Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Scissor-tailed Prairie-Robin Sightings

Now it's finally time for the Muckrace results. My team, one of two Cornell student teams, was the Scissor-tailed Prairie-Robins - Ryan Douglas, Paul Hurtado, Shawn Billerman, Brad Walker, and myself. We were tasked with tromping around the Muckrace territory (outlined in red) for 24 hours to find as many bird species as possible:

Our team headed up to Montezuma as soon as we could get out of class in the mid-afternoon on Friday, Sep. 7th, and scouted a last few locations for the race. We decided to start at Larue’s Lagoon on the wildlife drive, and try to scope and hear some shorebirds in the dying light. When we arrive a little after 7:30pm, many things were readily visible, best of them being a small flock of BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS and a SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER. Light was quickly fading, though, and by 7:55 it was getting increasingly more difficult to pick out and identify the smaller peeps. It was at this point that the shorebirds and gulls began to get restless, and they were inadvertently spooked. The Black-bellies and gulls took off for parts unknown, just minutes before start time.

We started picking off shorebirds immediately at 8pm while we could still pick them out, assisted by call notes as well. We made a decent list, then left Larue’s to begin the night’s owl chasing. We first stopped at last year’s Saw-whet Owl spot, No. 39 Rd near Carncross and Morgan Rds, running into two other teams. Ryan and Paul did their best tooting impressions for twenty minutes, with nothing but silence in return. We next moved locations to try for Barred Owl. We saw another car down the road, so pulled off a ways away and listened. The other car began hooting for Barred, and realized quickly realized one of the voices was a real BARRED OWL, responding. After the other team stopped hooting and we all heard the bird, we drove up and thanked the team (Micky Scilingo’s team) for letting us poach their owl. While chatting with them, we heard a young BARRED OWL screeching/begging to the adults still hooting at us – a new vocalization for many of us.

Next up was an unsuccessful attempt at rails and bitterns on Railroad Road, followed by a never-ending nightlong saga of searching for Screech Owls, or any new species. With stiff south winds on a hot, muggy night, migration was entirely non-existant, and the owls were not responding. We finally gave up halfway through the night, sleeping for two hours in the Audubon Center parking lot. We continued for Screech Owl until the gray light of dawn was bright enough to scope shorebirds. In the end, our searching was entirely fruitless and we had a good six hours with no new species.

Over the next three hours we hit, and re-hit, the classic shorebird spots – Wildlife Drive, Tschache, May’s, and Knox-Marcellus. We pretty quickly ticked off most of the expected shorebirds – highlights were both GOLDEN and BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS (at Tschache and Larue’s, respectively), and BAIRD’s and WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPERS (at Tschache and Larue’s respectively). Other highlights were falcons – a PEREGRINE flew around our first stop at Tscache, and a MERLIN blitzed by Larue’s. We picked up LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL by stopping to see what Bob McGuire’s team was looking at from the road in the northeast corner of Tschache (across from May’s), before taking cover from a short-lived rainstorm. Spirits reached ever higher when, after lamenting the lack of rails, coot, ruddy duck, and other birds, we quickly saw right near each other on the Wildlife Drive: several YELLOW WARBLERS, a family group of five SORA, a COOT, and a RUDDY DUCK.

By now we had a great list going, especially strong in the ducks and shorebirds, and our spirits were high. However, it was already near to 10am, and we desperately needed songbirds. We headed straight for Howland Island, picking up TURKEY in a random field along the way. We drove across from Carncross Rd. and began hiking from where the main road turns south. We ran into a small flock pretty quickly, near the grove of spruces along the main road. We picked up RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH and PURPLE FINCH right away – normally tough birds that require a side trip to Clyde Cemetery. We also started getting warblers, including REDSTART, NASHVILLE, and MAGNOLIA, but many of these warblers were ‘dirty’ (not seen by all team members) because we got too spread out.

Two or three hours of hiking on Howland yielded relatively poor results, but we still had a lot of fun. Pretty soon after the initial warbler flock, a screech owl whinny sounded off the trail to the south. Other birders had just been imitating screech owls nearby, but this sounded different. So, the only obvious thing to do was to yell at it – “Are you real???” No answer. Careful listening and imitations and we realized that this was a real SCREECH OWL singing at 11am – probably riled up by all the birders spishing and whinnying.

Other Howland highlights included a singing YELLOW-THROATED VIREO, a long-distance SCARLET TANAGER picked up from across one of the Howland ponds, after checking out a perched FLICKER, a drumming RUFFED GROUSE, and a small flock of VEERY, BLACK&WHITE WARBLERS, and RED-EYED VIREOS. We returned from our big loop to the spruce grove, where we encountered another Cornell team, the Kingbirds (Ben Clock, Jesse Ellis, Nate Sennar), working a warbler flock. We picked out BAY-BREASTED and CAPE MAY WARBLERS, among others.

Howland had slowed from few birds to very little by noon, so we departed to check other locations, despite having disappointing few songbirds. A stop at the Audubon Center for registration yielded INDIGO BUNTING and PILEATED WOODPECKER, but our perusal of the shorebirds failed to turn up the Western Sandpiper we later learned was lurking under our noses.

We did another run through of wetland locations, from Martens Tract on south. We cleaned up on all the expected shorebirds, adding our last peep, SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, at Martens. A stop at feeders near Mudlock yielded CHIPPING SPARROW and TUFTED TITMOUSE. The Wildlife Drive yielded PINTAIL, helpfully pointed out by Ken being just a little too loud in his coaching one of the youth teams, as well as a female REDHEAD, both hidden among the Mallards. Tschache relinquished PIED-BILLED GREBE and HOODED MERGANSER.

Finally, we hit Knox-Marcellus from East Road again. We scoped 3 BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS and 2 SANDHILL CRANES, a huge highlight of the race. Having amassed as big a list of wetland birds as we could hope for, we headed back to Howland at 5:30 for a last-ditch attempt at more songbirds. It was pretty quiet, but we did add CLIFF SWALLOW, the last swallow we needed. Finally with the clock ticking down after 6pm, we abandoned Howland and tried the Blueberry Farm for more songbirds. It worked amazingly well – we picked up five new species in fifteen minutes, no easy feat this late in the race – JUNCO, WOOD THRUSH, BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER, ORIOLE, and FIELD SPARROW.

Our very last spot at East Road for the finish did not yield our much-missed Bitterns. We finished up with about 3 minutes to spare, turning in our day’s tally of 122 species at the Audubon Center at 8pm. Those last five species at the Blueberry Farm saved us (big thanks to the owners!) as we would soon learn.

We tied for third with Chris Tessaglia-Hymes' team, the Gallinagos. Another Cornell team, teh Kingbirds, won second, and the second student team, Wings Over Ithaca, won first with 140 species. It was almost embarassing to have all four top teams be Cornellian. Overall, it was a fantastic Muckrace. We had 17 species of shorebird, all six swallows, and nine warblers. We may not have found great songbird diversity, but we saw plenty of excellent birds.

Jillian Liner, the event organizer, sent out this summary:

The eleventh annual Montezuma Muckrace was a blast thanks to all the
participants, volunteers, and donors. Final results, stories, list of
donors, and more will be compiled into the Muckrace Musings expected out
later this week. In the meantime, some summary stats:

2007 Statistics

Date: 7-8 September

# teams entered: 19

# species seen: 162

# species winning team: 140

Amount money raised: still counting.

Project to be supported: eBird kiosk

Winning team with 140 species: Wings Over Ithaca (Cayuga Bird Club)--Jay
McGowan, Mike Harvey, Glenn Serholzer, Tom Johnson, and Tim Lenz

Second Place with 130 species: The Kingbirds (Cornell Lab of
Ornithology)--Ben Clock, Nathan Senner, and Jesse Ellis

Tied for Third with 122 species: The Gallinagos (In honor of Brenda
Carter)--Gerard Phillips, Chris and Diane Tessaglia-Hymes AND The
Scissor-tailed Prairie Robins--Ryan Douglas, Paul Hurtado, Nick Sly, Shawn
Billerman, and Brad Walker

Winning youth team with 77 species: Downy Chicks (Cayuga Bird Club)--Peri
McGowan, Sarah Beckwith, Rachel Rosenberg, and Olivia Rosenberg

Second place youth with 74 species: The Hummers (Wildbird
Unlimited)--Geoffrey Twardokus and Christian Burns

And, the first Low Carbon Team (participated via bike) finished with 94
species: Audubon NY No rEgrets (Audubon NY)--Mike Burger, Mike Morgan,
Rachel Vallender, and Jillian Liner

Most memorable team bird: Barred Owl family, Western Sandpiper, Sora,
Sandhill Crane, Hood Warbler, and falcons chasing shorebirds

# species seen only in 2007 1 (Clay-colored Sparrow)

# hours birded: 7--24 hours

# warbler species recorded: 20

# shorebird species recorded: 21

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