By Zac Cota, NBNC Teacher-Naturalist
While a biting north wind and freezing ocean spray may not sound like an ideal midwinter getaway for most, they made for excellent bird watching conditions for a hearty team of youth birders during last weekend’s Superbowl of Birding. Each January our team of eagle-eyed young birders travels to the coast of Massachusetts for the annual competition in which teams race to see the most species in twelve hours.
After staying the night at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center, we arose early to be in position for the official start of the competition at 5am. Our first birds of the day came shortly after at 5:18; a pair of Great Horned Owls duetting in the distance. We weren’t able to whistle in any other predawn owls, but witnessed a specular chase when a rabbit darted across our path with two Red Foxes in hot pursuit.
After sunrise we spent the morning tracing our way around the coast of Cape Ann. The team identified familiar birds from home, such as Northern Pintail, Red-tailed Hawk, and Song Sparrow, as well as some great coastal specialties. Weather that provided uncomfortable conditions for us proved perfect for spotting seabirds. Species that have been rare and hard to find in previous years showed up in multiple places and at close range; Razorbill, Thick-billed Murre, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Northern Gannet to name a few.
From Cape Ann we headed north, finding Northern Harrier and Snowy Owl along Plum Island. By the last hour of the competition, having spent nearly twelve hours with senses finely focused, our tired team paused to enjoy a few minutes next to the ocean. As we played the “Sandering shuffle”, chasing the waves as they rolled in an out, we had one of the closest encounters of the day. A hasty “look!” from one of the team members prompted us to raise our heads just in time to see a Common Murre, a football sized black-and-white seabird usually only seen through a distance scope view, whizzing by at eye-level only ten feet away!
With the excitement of that unexpected sighting as the last of our day, we headed to the finish line at the closing ceremony for some pizza and to hear the results. Having identified a whopping 58 in just twelve hours, our team brought home the Fledgling Award: an achievement given to the first youth team of the day to sight a special checklist of challenging species. This whirlwind trip was a great opportunity for youth to hone their naturalist skills, and to practice for our weeklong trip in April to compete in the Great Texas Birding Classic. Hopefully the weather will be more pleasant there!
Images below: Young Naturalists dodging the surf; Receiving the “Fledgling Award;” Scanning the seas for Harlequin Ducks and Surf Scoters.