Monday, January 31, 2011

Superbowl of Birding!

This past weekend, the NYSYBC Razorbills competed in the Superbowl of Birding, an annual 12-hour (5 a.m. to 5 p.m.) birding competition in Essex County, MA, and Rockingham County, NH . The club had had a team last year, but this was my first time participating in the rather insane competition- this is Northeastern Massachussetts, for 12 hours, in January. It is usually pretty cold. What separates the superbowl from some of the other birding competitions, apart from the weather, is that the checklist has a weighted points system- a bird can be worth between 1 and 5 points, depending on its rarity. All 5-point birds have to be reported to the organizers, and the team that is the first to call in a 5-pointer gets an additional 3 points.

On Friday night, our team, consisting of Greg Lawrence, Jacob Drucker, Benjamin Van Doren, and myself, planned strategy in the lobby of our hotel room. Our route would be about the same as last year, working from Nahant up to Salisbury, with some modifications based on the scouting Greg had done that day. With birds such as Barrow's Goldeneye, Thick-billed Murre, and King Eider reported that day, hopes were high for some good birds.

First stop the next morning were a few owling spots. At the first, a screech owl and a Great Horned Owl were calling as soon as we got out of the car. 2 and 3 points, respectively. Calling for Barred, Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls was unsucessful, but we were off to a decent start as dawn approached. Our first daylight spot was to be Flax Pond, in Lynn, where a 5-point Northern Shoveler was staked out. We were hoping to be the first to call it in, but we learned that two teams had seen it at 5, presumably with a spotlight. Still, it would be a good bird. Unfortunately, when we got there, the shoveler was absent. Some consolation was in the fact that we saw Ruddy Ducks and American Coots (4 points apiece), but it was still a tough miss.

Next to Nahant, where we picked up more good birds- Greater and Lesser Scaup, Black Scoter, Brant, and Red-necked Grebe in the ocean (the latter being a life bird for me), and Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Tree Sparrow, Mockingbird, Song Sparrow, and others at the stump dump. Another try for the shoveler was also a failure- we learned later that it was seen at a different spot of open water we did not know about.  We move onward to the Jodrey Fish Pier in Gloucester Harbor, where there were many birds and superbowl teams. We quickly spotted two murres- one nearer, which disappeared before I could get it in a scope, which the others IDed as a Common Murre, and one more distant, a Thick-billed that I saw well enough to count as a life bird. Greg found a Black Guillemot was perched on a beam under a distant pier, an odd location for an alcid, and there was a Peregrine Falcon perched on a distant tower. By the time we had left, we had seen 3 alcids, and were surprised to learn that we were the first to report the Common Murre- good for 8 points, plus 4 for the Thick-billed Murre. Very happy with our success, we moved out of the harbor to Eastern Point, adding 2 birds- Red-throated Loon and Purple Sandpiper, as well as more guillemots and some Song Sparrows foraging, oddly, on floating rafts of seaweed.
Thick-billed Murre
At Bass Rocks, we saw the long-staying adult male King Eider, a brilliant, if distant bird. Another rare duck was the Barrow's Goldeneye at Penzance Beach, and Harlequin Ducks were there as well, awesome, if common birds. (4, 3, and 2 points, respectively). We switched drivers and got our lunch/breakfast at Granite Pier in Rockport, but didn't find any new birds. Same a Halibut Point State Park. Heading up to Newburyport, we had made a couple of unsuccessful stops in a row. But our luck turned around. 

Andrews Point, which was dubbed "hell" the previous year, was actually very pleasent, warm and sunny. In contrast to the norm, temperatures were as high as 40 degrees. The birds were nice too- multiple Razorbills (a lifer) and a second King Eider, this one a young male, were the highlights. A little while later, Jacob spotted a Cooper's Hawk perched in a tree. 3 points. Benjamin spotted another accipiter flying by less than five minutes later. Incredibly, it was a clear Sharp-shinned Hawk. 3 more points, and two potentially difficult gaps in our list filled. A stop for Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs yielded all 3 in quick succession. 8 more points, combined. We were in a celebratory mood as we arrived in Newburyport, but missed the turn for the Wastewater Treatment Plant. When we were turning around, we scanned the flats for birds, and Benjamin spotted a Northern Shoveler, our nemesis from the beginning of the day. We called it in for our second 5-point bird, and one that was completely off our radar after missing the one in Lynn.
Male Common Eider
Crossing the bridge over the Merrimac river to Salisbury Beach State Park, it was around 2 and the clock was ticking. We picked up Common Merganser from the bridge and Bald Eagle from the state park, before heading back south to Plum Island. There were still 3 embarrassing holes in our list- Dark-eyed Junco, Mute Swan, and Northern Harrier. We stopped at the North Pool Overlook to try to find a reported Wilson's Snipe, but got a much better bird when Jacob spotted a Brown Thrasher foraging at the edge of the water. 5 points, plus 3 more, and the last new 5-pointer to be seen by anybody that day. Unfortunately, other birds were scarcer, and we couldn't find harrier, Short-eared Owl, or even a junco. A distant Rough-legged Hawk saved us from a grassland raptor strikeout, and was a nice life bird for me, but apart from the thrasher and roughleg we could not find anything else new on Plum Island. With some time left, we headed to what was to be the last stop of the day- a small blackbird roost in Salisbury. On the way, however, we decided to stop at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, which we had been unable to access earlier because of construction. A 2nd cycle Iceland Gull, our 69th bird, made the detour very worthwhile. At the blackbird roost, we saw Red-winged Blackbird but missed Common Grackle. As the sun set and time wound down, a Northern Harrier flew over, our last bird of the day. 

Back at the Hope Community Church, the finish line, we ate pizza, discussed sightings with other teams, and tallied our score. Our total was 71 species and 140 points, which was 10 species and almost 40 points better than last year, and good for 2nd in the youth category and 8th overall out of 21 teams. Not a bad showing, and a great day of birding.
White-winged Scoter


  1. Wow! That sounds like an unbelievable trip! Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot, and an adult male King Eider!!!!! I wish I could have been there! Sounds awesome. Congrats on finding all the species.


  2. Thanks. Yeah, It was pretty awesome. You should definitely do it next year.


  3. Nice report Cobett,

    Great pickup on the alcids in the harbor, not to mention the NOSH at the WWTP and the Thrasher on Plum. We found very little on Plum expect the "roughie". BTW there are two locations on Flax Pond that stay "open" in winter, at 5AM the shoveler was at the "alternate open spot", off Lake View Ave....Keep that in mind if you return next year. The surrounding street lights are enough to find the waterfowl without aid of a spot light.

    Sounds like you had a lot fun and that what counts most.

    Best Regards,


  4. Thanks! I will definitely remember about the other open part of Flax Pond for next year- we were wondering where the shoveler could have gone, with most of the pond frozen over. Congratulations on your win.

    Eamon Corbett

  5. We were happy with Hermit Thrush at Plum...that thrasher would have been sweet!

    Nice write-up...

  6. Yeah, Plum Island was pretty quiet for us too, but the thrasher made up for it. It's funny how the point system makes out-of-season birds more interesting. If we had just been birding Plum normally, the thrasher would have been somewhat noteworthy but not really a highlight of the day. At the superbowl, though, it becomes twice as good a bird as a Thick-billed Murre or King Eider.

    Eamon Corbett