Saturday, May 23, 2009

Survived the Birdathon!

Weary eyed from too little sleep, we began our birdathon at 2:07am on Thursday morning. The wind was howling, tempering our expectations and enthusiasm. Since we find most of our birds by sound, wind is a serious problem. Fewer birds sing in windy conditions and it's hard to hear them anyway. For the first several hours, we struggled in the darkness to find night birds - they just weren't calling.

Dawn is the critical time on a birdathon - you get the majority of your species in a short window of time because that's when birds are most actively singing. The forecast for Thursday was windy and record hot, so our success at dawn chorus would make or break our day. As it turned out we did well... finding most of the target breeding birds around MacGregor Point Provincial Park. We also lucked into a bunch of birds that are easy to miss. Our mid-morning tally surprised us, we had a chance of breaking our record of 174 species.

I would like to tell you that our luck continued through the afternoon, but the truth is that we hit a complete roadblock mid-day. Battling the high winds, we struggled to find any new birds. All the migrants that had been around earlier in the week had totally cleared out. There were no diving ducks or grebes - or perhaps we missed them in the choppy waters. Our enthusiasm sunk!

Late in the day, the wind dropped (the blackflies became horrific!) which salvaged our day. We picked up a steady stream of new birds in the final few hours. At 10pm, nearly hallucinating from exhaustion (catastrophic sugar crash), we called it a day. Our total was 161 species, which is is our fourth best total from many years of doing the birdathon. Given the hot & windy conditions, we were ecstatic to reach 161. This took 20 hours and 575km of driving.

There were a number of highlights during the day.... watching a red fox catch and kill a watersnake, finding a loggerhead shrike (endangered in Ontario) in an unexpected spot, seeing nesting piping plovers and watching a black bear feeding at dusk.

The most interesting facet of our birdathon is not the birds at all, but my diet. This is my one day a year to put aside all common food sense and eat with reckless abandon. To maintain my uber-birding pace in the absence of sleep, requires a truly foolish diet. Here's what I consumed during the 20 hour marathon: at least 27 mini-powdered donuts, 14 pepperoni sticks, slabs of beef jerky, an entire bag of chocolate peanut butter cups, two dozen cookies, a large bag of chips, half a bag of licorice, 4 cans of pop (sugar-free?!) and two mugs of coffees. How do I avoid sugar crash, you ask? Never stop eating until it's over.

Thanks to my birding buddies Mark Weircinski and John Haselmayer for making the day so much fun and for continually feeding me while I drove. And a huge thanks to all the people who sponsored the birdathon with pledges to Bird Studies Canada!


  1. Anonymous3:33 PM

    sounds like fun, Ethan - you must be exhausted and perhaps somewhat sick to your

  2. Anonymous11:26 AM

    Mini powdered donuts are the best!!!!

  3. Anonymous3:34 PM

    That diet sounds like Ethan of yesteryear... :)