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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vermont Team Competes in Superbowl… of Birding

Sunrise off Cape Ann

The skies were clear and the weather warm for the Superbowl this past weekend, only it was birds flying instead of footballs. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. teams of birdwatchers looked high and low for as many different types (or species) of birds as they could find along the Massachusetts coast. For the fourth year, a team of adults and youths from Vermont participated, sponsored by the North Branch Nature Center of Montpelier.

The night before the competition, the team (called the North Branch Noddies) carefully planned their route for the following day. In addition to being experts of the local birdlife, teams must devise clever strategies to ensure they are in the right places at the right times to see the most birds. Each species is assigned a point-value based on the how difficult it is to find (1 point being easiest and 5 points being hardest). So, while a chickadee is worth just one point, a Snowy Owl is worth three, and a Townsend’s Warbler is worth five points.

The Team gazes upwards at a
Townsend's Warbler

Alarm clocks rang at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the competition, and by 5:00 the team was poised and ready at their secret owl spot. By 5:15 a.m. they had their first two points, for a Eastern Screech-Owl calling in the distance. Scouring the rocky shoreline of Cape Ann, the Noddies continued to rack up points through the morning hours. Many species of birds that breed in the arctic spend the winter months off the New England coast, which for them, is considered “south for the winter”. The obligate trip to the fish pier added several rare species of gulls as they fought over fish scraps on the docks. A pair of Peregrine Falcons watched from afar, perched atop the distant church steeple.

The mild weather certainly played a role in the birdlife encountered. Lakes and ponds with open water meant an abundance of waterfowl that typically vacate in winter, such as Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, and American Coots. Even some insectivores were toughing it out on the coast this winter including a Gray Catbird and a rare vagrant Townsend's Warbler, seen gleaning insects from the needles of a tall spruce tree.

Sunset from Plum Island, after
12 hours of birding

Slowly working their way north, by late afternoon the Noddies had reached Plum Island, considered one of the finest birding locales in New England. Here, on the rolling sand dunes and extensive marshes, the Noddies would complete their quest. From a single spot along the main road, two Snowy Owls could be seen sitting upon the barren, snowless landscape. A flock of hundreds of shorebirds chased the breaking waves along the beach. And as the sky became infused with pink and purple at dusk, a Short-eared Owl could be seen cruising the fields, hunting under the shadows of the setting sun. After twelve hours of birdwatching, the Noddies raced to the finish line with a total of 66 species and 124 points.

The Noddies will be competing in the World Series of Birding this May, email Larry for more information.

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