The madness of another Mass Audubon Bird-a-thon has come and gone, and those of us who participated have mostly lived to tell the tale. Bird-a-thon is a 24-hour, bleary-eyed birding blitz held each May to raise money for the conservation and environmental education work we do at Mass Audubon. I of course organize the team for my sanctuary, Wellfleet Bay, in an effort to see more birds than any other sanctuary. I have come as close as second place, though in recent years have had my clock cleaned by juggernaut mainland sanctuaries like Drumlin Farm or Moose Hill.
Each sanctuary can field up to 50 birders in teams of at least two. To be in the running for the coveted Brewster Cup, named for the famous ornithologist and first Mass Audubon president William Brewster, you need a good geographic strategy. Your birders should be positioned at all corners of the state, lean and mean hit squads with lists of targets – Golden-crowned Kinglets and Cliff Swallows in the Berkshires, Clapper Rails in Fairhaven, Sandhill Cranes in Hanson, rare gulls at Race Point.
To win, a sanctuary usually needs to tally somewhere north of 230 species in 24 hours – a monumental task, even in bird-rich Massachusetts during peak spring migration. Some amount of rule-stretching likely takes place, as I’ve seen some truly eyebrow-raising team totals over the years. Some engage in skullduggery like stealing birders from other teams and keeping rare birds secret until after the event. Bird-a-thon is cut-throat, and not for the faint of heart, or the late of sleeping.
Every Bird-a-thon, my brother and I do a Plymouth “big day”, trying to see as many species as we can just in the town of Plymouth, where my family always did our summer beach time. Nostalgia aside, Plymouth has strategic hotspots like Plymouth Beach, Manomet Point, the migrant magnet Manomet bluffs, and the grassy Plymouth Airport with its breeding Upland Sandpipers and Vesper Sparrows. Our all-time record species total is somewhere in the low 130s. At the end of every big day, birders sit down and sift through their pile of birds, tallying the big-time hits and the heartbreaking misses – there are always heartbraking misses. Luckily the hits linger longest in your memory.
One of the joys of birding in May is finding a warbler wave, a mixed flock of living jewels like Bay-breasted, Cape May, and Blackburnian Warblers that appear seemingly out of nowhere and are gone just as suddenly. We had such a wave between morning rain events - a modest 12 species tallied over 20 breathless minutes, including our only Blue-winged and Cape May Warblers of the day.
My favorite sighting of Bird-a-thon was actually a mammal – a mink that I saw undulating through marsh-side undergrowth at Mass Audubon’s Tidmarsh sanctuary. I go years between sightings of these fun little semi-aquatic weasels. Our listed also included the eerie yelling Red Fox at dawn, some White-tailed Deer, a scurrying Short-tailed Shrew, some calling Pickerel Frogs, and waves of anemone flowers – being out is about more than birds. May is a dizzy time for the nature enthusiast.
Bird-a-thon may be over, but the business of spring birding continues. In fact, we haven’t even seen the peak – some warm day in the coming week or two, should one ever come, could produce a relative flood of migrants, which will then subside through the end of the month, disppearing almost completely after early June.
And rare, mostly southern-affinity birds continue to show up in hotspots and backyards alike, including two different Prothonotary Warblers on the Cape, several Summer Tanagers at jelly feeders, and a Yellow-Headed Blackbird on Nantucket, all in suburban yards. Whether your style is to watch from a window or to scour the landscape for rarities, this is a special and fleeting time of the birding year. Just look with your heart, and the birds will reveal themselves. And your eyes – also look with your eyes.