In birder parlance, a "Big Day" is a 24 hour birding marathon, an all-out rush to see or hear as many birds as possible. This might be for a birdathon that raises money for local conservation efforts, the World Series of Birding, or as a personal quest. Big Days don't always mean a lot of driving, though. You can do one in a 17 foot diameter circle, a la the Big Sit!
I don't have the desire or energy to bird for 24 hours straight, but on January 1, I like to spend the day birding. It's my own medium-sized version of a Big Day. Since this is supposed to be fun, not work, the duration depends on the weather and my level of interest. This year was the longest ever, 12 full hours of birding in Clermont and western Hamilton Counties.
I left home at 7am, prepared with my birdJam (Hi, Jay!) to start the day with a little owling. I arrived at Crooked Run Nature Preserve before dawn. Before I could even turn on my iPod, I heard a Great Horned Owl calling, my First Bird of 2009. It was very far off, so I thought I might entice an Eastern Screech-Owl in by playing its call on the iPod. No go - Great Horned Owls eat screech-owls, and I guess all the little guys were hunkered down, trying to avoid being turned into a meal.
I walked the trails twice, first alone, listening for the bird chorus to wake up and counting birds by hearing them, then finally seeing birds as the daylight grew. I stopped at one of the bird blinds along the estuary, hoping for ducks or a kingfisher, but the water was covered by a thin layer of ice. As I rested and listened, I heard a faint rustling in the leaves. It didn't sound like a squirrel, and I thought perhaps it was a sparrow, a towhee, or hopefully, a Hermit Thrush.
I pished a little and waited. Imagine my surprise when a long, thin, weasely shape popped out from the leaves. It ran out onto a log at the water's edge and cocked its head, perhaps wondering what it had heard. I caught my breath - there, in the early morning light a rich, warm, chocolate-brown body glowed. It was a mink! And me, without a camera.
Mr. Mink decided he didn't like what he saw, or heard, or smelled, and so slipped under the ice and out of my view, but not before leaving me with a wonderful New Year's Day memory.
While reflecting on this sight, I got a great look at another small, brown, secretive creature, this time a Winter Wren in a brush pile where the path parallels the Ohio River. After being a nemesis bird for so long, to get my third Winter Wren in less than 4 months was quite a treat.
After the first pass around the trails, I went back to the car to warm up. On the second go-round, I took the dogs along with me. We got several more birds on this walk, including Golden-crowned Kinglet and Brown Creeper.
After Crooked Run, I made a brief stop at Mehldahl Dam, hoping for a Peregrine Falcon. I missed on that bird (which I found out later was there the day before!) but did pick up a kestrel, a Red-shouldered Hawk and 3 Eastern Bluebirds.
Next stop was East Fork State Park. The beach was empty, just a few Ring-billed Gulls. On the road to the prairie trail I found a nice flock of Dark-eyed Juncoes, and 3 male bluebirds all competing for the same nest box. I came around a corner of the trail too quickly and flushed a nice mixed flock of sparrows. When they settled down, I sorted them into Field, Song, Swamp and American Tree.
I went on to the Cincinnati Nature Center, which was packed with people. The feeders there have been hosting Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and Fox Sparrows, but there was too much activity that day, and I didn't get anything new, except a lone Turkey Vulture.
Leaving CNC, I headed towards Armleder Park and on a whim, called Susan. Imagine my surprise to find she was already there. She waited for me and as I arrived, we saw two Red-tailed Hawks soaring over the parking lot. They were my first RTHA of the day, so I was happy to find them. Before we even started to walk, the Northern Harrier appeared and put on a good show.
Our walk revealed no other "new" birds on the day for me, but it was nice to spend time with Susan. I had promised the dogs a good romp at the dog park, but it was packed. Too many dogs means a greater risk of dog fight, so we left.
I moved on to Camp Dennison gravel pits, hoping to get my numbers up with some ducks. I got several species of diving and dabbling ducks and dozens of American Coot, but the Bald Eagle who frequents this spot was absent.
At this point, I realized I still hadn't seen a House Sparrow, and so, as I headed towards home, I drove through THREE different McDonald's parking lots, looking for that ubiquitous bird. No joy. How desperate does that make me, to go LOOKING for a HOSP?
I arrived at the Horseman's Area of the north side of East Fork State Park at dark, as planned. Barred Owls have been reported here, and I really wanted to start and end my day with an owl. I got out of the car and played the call on my iPod over and over again. And waited. And called and waited and called and waited. I was tired, the dogs were tired and hungry, and I was cold through and through.
"Just once more," I thought to myself, and gave the Barred Owl's "Who cooks for you?" call one final try. Hallelujah! An owl called back. I called it a day and headed home, arriving in my driveway at 7pm.
Here's my final tally for Jan. 1, 2009:
1) Great Blue Heron (CR)
2) Canada Goose (MD+)
3) Mallard (CD)
4) American Wigeon (CD)
5) Northern Shoveler (CD)
6) Canvasback (CD)
7) Redhead (CD)
8) Ring-necked Duck (CD)
9) Bufflehead (CD)
10) Hooded Merganser (CD)
11) Ruddy Duck (CD)
12) Turkey Vulture (CNC+)
13) Northern Harrier (AP)
14) Red-shouldered Hawk (MD+)
15) Red-tailed Hawk (AP)
16) American Kestrel (MD+)
17) American Coot (CD)
18) Ring-billed Gull (MD+)
19) Rock Pigeon (driving)
20) Mourning Dove (CR+)
21) Great Horned Owl (CR)
22) Barred Owl (EF)
23) Red-bellied Woodpecker (CR+)
24) Downy Woodpecker (CR+)
25) Pileated Woodpecker (CR)
26) Blue Jay (CR+)
27) American Crow (CR+)
28) Carolina Chickadee (CR+)
29) Brown Creeper (CR)
30) Tufted Titmouse (CR+)
31) White-breasted Nuthatch (CR+)
32) Carolina Wren (CR+)
33) Winter Wren (CR)
34) Golden-crowned Kinglet (CR)
35) Eastern Bluebird (MD+)
36) American Robin (CR+)
37) Northern Mockingbird (CR+)
38) European Starling (CR+)
39) Yellow-rumped Warbler (CR)
40) Northern Cardinal (CR+)
41) Eastern Towhee (CR+)
42) Field Sparrow (CR+)
43) American Tree Sparrow (CR+)
44) Song Sparrow (CR+)
45) Swamp Sparrow (EF)
46) White-throated Sparrow (CR+)
47) Dark-eyed Junco (EF+)
48) American Goldfinch (MD+)
The codes indicate where I first saw the bird. The "+" sign means "and other places"
AP: Armleder Park
CD: Camp Dennison
CNC: Cincinnati Nature Center
CR: Crooked Run
EF: East Fork
MD: Mehldahl Dam
Since that day, I have seen House Finches and a White-crowned Sparrow, getting me half-way to a January 100 list, but still no House Sparrow.
Here's wishing you all good birding in 2009. And, no House Sparrows!