This year, Sharon Lynn and I decided to have a Big Day for the Delaware Bird-A-Thon that would be solely Sussex County, Delaware. In other years, my team has done a Wilmington area Big Day or a full Delaware Big Day, and Sharon and I both decided it would be fun to concentrate on a smaller area. We still ended up putting nearly 150 miles on the car as we zoomed back and forth across the county.
We began the day at 4:15, leaving Sharon’s driveway on schedule and hoping for nightjars and rails along Oyster Rock Road, and some owls before daybreak. We heard a Great-horned Owl and both the Whip-poor-will and the Chuck-will’s-widow. At the end of the road along the shoreline of the Delaware Bay, many shorebirds were spooked from the headlights and took off before we could identify them.
As dawn approached we drove coastal roads, arriving at Prime Hook NWR just as the gate opened for the day. A Screech Owl called softly from the entrance and we heard the soft ‘veer’ of the Veery. A loud vireo sang from the top of a tree and we identified it as a Yellow-throated Vireo – not a song that Sharon knew, but one that I had recently listened to. Sharon told me to watch out for Wild Turkeys in the fields along the road and they were there as predicted. In fact, we saw Wild Turkeys several times throughout the day; a testament to their increasing numbers in the state. We drove to the Prime Hook headquarters and walked the boardwalk where we got a Northern Waterthrush and Prothonotary Warbler. Turkell Pond Road was next where we found the Yellow-throated Warbler and a couple of woodpeckers.
We decided to head to Redden State Forest to the famous Red-headed Woodpecker spot where the Prairie Warbler is also a regular – we got both. Just down the road, we walked along a ditch where Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, and Wood Ducks were found. We also were stopped by some beautiful butterflies – particularly a Red-spotted Purple, which I expect to see later in the summer. We drove to the third part of Redden to look for more warblers. We got Pine Warblers and a beautiful Summer Tanager, but no luck on the Worm-eating Warbler, a target species.
There is a field where Ken Bass, a local birder, first discovered the nests of several field birds that were not known to nest in Delaware. Three days before, Sharon had scouted that field and had seen Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels and assured me we would have them. Our morning, there were none to be found – no territorial males posing on poles or blades of grass singing their hearts out. However, Sharon heard a Vesper Sparrow, also uncommon, singing across the street. Check! One more for our day list.
Next destination was the coast again, so we drove out to Fowler Beach and got a variety of shorebirds, Black Skimmers, and a couple of American Oystercatchers. A Least Tern flew over the water’s edge. This is a spot where the fresh water impoundment was destroyed a few year’s back and it is now becoming a salt marsh. The changing bird life was quite apparent. I was able to see a Red Knot there that Sharon missed, and a Great Blue Heron was so dapper in its breeding plumage that I hardly recognized it.
We drove along coastal roads, stopping to see some Black-bellied Plovers in a field and were lucky to see an American Kestrel flying in a distant field. On to the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion where a full complement of shorebirds (like Short-billed Dowitcher) and gulls added to our list. From there, we headed to Cape Henlopen to get the Piping Plover, which was ridiculously close across the ‘no entry’ fence.
It was time for a break, so we drove to Sharon’s house for a Diet Coke and Ruby-throated Hummingbird as we sat on her back deck. We left refreshed and headed to the Indian River Inlet hoping for something unusual to finish the day. There was very little on the ocean, but we spied a sandpiper on the jetty which should have been long gone to the arctic – the Purple Sandpiper. As we remarked on that unexpected treat, a Royal Tern flew over making it our last bird of the day.
Compared to last year, this year may not have had quite as many birds, but the day was relaxed (if you can call 4am to 7:30 pm relaxing!) and fun and we had a chance to explore some nooks and crannies of Sussex County. We had some obvious ‘misses’, like a Red-tailed Hawk, which we will certainly try to get next year. However, we also had some unexpected birds. Several species of ducks and the Purple Sandpiper should have been long gone to their Northern breeding spots. Our Big Day was a great day in the field, made better knowing that we were doing it for the Bird-A-Thon. Getting out like that is always a spectacular way to enjoy Delaware and its wildlife.
- Story by Sally O’Byrne and photos by Sharon Lynn
If you would like to contribute to these ladies’ Delaware Bird-A-Thon effort, please contact Sally at: email@example.com