Big Day


(This column was first published in the October 14, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Picture this: Two young men stand at a roadside in Orleans County, one with a sound recorder hanging from a sling at his side. He is playing a tape.


Not too unusual so far. But continue. The time is 4:20 a.m., the temperature 37. Despite the bright stars overhead it is pitch dark: the young men cannot even see each other. The tape being played is -- you guessed it -- a recording of the who-hoots-for-you-all calls of a barred owl.


So began a fifteen-hour birding expedition. The two were setting out to beat the October single party record in New York State of 105 bird species seen in one day. The young men are Brendan Klick of Amherst, a senior math major at Buffalo State College, and Don Harris of Eden, a senior at Bishop Timon High School. They have been attacking these state big day records month by month and have already achieved the best count for August.


This day starts auspiciously. Between the barred owl taped hoots, Don whistles a screech owl call and is immediately answered by two of the small owls. Then the barred owl joins in, first from far off but suddenly from a tree almost directly overhead.


Almost immediately another owl screams. Brendan quickly switches tapes and plays the barn owl. It is an exact match. The owl answers and begins to approach but is turned back by the barred owl's loud hoots. Its screams recede in the distance. The voice is enough, however, to add this rare owl to the day's list. (Such observations require a written verification report before they are finally accepted by local authorities.)


Off the two birders drive to the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area where, still in pitch dark, they record the calls of great horned owl, Canada goose, great blue heron, mallard, red-winged blackbird, sora, American wigeon, Virginia rail, Swainson's thrush, common nighthawk and lesser yellowlegs. They have listed fourteen species before they head for Lake Ontario.


And so goes the day. At first species are added so fast it is difficult to keep their list up to date. Before they leave Golden Hills State Park it reaches 41, including their final owl, an early Saw-whet; a brant and many other waterfowl; and a merlin, the small falcon quartering low across the lake from its summer home in the north woods of Canada.


More driving and by the time they leave Shadagee at 8:00 a.m. their list has risen to 58, most of the additions common species. At Shadagee they watch three gulls chase a pipit that has flown across Lake Ontario. The last fifty yards are the toughest for this tired songbird, but it manages to elude its pursuers to escape ashore.


Back to Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge where by 11 a.m. their list has reached 91, including several easy to miss shorebirds, snow goose, a peregrine falcon and a Cape May warbler. The record seems in sight.


Now, of course, the new species come slower. But good ones are added. Batavia Wastewater Treatment Plant: eared grebe and American golden-plover. Krull Park in Olcott: blackpoll warbler. Wilson Harbor: mute swan. Greenwood Cemetery in Wilson: solitary vireo. Fort Niagara: red-headed woodpecker. Lewiston Harbor: mockingbird. Niagara Falls Discovery Geological Museum: Carolina wren. Goat Island: black-crowned night heron and lesser black-backed gull. At Buckhorn State Park they finally add their first belted kingfisher of the day. And at about 7:00 p.m. their last species, a Nashville warbler, brings their total to 118.


On the way home they list the common species they missed. There's always a chance for a longer list next year. Unfortunately these young men will probably no longer be involved. Brendan is applying to mostly out-of-state graduate schools with programs in biostatistics, programs not offered locally, and Don is applying to the University of Maine's avian ecology course of studies.-- Gerry Rising