My long term strategy for this 12 Day Big Year has been a moving target. I only heard about it in early January. My January schedule only allowed one date, January 9th, for Day 1. The panhandle is key to success in this competition. Fortunately, I was already in the panhandle that week for a couple of Christmas Bird Count's and some county listing. I have a lot of experience with Big Days in Florida and have run two Florida Big Years. The strategy for a 12 Day Big Year is a hybrid of these two types of birding. You must get as many species as you can in each day of effort, but you only have to get each species once. Common, easy birds will be ticked while you get the rare birds (Big Year strategy.) The person with the most rare birds wins. Low density birds or semi-specialized species could sneak up on you if you don't make at least a token effort for them along the way. Picking up species like these early can help free the schedule in later days.
Day 1 was dedicated to getting some of the St. Marks NWR specialties such as Mallard, American black duck, and White-faced ibis out of the way while getting the pesky Vermilion flycatcher and a slough of ducks and Nelson's sparrow in the lighthouse area. This year, there was a unique cluster of rarities in the Jacksonville vicinity (Snowy owl, Harlequin duck, and Snow bunting) that demanded attention. Bad weather and bad luck would curtail some of my efforts on SMNWR. I missed the flycatcher, black duck, and ibis, but cleaned up on ducks and got the sparrow in the lighthouse area. Jacksonville came through on the main targets. I failed to pick up any bonus birds like Saltmarsh sparrow or scoters other than Black. Day 2, also on the 9th, was a long one. I decided to take advantage of recent rarities in southwest Florida (getting three and missing the Common eider that decided to move back to it's original spot), get some more rarities at Fort DeSoto (a complete bust as I failed to even get the Franklin's gull while missing Western tanager and Red-throated loon), then head to Titusville for more recent rarities (Long-tailed duck, yes, White-winged scoter, no, Iceland gull, yes, Glaucous gull, no, California gull, D'oh! I think I actually did see it, but did not realize that was it until I viewed Michael Brothers' pic later). Two days of mixed success and bad decisions (See Day Two) and I was falling way behind the front runner, Andy Wraithmell.
For the first eight days, I am more or less tied to south Florida by a very lucrative consulting contract, keeping me far from the strategically important panhandle region. What's a guy to do? I decided to turn things to my advantage. Day Three would be dedicated to knocking out the Miami specialties (Spot-breasted oriole, Red-whiskered bulbul, and White-winged parakeet) and getting some rarities in the area (Bell's vireo, LaSagra's flycatcher, and Neotropic cormorant) while also ticking Bronzed and Shiny cowbirds, Cave swallows, and other species. Spending so much time in south and central Florida, as I have in Days 1-3, means that Day 6 will have little fruit to bear for my effort. With most of the resident birds already on my list, the logical thing to do is go for the Miami/Keys specialties, as I would in a Florida Big Year. What if I already have the Miami specialties while also picking up LaSagra's flycatcher, Neotropic cormorant and a few rarities at Lucky Hammock on Day 3? Now, I have nothing better to do then go to the keys for species like Mangrove cuckoo, Antillean nighthawk, and, let's think outside the box, take a day trip to Dry Tortugas in early June for easy ticks like Sooty tern and Brown noddy, Masked and Brown booby, and maybe even Black noddy or Red-footed booby. Those few ticks could make the difference along with a strong effort in the panhandle in the latter days. After Day 8, the ties to south Florida will be broken. I can spend more time in the panhandle picking up migrants and winter stuff and catching up to Andy.
Days 1 and 2, while a mix of success and failure, did manage to eliminate much of the need for early starts and birding in the dark. All the normal owls were on the list. Rails (with the exception of Black rail) were on as well. This freed me from being at a marsh at dawn or needing to try for owls. I still needed Whip-poor-will (piece of cake in early March) and Chuck-will's-widow (I'll be tripping over them on Day 4 and 5.) More sleep! Still, I got up early to try for Lesser nighthawk in Everglades National Park (ENP). It's not easy to get one at night. Andy Bankert and I got three on a Big Day many years ago. I could use one of those extra birds on this day.
I opened the day with two null checklists on Research Road, in the darkness. (Null 1, Null 2) Not good, but not a deal breaker. I tried Royal Palm for night-herons and bitterns and the possibility of Whip-poor-will. Still no success. Not to worry, it was kind of a win/tie situation. It would have been great to pick up a bonus, but it was not a killer to miss everything.
Dawn spot was Lucky Hammock which has recently hosted Wilson's warbler and Bell's vireo. Bell's vireo is the bird that put Lucky Hammock on the birding map many years ago. C.J. Grimes, seasonal ranger at ENP, was showing me around some of the lesser known birding spots in Dade. There was this hammock on Aerojet Road outside ENP. Not many knew of it, but the Tropical Audubon Society folks would occasionally go there. C.J. asked me what "that bird" was. I saw something flitting in the bushes and thought it was some sort of warbler (I did not see the bill at first.) When it came into view, I exclaimed, "Bell's vireo!" I believe it was a life bird for me at the time. Many more birders would come to see this bird. More birds were found. The junky little hammock on the side of the road came to be known as "Lucky Hammock." The area is officially Frog Pond WMA. The FWCC has done a fine job of removing exotic vegetation and replacing with natives along the road south of the hammock in what has come to be known as "The Annex." The Annex is now flush with a variety of native subtropical vegetation. This is the go to spot for Alder flycatcher in Florida. Last fall it even hosted a Willow flycatcher for 50 days straight.
Lucky Hammock list
Unfortunately for my 12 Day Big Year, the warbler and vireo would not appear this day. Whip-poor-wills sure put on a show as I heard six males singing up a storm from the hammock all the way to the Annex. The White-tailed kite that appeared during scouting failed to materialize when it counted. No Swainson's hawks (it's been a bad year for them in the area) but the wintering Broad-winged was present. Not a great start to Day Three. This lack of success would hurt my chances of catching Wraithmell.
Next stop was C-111E where Carlos Sanchez previously found several Brown-crested flycatchers. I found a couple while scouting, so I was reasonably confident I would get them when it mattered. It did not take me long to hear one; they are conveniently vocal. I was back on the right track, perhaps.
C-111 E list
Next up was Larry Manfredi's place in Homestead. This is the go to spot for Shiny cowbird and often Bronzed cowbird. Right away, I picked up a Baltimore oriole in the top of a tree and ticked several more year birds like White-winged dove, and Purple martin. It wasn't long before a single male Shiny cowbird flew in. I had other shots at Bronzed cowbird, so I decided to move to my next spot.
A Glaucous gull was recently found at Mount Trashmore. That is not only a fantastic Dade County bird, but a chance to make up for the miss on Day Two. I set up by Gate C of the landfill to take my shot. I had a little extra time on the schedule at this point, but I did not want to use it up early in the day. Time management is a valuable skill in competitive birding. I still had some real buggers to get in Miami, and the traffic can be a bear, even on a Sunday. Lighting was not great in the early morning, but I scanned the gulls as best I could. I kept checking a flock of cowbirds along the south side, until finally managed a hulking Bronzed cowbird among the Brown-headed. No Glaucous gull. Mixed success reigns again!
Next was Matheson Hammock to tick the LaSagra's flycatcher. Apparently the key to finding this bird is to park at the south end and look for Paul Bithorn and Bryant Roberts. I spied these guys and others sitting and looking up at the trees. I walked over and they said, "It's right here." No need to ask questions, we all know what we are here for. I looked up and the target bird flew into the light for spectacular views. Finally, a fully successful stop! I picked up a couple warblers and Yellow-throated vireo and some pointers on Spot-breasted oriole, then headed off, way ahead of schedule, with more time to invest in Nashville warbler and Spot-breasted oriole the rest of the morning.
Matheson Hammock list
Nashville warbler would eat up much of the borrowed time while I was at A.D. Barnes Park before I decided to cut my losses and leave without. Last year Spot-breasted orioles nested here and spent much of the fall and winter in the area. Ticking that species would save a great deal of time, as getting the Bronzed cowbird did before, but it was not to be. Balance restored, mixed success again.
Miami Springs was the target area for Spot-breasted oriole. I had no staked out territories at the time. The drawback of doing this day on March 2 instead of 9 is that the orioles are even less likely to be singing and on territory. Another try another failure.
Wakodahatchee Wetlands! I wanted to get there before it was too late. The place has become immensely popular with photographers and folks who just want to witness the splendor of breeding wading birds. It was a typical March day in south Florida (clear, sunny, and warm), so the place promised to be crowded. I barely found a spot to park. Unlike when scouting, I had very specific info on where exactly the Neotropic cormorant was nesting this time. It paid off. I got the bird, tucking it's head under just to be an ass, but eventually poking up to confirm the ID. I also ticked Purple gallinule, one of those low density species that can sometimes bite you in the butt in a birding competition. Nice to have it out of the way and always nice to see for any reason.
Next up was Boynton Inlet where, as I feared, I was not able to park and look for the Common eider. I had considered skipping this spot altogether, but then the bird reappeared a couple days before. Perhaps I would pick up a miss from Day 2 after all. Well, I guess not. Darn beach weather!
On to Sem Chi Rice Farms where I would run into Corey Callaghan who is doing a Big Year in Palm Beach County. It was nice to chat with him. While looking for Yellow-headed blackbird among the 100's of cowbirds and blackbirds, I was finally able to eat lunch. There was plenty of time left in my schedule since I had gotten out of the coast so quickly. My only other destinations were the kingbird roost outside STA 5 and STA 5 itself. I spent all of my extra time and got nothing to show for it. In past years, I have had White-tailed kite (low density bird) at this spot. I would likely get both whistling ducks, swamp hen, and maybe snail kite later in the day. Day 8 will be dedicated to the Everglades Agricultural Area in the morning, where I will get all of these things, but if I can get the residents out of the way, it could open me up to heading to the panhandle at that time where I could get many of the same shorebirds and maybe some other stuff. Guess not. Swing and a miss!
Sem Chi list
Back on schedule, I headed out to the kingbird roost on CR 835 in the two miles north of the intersection with Deer Fence Canal. During scouting there were 14 Scissor-tailed flycatchers and 10 Western kingbirds. When it counted, I found fewer Western kingbirds and no Scissor-tailed!!!!! I could handle missing the Cassin's kingbird, the rarity that drew me to this spot, but I really did not want to leave without Scissor-tailed. Eventually, one Scissor-tailed showed up. I figured Cassin's would be another casualty of mixed success that plagued my efforts and resigned myself to heading out to STA 5. There I would attempt the two mile walk (each way) back to the area where the Snail kites were nesting. Perhaps I could spy them from the edge of the closed area and maybe tick a Peregrine falcon along the way. Traveling down Deer Fence Canal Road to the entrance of STA 5, I spied two fellow birders who turned out to be Meret Wilson, and another whom I should probably know, but could not place. They were looking at the kingbirds where they actually were, as opposed to where they were supposed to be, always a good strategy for any birding competition. I managed to pick up Cassin's kingbird after all among the dozens of tyrannids moving through the orange trees south of the road.
I picked up Black-bellied whistling ducks while looking at the kingbirds. While walking out to the Snail kite area (I did not make it before darkness set in) I saw a couple flocks of Fulvous whistling ducks, several Purple swamphen, and an American bittern. Still no Yellow-crowned night-heron after three days of effort. Not to worry, just seems strange not to have them by now.
STA 5 list
All in all, it was yet another day of mixed success. Each month, I fall further behind Andy, but I have hopes of making up ground on Day 6 and Days 9-12. My three day total of 199 is deceptively far ahead of the rest of the pack. Many species that I have will be picked up by others in the coming months. The total after Day 6 will give a better measure of where everyone stands as most of the common and resident birds will be ticked at that time.
Looking forward to Days 4 and 5, my strategy will depend on my work schedule. If we go to double shifts before the end of April, I may have to stay further south. Ideally, I will hit the panhandle in late April to pick up breeders, migrants, and others, then hit Miami again on Day 5 to pick up more migrants and clean up some species like Spot-breasted oriole and maybe even Antillean nighthawk. This will free up time to look for caribbean strays on Day 6. Even if we do start double shifts, I may decide to damn the torpedoes and do the panhandle anyway.