It was only a couple weeks before that I even heard of such a thing as a 12 Day Big Year. I have long since given up on the idea of doing another Big Year. I did two Florida Big Years in a row in 2000 and 2001. I ran 63 Big Days from 2002 to 2004, then another to set the record in 2009. Nowadays, I haven't the time or inclination to do such things again, but a 12 day Big Year? You pick one day per month to bird and keep a cumulative list over the year? That, I can handle!
I have so many commitments between being married, owning a house, working on contracts and guiding, festivals, etc. that even getting away once a month is a difficult. I picked January 9th as the start day because the latter half of the month is rife with festival obligations. I was in the panhandle, a key area for the Big Year, anyway for a couple of CBC's. Choosing Thursday allowed me to recover on Friday and spend some quality time with Dee over the weekend. The weather was going to be worse on Friday anyway, and Thursday was the first day of good weather after two unreasonable cold spells that led to persistent icicles in Florida.
The strategy for a 12 Day Big Year is, well, I'm still trying to figure that out. I suspect it is something of a hybrid of Big Year and Big Day strategies. My approach was generally that of most successful Big Year competitors: chase the rarities and fill in the common birds and local specialties as you go. Jacksonville had produced some mega-rarities lately. My schedule was such that it would be difficult for me to run my February day before the third week and I was not confident the megas would still be around then, so Jacksonville would definitely figure into the January day. The western panhandle has been hopping with some rarities, some of which would be new for me in the state, but it is so far from Jacksonville. Quite a logistical challenge given the shortened daylight of January. Could I get from Pensacola to Jacksonville AND have time to find all the birds I need? No worries, two days of birding in the western panhandle produced little in the way of rarities. Cold weather and harsh winds undoubtedly played a role, but some of the birds were clearly gone and others (loons and grebes in the bay) were so mobile that they could not be counted on when you only have one day. Problem solved! Another reason why the panhandle is key: winter hummingbirds and finches. What winter hummingbirds and finches? This has been a dismal winter for rare hummers and feeder birds. So, I thought of a really crazy plan, I do that. Micheal Brothers has been seeing a California gull at Daytona Beach Shores the last couple days. Is it possible to hit St. Mark's NWR in the morning, shoot straight to Jacksonville (skipping the birdless feeders of Tallahassee) and still have time to get to Daytona Beach Shores in time to score a California gull? It's worth a try.
I saved enough time, after bombing in the western panhandle, to scope out the water levels at St. Marks NWR and find an American woodcock (a key species) calling outside the refuge just after dark. Mallard, American black duck, Common goldeneye, White-faced ibis, Rusty blackbird, Nelson's sparrow, and perhaps Vermilion flycatcher would be key species the next day. I should be able to get 100+ before even leaving the refuge and 150+ by the end of the day. So, that was the plan. I didn't have time and energy to come up with a detailed plan, as in past Big Days. I was going to wing it.
I didn't get much sleep, but I had a lot of fun. My grandmothers have long since left this world, but I did sleep with a feather down comforter. I got an early start, too early for the woodcock which tend to be most active at dawn and dusk. Perhaps an eager beaver would display, or at least fly around twittering its wings, so I could spend more time inside the refuge in search of other key species. The refuge gates open at 6 am every day of the year. In January that means lots of dark time to look for owls, etc., if you aren't tied to regimental woodcocks who insist of sticking to their schedule, not yours.
With only 12 days to do your Big Year, a key is to knock out suites of species or all species found in a particular area so you don't have to dedicate your limited time to working on those species or areas on future days. With this in mind, I hoped to get Whip-poor-will and the usual owls (Great-horned, Barred and Eastern screech) and not have to worry about night birding on future days. Of course, the woodcocks care not for my strategy or my Big Year, and I got nothing in the appointed woodcock spot nor at the refuge visitor center parking lot. Started the day with two null checklists (eBird checklists with no species reported). Null 1 Null 2 Not a good omen. Weather would dog me all day with tomorrow's rain and wind making a special appearance on this, Day 1 of my 12 Day Big Year. This was not good, however many of the key species were "wet birds" (species like ducks and wading birds that would not be affected by such inclement weather). I would be affected, but I was toughened up from the arctic freeze of the last few days anyway. Owling was going to be difficult with rain and wind, but hopefully the woodcock would be on display. And so it was! Second time was a charm. Nothing else doing, but that was just fine with me.
First key species under my belt! Now for more. With a little darkness left, I stopped at the Twin Bridges to check for Wood duck and Barred owl. I got null. No bird species, but perhaps the most fortuitous find of the day was Don Morrow who was patiently waiting for ducks and owls. He gave a few pointers about birds on the refuge and I headed off in pursuit of more key species.
Next stop, the restrooms, where I took one last shot at Whip-poor-will and Eastern screech owl in the waning darkness. Dawn chorus began while I was there. (list) So much for nocturnal stuff.
I made a stop at Stop 6 on the wildlife drive to check for rails and sparrows in the salt marshes. Seaside sparrows sometimes sing this early in the morning and while they will be easy to get at later months, it would be nice to have this member of the salt marsh suite under my belt. Cold and rain dampened the mood of the sparrows, but I did pick up a few more species for the day/year.
Bam, bam! Rapid fire birding! This is what I like about Big Days, even though this is a hybrid affair and a different approach. I made another quick stop at the boat ramp near the Lighthouse Pond to see if I could stir a Black rail into calling. I have heard of others getting them here and have heard Northern mockingbirds mocking Black rails here, but I have not and did not get them here.
Headquarters Pond (HQ is no longer near hear, but the name sticks) is a freshwater pond filled with lilly pads and ducks and roosting herons. There once was an island in the center that hosted a diverse array of nesting wading birds. The trees of the island have since disappeared, but the birds still roost on the island. Black-crowned night-herons roost all around the pond and a pair of Bald eagles have nested at the back of the pond in past years. Purple gallinules are here in the summer and often spend the winter. I have had Cinnamon teal and many other nice birds here in the past. I spied a few things from the road and moved on. Bam!
An impromptu stop at another fresh water marsh netted King rail, the fresh water cousin of the ubur-abundant Clapper rail. Ubur-abundant in the Big Bend and Panhandle regions of Florida where extensive salt marshes remain largely unaltered unlike the scant salt marshes of the east coast that succumbed to mosquito control decades ago. Nearly all of the salt marshes along the east coast have been either filled in or flooded to control the breeding of salt marsh mosquitos.
I was heading back to the Twin Bridges to check off Rusty blackbird. This is a traditional spot for Rusty blackbirds. Early in the morning, they come in from the blackbird roost in Stoney Bayou and either spend the morning foraging in the swamps along the road, or spend a few minutes in the tree tops before moving on. If the latter, timing would be very important. Rusties are much harder to find these days, and having them under my belt would be another thing I don't have to worry about on remaining 11 days. But wait, the blackbirds are still on the the roost in the marsh in Stoney Bayou. I stopped briefly, and apparently did not record anything, I don't see a checklist for that stop. Perhaps that was because I saw flocks of blackbirds leaving the roost and decided to head on to the bridges.
Don was still there, waiting patiently for the blackbirds now after hearing Barred owl in my absence and Wood ducks, which still squealed in the woods around us. Blackbird flocks were passing by. Some sounded a bit odd. One such odd-sounding group landed atop the trees and, voila, I got Rusty blackbirds for the year! There were at least a dozen, then even more that flew in before we left. I was slowly getting key species under my belt. list
Next stop was the Twin Dikes where Don told me of American black duck, Mallard, White-faced ibis, Vermillion flycatcher, and Cinnamon teal. If I could knock out all of these, I could potentially leave off St. Marks NWR from future days. This would make things a lot easier. Don leads trips on the back dikes of the refuge every week and this was the day he was scouting. He offered to drive me around and I gratefully accepted. It was raining and cold and I was not looking forward to walking the long distance to the flycatcher and ducks. Riding with Mr. Morrow gave me an edge. Don knew the best places, the places where the birds are supposed to be. We looked for Yellow-crowned night-heron among roosting Black-crowned (found zero) and made several stops to scan the open water for ducks. Green-winged teal were present in great abundance, among them were several Blue-winged. As we approached the "Vermillion Flycatcher Tree", where our little red buddy has been hanging out lately, I spotted the male Cinnamon teal in a flying flock of mixed ducks. The flock went down and we got out our scopes and saw nothing. The flock just disappeared. Perhaps they flew when we were getting out our more powerful optics, or maybe they just went into a worm hole? It was hard to tell with all the ducks flying around, but we never saw the Cinnamon again. The weather struck a blow as the Vermillion flycatcher was nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly sheltering in a relatively warm and dry spot. Not good, but not a killer. There are others around the state, but I would rather not have to work them into future days. Also missing was the American black ducks Don saw last Sunday. We checked every flock of Mallards on the water and in the air, but no success. One Plegadis ibis flew over and down and into the same hole the Cinnamon went into. White-faced? Could be, but I can't tell in flight. Three misses, but at least I picked up Virginia rail to complete the suite of common rails (Clapper, King, Virginia, and Sora.) I may have to come back for ibis and black duck on the future. list
Next stop was the Lighthouse Pond area where, in order to save time, I recorded presence only for species observed rather than trying to count the individuals for every species. I recorded 34 species including many key duck species, most importantly Common goldeneye, but failed to record American oystercatcher. I doubt that will be a problem, but every species you get under your belt is one that you don't have to worry about in the future. Speaking of under the belt, I got a Nelson's sparrow along the shoreline. I may not have to come back to the lighthouse area again for the rest of the year! list
It was getting late and sanity was telling me that I was not going to be able to make it to Daytona Beach Shores for California gull, so I took some time to look again for the Plegadis ibis near the T Dike. Rain kept coming down and my scope was a bit foggy, as were the skies, but I was able to determine that the ibis was indeed a Glossy ibis. Daggum it! I won't have much problem finding them the rest of the year. list
I thought of stopping a few times on the way out of the refuge, but that is Big Day thinking. This is a 12 Day Big Year, I needed to get to Jacksonville for megas. I left the refuge with a paltry 94 species; I expected to get around 120 species. Between the weather and the hybrid, 12 Day approach, the species list was quite low. Not to fear.
On the road again. I picked up a few species here and there. House sparrows were in Capps when I stopped for go juice for me and the truck. Canada geese hang out at the Publix Distribution center north of I-10 in Jacksonville, but usually not at the more westerly Winn Dixie center. Such was the case again this day.
My plan was to hit Fort Clinch State Park first and get the Harlequin duck, Black scoter, Purple sandpiper, and maybe a rare gull or another duck. The rain let up as I left St. Marks NWR so I would have good weather for the rest of the day. But wait! As I approached Nassau County, rain bands and clouds moved in. Why does the weather hate me? Again, I was mostly looking for wet birds, but the Snow buntings might be affected by the rain and viewing offshore birds like jaegers would be difficult in the rain. If I could knock out Pomarine and Parasitic jaeger, I could maybe break ties with the east coast on later days.
I got to the park around 1400, any hopes of getting to Daytona Beach Shores were gone, but plenty of time to bird Jacksonville. The tide was really high, covering up the jetty and forcing the turnstones and Purple sandpiper up onto the fishing pier. Or at least that was the plan. There were only four Ruddy turnstones on the pier and no Purple sandpipers. I would have another shot at Purple sandpipers at Huguenot Park, but that was a long shot. February's day was to be either a run up the central east coast looking for gulls and other stuff, or a run to the SW featuring STA 5 and some SW Florida rarities and specialties. If running the east coast, the Purple sandpiper is irrelevant as I will be hitting Ponce Inlet where they are regulars. If I go southwest, I won't be seeing Purple sandpiper and I will need to pick them up later in the year. 12 Day Big Year thinking!
I walked the mile long pier (actually it is about 0.6 miles from the parking lot to the end of the pier, but it seems like a mile) and eventually found "Harly" foraging in the rough seas right over top of the submerged rock jetty. Many Red-breasted mergansers and some Black scoters were also rock surfing in search of their preferred food, mergansers seeking scaled fish swirling among the rocks, scoters seeking shellfish attached to the rocks. Other sea ducks have been seen lately here and I tired to pick out another scoter species or Long-tailed duck. No such luck. Far out at the end of the rock jetty, a mixed flock of gulls and terns swirled about. This is like a magnet for hungry jeagers that pirate food from others who have taken the time to catch their own. I have seen Parasitic jaegers here in past years. This species seems to stay closer to shore than the larger Pomarine jaegers. Both species are easily found in fall along the east coast, but I would rather not have that tie later in the year. This day, I could only manage a very aggressive Herring gull, a species that sometimes takes a jaeger-like approach to procuring food. No white-winged gulls were among the crowd of larids congregated on the patch of beach not covered by the tide. Snapping up the white-winged gulls and Purple sandpiper could swing the pendulum toward the southwest for February. Without them, I would likely stay east. list
Now for the usual Snowy owl in the usual place. I got some confusing information about the whereabouts of the owl, but no worries, just look for the group of photographers standing on the dunes. The park service has allowed limited access to the sensitive dune ecosystem in the hopes that damage can be limited, acknowledging the reality that people are going to go see the owl and the park personnel can take the time to guard the area around the clock. Atop the dune there is a rope separating the owl and the photographers and all players were on the correct side of the rope. I hated to be "that guy" who comes up and checks off the bird and then takes off, but that's what you gotta do when you are on a mission like this. I did not bring the scope to look for jaegers and such offshore because the fog had rolled in, making offshore visibility impossible. Weather dogging me again! Got ma owl, getting ma butt on the road. list
Another key species was Saltmarsh sparrow sister species of the Nelson's sparrow from the morning. These species were once considered a single species, Sharp-tailed sparrow, before being "split" some years ago. On the gulf coast of Florida nearly all "Sharp-tailed sparrows" are Nelson's sparrows. On the Atlantic coast, most are Saltmarsh sparrows. Habitat for Saltmarsh sparrow exists between Little Talbot Island SP and Huguenot Park, and I made a couple stops on the way before looking for Snow buntings. Windy conditions and receding tides made it difficult and I would leave without my Saltmarsh sparrow. High tide is the best time to look since the sparrows are driven to the edge of the marshes by the rising water. Low tides scatters the birds about the extensive marshes, making it difficult to find them. I can get this species at Shiloh Marsh and possibly other spots at Merritt Island NWR, another vote for the east coast in February.
Huguenot Park failed to yield Snow bunting when Dee and I tried for the Jacksonville Hat Trick in December. Raining that time, but not this time, so far; I had some hope. I walked to the appointed area and looked, without success. The tide was receding, but the northeast wind kept the tidal flats covered up with water and buffeted the beaches. Thus, the gulls, terns and shorebirds were huddled on the beach at the end of the dune at the base of the rock jetty. It was this congregation that drew my attention away from the dunes. I could still keep an eye on the dunes for Snow bunting while scanning the gulls for white-winged types (Glaucous and Iceland). Jaegers were a no go due to the intense fog. Among the huddled masses of turnstones were FOUR Purple sandpipers, more than I have seen in Duval County ever before. Very cool! Also got me some Red knot. Still no white-winged gulls. I heard a strange call in the dunes that I chalked up to the twittering of turnstones. I played the calls of Snow bunting on my iPod on the way back to the truck and, wait a minute! Were those Snow bunting calls? I went back to the base of the dunes and heard the call again. Definitely Snow buntings! For good measure, they landed right in front of me, on the beach. I got on the phone to call a Sarasota area birder who was also trying for the Hat Trick, but the birds took off a flew across the water toward Mayport NAS. Given the late hour, I suspect they would not be back that day. list
Next up was driving home, or nearly so. I knew of nesting Barn owl a mile from my house at Marsh Landing Restaurant and I could maybe get a few key species at Stick Marsh parking lot before midnight. I pointed myself south and wouldn't you know it, as I drove south in Brevard County, I encountered bands of rain. I pushed on and headed to the county line, stopping long enough at Babcock Street to pick up a Great horned owl within St. Sebastian River Preserve. It would be nice to pick up Eastern screech and Barred owls as well so I can not worry about owls the rest of the year. Not this night, not this weather.
I slopped my way down the muddy road to Stick Marsh parking area and was not alone at 10 PM on a Thursday night. Someone was camping in their van and others were possibly doing the same in their pickup trucks or were out on the water or on the boat belonging to the trailer that sat in the parking lot. Someone was fishing by boat in the canal on the river side of the structure. Lots of people, now let's get some birds! I lit up the banks with my LED spotlight, an early Christmas gift from Dee, but could not turn up a Yellow-crowned night-heron or even a Limpkin. I had hoped to hear a Fulvous whistling-duck, another key species. They are not so much difficult to see, but are only in a few areas within the state. If I can get them under my belt, I don't have to make a special effort at a later date. It's only the first of 12 days, but you can't afford to run around picking up too many pieces in November and December. I did not get many species here but Limpkin eventually sounded off in the rain. list
Last stop was in the yard where I would record another null checklist while trying for Eastern screech owl and Whip-poor-will. I ended the day with 124 species, ridiculously low, but with some key species and the suite of rails and the Jacksonville Hat Trick. I am missing such ridiculously common species as Fish crow, House wren, and many others. I don't know yet if I did well or not. I have about a month to figure out what to do in February. I can't wait!