Enjoy a SuperBowl of Birds
January 05, 2019
by Steve Grinley
As January roles around, thoughts turn to the Super Bowl. If you are a New Englander, that may mean thoughts of the Patriots, and we do hope that they make it to the Super Bowl this year. But if you are a birder, it may bring thoughts of the Superbowl of Birding. It is a twelve-hour competition, sponsored by the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport, to find the highest number of species in Essex County and in Rockingham County, New Hampshire, to accumulate points based on rarity of the birds seen.
This year’s event is Saturday, January 19, and consists of activities targeted for all levels of birders. Expert birders can compete for a number of awards, including the Zeiss Joppa Cup, Essex County Award, or Rockingham County Award. Teams with young birders 16 years oldor younger can vie for the Newbies Award. The Fledgling Award encourages young families to participate.
Past Superbowls have attracted participants from as far away as Delaware and Pennsylvania as well as local Newburyport families. Each year, it brings back memories of the Superbowls in which we participated. One in particular, from Superbowl IV in 2007, I wrote about our team’s effort and shared it with you then:
Last Saturday, we were traveling back up the Parker River Wildlife Refuge toward the gate with 15 minutes left to the whirlwind day they call the Superbowl of Birding. This is a 12-hour competition that begins at 5 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Teams of four to seven members try to see as many species in Essex and/or Rockingham County as possible. One to five points are earned for each species, depending on its relative abundance or rarity in late January. House sparrows are one, Baltimore orioles are five. The first team to call in a five-point bird earns three bonus points. It’s quite simple, really.
Our team, the Raven Loon-atics, participated again this year with Phil Brown of Essex, Margo Goetschkes of Cambridge, Linda Ferraresso of Watertown, Sean King of Newburyport and yours truly. Linda was tallying the score sheet in the back seat when she announced: “Ninety-nine. I get 99 species. Can that be right?”
“No way.” I replied. “That can’t be right.”
Last year, we had set a new record with 88 species and we earned 191 points and it just didn’t seem like it was going that well this year. It had started out well enough. At 5 a.m., we were at Flax Pond in Lynn with three other teams to get American coot first, worth five plus three points. There were also other ducks, geese and swans in the pond that gave us a running start.
But the hour of unproductive owling that followed slowed us down until Phil was able to call in a barred owl in Nahant. We were the first (by 5 seconds) to see, and phone in, afive-point Wilson’s warbler that was coming to a feeder of mealworms. Our next stop produced nothing, but we did get a five-point Baltimore oriole at the following stop.
We then headed for Cape Ann, where we found several target birds coming to feeders at a home in Gloucester, including a five-point yellow-bellied sapsucker, along with a red-bellied woodpecker and brown creeper. We missed the hairy woodpecker that was a regular there. We then hurried to Halibut Point where we had found a pair of yellow-breasted chats (5 points) and a field sparrow (4 points) the bitter cold day before. With bonus points, this stop was planned to yield 12 points, but these two species were nowhere to be found on Superbowl Saturday. It was a big disappointment that was only slightly comforted by a pair of 4-point catbirds.
The rest of Cape Ann went pretty much as planned, getting most of the target birds, including a 5-point dickcissel that I had originally found on the 20th, but missing Bonaparte’s gull, a staked out ruby-crowned kinglet and wild turkeys that we had seen earlier that week. We pushed on to Essex where we missed one screech owl in its hole but found another. Stops in Ipswich gave us a 5-point pied-billed grebe, 4-point pine warbler and a 5-point turkey vulture and 4-pointwinter wren en route.
At the Ipswich River Sanctuary in Topsfield, we added fox sparrow, cowbird and red-winged blackbird – 10 more points, but missed bluebirds. On the way out of Topsfield, I caught site of a large woodpecker landing on a tree by the road. We stopped short and found a pileated woodpecker that quickly disappeared, but only after we were able to add 4 points.
Then came, in retrospect, what may have been the turning point. We had a choice to make. Should we make a swing through Newbury for a 4-point snow goose that had been in the same spot for a couple of weeks, but was absent the day before with the increasingly frozen river? It was after 2 p.m. and we were not on Plum Island yet, as we had planned. We still had Salisbury and the Merrimack River to do in between.
We chose to make the swing, and as we approached the frozen river, there was the snow goose, swimming is a small patch of open water with a common merganser. It lifted our spirits and added five more points. We missed grackles and wild turkeys again, as we headed to Salisbury, but once there, we did find the pheasant and white-crowned sparrow, each 4 points, that we hoped for, along with a kestrel. Along the Merrimack River, we saw bald eagles, long-tailed ducks, scaup, a great blue heron and a kingfisher. We detoured once again for another try at wild turkey, which we still missed, and bluebird, which we found.
We finally arrived on Plum Island at 3:30 p.m., and a 4-point merlin greeted us at the gate, jousting with a 3-point Cooper’s hawk. Our raptor luck continued with a rough-legged hawk, a snowy owl and a short-eared owl down the island. On the ocean, we added red-throated loon, razorbills, black scoters and sanderlings along the beach. We searched for American bittern without success and as the day was drawing to a close, we headed back up island and searched for northern shrike along the way.
That’s when Linda made the announcement and amazed us all as to how well we had done. We doubled-checked her figures and found no error. Ninety-nine species and 248 points. We had only 191 points last year. With the adrenaline flowing, we asked ourselves if we could find one more species in the last 15 minutes to make it an even 100? The sun was setting and we could find no shrike or bittern. We stopped with 3 minutes left to try to “pish” something out of the brush, but to no avail. Still, we did amazingly well (despite missing wild turkey) and we made it back to the meeting spot with time to spare.
Twenty-six teams gathered for the judging and to dine on pizza and hot beverages. It was great to see so many youngsters participating this year (and they won a lot of the door prizes) along with some pros that included David Sibley himself. The event was great fun for all. As it turned out, our team won the coveted Joppa Cup for the most points. The next closest teams tallied only 88 species and 199 points. It was a Superbowl Day to remember, especially for five Raven Loon-atics.
Join in on the fun on January 19 and go to https://www.massaudubon.org/getoutdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/joppa-flats/programs-classes-activities/go-birding/superbowl-of-birding, or call Mass Audubon Joppa Flats at 978-462-9998.
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