On October 17, 2020 eBird celebrated its third annual October Global Big Day. Normally these Big Day events are held in May, but in 2018 the Cornell Lab of Ornithology decided it couldn’t wait a full year to do another one, and held the first annual October Big Day later that year. Birders recorded a total of 6,331 species across the world on the first October Big Day, which is held from midnight to midnight in each birder’s time zone. The second October Big Day in 2019 saw more than 20,000 eBirders tallying a total of 6,709 species, and so in 2020, eBird aimed to have more than 25,000 people submit eBird checklists on October 17.
I’ve gone out on previous Big Days and submitted my sightings, but never really made it a personal big day. That changed this year, although when I went out first thing in the morning I didn’t really plan to do a big day – my main goal was to visit Shirley’s Bay and Andrew Haydon Park to look for a few species I was missing this year, with a stop in at Jack Pine Trail to look for sparrows. I had actually just reached my goal of 200 species in Ottawa two days earlier with the additions of Red-breasted Merganser, Surf Scoter and Common Loon, but I was still missing birds like Horned Grebe, Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter and Long-tailed Duck.
I started the day counting the birds in my yard, then headed over to Stony Swamp. By the time I left Jack Pine Trail, I was up to 23 species for the day, the most noteworthy one being a Purple Finch – only because most have already the region for the winter.
I found nine new species at Andrew Haydon Park for my October big day – a Great Egret was still present in the western bay, and both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers were swimming on the river. Songbirds included Pine Siskin, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Best of all, there were two scoter species present on the river! One was showing its distinctive white wing patch, making it obvious which species it was.
Five other scoters were present, and they were all female/juvenile types, with dark brown bodies, black bills and two patches of white on the face. Both White-winged and Surf Scoters show this pair of white spots on the face, making it hard to distinguish them – especially from a distance, as these sea ducks often stay out in the middle of the river. Fortunately after reviewing my photos and the pertinent field marks of each, I was able to identify both species in my images.
The below image shows (and please excuse the composition; it was cropped from the above image and shows the birds at the extreme right edge of the original photo) a White-winged Scoter in the foreground and a Surf Scoter in the background. There are three field marks visible that help to separate these two species:
- The shape of the head and bill. Note that the Surf Scoter in the back seems to have a larger, thicker bill. Its forehead slopes down to the bill; there does not appear to be a change in angle where the bill meets the head, giving the Surf Scoter’s head and bill a wedge-shaped appearance similar to that of a Canvasback. In comparison, the White-winged Scoter’s bill does not appear as thick of the base, and a noticeable angle forms where the more vertical forehead meets the sloping bill.
- The shape of the anterior white spot. In the Surf Scoter, the anterior white patch comes into contact with the base of the bill where it forms a distinct vertical edge. The anterior white patch in the White-winged Scoter is more diffuse, with no distinct edge, and does not appear to meet the bill.
- The colouration of the head. White-winged Scoters have a uniformly dark head, while Surf Scoters have a dark cap and a distinct pale brown cheek. Even from a distance this capped appearance should be visible in good light.
Unfortunately I did not get a photo showing all six scoters, but I was able to identify three White-winged and one Surf Scoter among the group.
After leaving Andrew Haydon Park I headed over to the boat launch at Shirley’s Bay. Except for a single cormorant flying up the river there were no waterfowl at all on the river, so I took a walk around the area to look for songbirds. There were plenty of sparrows in the brushy areas, and I added American Tree Sparrow to the day’s list, along with Hairy Woodpecker and Common Raven. That brought me up to 37 species.
I went home for lunch, and was thinking about going back out to find three more species for the day when I received a message from Sophie: they’d seen a Cackling Goose and a Wilson’s Snipe at the storm water pond! I headed over as soon as I was done eating, but couldn’t find either of those species. However, I managed to add two heron species, both yellowlegs, and some Hooded Mergansers which brought my day’s list up to 42.
I was beginning to think 50 species might just be possible, especially if I took a quick drive over to the Richmond Sewage Lagoons and the Moodie Drive quarry. I got lucky at the quarry and found a Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk and three new gulls for my list – including an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull swimming on the water! American Pipits at both Trail Road and the Richmond lagoons brought my list up to 48 species, while a Pectoral Sandpiper was species no. 49. I only needed one more species to reach 50 and I had no idea where to find another one this late in the afternoon so I started driving home. Then I saw not one, but two Northern Harriers flying in the fields along Eagleson Road!
Reaching 50 species on a single day in October was not a goal I particularly had in mind when I got up this morning; however, once I saw how easy it was to reach 30 species, then 40, I decided to continue. I don’t often set goals for myself such as trying to find a particular number of species in a single day – a couple of minor health issues make it difficult to commit to a full day’s outing in advance. However, I think I would definitely like to try this again next year, and will definitely be planning a more strategic route to maximize the number of species seen.
And while I might not have contributed any unique sightings to eBird’s Big Day, altogether over 32,000 participants recorded a total of 7,116 species on eBird, which breaks not only the previous year’s October Big Day record, but also the world record for the most species reported in a single day!
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