On a warm day in late April, Frank Gallo is getting his steps in at one of his regular haunts: the sewage plant. He strolls along the paved trail outside the facility in Norwalk, Conn., scanning the pines on the left, the river on the right. Overhead eight Northern Rough-winged Swallows wheel in the cloudless sky, taking turns swooping into the water-treatment tanks to catch insects drawn to the nutrient-rich pools below. A Yellow Warbler belts out its not so humble brag—sweet sweet sweet I'm so sweet.
Gallo, a naturalist and birder, has been coming to the sewage plant regularly since last fall, when a motley crew of warblers—Prairie, Cape May, Tennessee, Palm, Pine and Yellow-rumped—that should have headed south for the winter decided to stay here instead. Birders flocked to the site all winter, trudging up and down the icy trail in hopes of glimpsing the rarities foraging in the tanks and evergreens. Now, with spring migrants starting to appear throughout the northeast, the sewage plant crowd is thinning. But Gallo keeps returning because he wants to see when the Cape May and Tennessee Warblers depart for their breeding grounds up north. Although overwintering in Connecticut was risky, the survivors are now that much closer to where they need to be to establish a territory for the summer, find a mate and reproduce. Maybe they'll get a head start, he muses. Such are the pleasures of birding—marveling at life's diversity, pondering the rhythms of the natural world, feeding curiosity one question at a time, even in unglamorous locations.
Today Gallo is preoccupied with his next avian pursuit. In just a few weeks he and five of his friends—some of the top birders in the state—will be doing their annual Big Day, competing as a team to find as many bird species in Connecticut as they can by sight or sound in a 24-hour period. They'll go midnight to midnight on a day of their choosing. Their goals: get 200 species, which no team in New England has ever been able to do; beat the existing New England record of 195 species, set by their archrivals in Massachusetts in 2014; best their own 2018 record of 193.
To accomplish any of these objectives, the team needs to figure out ahead of time where the hard-to-find birds are likely to be found. And it has to design a driving route that maximizes the number of sites the players can hit across the state and the amount of time they have at each one to see or hear the target species. Seconds count—there will be no pausing to admire one bird's dazzling plumage or another's melodious song, no studying a fascinating behavior or puzzling over an unexpected sighting. As a friend of his once quipped about Big Days, Gallo says, “This isn't birding. This is war.”
“200 has to be a perfect day,” team member Dave Tripp tells me. “To get 200, everything needs to be there and to call. It's doable, but all the stars need to line up.” He and the other team members have been bringing those stars into alignment, and he is phoning to brief me. They've been honing their strategy since they first started birding together competitively more than a decade ago in New Jersey.
The most prestigious Big Day competition in the country is the World Series of Birding, held every year in New Jersey. For years the Connecticut team—it calls itself the Raven Lunatics—competed in the World Series, building its knowledge of New Jersey's birds and refining its tactics for getting as many of them as possible on game day. In 2008 the team took home the prize for the second-highest number of species, having found 222—an especially impressive feat considering they were from out of state. But in Connecticut, the Big Day record had been stuck at 186 species, set by another team in 1994. “Let's take what we've learned in Jersey and apply it to our home state,” Tripp recalls telling the others. “Let's go for the state record in Connecticut.”
Anyone can do a Big Day bird count following the American Birding Association's rules. Competitors have 24 hours—midnight to midnight on a single calendar day—to find as many bird species on the official checklist as they can; they may gather intelligence before game day but cannot solicit outside information during the competition itself; species must be identified by eye or by ear with absolute certainty (no merely probable IDs allowed); they may play recordings of bird sounds judiciously to attract birds; at least 95 percent of the species listed on the final tally must have been detected by all the team members (up to 5 percent can be “dirty”—identified by some but not all participants), and team members must travel together in the same vehicle and remain within earshot of one another.
In 2009 the Raven Lunatics did their first Big Day in Connecticut and got 177 species—nine birds short of the long-standing state record. “It was late May, and we weren't getting enough,” Tripp recalls. “We needed to get the stuff that breeds in boreal forest and tundra and was migrating through Connecticut, plus get the Connecticut breeders.” May is the best month for a Big Day because it coincides with peak spring migration. But too late in the month and the waterfowl and other birds that overwintered in Connecticut will have departed for their breeding grounds in the Arctic and other northern locales. Too early and the birders will miss the warblers, flycatchers, vireos and other migrants making their way north from their wintering grounds.
In 2011 the team had a major breakthrough with 192 species, which smashed the state record and set a new bar for New England. A decade on, the Raven Lunatics remain the Connecticut record holders, having reached a new high of 193 species in 2018. But their New England victory was short-lived—days after their 2011 win their Massachusetts rivals surpassed them with 193 species. And in 2014 the Massachusetts team got 195 species, which, so far as the Raven Lunatics know, remains the largest number of bird species ever found in a single day in New England. “Massachusetts is bigger, with more habitat,” Tripp is quick to note.
But although Connecticut is comparatively small, it has a variety of habitats, including grassland, forest, coast, and urban and suburban environments, explains Connecticut state ornithologist Margaret Rubega. It also occupies an important stretch of the Atlantic Flyway—a major thoroughfare for North American migratory birds. And it straddles the southernmost range of a number of northern birds and the northernmost range of southern ones. Consequently, the state hosts a surprisingly rich avian diversity—450 species at last count, compared with 507 in Massachusetts and 488 in New Jersey. More than half of those species breed here. The rest are mostly just passing through. Sometimes a vagrant species will show up, blown off course by a storm or lost as the result of a faulty internal compass.
The team must figure out how to hit as many sites as possible in a variety of habitats across the state and at the right times of day to find birds. Owls and marsh birds, for instance, call at night. Shorebirds in some locations are best observed near high tide, when the water concentrates them on exposed sandbars.
At the beginning of May, the players start scouting locations. Tripp runs the north. During the week he goes out at first light to search for birds for a few hours before heading to his job as deputy fire chief in Torrington. On weekends he optimizes the route, changing it as new scouting information comes in, sorting out which areas are must-visits and which he can cut so he can give the team more time in the south, where the birds members need are fewer and farther between.
Even with all of this preparation, key factors remain beyond the birders' control. The scouted birds may move or go quiet on the Big Day (nesting birds often stop singing). Migrants from the south may be waylaid by unfavorable weather. At the moment, Tripp tells me, it's looking like May 17, one week away, will be the day. It's the only date when all six team members can go, and the forecast doesn't show any weather that might move birds around. But any shift in the forecast between now and then could necessitate a change in plans, even if that means not everyone can go—including me.
The birders have agreed to let me tag along as they continue to scout bird locations across the state in the lead-up to the competition and to meet them at various points during the Big Day itself. After being cooped up for 15 months, I'm finally vaccinated and giddy at the prospect of getting out of the house to do some field reporting. I also have a keen personal interest in the subject matter. I started bird-watching in May 2020 as a means of pandemic escapism, first in my yard in Connecticut, then in neighboring towns. Now, a year in, I have 158 species on my state list. I can visually distinguish a Savannah Sparrow from a Song Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker from Downy Woodpecker, Cooper's Hawk from Sharp-shinned Hawk (I think). I recognize the flutelike song of the Wood Thrush, the cacophonous call of the Willet, the Black-capped Chickadee's eponymous scold.
Still, I have years of practice to go before I can expect to walk out the door and confidently identify all the birds I encounter. Gallo, Tripp and their teammates, with decades of birding experience, know all the birds, whether they're juvenile or adult, in breeding plumage or nonbreeding plumage, singing an elaborate courtship song or just uttering a one-note call in flight. Nevertheless, I'm hard-pressed to see how they are going to find more bird species in a single day than I had in 365. “You have no idea what you're getting into,” Tripp warns.
Three days later I meet team member Nick Bonomo at 8:30 in the morning at a carpool lot off Interstate 95 in the coastal town of Guilford. He's been looking for birds since 2 A.M. Game day is just a few days away, and he's behind on scouting his territory. Bonomo and Gallo run the southern part of the route, including the coast, with help from teammates Patrick Dugan and Dave Provencher. Today Bonomo, a physician assistant, is looking mainly for waterfowl, shorebirds and marsh birds, along with a few other species that the team wants to nail down in the south. I hop in his car, and we start working our way east, hitting one public access point after another along the crenulated shoreline.
We get off to a discouraging start. Neither the Brown Thrasher nor the White-eyed Vireo—secretive species that favor dense vegetation—shows up in the patch of coastal scrub where Bonomo was hoping to find them. A scan of the mud puddle near the fairgrounds fails to turn up the expected Solitary Sandpiper. “Before meeting you, I did have some luck,” Bonomo says, explaining that he found waterbirds, including Surf Scoters, Red-throated Loons, Gadwalls, Hooded Mergansers and a Great Cormorant, earlier in the day. He has a long way to go, however. During the competition the team typically gets around a third of its birds in the south, most of which are coastal species.
It's a beautiful day, bright and breezy, a balm after the dark pandemic winter. But the glare from the sun and the waves from the wind, together with the heat shimmer, are making it tough to spot birds on the water. The next stop, a beachfront location, is more productive. Bonomo spies two small, sleek seabirds with black and white heads and bright yellow bills—Least Terns. This species, which nests on beaches, is threatened in Connecticut because of habitat loss. It's one of just two tern species the team can expect to find on competition day, the other being the Common Tern. Bonomo also notes a nearby flock of Dunlin, chunky little shorebirds with long, probing bills that breed in the Arctic tundra.
Surveying the water with his spotting telescope at the next beach, Bonomo discovers a Long-tailed Duck—an elegant sea duck with showy tail feathers—bobbing in the waves. Most Long-tailed Ducks have set off for their breeding grounds in the High Arctic by mid-May. During the competition “we only get this species 50 percent of the time,” he says. On a distant outcropping, Bonomo spots a stocky bird with a dark bib—a Ruddy Turnstone, he announces. I have to take his word for it. Details of the bird, so named for its calico breeding plumage and the way it uses its stout bill to flip pebbles over in search of prey, are lost in the shadows, making identification impossible unless one knows exactly what to look for.
We continue east to a boat launch in the high marsh—a habitat that is vanishing in Connecticut because of sea-level rise caused by warming. As we pull in, a gang of Willets mobs a Northern Harrier, a slender hawk with a flashy white patch on its rump, driving it away. “Harrier is hard to get on a Big Day,” Bonomo says. But it's the sparrows that he's most interested in. A Seaside Sparrow sings, unseen. And a few minutes later he scopes a Saltmarsh Sparrow—a striking, orange-faced bird—peeking out from the grass. Getting both marsh sparrows in one spot is a win for him, and I'm delighted to have gotten my first look at a Saltmarsh Sparrow. This species has declined by some 87 percent across its narrow range in the past 23 years as rising tides have flooded nests and drowned chicks.
Bonomo picks up some more sea ducks—Surf Scoters and Black Scoters—and a colony of Double-crested Cormorants nesting in trees on the way back to the carpool lot. He needs to get some sleep before he has to go out again. “It's physically unhealthy, not exercising, eating like crap” he says of the week leading up to the competition. “It's a damn good thing it's only one week a year.”
The following day I join Gallo, who is also scouting in the southern part of the state. The afternoon starts with a bang. Gallo is driving by a city bridge to look for a Peregrine Falcon, a fast, fierce bird of prey that nests readily on human-made structures. It seems to me like a long shot, but as we pass by, a bird flies out from under the bridge. With only a brief glimpse to go on, I have no idea what it was, but Gallo thinks it could be a Peregrine based on the size. He circles back, and we get out of the car for a better look. I point out the concrete girder that I think the bird flew from. Gallo raises his binoculars to his eyes to scan, his movements smooth and precise as I fumble with my own bins. “Son of a bitch,” he shouts a moment later. A nest box has been installed on the girder, and the Peregrine is sitting in it, plain as day. Gallo raises a hand for a high five. Raptors nest early in the breeding season and are attentive parents, so chances are good the bird will be here if the team drives by on competition day.
The rest of the afternoon is hit-or-miss. And the misses are weighing on Gallo. Here and there along the coast, he locates a few Sanderlings and Purple Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers. But other species he needs—Black Skimmer, Pectoral Sandpiper and White-rumped Sandpiper, among others—elude him. “There's just no shorebirds right now. The weather pattern has not been conducive,” Gallo says. “We want south winds with enough time for migrants to get here and blocking winds so they fall on Connecticut.”
Gallo calls Bonomo to check in and compare notes. Bonomo is sweating some of the marsh species. They don't have a Least Bittern, a small, hunched heron, pinned down yet. And they need the rails—reclusive birds that live in thick marsh grass—including the Sora, which can be tricky, and the Virginia Rail, which they can usually count on. “If we can't get Virginia Rail, we might as well call it a day and crack a beer,” he says. But a check of the weather reveals a reason for a modicum of optimism about the missing migrants: variable winds are expected tonight, Bonomo notes, and “stuff will move on that.”
I spend the next two mornings in northwestern Connecticut, the first one with Tripp, the next one with his teammate and best friend since grade school, Fran Zygmont. I'm on the road by 3 A.M. each day to meet them at 4:00 in Litchfield County, chugging coffee from a thermos and grumpily wondering why I, someone deeply committed to being sound asleep at this hour, decided to pursue this story.
For the purposes of the Big Day, the team birds the north differently than it does the south. In the south, where the targeted habitat is mostly open, the team identifies the majority of the birds by eye. In the north the players are searching mostly in forests and other closed habitats, often in the dark, so here they get the species primarily by ear. Although the early-morning temperatures are in the low 40s, Tripp and Zygmont drive with the windows down so they can hear the birds. Following their lead, I fasten my seat belt behind me so I can jump out of the car quickly at our frequent stops without the car dinging to remind me to buckle up.
Tripp is running the route, checking to make sure the birds he has scouted are still in the same place and trying to get the timing just right. At 4:36, he pulls over by a stand of pines that abut an open field and plays a recording of a Great Horned Owl from his cell phone through a Bluetooth speaker placed atop his car. To my amazement, a living shadow appears overhead, flying on silent wings to alight in the pines, and hoots in reply. Minutes later, somewhere in the field, an American Woodcock makes its nasal peent call. Tripp considers starting the route here if both species are present. “The thing that scares me is the Great-horned might eat the woodcock” he says.
By 4:57 the sky is brightening, and the dawn chorus is starting to fill the air. Tripp stops at one of his scouted locations and plays recordings of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and Brown Creeper—species the team needs to get in the north—but no birds respond. “We may need to push this stop back a bit,” he says. “It's too early.” Farther along the route, he hears the dry trill of the Dark-eyed Junco—another “must bird” in the north. But he's not getting any warblers. Like the nuthatch and the creeper, they're probably still asleep. For this stop, too, “we're a tad early,” he decides. I stifle a yawn.
Sometimes a bird will give listeners only one note to go on. Pulling up to a creek, Tripp hears a chip—a type of call that many birds use to stay in contact with one another or to sound an alarm. “Louisiana Waterthrush,” he declares. Of all the observation skills serious birders develop in pursuit of their hobby, this is the one that blows my mind. I can see how, with time, I'll be able to learn the field marks that identify birds visually. But memorizing the full vocal repertoires of these species, in all their variations, right down to the single-note chips and flight calls? That's a superpower.
Other birds make telltale sounds nonvocally. On a visit to a woodland swamp, we listen to the tapping of a woodpecker. Tripp explains that some of Connecticut's woodpecker species tap similarly, but this one is distinctive, starting out fast and then slowing down at the end of the sequence. “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,” he tells me. I thrill to the pro tip—this is a sound I can hear and remember.
The Ruffed Grouse, a ground-nesting bird that lives in dense forest, is also known for a nonvocal sound. The male will perch on a log or stump and perform a series of increasingly fast wingbeats, creating a deep thumping sound that starts off slowly and accelerates over the course of the 10-second display.
With the birds waking up and starting to sing and call, Tripp rattles off the species names as he hears them from the moving car. Black-capped Chickadee, Common Yellowthroat, Great Crested Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo. Occasionally he points out other fauna: porcupines foraging on the side of the road, a bobcat—my first!—melting into the trees. I decide that being up this early has its benefits.
As the morning wears on, Tripp is pumped to locate at least three Cape May Warblers in a cluster of towering Norway spruces—a hard-to-get bird on a Big Day because it's finicky about habitat (the winter maverick at the Norwalk sewage plant notwithstanding). But some key species are proving worryingly difficult to secure. The Golden-crowned Kinglet—a tiny, frantic bird with a flaming crest and a very high-pitched song that dwells in coniferous forests—is nowhere to be found. Nor is the Eastern Meadowlark, a grassland songbird. And a visit to the bridge where he expected to find Cliff Swallows fails to turn up any sign of them. “Shit,” he mutters, “that's not good.”
The next morning with Zygmont brings more ups and downs. With the competition ostensibly just a day away, the team is glued to the weather and the radar-based bird-migration forecast maps. Team members are holding out hope for new migrants to arrive from the south—but they don't want the migrants they've already scouted to bail and continue north. In the spring, birds that habitually travel from their wintering grounds to another location to breed experience what's known as zugunruhe—a German word for migratory restlessness, Zygmont explains. Most land birds migrate at night, navigating by the moon and stars while the predators sleep. “They start one or two hours after dark, and then around 4 A.M. they drop in wherever they are and start feeding,” he says. Intriguingly, this morning Zygmont has seen three birds in the road that didn't move when we drove by, which tells him they're exhausted—perhaps because they've been flying all night.
Zygmont turns his attention to the species they still need buttoned up in the north. He's concerned about getting a Northern Saw-whet Owl, a tiny denizen of the woods. Leaning out the window of his red pickup, Zygmont whistles the bird's breeding call—a string of soft, monotone toots. “This is the only instrument I've ever played,” he says, gesturing toward his mouth. Zygmont and Dugan are the team's vocalization wizzes. They can imitate the songs and calls of more than 100 bird species between them. No Saw-whets respond, but two Barred Owls hoot in the distance. The Saw-whets probably aren't here because Barred Owls prey on them, he surmises.
It's not enough to get one of each species scouted on the route, Zygmont explains, as the frenetic song of a Winter Wren wafts into the car. On game day, he says, “we can't give that Winter Wren more than 30 seconds” to make its presence known. “So we need backups.”
The requirements are even more demanding for some of the harder-to-hear species. With the exception of Bonomo, the youngest of the group, the players are in their 50s and 60s. “Our hearing is dying,” Tripp says. Thus, for species that announce themselves at the highest and lowest frequencies—including the Golden-crowned Kinglet and Ruffed Grouse, respectively—Zygmont needs to find birds that are not only on the route but close enough to the road that everyone can hear them. The 95 percent rule looms large: should the players actually find 200 species on the Big Day, only 10 can be dirty.
At midnight on monday, May 17, the team started its madcap scavenger hunt at an undisclosed location in the north. The team members swore me to secrecy for fear that their strategy could leak to competitors. Unable to join them there, I agreed to meet them at their next stop.
At 1:13 A.M., a black Chevy Suburban rolls into the parking lot of a Kohl's department store. Six men wearing binoculars exit the vehicle and face the storefront, peering up at the mud nests built into its eaves. Cliff Swallows: check. Thirty seconds after they pulled in, the men pile back into their SUV and peel off into the night. They got exactly what they came for, nothing more, nothing less.
Unsure of exactly where we're going next, I follow close behind, wondering what the speed limit is as we fly through the empty streets. I can't lose them—Tripp, who's driving, warned me at the outset that they cannot wait for me to catch up. At the next stops an Eastern Screech-Owl and Eastern Whip-poor-will call right on cue, and a surprise Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Green Heron chime in.
Tripp spontaneously cancels a planned stop at the gas station and heads for the pond where he scouted a pair of Common Gallinules—chickenlike rails with dark feathers and a candy corn bill—an uncommon find. We pull over on the side of the backcountry road and cut the engines. Under the faint light of the moon and stars the men fan out, cupping their hands around their ears to amplify the sounds of any birds. The twangy, plucked-banjo mating calls of green frogs punctuate the silence. Between the pond and the surrounding marsh and the forest beyond, the team stands to pick up several birds here. A distant Barred Owl is the first to sound off, hooting its signature who cooks for you? Then, in response to a recording, the elusive American Bittern makes its extraordinary display call—a series of bellowing gulps, as though it's glugging a gallon of water—eliciting a hushed YES! from the birders. The gallinule cooperates, joined by a Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrow and Virginia Rail.
When the birders wrap up the pond stop, at 2:28 A.M., they have a total of 22 species checked off their list. They're off to a good start—just 178 species and 22 hours to crack 200. I leave them to it and head home before we meet again in the afternoon, inviting them to text me with any highlights or lowlights. A text from Gallo awaits when I get home: word of a bear sighting, followed by a grainy photo of the creature lumbering in front of their car. “FOCUS, GALLO. THIS IS WAR,” I reply, before drifting off to sleep.
The team wraps up the north at 9:36 A.M. with 124 species according to Zygmont, the keeper of the list, including the hard-won meadowlark, grouse and kinglet. “Average but hopeful,” Gallo says of the number. The players are right on schedule. Tripp likes to be on the road headed south by 10 so they can use the driving time to get hawks, which come out around then to ride the rising thermal air currents.
By the time I meet the group around 4 P.M. at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison—a major coastal birding destination in the south—the number is up to 176. The team is spread out on a viewing platform, hunched over spotting scopes. The sky is slightly overcast, the breeze gentle. Although they've been up for 16 hours, the players look bright-eyed and are in good spirits. They add Little Blue Heron, Clapper Rail, Ruddy Turnstone, Seaside Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow to their list. Tripp, seeming more relaxed now that the north is done, rounds the guys up for a group photo. But it isn't long before Bonomo is prodding them to get a move on. They're in his territory now, and they have work to do.
Two hours and several stops later, the team is at 186 species—the number that held the state record for 17 years. The birders have nearly six hours left to find the 14 day birds and four night birds that are still in play, according to Gallo. It sounds doable, but at this point in the competition the new finds are scarce.
The birders have reached Milford Point, a barrier beach at the mouth of the Housatonic River. They lug their scopes up the observation tower's spiral staircase. “Is there a button we can push to get rid of all the Brant?” Bonomo jokes. Between the cloud cover and the glass-calm water, viewing conditions are great, but the small geese are everywhere. “Come on, ducks,” Gallo urges, eager to see the Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon he found here the other day. The ducks have vanished, but Dugan discovers a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Gallo and Bonomo get two Whimbrels, large, leggy shorebirds with long, decurved bills. Scanning a distant flock, Gallo notices a single reddish bird. “I think I have a Red Knot,” he calls out. A cinnamon-breasted sandpiper that is declining rapidly as humans overharvest the horseshoe crabs whose eggs it depends on for food, the Red Knot is a bird the team does not always get on a Big Day. The others quickly shift to see. Bonomo locates the bird in his scope and studies it, trying to rule out other possibilities. It's very plump, a hair larger than a Dunlin, he observes. “It's a knot,” Gallo confirms. “Everyone get that?” When I take my leave of the birders, they are departing Milford Point with 189 species—and a shot at breaking their record.
They nab the wigeon and a Wilson's Warbler at the next two stops, bringing them to 191. At 10:33 P.M. Gallo texts to say they heard a King Rail, a state-endangered bird scouted earlier by honorary team member Phil Rusch—and are heading back north to the finish line. The rail is the last bird they get for their Big Day, number 192.
Later that week, after everyone has caught up on sleep, I gather the birders for pizza and beer to recap the “hotwash,” a name Tripp borrowed from emergency response lingo for their evaluation of the event. The mood is celebratory. Although they did not set any new records, the birders tied their second-highest score—under tough conditions—and raised an estimated $1,300 for the Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton to help support the animals in its care. Thirteen of the species the players had scouted, including the Cape May Warbler and Long-tailed Duck, were no-shows, along with the Common Nighthawk, which they usually happen upon at dusk on a Big Day. And unscouted birds that they often catch migrating on game day did not materialize. “This migration is the worst one in years,” Bonomo says.
Still, “it was a very clean run,” Provencher observes. The route—all 478 miles of it—was tight and efficiently executed, Gallo notes, with only one delay for a Blue-winged Teal, which took 27 minutes to get. What is more, only six of the 192 birds they got were dirty. Bonomo says he is confident that given how well they did in a lousy migration year, 200 is within their grasp.
“One day it will all come together,” Gallo says. “The birds we scouted will all stick, and the migrants will drop in, and all will be right with the world.” Until they decide they need to go for 201.