2017 Mississippi Big Day recap

(for another recap by team member Nick Lund, aka the Birdist, see here)

(for additional photos of birds and people from the 2017 Big Day, see here)

11:55 p.m., Sunday, April 23 – Pipeline Rd, Pearl River WMA, Madison Co –

We are standing in silence on a moonless evening waiting for the clock to strike midnight and thereby begin our 2017 Mississippi Big Day. Though the day ahead is forecast to be windy, there is no movement yet in the night air. In the stillness, a warbler’s high flight call sounds fleetingly overhead. Everyone looks up and breaths are held in hopes of a second note. We speculate on its identity, but no one is certain. Then a cuckoo calls, and the team starts to grumble with pent up anticipation that it is not yet midnight, meaning we cannot yet count that species.

img_3446The 2017 DWB Big Day team is the largest we have fielded in our three years, consisting of Hal Mitchell, JR Rigby, Jason Hoeksema, and Nick Lund (. In the planning leading up to the day, we made a few significant changes and many small tweaks to our route from last year, making it more efficient. We had also done (along with help from many friends of the team) more scouting than in previous years, a key component of a Big Day that is often prohibited by the other demands of life. Just that weekend we had been fortunate to find several Virginia Rails–a species we had missed the last two years–in the marsh along Pipeline Road in Madison County, and had them (and our other target marsh birds) mapped to the nearest tenth of a mile so that we could more easily find them in the dark.

But a Big Day is a mysterious blend of preparation, good fortune, and pure serendipity. Had the rails decided to leave the marsh and move north earlier tonight? And if not, would a Virginia Rail call in the half hour we had allotted to this stop? Would a Swallow-tailed Kite wake up and spread its wings over the Pascagoula River bottom at dawn as we ticked off warblers below? Would we get lucky and find a few rarities to boost our species count? Knowing where birds should be, as well as how to identify them, is the essence of Big Day preparation. We constructed a route giving us the best chance at the most bird species. Now the birds have to be where they are supposed to, when we need them there, and they have to be willing to make themselves known.

Most importantly for our Big Day total, we wondered whether the complicated weather patterns this weekend over the tropics and the Gulf of Mexico would result in a decent fallout of passerine migrants on our coast. This was the biggest question mark going into the day. To break the Mississippi Big Day record of 175 species, we knew we probably needed at least 20 (and probably more) warbler species, along with a decent diversity of other transient songbirds like vireos, thrushes, and orioles. However, the diversity of these species stopping in the Gulf states had been lower this year than most experts could ever remember. Poor launch conditions in the Yucatan kept migration to an irregular trickle while weeks of unbroken south winds along the northern Gulf had been boosting the northward flights of migrants. Without significant storm systems passing through our region, most migrants had likely pushed past Mississippi without stopping. We knew we had to choose a day before about May 1st, when migrant diversity would start to decline, for the best Big Day. Forecasts said the winds over Mississippi would become northerly this Sunday and Monday, with a chance of significant storms over the coast on Sunday. Looking ahead at the extended forecast, we saw no guarantees of better conditions, so we decided that Monday the 24th was our best shot. And now we were locked in and fired up.

12:01 a.m., Monday, April 24, 2017 – Pipeline Rd, Pearl River WMA, Madison Co –

We pause momentarily at our staging spot hoping the cuckoo calls again, which it doesn’t, and then it’s into the van. J.R. is driving and Jason is navigating, calling out prearranged stops along the road for gallinules and rails, while Nick and Hal are listening from the windows. We pile out of the van at each stop to listen. Now we’re in full Big Day mode. Just one problem: The birds aren’t cooperating. A Barred Owl hoots-for-you, but the marsh is quiet. We try playback, with no luck. No worries, there are more stops in the marsh. Piling back into the van we skitter to the next stop and try again. Twenty minutes and a few stops drag by with barely any activity. Jason doesn’t say it, but he’s clearly becoming a little apprehensive. Conditions are good. The birds should be here, and we should be able to hear them. They will call eventually, but time is not something we have to spare. Finally, a Common Gallinule launches into its hysterical chatter just a few yards away, followed moments later by a Purple. The lump in my stomach begins to subside. A King Rail grunt issues from the grass, and then near our final stop the Virginia Rail cooperates. Despite the slow start we have most of our target birds by voice in the dark. We’re lacking Least Bittern, but we have a good chance at it later in the day.

On the rest of our route through Jackson we are efficient and targeted–Robin on a nest, Screech-Owl at a nest box, Phoebe under a bridge (found by Jason just a few hours earlier), Mallard on a pond, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons along Mayes Lake. In less than 2 hours, and well ahead of schedule, we are leaving Jackson chasing dawn on the coast.

3:47 a.m. – Paul B. Johnson State Park, Forrest Co –

Ahead of schedule leaving Jackson, we decide to try something new to pick up a tricky species in the night: “shock-gobbling” for turkeys. None of us are avid turkey hunters, but supposedly Wild Turkeys can be induced to “shock gobble” in response to owl and coyote recordings. I imagine if someone played a loud coyote recording next to my bed at 3:00 a.m. I might respond similarly. Seems plausible. So we pull into the state park to give it a try. The road winds around and then across an ominous spillway where the water flows right over the road, our headlights illuminating rising white vapor coming off black water as we drive over the spillway and deeper into the park to get to a quiet spot away from running water. As Nick searches for a coyote recording on the internet, we listen for nocturnal flight calls. In past years we have had good luck with migrating thrushes around this time of night, Swainson’s in particular, which sounds like a flying Spring Peeper to me. Nick plugs his phone into the speaker, and hits “play” on the recording he’s found. A respectable coyote howl erupts from the speaker at 80 decibels. The recording quickly takes an unforeseen turn, however, as the howl is followed by barks and then snarls and then snapping teeth and still more vicious snarls… It now sounds like we are broadcasting a coyote horror movie at theater volume… The hair on my neck is standing up and I can’t decide whether to laugh hysterically or run for my life. Nick scrambles to stop the recording. Despite finding a more conventional coyote recording, the effort fails, as every turkey for miles has already retreated to a safe room and hit the panic button. But it provides grist for a slew of caffeine-fueled bad jokes on “shock gobbling” as we drive south, coast-bound for sunrise.

5:25 a.m. – Bethel Bike Trail, Harrison Co — img_3444

At our first dawn spot in Harrison County we find ourselves in good shape, waiting for Bachman’s Sparrows and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers to wake up and call. Camped out next to the Red-cockaded colony we pick up eighteen species including Common Nighthawk, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Yellow-breasted Chat. The woodpeckers seem to be sleeping in and are beginning to hold things up as we tick off other species. Finally, one peeks from a nest hole. Check! That’s the last of our targets at this spot. And, for a nice surprise, a singing Chipping Sparrow gives us a boost as we pile back into the minivan.

6:25 a.m. – Lower Pascagoula WMA, Jackson Co —

After some incidental stops, we arrive at our breeding bird spot. Last year we hit the coast on the west end first, birding the dawn chorus at Spence’s Woods with good results. Our strategy this year involved working from the eastern end of the coast first, which meant we needed a new dawn chorus spot to pick up breeding birds like Yellow-throated Warbler, etc. The Lower Pascagoula WMA had great promise, but when we scouted it a couple of weeks prior, the Pascagoula River was out of banks and flooding all of our prime birding areas. Luckily for the Big Day, the river is back within its banks today, so we are able to drive down into the bottoms. img_3442Stopping first at the Cumbest Bridge we fight the noise of commuting cars to pick up a Hairy Woodpecker, Swainson’s Warbler, and Belted Kingfisher—all good birds for the day. A couple of other stops yielded Yellow-throated Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and some lingering Ruby-crowned Kinglets. It takes way too long to find a Kentucky Warbler, but finally after too much effort, and literally as we are turning around to leave, a Kentucky sings from the brush to our left. On our way out, J.R.’s wife Hannah calls to check in and wish us luck on speaker phone in the car. As she’s talking everyone in the car spontaneously yells, “TURKEY!!!” as a hen runs across the muddy track ahead of us. Hannah says she’ll talk to us later. Who needs shock gobbling? Turning up a turkey and a Louisiana Waterthrush while searching for the Kentucky Warbler is a good trade for the time spent. Heading into one of our most important sites, the Seaman Road Sewage Lagoons, we are feeling confident and ready to find a ton of species to stay on pace.

8:30 a.m. – Seaman Rd Sewage Lagoons, Jackson Co —

We pull into the lagoons and check in at the office. “Sign the book,” the guy says. What book? We look around and notice a cabinet labeled “Birdwatchers”. Inside is a binder with a sign-in sheet. Outside we linger around the pines for a few moments in hopes of a White-breasted Nuthatch and maybe a Red-breasted, but no dice. Up on the levees we again start to tick off species beginning with swallows. Panning with a scope, Nick spots a dark ibis down in the lower cells to tantalize us.

We fare pretty well at the Lagoons, but not well enough. Even arriving at 8:30 the wind picked up quickly, giving the site the birding feel of much later in the day. The passerines took cover; meadowlarks and bobwhites clammed up. The upper lagoons yield most of the expected smattering of lingering winter ducks, and we find the minimum of freshwater shorebirds in the west cells, and even manage a Swamp Sparrow and a Yellow Warbler. The Sandhill Cranes are as visible as ever and where we expected a White-faced Ibis we were treated to a Glossy Ibis instead (though, on the tally sheet they are equivalent). Least Bitterns called their guttural, stuttering call and Anhingas circled overhead. But where were the Green-winged Teal, Bobolink, Northern Bobwhite, Swallow-tailed Kites, American Bittern, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Savannah Sparrows that had all been here during a survey this past Thursday? We walked the levees in hopes of stirring up passerines, but little flushed. We search a couple of swallow tornadoes for an elusive Bank, but the tornado yields only Barn, Tree, and Cliff. How could there be no Bank Swallow among the hundreds of swallows, no Stilt Sandpiper with the big group of Lesser Yellowlegs? Leaving the Lagoons, headed for our other core morning site, Singing River Island, we acknowledge the uphill battle to get back on pace. It would depend on conditions along the shore, whether a decent passerine fallout had occurred, whether the cheniers would hold pleasing diversity.

11:20 a.m. – Singing River Island, Jackson Co –

In our few trips, a visit to Singing River Island has always been a memorable experience, even on slow days. We start with the shorebird habitat, and are rewarded with most of our expected species (Short-billed Dowitcher, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Plover), some good birds that we had hoped for including nine (!!!) Whimbrels, and an exciting surprise–Red Knot! Momentum began to swing back in our favor. Marching along the southern tree-lined berm, the roller coaster continued, however–this is where we hoped to start running into migrant warblers and other songbirds, and it wasn’t happening quickly. Then a heart-pumping surprise! A few birds fly across the path. Nick yells, “Guys!” and almost simultaneously Jason calls out, “Guys! Get on this vireo! Get on it! It’s got whiskers!” Jason keeps his binoculars on the vireo as the rest of us surround the tree and work for diagnostic looks. Black-whiskered Vireo, a Caribbean bird whose range barely extends into Florida, and of which there were only about ten prior records in Mississippi, had just flown into a tree right in front of us and obliged having its photo taken – in the midst of a Big Day. We were pumped.img_3440

Walking the marsh below we fail to turn up a Nelson’s Sparrow, but we pick up Greater Scaup and a couple more migrant passerines to round out Singing River Island. Back in the van, we head for Tillman Street to listen for Eastern Meadowlarks we missed at Seaman Rd and make a game plan for the afternoon. We need an accurate tally first, so that we can efficiently map our route west along the beaches.

Our tally is 154 species, 22 short of a new record, with most of the afternoon left. The problem is, although we knew we had some sure things coming up, it was going to be more and more difficult to find them, and it’s looking like the hoped-for fallout of songbirds may have mostly not occurred. We need to head to the oak cheniers at Ansley in Hancock County and find it hopping with songbirds (especially warblers), picking up a dozen or more other species along the way.

2:15 p.m. – Purgatory, Jackson Co –

The afternoon starts to slip away from us a little in transit. We fail to note a school along our route and get stopped at the entrance by a traffic cop as seemingly thousands of school buses slip out of the parking lot one by one. All we can do is watch the time pass. I look away to search the skies for a redeeming Swallow-tailed Kite, but all I see is an after-image emblazoned on my vision that reads “Ocean Springs School District.” At Graveline Beach, Seaside Sparrow and Sedge Wren prove much too difficult to dig up in the wind. The cheniers at Belle Fontaine Road are dead.

4:35 p.m. – Harrison County –

The Harrison County beaches yield a bare minimum: Common Loon at the Biloxi small craft harbor, Ring-billed Gull and Marbled Godwit at Jones Park beach. But we find nothing exceptional. Where is the Piping Plover? Where the heck do Western Sandpipers hide in late April? Where is that Surf Scoter that was seen yesterday at Broadwater Marina? Our last stop in Harrison County yields a quick shot in the arm: Inca Doves and (finally!) our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

6:08 p.m. – Ansley, Hancock Co –img_3435

As we enter Hancock County, time and daylight are running short. At  Washington Street Pier, a lingering Horned Grebe obliges, and we hit Ansley needing a bunch of migrant songbirds, knowing it is likely not going to happen. A singing Painted Bunting gives us a boost, and we soon dig up a silent and skulky Ovenbird, Wood Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush. But the cheniers are very quiet, and daylight fading. The expected Bronzed Cowbirds give us our final daylight tally, and we know we are still short of our goal–somewhere in the high 160’s. A quick planning session makes it clear that we only have 2 or 3 possible species left on the table. Not quite enough!  We keep birding into the sunset, check a few spots after dark, and call it a day. Final tally: 168 species.

img_3434It had been an awesome day, a Big Day. We felt good about our plan and how we executed it, and had found some exciting birds. Time would tell if we picked the right day, but it felt like about the best we could have done in this slow migration season. Most importantly, thanks to our supporters, we had raised more than $6000 that would allow Delta Wind Birds to continue its critical work with private landowners in the Mississippi Delta to create habitat for migratory shorebirds, helping to prevent further shorebird population declines and helping to keep the common species common. We’ll be back next year having further tweaked the plan, scouted locations, and learned more lessons about predicting fallouts.

Reflecting on our journeys, we asked ourselves the question: Why a Big Day? Big Years, for example, have received some notoriety through books and cinema. And while there are obvious reasons, in terms of a fundraiser, to do a Big Day, there may be other reasons as well. It seems to us, for example, that Big Days deserve more attention for the intimacy they represent between birders, their sought-after birds, and the habitats that bring them together. The quest for a Big Day sifts global weather patterns and trans-hemispheric avian migration through the geography of your back yard. It is a team quest, rather than an individual event, in which the nooks and crannies of the state are weighed by their accessibility and bird-yielding capacity. The more you know a thing, the more you love it. Our Big Days are as much an exploration of the state as an enjoyment of birds. We will keep doing Big Days to raise money for shorebirds, to demonstrate what an adventure birding can be in Mississippi, to meet other birders around the state as we scout and beg for access to nest boxes, and just for the shear joy of the quest for the Biggest Day in Mississippi.

Maybe 2018 will be the year we combine an excellent plan with the magical birding conditions necessary for an unprecedented Big Day. We will certainly try.

For the record, in case you’ve read this far, here is an updated list of the top 10 Mississippi Big Days that we’re aware of (please let us know at dwindbirds@gmail.com if you know of others that should be on this list):

175, 16-Apr-1989 T. Schiefer, M.F. Hodges Jr.

173, ~29-Apr-2002 N. Boyajian, D. McKee, C. Delmas (all Jackson Co.)

172, 23-Apr-1983 J. Toups, E. Johnson, C. Roemer

171, 2-May-1989 J. Toups, C. Cassibry, G. Morgan, J. Pennell

171, 24-Apr-1993 G. Knight, S. Knight, J. Wilson

170, 29-Apr-2015 J. Hoeksema, G. Knight, J.R. Rigby

168, 24-Apr-2017 J. Hoeksema, J.R. Rigby, H. Mitchell, N. Lund

167, 15-Apr-1995 G. Knight, S. Knight, J. Wilson, M. Greene

167, 17-Apr-2016 J. Hoeksema, J.R. Rigby

165, 28-Apr-1979 L. Gates, J. Toups