My ‘Big Month’ of birding was even better than I’d hoped

April was the coolest month. Knowing that I had a trip to Texas scheduled and that a few warblers might eventually come my way at home, I set out on a “big month” quest to spot as many species as possible. I set 60 as my target, a reasonable expectation but not a certainty.

I’m happy to report that my total flew well past that, topping out at 83. To put that in perspective, that number is well above the 70 species I recorded in my first year of progressively serious birding, 2020, and the total isn’t far off the 102 species I logged in 2021.

From April 1 on, many of the birds I first spotted showed up at home. This chipping sparrow is Exhibit A.

The first-of-the-year chipping sparrow who showed up on my backyard feeder on April 1 was a good omen. I recorded 17 species that day, a fast but expected start that reminded me that I don’t have to head deep into the woods to find nature. I’m fortunate that it comes calling on my own half acre.

I filed 50 checklists in April from four states, the majority in New Jersey, a week’s worth in Texas and single reports from New York and Pennsylvania. I had one walk in Central Park in New York City early in the month, and I was happy to record the first pigeons of the month there. I’d also see a few at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm later on.

The Pennsylvania stop was on the last day of the month at the Morrisville levee, just across the “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” bridge over the Delaware River. I spotted a female common merganser in the river, and I also saw a sharp-shinned hawk swoop in and out of the park at the foot of the levee.

The first surprise of the month came on April 5 on the Reed-Bryan Farm side of Mercer Meadows park: an American kestrel perched on a lone tree off the main path. I would see another kestrel (maybe the same one?) a few days later on the Pole Farm side.

Purple finch at the Pole Farm

Another early surprise came April 8, when high up in a tree at the Pole Farm I captured in my camera what turned out to be an immature purple finch.

At College Station, Texas, I added a white-winged dove and a spotted sandpiper to my life list. Returning home, I wondered when I’d log my first white-breasted nuthatch, and one finally appeared on April 17.

I hit my goal of 60 on April 19 when I heard the first house wrens of the year at Drexel Woods, a small park near home.

Big surprises awaited me in the waning days of the month. I spotted a pair of orchard orioles in a tree at the Pole Farm on April 27, and the following day would hold even more wonders.

That morning I met up with the Princeton Birding Society, a student group at Princeton University. They were on a birding walk through the Charles H. Rogers Preserve. The day set off with a bang when a flock of laughing gulls flew overhead, and shortly thereafter I spotted a bald eagle soaring on thermals high overhead.

On the trail at the Rogers Preserve with the Princeton Birding Society.

We heard a Virginia rail from the observation deck over a marsh; the calls were confirmed by the experienced birding group leaders and Jim Parrish, one of the top birders in these parts who happened to be on the deck when we arrived. He said there were two rails and he had seen one of them. I heard a rail again the next morning but never did see it.

The students also spotted a blue-winged warbler and a palm warbler, both in the bushes in front of me. I didn’t see them but am comfortable counting them; I’d see my own palm warbler two days later. The students also ID’d a warbling vireo, and I spent some quality time with one at the preserve the next morning. The bird would not sit still for photos, and I came home with five lovely frames of the tree branches it had vacated.

On the final day, I started with a visit to the Pole Farm and was overjoyed to spot at prairie warbler (another lifer) high up in a tree.

Prairie warbler at the Pole Farm

Next, I headed to the Rogers preserve and connected with my friends Mark and Laura and their great black lab, Iko. We were thrilled to get a good look at a beautiful Baltimore oriole. Laura had taken me several weeks ago to see my first Harlequin ducks, and I got to return the favor as she saw her first wood ducks, which I’d added to my life list the morning before.

In the afternoon, I stopped at the levee in Morrisville, then headed to Abbott Marshlands back on the Trenton side of the river. There, I was treated to some in-the-leaves antics by a palm warbler, a fantastic way to close out the month.

Palm warbler coming in for a landing at Abbott Marshlands, Trenton.

I’ll admit to feeling a slight bit of relief on finishing. I birded every day, heading out on most of them. On a few days, I was limited to from-the-windows observations at home due to weather and other circumstances.

What did I learn over the course of the month?

I learned that while racking up numbers was a good challenge, it’s not really what drives me.

At one point out at the Pole Farm, I spotted a Savannah sparrow and heard myself say internally, “who cares; I’ve already logged them for the month.” Immediately, I chided myself. Seeing that sparrow was a joy just as great as seeing the first ones I’d checked off on a list a few days earlier.

So what drives me as a birder?

It’s is the pleasure of seeing birds as they are, wonderful friends and neighbors, in great varieties of shapes, sizes, colors and behaviors, inhabiting and enriching our world.

And if they hang around just a few more seconds to let me photograph them, that’s even better.

One of the big surprises for the month was this ring-necked duck and its mate, floating on Spring Lake at the Abbott Marshlands.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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