If you haven’t heard of the Delaware Bird-A-Thon before, and you’d like to learn more, check out my last Recovery Big Year blog post about the event by clicking here!
Beginning Our 24-Hour Birding Big Day
The weather forecast for Friday, May 6th– the day we chose to do our big day– was GRIM. It was supposed to be pouring rain, totaling to almost 1.5 inches throughout the day. Since peak flooding was set to coincide with high tide, the expectation was for extensive coastal flooding. Essentially, we went into our big day thinking that we may not even be able to drive down the roads we had planned on in our route.
We went ahead anyways and hoped that we’d still have a decent day regardless. What was our goal? To see 150 species throughout the state of Delaware in 24 hours.
Our Starting Point – 7:00pm, May 5th on Mosley Road in Central Delaware
As the clock hits 6:55pm, and we near the start of our 24-hour period, which was set to run from 7:00pm on May 5th to 7:00pm on May 6th, Derek picks a seemingly random pullover spot in the woods on Mosley Road. We all get out of the cars, snap a quick group selfie (seen above), and then as the clock hits 7:00pm, Derek gets to pishing .
Before I even realize what’s happening, there are easily a dozen warblers in the tree above us— Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-White, Blackpoll Warblers, Northern Parula, and an American Redstart. We also picked up a Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Ovenbird, and Wood Thrush. Boom Boom Boom! Bird after bird after bird. We were off to an amazing start already in just the first 10 minutes. I started to feel even more excited about what the next 23 hours and 50 minutes had in store for us.
Birding Big Stone Beach Road through the End of Day 1
We made it to the end of Big Stone Beach Road, and got out to scan the Delaware Bay for birds moving in front of the incoming storm. An American Oystercatcher flies by and we spot some Black Skimmers flying in the distance; two more species added to the list that we weren’t sure we’d get. Here, we also picked up our first Caspian Tern and Forster’s Tern, plus a nice smattering of gulls. After the sun set, we made our way back down the road a bit and picked up singing Eastern Whip-poor-wills, which we saw flying from perch to perch!! A pair of Great Horned Owls flew overhead, and then Tim whistled in a red phase Eastern Screech Owl. At this point, it started to rain, so we made our way further south down to our sleeping headquarters for the night near Indian River Inlet.
Early Morning Birding at the Indian River Inlet
Unfortunately, one of the biggest remaining triggers for my vestibular migraine is sleep disturbance, meaning getting early blows my energy levels and general migraine symptoms for the next few days. I figured the earliest I could get up would be 6:30am to meet Tim and Derek at Redden State Forest at 8:00am. But, as Derek described it, the pre-dawn hours sounded like a hurricane with the wind and rain battering the house windows. So, we ended up scratching Redden from the to-do list and deciding to meet up at Cape Henlopen State Park at 9:00am.
To burn a bit of time, Hannah and I went to Indian River Inlet to see what the storm had brought in. IT WAS INTENSE!!!!! The birds were blowing around in the wind and rain like crazy. There were 60+ Forster’s Terns taking shelter under the bridge, flapping their wings like crazy, but staying in place. We drove through the parking lot, and found a modest fallout of shorebirds, plus moderate flooding; Brant were actually swimming in the flooded parking lot!! When the clock hit 8:30, we left for Cape Henlopen State Park to meet up with the guys.
Birding During the Storm from The Point at Cape Henlopen State Park
At this point, it was still pouring rain, and the wind was strong. The four of us were freezing cold and drenched, standing out on The Point at Cape Henlopen State Park.
You may be thinking that we’re absolutely crazy for being out there in that weather, but the storm was actually perfect. Why? Because the storm’s atypical counterclockwise spinning motion had potential to pick up migrating birds from out over the ocean, and deposit them along the coastline. There were birds EVERYWHERE. Plus dolphins and seals!! The dolphins were doing full-body jumps out of the water! And for the first time in my life, I saw a flock of Osprey! There were easily 14 of them flying in a tight group over the cove, fishing. We had multiple flyover Whimbrels, and huge groups of flyby shorebirds. There was an enormous raft of over a hundred cormorants, many flyby loons, and a generous number of close flyby Northern Gannets.
Then, Tim spotted something in the scope he didn’t recognize. He handed off the scope to Derek, who shouted, “NORTHERN FULMARS! GET ON THE SCOPE!” I ran over, and got a look— this pair of birds looked like nothing else I’d ever seen before! I passed the scope back to Hannah, who then passed it back to Tim. Tim then picked up a THIRD fulmar! CRAZY! From what I can tell, this is the first land record of this pelagic species in Delaware in eBird. Then, Derek picked out what we’ve identified as an Arctic Tern! NUTS! By the time we left, the rain and wind had stopped (for a little while). We celebrated with another selfie (seen above), then made our way further North.
Birding Prime Hook Road & Finding Another Awesome Rarity– RUFF!
After the cape, we made our way to Prime Hook Road. Tim’s logic was that the intense coastal flooding, which was coinciding with high tide, would push shorebirds inland to newly flooded farm fields. This meant that we had great potential to pick out something awesome.
We happened upon an enormous group of shorebirds while driving along the road. It was still raining, but we all hopped out of the cars, and Tim, with his scope, started scanning the flock. Tim started at the far left end of the shorebird-filled puddle, working his way right. He picked out a Pectoral Sandpiper, and was hoping for a Curlew Sandpiper, but came up empty. At about 90% of the way through meticulously scanning, Tim handed the scope over to Derek. Derek put his eye to the eyepiece, scanned for about 5 seconds, and goes “WOAH! Tim! Check this out!” Tim looks through the scope and immediately shouts, “RUFF!” That was the third insanely awesome thing we’d happened upon that day! What crazy luck we were having!!
So Much Flooding!
The flooding scenario ended up coming true— we were unable to access Mispillion Harbor, the epicenter of shorebird migration in Delaware, due to flooded roads. This forced us to change our plans— to make up for the shorebird species we were bound to miss, we decided to add Port Mahon Road to our itinerary. So we kept moving Northward.
Taking a Break from Birding to Save Horseshoe Crabs at Port Mahon Road
At Port Mahon, there were gobs of early migrant shorebirds flying around. We added flyover Glossy Ibis to our list, plus a handful of shorebird species and Royal Tern. As we were driving out of the road, Hannah and I noticed that there were many horseshoe crabs that had been washed up in the high tide floods, and were mating in large puddles of water along the road. The problem was, these crabs were squashed by cars, plus were unable to return back to the ocean as a result of the stone wall separating the road and beach.
Hannah and I were pleasantly surprised when we saw Tim and Derek pull over ahead of us. Tim ran back and said, “We’re going to stop to help the horseshoe crabs.” We were thrilled! What kind of birders would we be if we drove past these horseshoe crabs, leaving them to their deaths as we rushed to see the birds that depended on horseshoe crab eggs for their survival? So, we took a 10 minute break from our bird-a-thon and started carrying horseshoe crabs to the beach. At one point, I stopped and took the video above.
Going from Place to Place
For the rest of the afternoon, we just kept on going and going, adding more and more species to our list. Once we hit our goal of 150 species with a few hours left, we realized that we had an opportunity to blow our expectations out of the water. So, we went for it!
Our Final Stops: White Clay and Middle Run
Our last scheduled stops were in the piedmont up at White Clay Creek State Park and Middle Run Natural Area. We had a few species that were easy misses, like White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Flicker, etc., so we decided to try for these guys. We got to the Middle Run pond complex, picked up a Warbling Vireo, then Derek suggested that we try running to the other pond to get the resident Solitary Sandpiper. So, we did! The four of us literally started RUNNING! That was my first time running in over 3 years!! It didn’t feel great, but I did it! And he was right, there was a Solitary Sandpiper there!
So, we rushed over to Middle Run, and, as Tim said in his report, we speed-walked “3/4 of the birding trail in under 20 minutes.” We were moving fast. “Acadian Flycatcher!” Derek yelled as we heard the bird give it’s call, which sounds like a bird exlaiming, “Pizza!” We heard the sound of two marbles clinking together— Louisiana Waterthrush added to the list. “5 minute warning!” Tim yelled. We made our way further and further down the trail, and deeper into the woods. Derek heard a chip note— the three of us were moving around, trying to get a look at the bird who was making it. “Blue-winged Warbler!” Derek said.
And that was it. The clock struck 7:00pm and our adventure was suddenly over. We all stood there, feeling a mixture of relief and disbelief that the marathon had ended. 172 species was our total tally! We couldn’t believe it!! We took a final group selfie, commemorating that last moment in the woods at Middle Run, and spent a few minutes under the trees, talking about what a fun and awesome experience we had just had.
Bird-A-Thon Big Day Summary & Current Recovery Big Year Standings
All in all, we ended up traveling from the southern limits of Delaware, all the way up to the northern edge in just a matter of hours. We stopped at over 20 birding hotspots, including Big Stone Beach Road, Indian River Inlet, Cape Henlopen State Park, Prime Hook Road, Little Creek Wildlife Management Area, Port Mahon Road, Bombay Hook NWR, Woodland Beach Wildlife Area, Dutch Neck Road, Grier’s Pond, Thousand Acre Marsh, White Clay Creek State Park, and Middle Run Natural Area. I added a completely unexpected THREE life birds to my list– Northern Fulmar, Arctic Tern, and Ruff!! Only 3 more for the year, and I’ll reach my goal of seeing 10 lifers in 2016! Plus, I added another 21 species to my year list, bringing me up to 232 species– even closer to my goal of seeing 275 for the year.
As I drove myself home from Middle Run, I was overcome with happiness and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Just over a year ago, I was bedridden with a chronic illness that I thought would kill me. It blows my mind to think about how far I’ve come. In just over a year of very hard work, I’ve reached a point of feeling almost like a normal person again; being able to say, “Yes, I can do that,” more times than not. I feel even more invigorated to spread the word about vestibular migraine– to raise awareness of this debilitating condition, and to reach out to others whose quality of life is severely impacted. I want these people to know that they can do this. That, with the right treatment, getting better is a possibility.