Wednesday, May 23, 2018

22 May 2018: Green Big Day report!

I finally made it out on my Green Big Day around La Crosse County! Big Days are all about the numbers, so here they are:

Species observed: 123
Miles biked: 65
Miles walked: 3 (approx)
Total hours: 17

That's right: One hundred and twenty-three species! I thought I would be lucky to break 100, now that migration is essentially over. But I got even luckier than I'd hoped with a few random flyovers, some late waterfowl, a few lingering migrant warblers (Northern Waterthrush, Blackpoll, Tennessee, Canada), a surprise Barred Owl (I've had little luck with owls around here), and success with nearly every species that I was specifically targeting but could have just as easily missed. Many species were represented by only one or two individuals, and if I'd happened to miss most of those, my list would have been a whole lot shorter no matter how many miles I biked.

By far the best bird of the day was a Connecticut Warbler - which was #200 for the year AND a lifer, and flagged as rare in eBird. This was a bike-by bird that I never would have found if I'd been driving. I was biking between locations on a moderately busy road, thinking about keeping to my schedule and not getting run over by impatient morning commuters. I wasn't consciously listening to the birds at that moment, but something caught my attention as "different". It was a rollicking song, lower and richer than the average Common Yellowthroat, but I wasn't hearing it well over the traffic noise, and you never know with all the variation shown by warblers. My initial thought was that perhaps it could be a Carolina Wren, which would be a good addition for the day. The bird happened to be singing near an empty parking lot, so I pulled in and headed toward the bird. As I got closer, I thought hmmmmm.... that sounds rather like a Connecticut Warbler! I'd studied their song because I knew there was a chance I'd find one this spring. After a few minutes, the bird emerged into unobstructed view and I got excellent looks through my binoculars as it sang twice. No doubt on that ID! Hooray! 

If I'd been driving, I also would have missed the Eurasian Collared-Dove, which was singing in a town where I haven't previously observed them. That species is becoming well established here but can be hard to find. There were several other species that I heard in passing from my bike, but those conceivably could have been staked out by a driving birder (e.g. American Woodcock occurs predictably in some spots). Still, being able to listen the entire time I'm traveling is a definite plus in favor of bike-birding.

Putting on some miles definitely helped to blow my total from last year's Green Big Day (110) out of the water - and last year I'd birded at the peak of spring migration! This year I was trying to hit as many different breeding habitats as I could. I left at 4am and biked mostly in the dark, picking up my only American Woodcock, Barred Owl, and Savannah Sparrows for the day on the way, to Coulee Experimental Forest. I arrived at dawn, but the cloud and fog and foliage meant that I identified everything by sound even after the sun was up. The only seen-only species was a random flyover Black-crowned Night-Heron!

Foggy morning at the bottom of Coulee Experimental Forest
Coulee Experimental Forest

There's a Hooded Warbler singing up there somewhere...
He was a lifer when I heard him last year, but I've still
never seen him!
Coulee Experimental Forest hosts a number of local specialties that I thought I wouldn't have been able to find anywhere else. I got most of them this morning: Ruffed Grouse, Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher. (I ended up seeing another Mourning Warbler at another stop, which was a big surprise.) I had hoped to also find Cerulean Warbler here, but there might be only one individual in the whole forest, and he wasn't singing at that time. Common Raven and Red Crossbill were long shots and didn't show either, but I wasn't counting on them. In addition to those specialties, the Experimental Forest is a good place to find most of our local forest species, and I checked off most of what I hoped to find in the two hours I was there (44 species in total). Olive-sided Flycatcher (#199) provided a new addition to the year list (the Connecticut Warbler was on the way back from this spot).

The big disadvantage is that the Experimental Forest is a good distance from anywhere else I wanted to bird: 13 miles each way, which nearly doubled my planned mileage for the day, and was mostly a time sink. During migration, that time might be better spent scouring local places for sparse species to add to the list. However, I heard a number of species on my way there and back, including three that I never found anywhere else, and I think it was a worthwhile trip given that I was targeting breeders this year.

My next stop, after picking up Eurasian Collared-Dove and that awesome Connecticut Warbler en route, was Myrick Marsh - a hotspot with high diversity. I arrived just before 9am, and while the fog had lifted, it was still overcast and cool, which I think helped encourage the birds to keep singing well. I had a total of 57 species there, including 34 that were new for the day. Highlights included surprise Gray-cheeked Thrush and Lincoln's Sparrow - I thought they all would have moved on by now - and an Alder Flycatcher that I had worried I might miss for the day. 

Tree-lined trails through Myrick Marsh help add to the habitat diversity there.
I think there are three species of turtles here, but alas, they don't count on the list!
I'd originally planned to move on to Hixon Forest after this, but I'd done so well with forest birds at the Experimental Forest that I decided to skip it. I spent a little extra time at Myrick Marsh instead and made a couple of minor changes to the remainder of my schedule. First, I made a quick stop at home to grab my scope and refill food and water. Biking 65 miles takes a whole lot of fuel, and while I may not be burning fossil fuels, I definitely need calories to burn. I have a hard time eating enough on days like this - it's bad enough when I'm only out for a ride, but when I'm also birding, I'm really prone to neglecting to eat enough. That sets me up to crash hard. Today I was frequently hungry, which meant I wasn't keeping up with my calorie intake, but I never crashed so I guess it worked out. Eating small amounts frequently is key, as I can't stomach much food at one time while I'm biking. Similarly, foods that are quick and effortless are ideal. I make a homemade energy gel that's good, but I need to expand my repertoire of savory recipes, because there's only so much sugar that I want to eat, even though I have a serious sweet tooth (suggestions, anyone?). I did manage to stay hydrated today, though, which is also a challenge for me.

Anyway, I refilled on all those foods and headed up to Halfway Creek Marsh. That's where the White-faced Ibis has been hanging out, but it didn't show today. However, that marsh holds a number of specialties - especially because Myrick Marsh is more like a lake right now with all the flooding and is missing species that are normally there - and I added 16 to the day list, including one FOGY (Sedge Wren for #201). Three species of shorebirds were an unexpected surprise: one individual each of Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Spotted Sandpiper. With the incidental species recorded en route thus far, that put me very close to 100! I knew my last two stops of the day would reliably add several species, so it looked like I was going to achieve my goal despite my pessimism.

I wasn't counting on finding a Green Heron today, but this one was right out in the open and feeding actively.

Willow Flycatcher. Yes, I heard it call! I'd already heard one this morning for the list, but seeing one is nice too.

The overcast day didn't make for splendid photos, and mostly I was trying to make time rather than images - but I couldn't resist this handsome Common Yellowthroat.

But a couple of stops in the meantime proved surprisingly fruitful. First I headed down to an overlook to scope Lake Onalaska, where I didn't expect to find much. The American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants were there, as I'd hoped - but there were also a pair of Lesser Scaup, a lone Bufflehead, and an immature Common Loon - all of which had been essentially absent for a couple of weeks and were not even on my radar. Three bonus species for the day!

Then I decided to make another unscheduled check for the White-faced Ibis. I biked up a bike trail to the back side of Halfway Creek Marsh, where there's a viewing area with a bench. This was another time when bike-birding was helpful; walking up the trail would have taken much longer without yielding much, if anything, en route. The ibis wasn't there, but I was doing well on time, and in fact wanted to delay a bit so that I reached my next stop closer to prime birding hours, so I sat down for a snack/tally break. The Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, and American Coots were still present in the back of the marsh, adding three more species that I could have easily missed today. I scanned again a minute later to check for the ibis, and I was shocked to see a Northern Pintail among the other ducks - I hadn't seen a pintail for weeks, and they are always sparse here. Then a Peregrine Falcon flew over - I've seen them in this area a couple of times, but definitely not in any reliable way - followed soon thereafter by a late Bonaparte's Gull! All in the space of five very lucky minutes. My running tally was a little off then, because so many species I'd seen weren't even on my master checklist (I was also writing down everything I saw at each location to submit to eBird, but the master checklist was supposed to serve to keep a running total) - but one of those birds brought me to 110, tying my tally from last year, and there were still 5 hours of daylight left!

By then I'd biked about 40 miles and I was starting to feel tired. With my goal achieved, the thought crossed my mind that I could just go home... but of course I wanted to see how many more species I could eke out of the day. I biked another 8 miles to the next stop, Seven Bridges Trail, which heads into a hardwood swamp. My main target there was Prothonotary Warbler, and there was a chance (albeit small) at Red-shouldered Hawk. I walked in about half a mile before the bugs were too annoying and I'd lost hope that a Prothonotary would show... but then on my way back out, I heard two and saw one, which even did the warbler version of posing for a few quick photos.

Prothonotary Warbler between Bridges 2 and 3.
No Red-shouldered Hawk, but that wasn't a big surprise. I pedaled gratefully out of the clouds of mosquitoes - today was the first buggy day of the year - and moved on to New Amsterdam Grasslands, which is protected and managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. 

New Amsterdam Grasslands
I'd hoped to find the Henslow's Sparrows that had recently been reported here, but I didn't hear them, so I soon moved on to a nearby grassland with higher diversity. Holland Sand Prairie was the last stop of the day. The sun finally emerged from the cloud cover then - I definitely hadn't missed it glaring into my eyes all day, but the sunshine helped renew my energy for the 1.3-mile walk around the perimeter of the property. The two grassland areas added 8 species to the day list; I hadn't visited those areas on my Big Day last year, but I knew that adding them would pay off. Bell's Vireo and Grasshopper Sparrow were FOGYs, putting me at 203 for the green year list.

My day job involves research on monarch butterflies, so it was fun to see several flitting around Holland Sand Prairie, where there's lots of milkweed. And poison ivy. And ticks. But also Bell's Vireos, which are otherwise rare here (and refused to emerge for photos).
The last bird of the day was a Common Nighthawk on the 9-mile ride home. I arrived home at dusk, feeling tired but not totally exhausted, and definitely exhilarated from a shockingly successful Green Big Day!


  1. Emily, what a fantastic day! I really enjoyed reading this post. Good luck on the rest of your big year!! doug stratton

  2. Awesome! Congratulations on shattering your expectations, and also for doing it really efficiently. 1.8 species per mile seems really good!

    1. Just checked my stats from the last couple of years -
      2017 in La Crosse: 110 over 44 miles = 2.5 species/mile
      2016 in Riley County, Kansas: 109 over 50 miles = 2.2 species/mile

      I guess it's hard to compare, though, because it's a curve of diminishing returns. This year, ~35 extra miles to two areas netted ~16 species that I wouldn't have had otherwise, so that part was not particularly efficient. =) It's all about eking out those extra species, though!

  3. Fascinating recap of your day Emily!Loved reading this....Jules T

  4. Gwyneth CalvettiMay 24, 2018 at 10:16 AM awesome! Congratulations. I have only heard one Cerulean in the Exp. Forest. I have thought I heard Worm-Eating in there but can't ever see what I'm hearing, so I don't want to jump to conclusions. There's a spot, I think right before the second bridge, where there's a slash made by logging trucks right down the hill to the stream. I've heard this many times down in there, and have walked down in there to sit, but I can never spot what's doing it. Definitely not Chipping Sparrow.