Aaron and Eleanor set a new Big Day record

Posted on May 25, 2022

On Saturday, May 21st, Georgian Bay Land Trust staff Aaron Rusak and Eleanor Proctor embarked on a Big Day to fundraise for bird conservation and attempt to break the record of 127 species. (A “Big Day” is an attempt by birdwatchers to spot as many bird species as possible within a single 24-hour period in a defined geographic area. Aaron and Eleanor’s Big Day was within the District of Muskoka, which covers Georgian Bay from Port Severn to Twelve Mile Bay, most of the Muskoka Lakes, Huntsville, and Lake of Bays.) Along the way, Aaron and Eleanor stopped at several Georgian Bay Land Trust properties, which provide habitat for a number of bird species at risk including Canada Warbler, Black-crowned Night-heron, Wood Thrush, and Prairie Warbler.

By 9pm, Eleanor and Aaron had sighted 128 bird species, and officially broken the regional Big Day record!

Here is Aaron’s account of the day:

The day started off early, with the intrepid birders leaving at 1 am. We reached our first site around 1:30 am, hoping for Great Horned Owl and several other marsh birds. Although the Great Horned Owl eluded us, we managed to find a Sora and Virginia Rail at the marsh, as well as a Barred Owl hooting in the distance.

Our next stop led us to Torrance Barrens, but with the rapidly darkening sky and thunder and lightning in the distance, there was nothing to be heard there. A quick stop at a nearby marsh yielded both Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Least Bittern, both species being trickier to find. There were also Barred Owls hooting there, as well as several Whip-poor-will. We made our way towards our dawn stop, windows rolled down, stopping at a field where we heard American Woodcock. While listening, we also heard the boom and peent of a Common Nighthawk, as well as more Eastern Whip-poor-will.

The road to our dawn stop was beginning to wake up, so we drove slow for the last few kilometres before it. Along the road, we managed to hear several species, with Eastern Whip-poor-will, American Woodcock, and Wilson’s Snipe all being recorded. We also heard a few different sparrow and warbler species, as well as four different Wood Thrush. That took us to 23 species before our dawn stop, a very good number to be at before it was even light.

The dawn stop is important because it usually yields your largest number of species at any given spot for the day. We had selected a site where I had hoped that Golden-winged Warblers would be, as well as other warbler and vireo species that utilize similar habitat. We arrived at our dawn stop at 5 am, pretty much exactly on time for our plans. This stop yielded 37 species in total, with Pied-billed Grebe and American Bittern rounding out our marsh birds. Other notables were Golden-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Alder Flycatcher, and Northern Waterthrush. We made a stop just down the road from it and picked up our Scarlet Tanager, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. This took the tally up to 65 species as we were leaving our dawn stop, far ahead of where we had hoped to be.

The slow drive back out yielded several more uncommon species, ones that hadn’t been calling on the early drive in. We picked up Mourning Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Barn Swallow, all species that were very good to get this early. We made a quick stop at a crossroads before deciding on our next plan. We were hoping to grab Killdeer at the stop, but had to settle for a Northern Parula and Brown-headed Cowbird instead.

We made the decision to take a different route from our way in, one which would take us out of Muskoka for five minutes, but we figured it was worth the chance, as we’d be visiting new habitat. It ended up being a fantastic choice, as a slow drive down that road yielded one of the best birds that day, a Sedge Wren. We also saw quite a late Ring-necked Duck swimming in a roadside marsh. These species brought our total up to 92 species as we got to a field south of Gravenhurst for our grassland birds.

In the fields, we picked up several swallow species, the most notable being two separate locations for Cliff Swallows. We also saw Trumpeter Swans, Eastern Meadowlark, and Blue-winged Teal in some of the grasslands. Our grassland birding was wrapped up by 9:30 am, and we managed to accumulate a total of 101 species by the time we were leaving. This was a monumental start to the day, with only 27 species needed to break the record.

On our way up to Bracebridge, we stopped at a couple stakeouts for Canada Warbler, Vesper Sparrow, and Pine Siskin. We knew about all these birds prior to starting and they were all still remaining when we got there. A quick stop at Aaron’s house for lunch allowed us to refill water and coffee and get our first Northern Cardinal for the day. That species had eluded Aaron the year prior, so hearing it sing in the backyard was a welcome sound.

The last stop before we headed out to Georgian Bay was the Bracebridge Sewage Lagoons. Despite the name, it’s one of the top places to bird in Muskoka, so it’s always worth a quick check. A slew of shorebirds awaited us there, with Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Killdeer all being present. We also picked up a Red-tailed Hawk soaring high over the treeline. Our total was up to 116 species as we headed out to Georgian Bay!

Honey Harbour was our first stop, with several locations being checked for waterfowl and terns out on the bay. There were no waterfowl to be found, but the usual spots for Marsh Wren and Red-headed Woodpecker turned up both of those birds. We were missing a Red-bellied Woodpecker, but that was just one that got away; we had no time to search for it, as we had to get onto the boat and out to Go Home Bay as soon as possible.

When we arrived in Go Home Bay, we stopped at Eleanor’s cottage to switch to a smaller boat to go out to the outer islands. A quick stop at Aaron’s cottage yielded a Prairie Warbler and allowed us to pick up Aaron’s dad, who would be the designated driver for the remainder of the trip. The water was like glass and easy to take the small boat out in.

Our first stop was Gray Island, one of the Georgian Bay Islands National Park islands, and a key piece of the puzzle to get us to our final total. We needed at least two new shorebirds and a Red-breasted Merganser and Gray Island did not disappoint. The Red-breasted Merganser was found upon arrival and the rocky shores of the island revealed both Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover, species 125 and 126 on our list.

After boating around the shoals near Gray, we made a quick stop to Southeast Wooded Pine Island, one of the Georgian Bay Land Trust properties. We arrived there at 6:30 pm and had very little daylight left to find our last species. A walk of the island produced nothing new, so Aaron broke out the scope and began scanning the treeline, hoping a Bald Eagle might be sighted flying over the water. After about 15 minutes of searching, the white head of a Bald Eagle appeared near Split Rock, marking species 127.

With the record tied, we packed up on Southeast Wooded Pine Island and headed to Long Island where we hoped to get something flying over in the last hours of daylight. We landed at 7:55 pm and walked a little around the island. Most of the birds were already quiet, so we were holding onto hope of a last minute Black-crowned Night-Heron flyover. Unfortunately, no night-heron made an appearance, but as the last light was leaving the sky, a lone Merlin decided to exit Long Island for a different location. Species 128 and record broken! We stayed a bit longer in hopes something else might show up, but with no light left, we decided to try for some late owls. Our plans were foiled by the arrival of rain, and after being awake for 21 hours straight, we decided that we should call it around 10:30 pm.

A Big Day is no small feat, but despite the lack of sleep, it was an amazing day. The day was frantic, but full of exciting finds and neat birds. Ending the day on Georgian Bay was incredible and breaking the record while enjoy the sunset off Long Island will be an experience not soon forgotten. A huge thank you goes out to all our donors, supporters, and followers, whose engagement kept us energized, as well as Jim Rusak for chauffeuring Aaron and Eleanor around Go Home Bay for the better part of an afternoon and evening. The support we received is fantastic, and we’re already looking forward to next year!

A full trip report for the day can be found here: https://ebird.org/tripreport/57769.