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Goal for a Big Day: Count as many bird species as you can find

The male magnolia warbler in spring has excellent color coordination.
The male magnolia warbler in spring has excellent color coordination.

A popular activity that birders participate in during certain times of the year is Big Days. The goal is to identify as many bird species in a single calendar day within a set area, such as a state or county. Big Days are not for the casual birder. This is serious stuff I’m talking about. It challenges one’s skills to identify species by sound or sight; but ultimate success depends on ability to plan the most efficient and productive route. The bird-finding skills then follow.

Sunday before last, I was part of a three-birder team that undertook a Mecklenburg County Big Day. I used to do these regularly, but it had been years since the last one.

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Taylor Piephoff Observer file photo

We met up at 5:30 a.m. on Neck Road in Huntersville and were immediately rewarded with a calling common nighthawk, a tough bird to find nowadays in Mecklenburg County. Eastern whip-poor-will, another county rarity, soon followed, but that was the end of our nocturnal species. The dawn chorus was productive, though, providing grasshopper sparrow, scarlet tanager, summer tanager and yellow-throated vireo, to name a few. A quick run to the viewing stand at Cowan’s Ford Refuge yielded wild turkey, worm-eating warbler, prairie warbler, and nesting osprey and bald eagles.

We found dozens of bobolinks off Jim Kidd Road and American kestrel off Mt. Holly-Huntersville Road. Targeted yellow-crowned night-herons in Myers Park and Eurasian collared-doves off Nations Ford came through within seconds of arriving at the stake-out sites.

Dilworth’s Latta Park gave up chestnut-sided warbler, Baltimore oriole, ovenbird, Swainson’s thrush, barred owl and black-throated blue warbler. Shorebirds can make or break an inland Big Day, and we had two places to check. The results were mediocre, but we were glad to add semipalmated plover, lesser yellowlegs, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper and least sandpiper. I was hoping for a few more species, but it wasn’t to be.

We finished the day at Six-mile Creek Greenway, where we tallied a very late white-throated sparrow, a Louisiana waterthrush and a beautiful male magnolia warbler. The male magnolia in spring is one of my favorite warblers in terms of color coordination.

We knew we were not breaking any county Big Day records this day, so we called it at 6:30 p.m. Still, we ended with 114 species for the day; seven species short of the county record 121 species that a team I was on set decades ago. Good company, good birding.

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.

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