2017 Mississippi Big Day recap

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

Mississippi Gulf Coast weather birding: Spring fallout prediction (2017 edition)

Overview: This protocol was written to guide prediction of migratory bird fallout conditions on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during spring migration. During that time, many migratory songbirds launch from the Yucatan peninsula in the evening, fly north overnight, and reach the Gulf Coast sometime the next day, often mid- to late-morning. Our original goal in creating this protocol was to aid in running a Big Day attempt on the day after a fallout, so we wanted to predict decent fallout conditions on a particular day, and then we wanted decent weather for birding the next day. If that is our goal, after a fallout we want overnight north winds & light rain to keep migrants grounded near the coast, followed by a day of good weather for birding, with some sun to get raptors up. For Big Day planning, the minimum goal should be avoiding really terrible conditions (e.g., running a Big Day after one or more sustained days of sun and south winds during which most of the migrants have departed), even if we don’t achieve perfect conditions, and targeting a time window in approximately the last two weeks of April, for maximum diversity. However, if you’re not trying to run a Big Day, then you can optionally try to bird on a fallout day itself, and you might have a broader time window (earlier in April, and into early May).

Here are some basic steps to follow:

First check other people’s migration forecasts:

  1. Read any recent posts by Bob Duncan predicting birding conditions for northwest Florida and coastal Alabama on ALBIRDS: http://digest.sialia.com/?rm=one_list;id=88
  2. Check the latest on BirdCast: http://birdcast.info/forecasts/

Second, check various long-term forecasts, to identify potentially good conditions in the future—look for low pressure systems and rain/storms heading for the Gulf Coast.

For example, check the 10-day forecasts for Gulfport, MS on weather.com, National Weather Service, and Weather Underground. Note that all 3 do not always agree, and Weather Underground may be more accurate, due to the use of more weather stations.

  1. http://www.wunderground.com/weather-forecast/US/MS/Gulfport.html
  2. http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/l/Gulfport+MS+USMS0145:1:US
  3. http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lat=30.39&lon=-89.07#.VTg3uJPUtKU

Third, when you see a promising weather front on the horizon, start making your own checks for the specific desired conditions:

Check current and predicted launch conditions in the Yucatan, in early evening. If conditions are good (southerly winds, clear skies), birds will be launching. They may also launch against light north winds at ground level, especially during the late migration period (late April / early May). Bad conditions for launch would be cloudy and rainy and/or strong north winds, over the Yucatan.

Check Merida (Yucatan capital city) weather forecast: https://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/76644.html

Check marine forecast for the Southern Gulf: http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz025&syn=gmz001 (or go here and click on part of the map: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/zone/off/offnt4mz.htm)

Check prediction for overnight winds over the mid-Gulf (at ~2500 feet elevation). We desire West or Southwest winds ideally, vectoring birds to the east, away from Texas and towards Mississippi. **This may occasionally cause good passerine birding on the MS coast, even without rain. South or Southeast winds OK too.

Check 12-hour forecast for winds at about 2500 feet elevation: http://weather.rap.ucar.edu/model/ruc12hr_925_wnd.gif (or go here: http://weather.rap.ucar.edu/model/ and click on “925 mb winds” for 2500-foot elevation plot, or click “300 mb winds” for winds at 30,000 feet elevation, which gives a good overview)

Check predicted surface winds over the Gulf: http://polar.ncep.noaa.gov/waves/product_table.shtml?-gmex-multi_1-u10-latest- (scroll down to Step 5, and select a forecast time, e.g. +9 or +12 hours to predict nighttime winds if you are checking at 5pm)

Check marine forecast for the Central Gulf: http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz019&syn=gmz001

Check prediction for a low pressure system bringing a rainy front and (ideally) north (or west) winds out over the gulf, offshore (but not all the way into the central/southern Gulf), in the mid- to late-morning as the migrants who launched the previous evening are getting close to the coast. Rain will usually cause some migrants to fall out, even without north winds, but they won’t stick around long without north winds. A dry front will only drop birds if its eastern boundary is right over the MS coast. A front moving out over the Gulf during the night is OK too, stalling in the north Gulf through mid-morning (as long as it isn’t too far south early in the night, causing  migrants to turn back). If birds have lacked a tailwind overnight, and do not have a tailwind as they approach the coast, a small fallout may occur even without rain.

Check national weather maps: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/outlook_tab.php (**scroll down and click on forecasts from 12 hours to 6 days)

Use this tool to look at precip probability forecasts: http://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/conus.php?element=PoP12

Check offshore marine forecast for MS/LA coast: http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz575&syn=gmz500 (or go here and click on the desired zone: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/zone/gulf/lixmz.htm)

Check marine forecast for the North Central Gulf: http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz013&syn=gmz001

Check forecast for north winds, cloud cover, and/or light rain persisting after the front, and continuing the next day, to discourage migrants from taking off overnight or moving inland, so that we can find them on the day after the fallout. But watch wind forecasts because really strong winds and heavy rain the next day could make migrant detection difficult.

Check local forecast for Gulf Coast, e.g., Gulfport again:

  1. http://www.wunderground.com/weather-forecast/US/MS/Gulfport.html
  2. http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/l/Gulfport+MS+USMS0145:1:US
  3. http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lat=30.39&lon=-89.07#.VTg3uJPUtKU

****************************************************************************

This protocol was compiled by Jason Hoeksema, using advice from a variety of sources, especially Bob Duncan (both from his ALBIRDS posts and his now-out-of-print booklet on weather birding) and Derek Lovitch’s 2012 book called How to be a better birder. For an overview or review of interpreting online resources to predict bird migration, see this website: http://www.nemesisbird.com/bird-science/ultimate-guide-migration-online/

Also useful is the “Badbirdz Reloaded” website, which (when it was active) predicted bird migration for Florida (https://badbirdz2.wordpress.com/), but is still a good website on which to read old posts and learn from them.

Big Day 2016 – Recap

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].

eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28975987

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.

eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28978357

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.

eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28985238

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.

eBird list: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28992653

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.

JR

 

Mississippi Gulf Coast weather birding: Spring fallout prediction

Overview: This protocol was written to guide prediction of migratory bird fallout conditions on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during spring migration. During spring migration, many migratory songbirds launch from the Yucatan peninsula in the evening, flying north overnight, and reaching the Gulf Coast sometime the next day, often mid- to late-morning. Our original goal in creating this protocol was to aid in running a Big Day attempt on the day after a fallout, so we wanted to predict decent fallout conditions on a particular day, and then we wanted decent weather for birding the next day. If that is our goal, we want overnight north winds & light rain to keep migrants grounded near the coast, followed by a day of decent weather for birding, with some sun to get raptors up. For Big Day planning, the minimum goal should be avoiding really terrible conditions (e.g., running a Big Day after one or more sustained days of sun and south winds during which all the migrants departed), even if we don’t achieve perfect conditions, and targeting a time window in approximately the last two weeks of April, for maximum diversity. However, if you’re not trying to run a Big Day, then you can optionally try to bird on a fallout day itself, and you might have a broader time window (earlier in April, and into early May).

This protocol was compiled by Jason Hoeksema, using advice from a variety of sources, especially Bob Duncan (from his ALBIRDS posts, e-mail correspondence, and his now-out-of-print booklet on weather birding) and Derek Lovitch’s 2012 book, How to be a better birder.

First check other migration forecasts:

  1. Read any recent posts by Bob Duncan predicting birding conditions on ALBIRDS: http://birding.aba.org/maillist/AL
  2. Check the latest on BirdCast: http://birdcast.info/forecasts/
  3. Check “Badbirdz Reloaded” website, which predicts migration for Florida (https://badbirdz2.wordpress.com/) (*as of 9 April 2016, they haven’t posted in almost a year, but this is a good website on which to read old posts and learn from them)

Second, check various long-term forecasts, to identify potentially good conditions in the future—look for low pressure systems and rain/storms heading for the Gulf Coast. For example, check the 10-day forecasts for Gulfport, MS on weather.com, National Weather Service, and Weather Underground. Note that all 3 do not always agree, and Weather Underground may be more accurate, due to the use of more weather stations.

  1. http://www.wunderground.com/weather-forecast/US/MS/Gulfport.html
  2. http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/l/Gulfport+MS+USMS0145:1:US
  3. http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lat=30.39&lon=-89.07#.VTg3uJPUtKU

Third, when you see a promising weather front on the horizon, start making your own checks for the specific desired conditions:

A. Check current launch conditions in the Yucatan, in early evening. If conditions are good (southerly winds, clear skies), birds will be launching. They may also launch against light north winds at ground level, especially during the late migration period (late April / early May). Bad conditions for launch would be cloudy and rainy and/or strong north winds, over the Yucatan.

Check Merida weather station (http://weather.noaa.gov/weather/current/MMMD.html).

Check marine forecast for the Southern Gulf (http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz025&syn=gmz001) (or go here and click on part of the map: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/zone/off/offnt4mz.htm)

B. Check prediction for overnight winds over the mid-Gulf (at ~2500 feet elevation). We desire West or Southwest winds ideally, vectoring birds to the east, away from Texas and towards Mississippi. **This may occasionally cause good passerine birding on the MS coast, even without rain. South or Southeast winds OK too.

Check 12-hour forecast for winds at about 2500 feet elevation (http://weather.rap.ucar.edu/model/ruc12hr_925_wnd.gif) (or go here: http://weather.rap.ucar.edu/model/ and click on “925 mb winds” for 2500-foot elevation plot, or click “300 mb winds” for winds at 30,000 feet elevation, which gives a good overview)

Check predicted surface winds over the Gulf: http://polar.ncep.noaa.gov/waves/product_table.shtml?-gmex-multi_1-u10-latest- (scroll down to Step 5, and select a forecast time, e.g. +9 or +12 hours to predict nighttime winds if you are checking at 5pm)

Check marine forecast for the Central Gulf (http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz019&syn=gmz001)

C. Check prediction for a low pressure system bringing a rainy front and (ideally) north (or west) winds out over the gulf, offshore (but not all the way into the central/southern Gulf), in the mid- to late-morning as the migrants who launched the previous evening are getting close to the coast. Rain will usually cause some migrants to fall out, even without north winds, but they won’t stick around long without north winds. A dry front will only drop birds if its eastern boundary is right over the MS coast. A front moving out over the Gulf during the night is OK too, stalling in the north Gulf through mid-morning (as long as it isn’t too far south early in the night, causing migrants to turn back). If birds have lacked a tailwind overnight, and do not have a tailwind as they approach the coast, a small fallout may occur even without rain.

Check national weather maps (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/outlook_tab.php)(**scroll down and click on forecasts from 12 hours to 6 days)

Use this tool to look at precip probability forecasts (http://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/conus.php?element=PoP12)

Check offshore marine forecast for MS/LA coast (http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz575&syn=gmz500) (or go here and click on the desired zone: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/marine/zone/gulf/lixmz.htm)

Check marine forecast for the North Central Gulf (http://forecast.weather.gov/shmrn.php?mz=gmz013&syn=gmz001)

D. (If you want to bird the day after a fallout) Check forecast for overnight north winds, cloud cover, and/or light rain persisting after the front, and continuing the next day, to discourage migrants from taking off overnight or moving inland, so that we can find them on the day after the fallout. Really strong winds and heavy rain the next day could make migrant detection difficult.

Check local forecast for Gulf Coast, e.g., Gulfport again:

  1. http://www.wunderground.com/weather-forecast/US/MS/Gulfport.html
  2. http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/l/Gulfport+MS+USMS0145:1:US
  3. http://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?lat=30.39&lon=-89.07#.VTg3uJPUtKU

E. Go birding!!!

Big Day 2016

big_day_2016_logo_crop

In 2015 we had a great time planning and executing an attempt to break the Big Day record for Mississippi. We planned an entirely new route starting in central Mississippi at the Ross Barnett Reservoir at midnight before heading south to reach the coast just before dawn. We then birded our way east along the Gulf Coast on our way to a total of 170 species. As with any new plan, we encountered a few inefficiencies, the most notable being a boat ride that used more time (and yielded fewer species) than we could afford. The route was otherwise a success.

The Big Day in 2015 was also a fundraising success. Supporters across the state as well as Wind Birders from outside Mississippi pledged dollar amounts per species to help motivate our race to set the record. Every species counts! That one fundraising effort made a substantial contribution to our annual habitat contracts. The habitat created with that money was also a milestone as we had literally thousands of sandpipers on our mudflats! In addition, we were able to use one of our contract sites as the field location for a regional workshop to help train managers of National Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management Areas from six states across the Southeast to better manage for migratory shorebirds.

So, the Big Day Team is back. All proceeds will support our habitat programs, and we hope interest in our Big Day attempt will raise awareness more broadly for migratory birds, from warblers to wading birds. Thus, our theme this year is “A Big Day for Birds.” With a few minor modifications to the route and a little luck, we are confident that we will break the record on our imminent second attempt. And, with your help, this year we’re ready to set two records: the Mississippi Big Day record and a new fundraising goal. Our fundraising goal this year is $25 per species.

Make your pledge HERE. Help us get to $25 per species, no pledge too small! We’ll do the rest.

Thanks again to all who have supported our efforts: by donating, pledging, scouting Big Day stops, attending our workshops, and cheering us on.

Good birding, Wind Bird Nation!

Happy New Year from DWB!

Dear friends and supporters of Delta Wind Birds,

Happy New Year! 2015 was an exciting and productive year for DWB. I’m writing to thank you for your generous support, to give you an update on our progress, and to give you a preview of some of our plans for 2016. We have been busy in the past year working with landowners, organizing workshops, and connecting with the larger conservation community. Despite our small staff composed entirely of volunteers, Delta Wind Birds is growing in reputation as an organization with regional recognition and impact in the conservation community thanks in large part to your support. I hope you will take a few moments to reflect on our shared accomplishments and continued vision for shorebird conservation outlined in the paragraphs below.

  • MISSION… an evolving vision

While our mission to promote conservation of migratory shorebirds is clear in its simplicity, our vision for accomplishing this mission continues to sharpen. Our vision has three emphases: assist declining populations, prevent decline of common species, and integrate bird conservation into broader conservation efforts in the region. Watchlist species passing through the Mid-South such as Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpipers are known to be declining in population. Our habitat provision goals directly address these declines by helping to ensure sustainable migrations for these populations. We also believe that bird conservation should keep an eye on the future through a commitment to ensure that the common species remain common. Audubon’s State of the Birds 2014 report listed thirty-three species of “common birds” believed to be in sharp decline. On our regular surveys of habitat created through landowner contracts, the common birds predominate, and we are happy to see it. The maintenance of common species such as the Least Sandpiper is an important part of promoting shorebird populations and significant benefit of our habitat provision. Finally, our growing relationships with other organizations and landowners in the region have highlighted the importance of integrating shorebird conservation with water and nutrient conservation in working agricultural landscapes such as the Delta. We are working to develop innovative conservation approaches to interweave our goals with those of working lands in the region to help shape a more sustainable landscape. Your support allows us to continue this work.

  • HABITAT… 90 muddy acres and growing!

In 2015, significant financial and organizational support from our partners at Audubon Mississippi and Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, gifts from the Hummer Bird Study Group and the Memphis chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, and the support of many individuals across Mississippi, Tennessee, and surrounding states, helped us to continue working with private landowners in the Delta to provide habitat for migratory shorebirds. During the fall 2015 migration, we contracted with two different private landowners through our Habitat Incentive Program, providing approximately 90 acres of high quality habitat for fall migratory shorebirds in Humphreys County, MS. Our on-the-ground surveys allowed us to estimate that this habitat was used by upwards of 8,500 migratory shorebirds, plus hundreds of wading birds, including herons, egrets, Wood Storks, and Roseate Spoonbills. These acreage and shorebird totals are more than double what we provided in 2014. Looking ahead to 2016, we plan to continue growing our habitat provision with the help of a grant awarded to us by Patagonia clothing company through their Environmental Grants Program, and through continued engagement from supporters like you.

  • EDUCATION… training land managers across the Southeast

 A second major way in which DWB helped migratory shorebirds in our region during 2015 was through significant shorebird management workshops for managers of both public and private lands. Along with our partners at Manomet, the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, we co-hosted workshops (in Isola and Lambert, MS) for more than fifty managers of public and private lands representing six southeastern states. A three-day public lands workshop provided managers and biologists of National Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management Areas with information about the biology, conservation, and habitat management to benefit shorebirds. An additional one-day workshop introduced private land managers to these birds, and the potential of creating shallow water habitat on wetlands, aquaculture impoundments, and agricultural fields. Both workshops included field trips to local sites, where participants observed and learned to identify these birds using binoculars and spotting scopes.

fostering appreciation and enjoyment of birds

 As you know, another key aspect of DWB’s mission is general education for the Mid-South birding community. We want to spread the word about how amazing migratory shorebirds are, how they are in trouble, and how we can help them. We also want to promote birding and ecotourism in the Mid-South, particularly the Mississippi Delta, providing opportunities for birders to improve their skills and study a wide diversity of birds in a variety of habitats. During 2015, DWB conducted six bird identification workshops and guided field trips, including one on fall shorebird identification, two on sparrow identification, one on gull identification, and our annual winter birding trip to the northern Delta, plus our Woodcocks & Wine fundraiser. These events provided many birding highlights, and lots of fun—you can find some photo highlights on our Flickr page (and please also follow us on Facebook). Your participation in these events provides crucial grassroots support for our conservation activities. Our lineup of events for 2016 will be similar to 2015, but at each event we’ll try to do a bit of something new, so we hope we’ll see many of you as repeat participants. In the next two months, we have several events planned, about which you can find information (and register online) at our website (link).

  • FUNDRAISING… emphasizing the “fun” on a Big Day

A fun highlight for us in 2015 was our fundraising effort to break the “Big Day” birding record for Mississippi. On April 29, 2015, the DWB team attempted to see as many species of birds as possible in a 24-hour period, starting at midnight at the Ross Barnett Reservoir and finishing in Jackson County on the coast. We ended up finding 170 species, just 5 short of the all-time record set in 1989, and through your support (in the form of pledges per species) we raised significant funds for shorebird conservation. You can read a bit more about our Big Day attempt on our website. We learned a lot from our 2015 attempt, and are determined to break the record in 2016. With your support, we’ll do that while raising even more funds for shorebird conservation, so stay tuned!

  •  CONNECTING… bringing the birding scene to the Mid-South

In 2014, DWB co-organized the Mississippi Ornithological Society’s (MOS) Fall Meeting, bringing in Kevin Karlson, author of The Shorebird Guide, as special guest. Later that year David Allen Sibley, author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds, produced a limited edition print to support our habitat programs. Mr. Sibley is generously donating to DWB a portion of the proceeds from sales of limited edition prints of this painting, which can be purchased on his website (link).

In a continuing effort to connect the Mid-South with the national birding scene, we are co-sponsoring the MOS Spring Meeting this year which will take place in Oxford, Mississippi, the weekend of April 29-May 1, featuring David Allen Sibley. We are pleased to continue our relationship with Mr. Sibley and are proud of his support for our organization. Mr. Sibley will be giving a talk, signing books, and leading bird walks over the course of the weekend. You won’t want to miss this event. Registration will be available soon, so watch for further announcements.

  •  SUPPORT… THANK YOU for making bird conservation a priority

If you’ve read this far, I hope you are as impressed as I am with what we have been able to accomplish in 2015 through volunteer efforts and grassroots financial support. On behalf of the DWB board of directors (myself, Philip Barbour, Gene Knight, Madge Lindsay, Nick Lund, Wayne Patterson, Nina Rifkind, and J.R. Rigby), I want to thank you for your financial support, for your help conducting field trips, and for your generous support in a variety of other ways.

We hope that you will continue to be a supporting member of the Delta Wind Birds community in 2016. Every dollar contributed, whether through purchase of a Sibley print, attendance at our workshops, or tax-deductible donation directly to our habitat fund contributes directly to shorebird conservation. If you made a donation in 2015 (thank you!), you should receive a receipt documenting your contribution by late January or early February, 2016. If you are expecting such a receipt, and you have not received one by then, please notify us so that we can issue another receipt immediately for your tax purposes.

We’re excited for what the future holds, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

Sincerely,

Jason Hoeksema

President, Delta Wind Birds

Five Birds to Listen For in the Delta this Winter

The wide-open winter landscapes in the Delta can make many birds easier to hear than see among the stubble of soybean, cotton, and rice fields. Some of you will be joining us for a winter birding field trip this weekend, but even if you’re not, here are five bird sounds (none sparrows!) that are worth studying before a winter trip through the Delta:

1. Western Meadowlark: The scientific name is Sturnella neglecta, but don’t neglect these western birds if you’re out and about in the Delta. The Delta is visited by a good number of these close relatives of our Eastern Meadowlark. You need very good looks at multiple field marks to distinguish them by plumage, but the voices are distinct.
http://www.xeno-canto.org/234211

Compare to the “spring is so beautiful” song of the Eastern:
http://www.xeno-canto.org/144089

(credit Erik Johnson for that mnemonic)

2. Lapland Longspur: One of my favorite winter birds. One of the most abundant grassland birds up north, but their winter range just dips down into the Delta. In cold years they get to the southern end of the Delta, but they’re more numerous in the northern counties. Listen for their distinctive flight call:
http://www.xeno-canto.org/166962

3. American Pipit: A common winter visitor to open agricultural areas. We even get some of these in the hills too, but they’ll be more common in the Delta. [Don’t be confused by the “Buff-bellied Pipit” name at Xeno-Canto. Taxonomists are a factious lot by nature (maybe fractious too), so there are competing naming schemes out there. The scientific name is the same in this case, Anthus rubescens, and even that is not true for all birds.]

4. Sprague’s Pipit: Really fascinating bird. Worthy of a post all its own. Let it suffice that this little grassland obligate’s bland plumage belies its true coolness. We get a handful of these endangered birds in the Delta annually, and it’s worth keeping an ear out for their distinctive alarm/flight call. You might, as Gene Knight did, find yourself riding down the road with the windows down and hear one flush from the road side. Never mind why you’ve got the windows down in the Delta in the winter.
http://www.xeno-canto.org/128311

5. Sandhill Crane: Okay, they’re my token “charismatic avian megafauna” entry in this list. Sure, you’re probably going to see these huge birds hanging out in the middle of a field. BUT, you might be scrutinizing a field for Lapland Longspurs and hear a few Sandhills flying over. I can think of two of my trips where we struck out on finding Sandhills in the fields but had a small group fly over:
http://www.xeno-canto.org/161578

Note: Each of these recording links have been chosen to be more or less “representative”, but listening to some of the other recordings on Xeno-Canto will give you a better feel for the variability of individual calls/songs. And, as always, each of these birds makes many sounds. E.g., the Western Meadowlark has a distinctive “chupp” call that many find useful. Good fodder for discussion in the comments below.

Enjoy. And we’ll see some of you Saturday.

Delta Wind Birds Co-Hosts Regional Shorebird Conservation Workshop for Wildlife Biologists and Landowners

Managers of public and private lands from six southeastern states gathered this week in Lambert and Isola, Mississippi, for workshops highlighting land management to support migrating ‘shorebirds’ passing through the Delta. Delta Wind Birds, a local nonprofit organization promoting shorebird conservation, partnered with Manomet, a nonprofit focused on bird conservation, education, and business sustainability, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture, to host the workshop.

Shorebirds are a family of birds including sandpipers and plovers, which are often associated with sandy beaches and barrier islands. However, these birds rely on other habitat types, like inland wetlands found in the Mississippi River Delta. Many of these birds breed near the Arctic Circle and spend our winter months in South America. Over a million shorebirds pass through the Delta on their annual migrations. Shorebirds may fly thousands of miles nonstop before descending to refuel during migration.  Public and private lands in the Delta can provide critical stopover habitat for these birds during their arduous migrations. A three-day public lands workshop provided managers and biologists of National Wildlife Refuges and Wildlife Management Areas with information about the biology, conservation, and habitat management to benefit shorebirds.  An additional one-day workshop introduced private land managers to these birds, and the potential of creating shallow water habitat on wetlands, aquaculture impoundments, and agricultural fields.  Both workshops included field trips to local sites, where participants observed and learned to identify these birds using binoculars and spotting scopes.

“These workshops really achieved a great deal in a short period of time,” said Mitch Robinson, Conservation Education Manager for Strawberry Plains Audubon Center in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and a participant in the private-lands workshop. “Participants gained a much greater appreciation for the fascinating biology and declining populations of these amazing birds, and learned that they can help, while also fostering a diversity of wildlife on their land, including ducks.” Strawberry Plains Audubon Center and Audubon Mississippi are key partners with Delta Wind Birds in their efforts to promote shorebird habitat in the Delta region.

To learn more about Delta Wind Birds, including opportunities to participate in field trips and bird identification workshops, visit www.deltawindbirds.org. For more information on how Manomet and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture are working to conserve wildlife regionally and around the world, visit their websites (www.manomet.org, http://www.lmvjv.org/).

 

 

workshop_2015_Coldwater

Participants in a shorebird management workshop, co-hosted by Manomet, Delta Wind Birds, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Lower MS Valley Joint Venture, study flocks of migrating shorebirds at Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, on September 29, 2015. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

 

Avocets

A flock of American Avocets visiting a private duck-hunting club in Humphreys County, Mississippi, where shallow water in former catfish ponds provide ideal habitat for these migrating shorebirds. Photo by Jason Hoeksema.

Big Day Recap

Big_Day_slide

Delta Wind Birds co-founders Gene Knight, Jason Hoeksema, and J.R. Rigby set out on a Big Day for Mississippi on April 29, 2015, during which they tried to identify, by sight or sound, as many species of birds as possible within the 24-hour period of a single calendar day. The basic strategy for the day was two-fold. First, the day was selected based on weather conditions to provide good representation among transient migrant species. The team would also take advantage of the hours before sunrise to fill in nocturnal species such as owls and rails, beginning with the freshwater marshes on the Ross Barnett Reservoir in Madison County at midnight, before heading south to the coast to begin the daylight hours in earnest.

big_day_selfie

The Big Day Team (left to right): Gene Knight, Jason Hoeksema, J.R. Rigby

The day was an enormous success. The team tallied 170 species including 21 species of warblers; 11 herons, egrets, and bitterns; and 22 wind birds (shorebirds). In all, the team’s performance raised more than $3000 (based on per-species pledges) for the habitat conservation programs run by Delta Wind Birds. Thanks to all those who pledged! The team also owes a lot to the many individuals around the state who supported the Big Day effort by scouting locations ahead of time. We were a little surprised by the interest others took in our Big Day attempt. One of the great outcomes of the Big Day, for us, was the resulting network of birders around the state who supported us and wished us well. We are really proud to have their support.

We had a very good shot at setting a new record on this particular day. Jason Hoeksema masterminded our Big Day itinerary and did a tremendous job of preparing both the schedule and the intelligence gathering from coastal birders. We timed the attempt in hopes of taking advantage of migrants, and once we checked off 21 species of warbler and had favorable birding conditions, we had a very good foundation for a record attempt.

However, not everything went according to plan.

For one thing, we made the controversial decision (among birders) to include a boat trip in our Big Day attempt. Our rationale was that it gave us much better chances at some species like Reddish Egret, Northern Gannet, and some harder to find shorebirds like Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew. Miscommunication with our boat captain (realized after the fact) about the exact location we intended to land led to the loss of critical time. Among our target species, we picked up Northern Gannet, but not enough for the time allotted. Western Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Sandwich Tern were big misses. Team morale took a hit at this point in the day, but we rebounded when a few holes in the checklist, such as Wilson’s Plover, were filled on a later stop.

Reddish Egret (4/29/15)

While we had a stellar day and a lot of fun, we missed matching the current Big Day record by a whisker. As Jason put it, “The birds were there. Conditions were good. It was the day.” Unfortunately, we had too many big misses – especially resident birds that were certainly around but passed undetected (Eastern Screech Owl, Barn Owl, Whip-poor-will, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Hairy Woodpecker to name five that would have tied the record). Terry Schiefer and Malcolm Hodges set the ABA Big Day Record for Mississippi back in 1989 with a tally of 175 species. Given advantages we had on our Big Day relative to the attempt in 1989, we have a much deeper appreciation of their achievement after conducting our own Big Day attempt.

To close, thanks to all who pledged, donated, or supported our Big Day with time, talent, and local expertise. We are deeply grateful and look forward to birding with many of you again. In the meantime, support your shorebirds and local bird habitats. To Terry and Malcolm, well done.

But we’ll be back.

For a complete list of species tallied, click here.

Bronzed Cowbird (Ansley, Hancock Co, MS, 4/29/15)

Happy New Year! (2014 round-up, and 2015 preview)

Dear friends and supporters of Delta Wind Birds,

Happy New Year! 2014 was an exciting first year for us. I’m writing to thank you for your support, to give you an update on our progress, and to give you a preview of some of our plans for 2015.

As you know, many migratory shorebird (or ‘wind bird’) populations are declining, and a key factor is thought to be a lack of adequate stopover habitat on which they can refuel during their arduous migrations. Our top goal is to address this problem for shorebirds migrating through the Mississippi Delta, helping to boost populations of conservation concern (such as Stilt and Semipalmated Sandpipers, both Audubon Watchlist species) and make sure the common species (such as Least Sandpiper) remain common.

In 2014, significant financial and organizational support from our partners at Audubon Mississippi and Strawberry Plains Audubon Center, along with the support of many individuals across Mississippi, Tennessee, and surrounding states, helped us get off the ground. During the fall 2014 migration, we contracted with two different private landowners in the first iteration of our Habitat Incentive Program, providing more than 40 acres of high quality habitat for fall migratory shorebirds in Humphreys County, MS. We estimate that this habitat was used by upwards of 4,000 migratory shorebirds, plus hundreds of wading birds, including herons, egrets, Wood Storks, and Roseate Spoonbills. One of the landowners donated his expertise and equipment to set up a Wind Bird Cam, which allowed us to create a live online stream showing bird activity on one of the ponds, and which also facilitated a student research project on shorebird foraging behavior in managed ponds. Recent gifts from the Hummer Bird Study Group, the Memphis Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, ongoing support from our Audubon partners, and the continued support of many individuals will allow us to expand these efforts in 2015.

An exciting fundraising development for us in 2014 was gaining the support of renowned bird artist and field guide author David Sibley, who created a custom painting representing our mission (depicted below). Mr. Sibley is generously donating to DWB a portion of the proceeds from sales of limited edition prints of this painting, which can be purchased on Mr. Sibley’s website (link). If you can support our efforts with an additional (and tax-deductible) donation, we would be very grateful—please see our website for more information or to donate.

A second key aspect of our mission is education. We want to spread the word about how amazing migratory shorebirds are, how they are in trouble, and how we can help them. We also want to promote birding and ecotourism in the Mississippi Delta and surrounding areas, providing opportunities for birders to improve their skills and study a wide diversity of birds in a variety of habitats. From December of 2013 through 2014, DWB conducted six bird identification workshops and guided field trips, including two on shorebird identification (spring and fall), one on sparrow identification, one on gull identification, and two winter birding trips to the northern Delta. These events provided many birding highlights, and lots of fun—you can find some photo highlights on our Flickr page (and please also follow us on Facebook). Your participation in these events provides crucial grassroots support for our conservation activities.

Our lineup of events for 2015 will be similar to 2014, but at each event we’ll try to do a bit of something new, so we hope we’ll see many of you as repeat participants. In the next two months, we have several events planned, about which you can find information (and register online) at our website (link).

A central event in our educational mission happened in late September 2014, when DWB co-hosted the fall meeting of the Mississippi Ornithological Society in Greenwood, MS. We focused the meeting on the identification and conservation of migratory shorebirds, and our special guest for the weekend was shorebird expert and photographer Kevin Karlson. Kevin taught two birding workshops, including a hands-on field workshop on shorebird ID, and more than 40 people (from four states) participated. Field trips to catfish farms near Greenwood allowed participants to study more than a dozen species of wind birds, plus hundreds of waders such as Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills.

A key administrative accomplishment for our small organization in 2014 was the achievement of 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. This was an expensive and time-consuming process, and we are relieved to have it behind us. This landmark means that your donations to DWB are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law, including any donations made since our founding in October 2013. If you’ve made such a donation (thank you!), you should receive a receipt documenting your contribution by late January or early February 2015. If you are expecting such a receipt, and you don’t receive one by then, definitely let us know. Please note that registration fees for events such as field trips and bird identification workshops are not tax-deductible.

Besides expanding our Habitat Incentive Program, and continuing to lead field trips and bird ID workshops, we also plan to expand our educational efforts in 2015 by conducting a symposium on shorebird habitat management. This event will take place in fall, and we plan to engage managers of both public and private lands in our region who can make a difference for shorebirds, providing a forum for education and exchange of information on shorebird management in the Delta. This effort is greatly needed, so that we can take full advantage of potential shorebird habitat on both public and private lands in our region.

Whew! If you’ve read this far, I’m impressed, and want to thank you for taking the time. On behalf of the DWB board of directors (myself, Gene Knight, J.R. Rigby, Wayne Patterson, Philip Barbour, Nick Lund, and Nina Rifkind), I want to thank you for your financial support, for your help conducting field trips, for your scientific input, and for your generous support in a variety of other ways. So far, Delta Wind Birds is an all-volunteer effort, and your help is much appreciated. We’re excited for what the future holds, and we look forward to seeing you soon.

Sincerely,

Jason Hoeksema

President, Delta Wind Birds

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