On Saturday, April 16, Jason Hoeksema and I conducted a Big Day in Mississippi as a fundraiser for Delta Wind Birds. We largely followed the same route as last year with the substitution of Spence’s Woods for Logtown, removal of the boat trip to Point Aux Chenes, and no stop at Clower-Thornton Nature Trails.
We began at midnight on Pipeline Rd in the Pearl River WMA at the north end of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. A light rain had just finished over the reservoir before we arrived. King Rail was the primary target here and didn’t take long to make its presence known. Common Gallinules and Least Bitterns were plentiful and we even lucked into a Purple Gallinule as well. For the second year we missed American Bittern and Virginia Rail at this spot. We’re still scratching our heads a little on that. In general the skies seemed to be pretty quiet, providing us no identifiable flight calls as we listened in the night.
On the way south we picked up Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, and Eastern Screech-Owl at stake-out spots. Many thanks to those of you who let us wander onto your property at obscene hours to spotlight a nest for a few moments before rushing off. We then made a brief stop in the Hattiesburg area around 4am to again listen for flight calls. The skies were still pretty quiet but we managed one Swainson’s Thrush flight call, and an early riser Gray Catbird singing in the neighborhood. We set out to reach the coast at dawn with 15 species under our belts, a good start.
We arrived at Spence’s Woods about a half hour before dawn, still needing to pick up Great Horned Owl before the daytime birding got underway in earnest. We had no luck initially and soon started tallying songbirds as the morning chorus began. Spence’s Woods held up its end by supplying most of our target breeding songbirds, Belted Kingfisher (which we somehow missed last year), and some lingering winter residents. And shortly after dawn a Great Horned Owl started hooting! [We still need a good spot for Barn Owl to get an owl sweep, so if you know of one between Jackson and the coast, please let us know].
Leaving Spence’s Woods we headed to Ansley to bird the oak cheniers and check for Bronzed Cowbird. The wind had risen to 10-15 mph where it would stay pretty much for the rest of the day. Skies were overcast and damp with occasional light drizzle. The oak cheniers were good but not great and set the theme for migrant diversity that would be repeated throughout the day: abundant Red-eyed Vireos, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and Wood Thrushes. The warblers tended toward breeding birds such as Black-and-white, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded, Kentucky, etc but we also picked up Black-throated Green. We hoped for a little Caribbean flavor from the strong E winds, say a Black-whiskered Vireo or a Black-throated Blue Warbler, but couldn’t find either one. We also struck out on the cowbird, which seemed to be playing a little coy with the weather, before we had to move on.
After Ansley we made an inland detour to Diamondhead for a continuing Snow Goose and also picked up Tri-colored Heron and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks in a very efficient stop before heading back to the beach. In Pass Christian we again leaned on local hospitality to get an Inca Dove around a feeder.
Along the waterfront we had good luck finding Horned Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbors, but things started to go awry at Moses Pier. The combination of high tide and a boat show had run virtually all the shorebirds off the beach. This was our only stop for Marbled Godwit and a good shot at lingering Piping Plover. We added a little additional time to drive the beach looking for these, but we got neither. On to Seaman Rd Sewage Lagoons.
Seaman Rd is a key stop on our itinerary and for good reason. We picked up several waterfowl including a single female Redhead, plus Pied-billed Grebe and a lingering Neotropic Cormorant. The recent heavy rains seemed to hurt us on the shorebird front as the water levels were deeper than average around the lagoons. Least Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilt were about all we could salvage. This proved a major point on a windy day as became apparent later.
While Seaman was productive, we had some big misses. White Ibis!!! Did we miss a lagoon? Another head-scratcher, leaving us trying to build in another spot somewhere in our schedule. We also missed Black-crowned Night-heron and Stilt Sandpiper, which is more forgivable but still disappointing.
At this point in the day we were doing okay despite a few misses thanks to picking up some lingering winter birds. Using the winter birds to fill the gaps left by lower migrant warbler diversity this early in the season, we were behind last year’s pace mainly on two fronts: shorebirds and raptors. It was early afternoon and we had exactly one raptor species checked off (Broad-winged Hawk). Thank you, overcast skies and high wind. We were relying on Singing River Island to work its magic and help us make up some ground. A Northern Harrier along the causeway provided a ray of hope that our raptor list might recover.
Singing River Island gave us the bare minimum of shorebirds, but ultimately not enough. Some of the best habitat is on the eastern end of the island. The strong easterly winds seemed to have driven off all but a handful of birds, although we did pick up Western Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs, both of which we missed last year, plus Short-billed Dowitcher and Wilson’s Plover. A Reddish Egret dancing in the shallows was a nice surprise. American Oystercatchers were absent, another miss. Moving back toward the interior of the island, the day got a lot brighter very quickly. Down near the water’s edge we came across a Hooded Warbler hopping along on the ground, allowing us to get within just a few feet before moving on ahead of us as we walked along the shoreline. Moving up away from the water we noticed a tree with five resplendent male Scarlet Tanagers sitting in the wide open within a foot or two of one another. What a sight! Then a tree with several Blue Grosbeaks.
One Scarlet Tanager was perched near the access road on a branch over a grassy area. As we were getting a camera out, it flew away and was immediately replaced by another Scarlet Tanager! Jason resumed his effort to ready the camera but as he raised it to the window… BOOM! The tanager was hit by a Merlin and carried off. Wow. Photo: https://flic.kr/p/FX3gMf
Moving around the island it became apparent that birds were arriving in numbers. One tree held 20 or 30 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and more could be seen flying in off the gulf in small groups of 1-3. Red-eyed Vireos seemed to move in flocks (again we failed to find whiskers). Shrubs were bedizened with numerous Summer and Scarlet Tanagers. Barn Swallows swarmed over head. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chattered and buzzed all around. Orchard and Baltimore Orioles were notable for being among the few species actively singing and for what seemed a fairly even mix of males and females. Among the other sexually dimorphic species, there was a preponderance of males. Warblers called, but almost never sang, from bushes and even from the grass! This was great for working on warbler chip notes, but despite a quick 10 warbler species, not one of them was a new addition to our list. Jason caught a glimpse of an interesting warbler that we chased as it moved quickly around the margin of the island, but it got away. We saw the Merlin again, and again it was carrying a songbird in its talons. The Singing River Island buffet was open, but we needed more songbird diversity than it was providing.
The island supplied us with several species (including a few crucial raptors), but even more so with a very memorable experience. It’s hard to describe the visual impression of so many fresh alternate plumages of so many male birds concentrated in a few hundred yards of shrubs. I was even treated to a singing Swamp Sparrow holding his own in a bush among the migrants.
After Singing River we had some holes to fill with short stops around the mainland before heading to our final stop for Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bachman’s Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow. Bethel Bike Trail was a nice peaceful stop at the end of the day. As promised, Bachman’s Sparrow sang and the woodpeckers arrived at their holes just at sunset. We had a Hermit Thrush call from the forest and Common Nighthawks calling too. But we struck out on Chipping Sparrow. Perhaps we got lucky here last year with that species. They seemed to be plentiful last year, and we banked on them there this time. But no dice. We headed off for a bleary-eyed drive through Barn Owl territory, but none appeared.
Final tally: 167 species. It was an early Big Day in terms of migration, but I don’t think that hurt us much on the final tally. Lingering winter residents largely made up the difference there. We were a little unlucky with migrant warblers, had a few big misses probably related to the weather, and really had a disappointing shorebirding day due to a combination of the wind, previous rains, and high tide in the middle of the day. The route, though, especially with the changes from last year, was solid. It was a fascinating contrast with last year in many ways. In 2015, we went late in the cycle, missing out on many lingering wintering birds, but making up for it with migrants, enjoyed a lot of good luck, but were hurt by the inefficiency of our route. This year, we went earlier in the cycle, relied more on lingering winter birds, and had a better plan, but experienced worse luck and poorer birding conditions. In neither year, did we turn up any true rarities. Given the birding effort and the Caribbean birds showing up elsewhere along the coast, not crossing paths with something interesting was unlucky. Overall, I don’t think we’ll have to change much for next year, except to try to avoid high tides and high winds.
We had a blast, saw a lot of birds, and after 38 wakeful hours we slept the incomparable sleep of the deliriously exhausted. But best of all, we raised a substantial fund for shorebird habitat thanks to those of you who pledged your support. Thanks again to you all for another successful Big Day.