Super Bowl of Birding – Dawn at Ipswich River

Part 1 – January 25

More than an hour before dawn, while packing in the darkness for the upcoming twelve-hour Super Bowl of Birding, a familiar whinny stretched thinly from the invisible trees. It was the first Eastern Screech Owl of the year! And though I ran in to tell the others, I also knew it wouldn’t count for the Super Bowl, which took place in the arenas of Essex County, Massachusetts, and Rockingham County, New Hampshire.

Unfortunately, by the time anyone made it outside, the owl had either flown off or tucked itself in for the upcoming sunrise. With that thought came the realization that maybe we had made a mistake in our departure time. We thought we would have plenty of darkness to find owls at our first destination, which was still an hour away. Hopefully, this wasn’t an omen.

By the time all six of us (Team Pine Pigskins), which included two friends, seated ourselves into the van — the back seat strewn with pillows, blankets, and snacks — it was 5:15. ETA at the Ipswich River Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary would be 6:15, or earlier.

During the drive, we went over our strategy to meet the goals and rules of the competition. Basically, there were multiple teams competing at different levels. Some teams traveled both counties, while some focused on one county. We had settled on Essex, which we were familiar with and knew to be rich in both land and seabirds. There was an itch, however, to try out Rockingham, where some rare birds had been seen recently, including the Bullock’s Oriole.

Speaking of rare birds, they had the potential of gaining a team 8 points. For example, any team to spot a rare bird would get 5 points, once they called it in to Audubon’s Joppa Flats. Three additional points would be awarded to the first team to spot that bird. And as part of our research, we knew that two rare birds — the Townshend’s Solitaire and the Bohemian Waxwing — had been found in one of our prime destinations: Halibut Point State Park. Those birds and many of our seabirds would hopefully fatten our list and score soon after our brief owling excursion at Ipswich River.

Aside from the “touchdown” of birds, every other possible bird has been assigned points. Common birds like American Robins and Blue Jays were worth 1 point, while a Rough-Legged Hawk and a Wild Turkey (believe it or not) were scored as 3. And based on the birds seen in our chosen spots, the 1- to 3-pointers would tally up in no time. But first, we had to get the birds that had the narrowest window: the nocturnal ones.

Driving along the backroad curves of Ipswich, the shadows of trees looming over our headlights promised the perfect setting for these elusive birds. All we hoped for were a few different calls: the Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl, and the Eastern Screech Owl, again.

Once out tires came to a stop in the gravel parking lot, we readied our gear, which included headlamps. And just as we headed down the trail beside the field and through the woods, other headlights approached behind us. Were these other Super Bowl contenders?

In only a few minutes, though, we realized that dawn was closer than we thought and the headlamps were almost unnecessary. Some of us picked up our pace, avoiding the icy patches, but also loudly crunching through the old snow. A few others took their time. We reminded them of the number one rule: we had to remain within shouting distance of each other. Also for a group of six, four people had to confirm the observed birds.

Passing into the darkest part of the woods, we slowed down, listening. I removed my hat from my ears. In the semi-darkness, the six of us stood motionless, waiting for the familiar calls. For sure, we thought there would be the low, hollow sound of the Great Horned. All we heard was a flock of Mallards flying over us from the nearby river. They were our first bird and we were on the board with 1 point.

Nearing the river, other birds began calling. A Northern Cardinal, Downy Woodpecker, and Song Sparrow gave us another 3 points. But still no owl.

Standing on the narrow strip of land between two bodies of water, more Mallards took off in the misty gray light. And sparrow sounds emanated from the bushes and trees. But the lighting wasn’t great for the naked eye, camera, or binoculars. And it was then that I realized my first stupid mistake of the day. Because I thought it would be dark the whole time, I had not brought my binoculars from the car.

I could barely make out the shapes of the sounds in the mist and shade. The calls were often faint. But eventually, Jackson, and our teacher friend, Ellyn, were able to capture sight of two more birds: a White-Throated Sparrow (1) and Canada Geese (1).

A little further up the trail, Fiona’s friend, Amelia, saw a shape in the water.

Taking up his binoculars in the now golden light, Jackson identified it as a Hooded Merganser — our first 3-point bird.

Amelia had never seen this bird before or many of the birds we would see. So it was quite possible that she would win a different award: Most Lifetime Birds. She was excited at the possibility.

Black-Capped Chickadees (1) soon added their names to the list. Our score of 10, though less than expected by 6:45, was beginning to show promise.

We continued to explore, keeping in mind that both an owl might still call out and that we wanted to depart for Halibut Point by 7:30. And though the owls never did make an appearance, we heard a huge amount of White-Breasted Nuthatches (1) and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (2). Then darting high above our heads was the shape and wingbeats of a Pileated Woodpecker, another 3-point bird.

By the time we returned to the parking lot, where a large group of teen birders were busy collecting data and possibly points, we had also added Dark-Eyed Juncos (1), American Crows (1), Mourning Doves (1), Tree Sparrows (2) and Blue Jays (1). Our new total of birds was 16 and our score was 22. Strangely, we did not see a single American Robin.

We had no doubt we would find the American Robin and many other common birds, as well as larger scoring birds, at our next stop, Halibut Point. This was destined to be one of our jackpot hotspots.

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