By Zac Cota, AmeriCorps Member Teacher-Naturalist
Each winter Mass Audubon holds the Superbowl of Birding, a 12-hour birding competition along the seacoast. Our largest youth team yet comprised 10 youth, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who honed their skills and shared their passion with other young birders from around the region.
After spending Friday night with our gracious host family, the Mansfield-Parisi’s, and eating a hearty predawn breakfast, we began at 5 a.m. with team members practicing owl calls in a variety of hoots and whistles followed by periods of intent listening. Despite a lack of owls the attempt provided a valuable learning opportunity, as well as some comic relief.
In the morning we looped around the coast of Cape Ann, stopping at piers, beaches, and even one lighthouse. Ten pairs of binoculars scanned yards, waterfronts, and the vast Atlantic horizon, identifying sparrows, hawks, gulls and ducks. Some of our team members had participated in previous years and helped newer members identify coastal specialties like Purple Sandpipers, Great Cormorants, and Surf Scoters.
At one point, while traveling north, we spotted a bird soaring in high circles, which looked distinctly not hawk-shaped. Team members poured out of the van and began studying the bird for field marks. A short head, short fan-shaped tail, all black except for gray wingtips. Could it be? Yes! A Black Vulture, unusual but increasingly sighted in the Northeast. This proved to be the first ever seen during the Superbowl of Birding, a very special sighting indeed!
At Halibut Point State Park we noticed a group of crows excitedly mobbing dense cedars. Our group was intent on finding the culprit and angled for a better view. After braving some gnarly brambles, we spotted it: a Great Horned Owl! Just as the first youth got a visual on the bird we watched it flush from the cedar and fly north, crows in hot pursuit. We continued to the ocean overlook where we were able to spot Razorbill, Red-breasted Merganser, and a whopping 50+ Harlequin Ducks!
Our last stop was Plum Island, where two Snowy Owls were a much-celebrated first for several team members. With a winter storm approaching we decided to end our day early. Despite our shorter day, our team had great success, finding 51 species for a total of 80 points! It is always a joy to see the passion our youth naturalists have, and I look forward to seeing them in action again in May when we head to the World Series of Birding competition in New Jersey.