What a day, what a day? I have run 60+ Big Days in the state of Florida, and one in Wyoming, but none so haphazard and prone to mishaps and Big Misses at this 19th day of February, 2012.
I had a chance to scout for this Big Day on the STA 5 CBC on December 31, 2011. Funny thing about scouting seven weeks before a Big Day is that things change a lot in that time. More on that later. I was assigned to C & B Farms, adjacent to STA 5, for the CBC. The group was meeting at the farm HQ at 0730 which gave me time to do some owling and dawn birding along CR 835 and Deer Fence Canal Road. I managed to find Eastern screech owl on the CBC, a Hendry County bird for me at the time. I marked the spot on my smart phone map app for future entry into eBird and for future reference. On the Big Day, the same three screech owls called to me once again after some coaxing from my iPod. I had also added Whip-poor-will to my Hendry list that day, but that spot did not come through for me this day. Before heading to my dawn spot, I picked up Burrowing owl in the spot where I recently added that species to my Hendry list.
Dawn found me at the intersection of CR 835 and C-1 Canal. There is a hedgerow of trees on both sides of 835, the canals running in four directions, and open pasture beyond the hedgerows. Some semi-marshy area exists along the wide canal, but not much for rails. This was acceptable as a dawn spot. I had other spots for rails later. I had many Virginia rails, Least bitterns, sedge wrens, etc. at the east end of Deer Fence Canal Road seven weeks ago. I did not get King rail there, but I had OK Slough State Forest
(OK Slough info) and Dinner Island Ranch WMA (Dinner Island Info) on the agenda, so I was not worried. My hope was to pick up some hedgerow birds such as Orange-crowned warbler which would be new for Hendry for me as well as something nice like Brown-crested flycatcher. Instead I got most of the usual birds including two species of doves before sunrise and a smattering of herons. I thought I heard a Yellow-crowned night-heron for number 10, but it turned out to be a Green heron making a very strange call. I had 98 species to go at that point to tie my record of 108 in one day. That record was set when I got 84 species at STA 5 on a field trip and decided to hit the marina at Clewiston and then head out to OK Slough State Forest just to see how many I could get. This day would be slightly more planned than that day and the record would surely fall.
I left my dawn spot with time to bird a little along Blumberg Road before entering STA 5 (STA 5 Tour Schedule), a must for any Hendry County Big Day. I made a few stops along the way scoping out the new growth and blossoms of the willows in hopes of picking up Orange-crowned warbler. No such luck, but I got plenty of Northern waterthrush and my only Brown thrasher of the day. Normally the dirt section of Blumberg is pretty desolate in the morning, but this morning there were multiple sugar cane harvests in progress. The sugar cane is burned in a ring fire (the field edges are ignited and the fire proceeds toward the center.) This is not so good if you are a small, non-winged creature in the middle of the cane field, but wonderful if you are looking to eat said creatures. The caravan of cane trucks made birding difficult, but I was able to find a safe spot near one of the cane harvests. Even early in the morning, the vultures were in evidence. Swainson's hawks are known to winter in the area and I still needed that for Hendry County. I waited patiently for Swainson's as well as any other good day birds that might appear. No Swainson's would appear and I had to get on to STA 5 ahead of the slow-moving crowds.
I arrived at STA 5 with 44 species in my pocket. Margaret was there, handing out radios for people to report their findings. There had been a few new birds for the area two weeks before on the last field trip. Vermilion flycatcher and Horned grebe would both be valuable Big Day birds and county ticks for me. I headed immediately to the area where the flycatcher had been seen. The wind was beginning to blow harder and I had only a limited window before the little red guy would take cover. Unfortunately, the Red-winged blackbirds had taken over the willows where the flycatcher had been seen last trip. I walked patiently up and down the road and picked up several day birds, but nothing new for the county for me. Other hoped for targets were the Cinnamon teal, Eurasian wigeon, and Canvasback. All three were missed two weeks ago, but I had seen the former two four weeks ago. I would not see any this day. In fact, I did not see any Black-bellied whistling ducks, spoonbills, or even the Gray and Cassin's kingbirds that hang out on the west side of STA 5 in the day time. I was not too worried about any of those as I would undoubtedly see them at some point later in the day. I was hoping to get to 100 species before I left STA 5 and possibly beat the record at the lake in Clewiston later in the morning. With all these easy birds missing and no rarities, that would not happen. My one saving grace, and the one and only county bird of the day, was the two Swainson's hawks that flew in for a cane fire on the south side of STA 5. I left STA 5 with only 91 species, still missing Carolina wren, Blue Jay, Indigo bunting, and so many others. Not a good day so far, but I still had a lot of easy pick ups later in the day. If only this wind would let up a little.
The prospect of getting to 100 without Blue jay was ended when I heard one for #92 south of Clewiston. I checked Black-bellied whistling ducks and Muscovy in a neighborhood along CR 835. The houses surround some retention ponds which I suspected may hold some of the Black-bellied whistling ducks that rise up and pass over Clewiston some nights on their way to Lake Okeechobee. None were found.
I looped around Hooker Highway and old US 27 trying for anything that might be new. I found a Forster's tern which I had not seen recently at the marina in Clewiston. That was all for the loop. The wind was beginning to take its toll on song birding this day.
In town I added Rock pigeon but failed to see the Muscovy that I would later find out hangs out in the dual canal halfway between the condo and the lake. Scouting is so important for Big Days.
Finally the marina down by the lake, Hendry County's tiny claim to Lake Okeechobee. Several species can only be found here including Brown pelican, Laughing gull, and occasionally other gulls and terns. I have had Royal tern here in the past. Not this time. Last year, during the Big O' Festival Big O' Festival Registration and info, the boat trips netted Ruddy turnstone, Sanderling, many Royal terns, and Herring gulls along the spoil islands lining the canal leading out to the lakes's center. I must see about a boat trip on future Big Day attempts. For today, I had to check the canal and scan the lake as best I could from the Herbert Hoover Dike. I quickly added more birds like Fish crow, Laughing gull, and Herring gull. A second year Herring gull gave me a start when I thought it might be a Great black-backed gull, very rare inland in Florida, but it was not to be. I started to leave the marina with 98 species, still 10 away from the record, when I noticed a flock of cowbirds. I couldn't just pass them by, so I began scanning them. How about that? I found a male Bronzed among the many Brown-headed cowbirds. Not a county bird, but a great Big Day bird. I alerted Margaret England who alerted the FOS gang who were doing there FOS Birding Weekend in Clewiston this weekend. They came later and found three Bronzed cowbirds in the flock. Now, I was at 99 species and still no woodpeckers. I checked a few oaks on the way out of the marina still hoping to pick up some songbirds although now the wind was really whipping. Red-bellied woodpecker was there for #100, so much for 100 without any woodpeckers. But, wait! I had forgotten to write down Purple martin which was heard while I was atop the dike. Bronzed cowbird was the Century Bird, much more fitting than Red-bellied woodpecker, and I had found 100 before getting a woodpecker, or even House sparrow. Now I was only seven away from the record. Surely it would fall in the next hour or so.
I had not scouted the LaBelle area in NW Hendry County, but I knew that it held a few things not to be found elsewhere. Titmice should be in this area as well as things like Brown-headed nuthatch, Chipping sparrow, House sparrow that I had somehow missed in Clewiston, and possibly others. I still needed Indigo bunting for that matter. The wind, the wind, what is up with this wind?
Anyway, I stopped at a pond outside of town and looked for the first time. Wow! There were many Gadwall, Ring-necked ducks, both uninteresting teal (non-Cinnamon types) and wigeon. Gadwall as well as the Bronzed cowbird are good candidates for Bird-a-Day. I decided to keep them in mind for future days when I might be able to go out and grab them while staying in Clewiston. I checked a few ponds along SR 80. I skipped popping up US 27 where it splits from US 80, heading toward Moore Haven. A group of Scissor-tailed flycatchers and at least one Western kingbird have been hanging near the county line. I would get them later along with the previously missed Gray and Cassin's kingbird at the roost at Deer Fence Canal. LaBelle was new to me and failed to produce much, mostly due to lack of knowledge, but helped undoubtedly by the 20 MPH winds that never ceased. I hoped to at least pull off a parula and titmouse, but none were found in the oaks along the Caloosahatchee Canal. I did find Starling and House sparrow and left the area with 104 species, still four shy of the record. When will this record fall?
I headed south of SR 29 in route to CR 832 and OK Slough. I was distracted by Spirit of the Wild WMA (Spirit of the Wild info) where I could see some potential Hairy and red-headed woodpecker habitat. Surely I could at least pick up a Pine warbler, or maybe even Carolina wren. This area is mostly open pasture, but there are pine flat woods including some dead stands of pines where woodpeckers or Brown-headed nuthatches or bluebirds may live. The winds again would prove detrimental as I was not able to add anything at all. It was nearly impossible to bird the area and as there was hunting at this time, I decided to head on to OK Slough.
I entered OK Slough still five away from the record. I was almost able to run the entire south loop road without four wheel drive due to drought conditions. Unfortunately, I don't have four wheel drive, so I lost a bit of time doubling back. I did manage to find a flock of American robins, #105 and my second species of woodpecker, Downy. I found a wind-sheltered area where I could observe the Yellow-rumped warblers and gnatcatchers, but failed to find anything new even here. Eventually, a flock of Cedar waxwings flew over for #107. On the way back to the main road, I saw a crow and realized that it was my first American crow of the day and the record tying species, #108. Finally! I headed back to the main road to explore other areas of the forest.
Oil Well Pad Road proved to be one of the most productive areas on the forest. The hammocks along the way were undoubtedly full of Barred owls. At least one pair called to break the record at 109. A Pileated woodpecker flew from one hammock to another for #110. The marshes along the road were very dry due to drought conditions, but the deeper spots still held King rails. I got one at the Oil Pad as I searched the marsh for Sedge wren, still lacking on my list. I hoped for Hermit thrush in the hammocks, but they were another victim of the wind, or perhaps there weren't any present.
Finally I had the record behind me and many easy ticks to go. Surely I would get to at least 120 and probably 125 or more. With proper scouting and a better plan, I could maybe dare to dream of 140 or more.
I headed to the last entrance on the north side of the road and headed up the eastern boundary of the forest. I still did not have Pine warbler or any other pineland specialties. I finally got one Pine warbler and Indigo bunting but still not much for song birds. I was really counting on Deer Fence Canal Road with its four species of Tyrannids and multitude of marsh birds at the end of the day not to mention I still needed Great horned owl and Whip-poor-will. Wild Turkey rounded out the species added in the forest and I headed out toward Deer Fence Canal with 114 species in tow.
I had tarried too long to make a stop at Dinner Island Ranch WMA; I needed to get on to the kingbird roost before it was too late. It was too late. As I approached the area, I was struck but the lack of kingbirds on the wires. Apparently they go to roost before 1800 hours on February 19. I had picked up Black-bellied whistling duck along the way for #115. The kingbirds were to put me up to 119 before I headed to the end of the road to pick up Sedge wren, Virginia rail, Great horned owl, spoonbill, and other bonus birds. I did manage a Least flycatcher across the road.
I tarried a little longer hoping to find something, then headed to the end of the road to pick up some more stuff and make my way to 120 for the day. Did I mention there was a prolonged drought and that I hadn't been to the area in seven weeks? It dawned on me that the marshes that were dry in OK Slough were indicative of the marshes in Deer Fence Canal Conservation Area adjacent to STA 5, where I had counted on Virginia rail, Sedge wren, and Least bittern. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Oof! I looked over STA 5 and picked up a Cooper's hawk, a species that somehow eluded me this day. No spoonbills flying to roost at this time. No Yellow-crowned night-heron heading out for breakfast. A Merlin with a full crop came by for my third falcon species of the day. That was #118. The Great horned owls in the cypress dome in the conservation area were silent or absent this day. I headed back to my Whip-poor-will spot to fail once again. Darn you, wind and noisy pumps! Back at 835, I spotted a Great horned owl on the cypress dome for #119. I made one more stop at my dawn spot to see if an actual Yellow-crowned night-heron would appear, but it was not meant to be. I ended with 119, one short of my secondary goal and with misses like Roseate spoonbill, all the kingbirds, and even Carolina wren! A new record, such great potential for more, and a lot of fun to buoy me on my 3 1/2 hour drive home. I can't wait for the next attempt!