One of the things I love about the Muckrace is the ability to share experiences and information with the other teams as we rush about trying to locate as many species as possible. Several years ago we shifted from “competitive” to “recreational” with the idea that we would ease up on the pressure and consider the event as another good day of birding. And what a good day it was! In a little over 12 hours we found a total of 104 species, good enough for second place in the recreational category, and at least ten more than last year.
We gathered at Stewart Park at 5 am Saturday morning, packed ourselves into two cars, and drove straight up the lake. Our first stop was Mud Lock where, still in the dark, we wandered around the parking lot listening for overhead flight calls (none) and hoping for an early Carolina Wren or EasternTowhee (no luck). Susan’s Eastern Screech-Owl
imitation was much improved from last year, and she was able to call one in - our first bird of the day. The rules require that we not use electronic playback, but I was able to reproduce the call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl
on my penny whistle and, much to everyone’s surprise, a Saw-whet answered!
As it began to get light, we backtracked to Harris Park to scope the northern end of the lake, picking up our three common gulls, Mallards
, and an Osprey
. A quick stop behind Beacon Marine produced a Belted Kingfisher
and the first of many Great Blue Herons
. Driving back through Mud Lock, we found a Bald Eagle
in a snag across the water, and then along the road up to routes 5 and 20 and the Montezuma Refuge we added American Robin, Nothern Cardinal, Black-Capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove, Gray Catbird,
and White-breasted Nuthatch
Our next stop was the south end of the Montezuma visitor’s center pool and, side-by-side with another Muckrace team, we quickly got on Long-
and Short-billed Dowitchers
, both Yellowlegs
, several Killdeer
, and three gorgeous, crisply-plumaged juvenile Black-bellied Plovers
. Then from the deck of the visitor’s center we picked out the loafing Trumpeter Swan
and a couple of Northern Shovelers
along with more Mallards, Blue-winged
and Green-winged Teal
, and a skulking American Bittern
We then headed around the wildlife drive. In past years the various pools and impoundments have harbored a variety of shorebirds and waterfowl. But this year, given the drought and new construction, and in spite of the refuge’s best efforts at habitat management, the variety of new birds was low. We picked up American Coot, Common Gallinule
, and Pied-billed Grebe
in the Main Pool; Diane got us on a Wilson's Snipe
at Benning’s Marsh; and we noted fly-over Double-crested Cormorants
, a Great Egret
, and the first of several Peregrine Falcons
for the day.
Esker Brook trail was our next stop, the first of several where the main target was woodland birds. In the past Esker Brook has been either really productive or a total bust. Today we hit gold! Diane spotted a cooperative Swainson’s Thrush
, and we all got good looks at it. We then hit a large feeding flock and spend some frantic minutes trying to follow and identify all of the birds: Black-and-White, Wilson’s, Tennessee, Magnolia
, and Orange-crowned Warblers
and Philadelphia Vireos
, and Cedar Waxwings
. Throughout the day we kept reminding ourselves to “look up”, and here it really paid off. Gary first spotted, then got the rest of us on, a pair of Sandhill Cranes
We turned in Mays Point Road, bypassed the pool having scouted it a few days earlier and found nothing but Mallards, Great Blue Herons, and Yellowlegs, and stopped at the snag forest. The Red-headed Woodpeckers that had nested there this spring were not to be found (in fact, none of the Muckrace teams found them), but we did add Rock Pigeon
and House Sparrow
to our list. They are far from rare birds but, believe it or not, can be hard to find when you need them.
Our next stop was Towpath Road, again for woodland birds. For most birders it is simply the way to go to get a better look at one end of Knox/Marsellus and Puddlers Marshes. But by walking it you pass slowly through a corridor of low trees and dense shrubs which can be surprisingly birdy. We found a couple of American Redstarts
, a Magnolia Warbler
, and a House Wren
. At least two of us saw the distinctive tail pattern of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo
- enough for a positive ID, and Gary heard the call of a distant Barred Owl
. As we were walking out, the entire team was treated to a mini-kettle of two Broad-winged Hawks
From there we continued north, checking a couple of locations identified earlier for birds that we would need: Cowbird and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Both locations were a bust so we continued into Savannah, stopping at Dave’s convenience store for a quick lunch. Amazingly enough, we were half way through the day and still right on the schedule we had laid out for ourselves. I don’t have a tally for the number of species we had seen by then but do know that we were missing only a few of the anticipated birds and that we were way ahead with the unexpected ones (like Saw-whet Owl, Broad-winged Hawk, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo).
After lunch we checked in at the MAC (Montezuma Audubon Center) headquarters for the Muckrace and picked up our t-shirts and a couple of doughnuts. We walked out to the south pond which did have plenty of mudflat habitat but was totally devoid of shorebirds. Back in the cars, we drove the short distance north to the South Butler cemetery, parked at the entrance, and walked a couple of the lanes. Eventually we came across the resident sparrow flock and got good looks at our target, Chipping Sparrow
, and many more House Sparrows.
In the weeks leading up to the Muckrace the muddy edges of the pools at the end of Morgan Road had been the most prolific shorebird habitat in the entire Montezuma Complex. Today, however, they were nearly empty, probably due to the pair of Peregrine Falcons that periodically strafed the area. We did manage to find a small group of Pectoral Sandpipers
and a few Least Sandpipers
but quickly moved on, now well ahead of schedule.
Howland Island is opened to vehicle traffic once a year, during the Muckrace, and I was looking forward to driving the dirt roads and exploring woods, marshes, and ponds, places some of us have never been to. At the bridge on Carncross Road we encountered a large number of swallows
, picking out Tree, Barn, Rough-winged
, and Bank
. We then let ourselves through the gate and had just started down one of the roads when we got a call about several good birds at back at Mays and the visitor center. Since our main targets on Howland Island were woodland birds and we had done well with them so far, we decided to head south and chase the new birds. Fortunately, the only rain of the day hit us just as we were driving and, just as fortunately, stopped as we got to Mays.
At Mays Point Pool (remember, we had bypassed it earlier in the day) we quickly picked out the reported Eurasian Wigeon
. Then, at the south end of the visitor center pool, and along with a growing group of other birders, we found the Dunlin
, White-rumped Sandpiper
, and Semipalmated Plover
that had been reported. And just as we were getting back in the cars a Merlin
Before we could even talk about what to do next, we got another call that a Brown Booby
had been spotted from Harris Park at the north end of the lake. This was an extremely rare bird for our area and counted as a life bird for most of us. We were able to scope it from the railroad tracks (the southern-most boundary of the Muckrace) and watched it for at least a half hour as it sat bobbing on the water and making occasional short flights.
At that point it was just after 5 pm, with nearly two hours to go before the close of the Muckrace. We made a quick stop at the visitor center to walk the beginning of the Seneca Trail where we picked up Green Heron
. Then a stop at the Nice ’n Easy for refreshments and on up Rt 90 to Kipp Island South. We noted a small flock of Wild Turkeys
along the road and then picked out the distant lingering Snow Goose
at Kipp Island. Moving our scopes a bit to the north we picked through a large flock of blackbirds perched in a skeletal tree to find several Brown-headed Cowbirds
and at least one Common Grackle
Our last stop of the day was Van Dyne Spoor Road.The idea was to sit overlooking the vast cattail marsh as birds came in to roost for the night. We were hoping for night-herons or nighthawks, but none appeared. We were, however, treated to a continuous stream of at least 10,000 (probably many more) Red-winged Blackbirds
as they flew in from the north and disappeared into the reeds. Again, our hope was for a single Yellow-headed Blackbird. We never did see any, but the entire show was spectacular nevertheless.
That was how we ended the day. We were back at the MAC right around 7 pm, handed in our checklist, downed a couple of slices of cold pizza, and sat through the short awards ceremony. As I recall, some 183 different species were reported for the entire 24-hour period. Species seen for the first time this year were Little Gull, Pine Siskin, and of course the Booby. The highest total, 125, was reported by the Cornell student team, the Basin Chasin’ Jays.
Our team of Susan Danskin, Ann Mitchell, Diane Morton, Gary Kohlenberg, and Bob McGuire worked really well. We are able to split the group into two cars (for comfort) and yet keep close enough together to get everyone on most of the birds. It helped to have an open phone line on “speaker” for some of the longer drives. We would like to thank everyone who has sponsored us and made a donation to the Friends of Montezuma Wetlands Complex - and are already looking forward to next year.
(Donations are still being accepted -
Eurasion Wigeon photo by Gary Kohlenberg