At the mic: Tommy Quarles is a 15-year-old birder from Frankfort, Kentucky. He is a freshman at Western Hills High School, and when he is not birding he enjoys golfing for his school team and being with his friends.
Spaces are still available for 2018 Camp Avocet–learn more here! – ed.
July 29, 2017 was likely not a very special day for anyone in the city of Frankfort, Kentucky, except for me. My flight to Philadelphia left at the crack of dawn, and it was the first time I had ever been happy to hear my alarm which sounded at 3:30 A.M. It was my first time ever flying alone, so I was incredibly nervous about security and getting to my connection in Detroit smoothly. Luckily everything went fine, and a few hours later I touched down in Philly. Bill Schmoker met me at my gate and we were off to the vans where all the other campers were waiting for the ride to Camp Avocet. As soon as I got to the van it was like a family reunion. Previously in the year, around half of the 2016 Camp Colorado II campers vowed to go to Avocet in 2017. Sure enough, they came through with their promises, and I saw many of my old friends for the first time in months. We made our longest ride of the camp (2 hrs 15 mins) from the Philadelphia airport to the Virden Retreat Center.
Day 1 of Camp Avocet we made the hour long trip to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, Delaware. Typically Bombay Hook is very buggy, but wind provided a bug free day so conditions were perfect for birding. On the way we heard of a nearby report of Upland Sandpiper, so we went to the flooded field where it was reported, and that was my first lifer of the trip! Places you can find Upland Sandpiper are very limited in Kentucky, so it was nice to check that bird off my list. We then made our way into the National Wildlife Refuge, where I soon got lifer Clapper Rail, along with year birds Black-necked Stilt and many Marsh Wrens. We then moved to a different location where we had a few American Avocets, and then a Glossy Ibis flew in! The Glossy Ibis has been a bird I’d wanted to see since my first days of looking at field guides; I loved the name! We were then on the lookout for a rarity from Europe, the Little Egret. It looked practically identical to the nearby Snowy Egrets, but we were able to pick out the bird. It was even a lifer for a few counselors!
On Day 2 we made the short 20 minute drive to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. This included a new habitat many campers had not experienced: salt marshes. They are similar to the more typical freshwater marshes, but salt marshes are home to many new birds with ranges limited to the east coast salt marshes, such as Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows. We quickly picked up a lone Seaside Sparrow, but missed out on the more uncommon Saltmarsh Sparrow. Other birds we spotted included Black Skimmers and great photo opps for Forster’s Terns.
Our next stop of the day was the DuPont Nature Center in Kent County, Delaware. There wasn’t much at first (besides some Great Black-backed Gulls) so Camp Director Bill Stewart started to give one of his more interesting informational speeches. It was about Red Knots and how essential the location was to their survival. According to Bill, it was a key spot for their main food source (horseshoe crab eggs) on their migration path. He said keeping the habitat in good condition was vital to the horseshoe crab females and the Red Knots. As he was giving the campers more interesting information, counselor George Armistead spotted a small gull flying at a distance over the water. He interrupted the group and told everyone to get eyes on it, also to get photos! I knew that’s where I had to come in with my 400 mm lens. I got decent distant pictures, which proved to be somewhat important to identification. The bird turned out to be a Little Gull (a lifer for many, including me!) My photos made it into the eBird checklist, and it was one of my favorite experiences at camp!
On Day 3 we traveled to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refute in Eastern Virginia. It was a two hour trip, our longest for a birding trip. On our way we stopped at a small shorebird hotspot, where I picked up really good looks at American Oystercatcher, our only Willet of the trip, and my lifer Whimbrel. We then made our way to Chincoteague. We made a surprising stop at a public beach, where a nearby Piping Plover breeding ground was located. Many beaches along the coast had roped off areas that were designated breeding areas for birds like Piping Plovers and Least Terns. One of the juvenile Piping Plovers was even wandering around on the public side of the beach, making for amazing photos. This day was likely my favorite day because of the great once in a lifetime photos!
Day 4 was a day many campers looked forward to. It included a ferry trip to Cape May, New Jersey, the southernmost point in the state. The ferry ride was a new experience for me. Once we set sail, a large flock of gulls followed the ferry searching for fish that the boat propellers stirred up. Bill Stewart said he had been taking this ferry trip for years, yet he’s never seen one gull dive for a fish. That remained true for the trip there and back. Our main target was Wilson’s Storm Petrel. Being from Kentucky, I had never had any reason to study my petrels, so I had no idea what to look for. They were small black birds swooping up and down over the water. They were so far out you couldn’t see them with the naked eye. A camper even took a picture of the water at random, and found four of them in his photo! The walk down the beach of Cape May provided great birds and great photos. We found many gulls species, and had our first Red Knots of the trip (it was early to find them at the DuPont Nature Center). We also got lifer Gull-billed Tern and great photos of Common Terns.
Our next stop of the day was the famous Cape May Hawk Watch. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right time of year for migrating hawks, but we did hear a Northern Bobwhite call, which was a lifer for many western campers. Half of the campers spotted the quail, and as the whole group rushed over, it came out of the brush and walked just inches from our intern Noah’s feet! I got my best looks (and photos) of a bobwhite! We made our way back to Delaware on the ferry, and closed in on our last full day of birding.
Our last full day, we did some morning birding at nearby Cape Henlopen State Park. Brown-Headed Nuthatch was our best bird. We then went to the beach for a few hours, for fun and not for birds! We threw football in the tall waves and bodysurfed the biggest waves. I had many small pebbles in my shorts, which was not fun getting them all out. We closed the day with a recap of camp. Bill Schmoker did a great presentation on a trip to Alaska, in which he got the northernmost record of Golden-Crowned Kinglet on the eBird map!
The next morning was unfortunately our day of departure. Saying goodbye was hard, but we all promised to keep in touch. I made it back home safely and easily. I got 14 lifers total, and it was an awesome week. Definitely my favorite week of my summer!