beach we watched from. Their compatriots, farther away in the gray sea, White-winged Scoters, were more elusive but recognizable. On the shore, huge mixed flocks of Dunlin and Ruddy Turnstones foraged vigorously. Every time a wave or jogger swept up a great flock, we had our eyes on for any birds that stuck out of the flock, and soon we had found the first Purple Sandpipers of the spot. As we watched the birds swirl around in coordination, suddenly two Purple Sandpipers alighted directly on the surf across from us — close enough to be identified naked eye! I got amazing, full-frame digiscopes of these beautiful birds, not often seen close, and even got to hear them call – a shrill peeap!
At the end of the Moraine Trail, more birds awaited us – a Red-throated Loon offered good looks, and we found a nice-looking Iceland Gull along the slipper shell piles. Preston even spotted us a flyby Merlin, a good addition to the species set.
Then it was time to check out Willard’s Island, a kind of hammock of spruce-cedar forest that lies above the continuous salt marsh of Hammonasset. Here, Yellow-rumped Warblers abounded, feeding in noisy flocks on the blue cedar berries. Preston was able to spot a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the high needles.
By the time we had finished at Hammonasset, it was after noon, and the daylight was fading fast. It was time to head inland!
At Konolds Pond in Woodbridge, the ducks abounded. We spotted many Ring-necked Ducks on the unfrozen parts of the lake, along with flying Mute Swans, and a few colorful Wood Ducks, distant but unmistakable on the water’s far shore.
On the drive to River Road in Southbury, Aidan’s mom (a gracious driver) spotted a bird that she initially identified as an American Kestrel, which would be new for the day. We wheeled back to check it out, but it turned out the bird was a Red-shouldered Hawk, a new raptor for the trip. We continued to the river happy to have spotted it.
At River Road, where in April the club had spotted Veeries, Louisiana Waterthrushes, and Cerulean Warblers, the Common Mergansers were still there, starkly white and green against the wide pewter river. We were here on a chase; we searched through the massive flocks of Canada Geese in search of a few rare geese that had been accompanying them in the past weeks. Though it took some searching, we were able to locate the two immature Snow Geese and the two Ross’s Geese – an exceptionally rare visitor to the state! – on the far river bank. Interestingly, there has been extensive debate on the purity of one of these Ross’s Geese, the immature bird- or how much “Snow Goose blood” it has to be still considered a Ross’s Goose. For our purposes, one was fine!
Our final location was the Cassidy Training School, an interesting area of tall grassland in the northern reaches of New Haven County. During the winter, it’s been host to species such as Short-eared Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and White-crowned Sparrows. Some of the first birds we saw there were a massive flock of American Crows in a corn field. Some patient listening finally yielded a calling Fish Crow, which we nearly missed for the day! In the roadside grasslands, we were able to see many good species of sparrows, including both American Tree Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow – a very good species to see wintering in Connecticut! A calling Hairy Woodpecker was the last bird of the day, the contest ending at 5:00.
We ended the day with 72 species, a significant downgrade from last year’s total of 81. This was due to really, really bad passerine birding – we missed such obvious species as Red-bellied Woodpecker and even Dark-eyed Junco! However, the sea watching conditions were fair, and we got such rarities as Harlequin Duck, Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, and Barrow’s Goldeneye.
As the sun set, we headed back to the Kellogg Center in Derby, a preserve center, where the awards ceremony takes place. Having eaten a delicious dinner of chili and pasta, we anxiously awaited the results of the competition. Though the birding was a lot quiet than last year, we had confidence that our skill as birders would lend us an upper hand in the contest. When at last the results were read… we were so thrilled to learn that the CTYBC Darth Waders had once again won the New Haven Megabowl! Here’s to many more.