The thickets and feeders on this narrow seaside road in the town of Rockport, Massachusetts, were filled with the chattering of House Sparrows and the calls of Black-capped Chickadees, but they might as well have been silent. The bird that the four of us sought—a Dickcissel, a denizen of the prairie way out of place in this cold New England setting—was nowhere to be found.
By Eamon Corbett
The thickets and feeders on this narrow seaside road in the town of Rockport, Massachusetts, were filled with the chattering of House Sparrows and the calls of Black-capped Chickadees, but they might as well have been silent. The bird that the four of us sought—a Dickcissel, a denizen of the prairie way out of place in this cold New England setting—was nowhere to be found. Time was ticking down, and we knew it, and the bird, which had made an appearance just minutes before we arrived, would not show. Normally, we would have been content to wait for as long as necessary to get a look at such an unusual bird, one I had never seen before. But this was not an ordinary day.
The four of us (Jacob Drucker, Benjamin Van Doren, Galen Frank-Bishop, and me), collectively called The Razorbills, were representing the New York State Young Birders’ Club in the “Superbowl of Birding,” a competition that takes place in Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hampshire every January. It’s essentially a “big day” competition, but with a few differences. Because daylight is scarce in the area in winter, it is only 12 hours long, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., rather than the usual 24 hours. That’s good, because it can be extremely cold and windy, particularly on the exposed coastal coves and peninsulas that provide some of the best birding in the region. The biggest difference from a normal big day, however, is the Superbowl’s unique scoring system: every bird on the checklist is assigned a point value, from one to five, based on its rarity. Five-point birds, the rarest, have to be called in to the Joppa Flats Center, which runs the competition. The first team to call in each species gets a three-point bonus, but the bird becomes public knowledge and anyone can call in to learn about it and can try to track it down. That was how we learned about the Dickcissel that was stubbornly refusing to materialize in Rockport.
For us, the competition had begun in the dark by the side of the road at 5:00 that morning, as we tried in vain to get owls to respond to our mimicked whistles and hoots. From the start we were in big-day mode, birding quickly and trying, often unsuccessfully, to stick to the minute-by-minute schedule that we had laid out over pizza in our hotel room the previous evening. At first light we were at Flax Pond in Lynn, checking off the needed American Coot (4 Points) and Hooded Merganser (2 Points). From there we headed to the peninsula of Nahant, where we ticked Brant (3), Snow Bunting (3), all three scoters (2, 1, 1), and some of the more common winter birds of the area, including Common Eider, Horned Grebe, Common Loon, Red-breasted Merganser, American Black Duck, and Song Sparrow (all worth 1 point apiece). We left Nahant somewhat dissatisfied, however, because of a series of misses: Snow Goose, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Northern Shoveler, all high-point birds. Not only did we not see any of them, we lost a lot of time, and left Nahant well behind schedule. On the plus side, the weather was excellent at 40 degrees and sunny, a far cry from the expected bitter cold.
Our luck turned in Gloucester, with good birds like Peregrine Falcon, Double-crested Cormorant, and Glaucous and Iceland gulls at the fish pier, Razorbill and Long-tailed Duck at Niles Beach, Purple Sandpiper, Northern Gannet, and Black Guillemot at Eastern Point, Northern Pintail at Brace Cove, Eastern Towhee in a random thicket, and Ring-necked Duck and Common Merganser on Niles Pond. We left for Rockport feeling considerably better about our day, when our luck turned sour again. There were four different five-point birds that had been seen around in Rockport. One, a Northern Shoveler, was gone, but the other three, Spotted Towhee, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Dickcissel, had all been seen recently by other teams. We waited by the thickets in which the towhee and chat had been last seen, but neither appeared, despite a tantalizing glimpse of a bird that was probably the chat, but which we couldn’t count because we weren’t certain. To add insult to injury, some great birds had been spotted at spots we had just left: Slaty-backed Gull at the fish pier and Dovekie at Brace Cove.
Time ticking away, we decided to head down the road to the Dickcissel spot, hoping to spot it quickly and have time to return for the other two birds. It was not to be. Jacob got a quick view of the bird, but three of us had to see it for it to count, and the Dickcissel vanished. We found ourselves facing the quintessential big day dilemma. If we left without seeing it, we had just wasted a huge chunk of time, with no payoff. On the other hand, if we stayed, the bird might never show, and even if it did we might not have enough time to make some critical stops at the end of the day. After over twenty agonizing minutes, we decided to cut our losses. Just as we got in the car, I noticed that the assembled birders were training their binoculars on the same spot and pointing. We quickly jumped out of the car, dashed back to the crowd, and got the bird!
From there, the rest of the day was a whirlwind of high-speed birding and was much more successful. We cut out many stops in Ipswich and Newburyport to make up the hour we were behind schedule, and therefore stopped only in the most important locations. The first was the feeders of Jim Berry, who had been hosting a beautiful female Townsend’s Warbler for weeks. The bird was there when we arrived and we took a few minutes to admire it before heading north to Plum Island. On “Plum” we sprinted the trails as fast as we could while carrying scopes, getting good birds like Black-legged Kittiwake, Green-winged Teal, Wild Turkey, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, and Bonaparte’s Gull, all of which were new for the day. The 5 p.m. finish time loomed as we headed back towards Salisbury, but we managed to get one more bird on Plum Island. We parked in the lot at Hellcat observation tower, ran the hundred feet or so to the marsh, spotted the Snowy Owl in ten seconds, watched it for about five seconds, ran back to the car, and sped off, with a total time of less than three minutes. Our two twilight stops were of mixed success. The first, a blackbird roost in Salisbury, netted us a Cooper’s Hawk, as well as the required Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and a single Brown-headed Cowbird. The cowbird would prove to be the last bird of the day, because the Short-eared Owl I had seen while scouting the night before at our final stop was now nowhere to be found.
We finished with 76 species, for a total of 153 points, which we were somewhat surprised to find was good enough to win the youth division and place fifth overall out of 22 teams. Of course, the list and points were not really what counts, so we were back out the next morning to try again for the towhee, chat, and Slaty-backed Gull. They eluded us once again, but we’ll be back next year!
About the author: Eamon Corbett is a 15-year-old birder and bird blogger from Pelham, New York, and one of the Student Blog Editors of The Eyrie. He has been birding for almost as long as he could talk, thanks in part to regular family vacations to Florida, where Osprey and Turkey Vultures first caught his eye. Read more of Eamon’s writing on his blog, Flight Log (www.birdersflightlog.blogspot.com).