300 – A Delaware Big Year Challenge

Alan received a B.A. in Biology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2008. He has since contributed to a variety of research projects, spanning from the Arctic to tropical South America. He is currently a Master’s student at Delaware State University, focusing on how climate change may affect the ecological functioning of barrier island ecosystems as globally important avian stopover sites. His research is being conducted in the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, Florida. Check out his travel blog at goodbykneidel.blogspot.com

It’s 4 a.m. on December 19th, 2013 in Newark, Delaware, one day before I return to Charlotte for the holidays.

My alarm strikes. In rapid succession I don my arctic clothing and go through a fixed action pattern of preparation – food, bathroom, assimilation of gear. I’m done in ten minutes. My housemate Tim Schreckengost uses my commotion as an opportunity to wake up early as well, and I stumble into him in the front hallway. In the darkness we give each other a chest bump and a mutual “YEAH BOY!” That’s it. I’m out the door.


In a state of focused intensity I drive through the darkness in silence. Gliding through intersections, soaking up the heat as it pours out through the vents, there’s no need for music, no need for caffeine… I am buzzing in anticipation.

For the third morning in a row, I am commuting southward to some isolated forest thickets in Kent County. After an hour, I pull off on the shoulder of a narrow farm road to stand still and silent, ears directed towards the forest. The sky is clear, the moon is full, and the slightest breeze is rolling across the cornfields, rustling the few remaining leaves. Other than the distant farmhouse light, I am alone.

My quarry? To hear the calls of Long-eared and Northern Saw-whet Owls. The past two days, I’ve been thwarted by the throaty yawps of Red Foxes and a myriad of more common species: Barred, Great Horned, Barn, and Screech. Today is no different. A fox barks, a pair of Great Horns duet in the distance.

Striking out at the first two spots, time is running short. Hope clings to my final destination, sitting still on a path between two forest patches. A rooster crows in the distance, voices stir in a nearby house. A Barn Owl flushes. A single toot and whine from the densest thicket. At last. My 300th and final bird species recorded in Delaware in 2013. Northern Saw-whet Owl.


It wasn’t until mid-year 2013 that I set my goal at 300 species for Delaware. Having never been to Delaware before January, I didn’t really know what to expect. Growing up in North Carolina, I didn’t care too much about state lists. There, if I wanted to add a bird to my state list I might have to drive eight hours for it. Sorry, but I have never done that and I never will. But, as I began to realize this year, Delaware is different. If I was ever going to compile an impressive state year list, Delaware was the state to do it in.

But why 300? It’s not a record (DE big year record is ~317)… but it’s a big, round, rarely-achieved number. It rolls off the tongue, evoking images of King Leonidas and All-Star batting averages. A worthy challenge.

Before long, the compulsion had set in. Other personal interests were thrown to the wayside as I spurned friends and bailed on parties, all in favor of ridiculous birding schedules and e-bird monitoring. I was in full-on bird mode, gaining fulfillment, thrill, and solace from the hunt.


But enough of that. Let’s get back to another moment that encapsulates what it is all about.

On September 8th, a White-faced Ibis was found and photographed at the north end of Shearness Pool in Bombay Hook NWR. I first read this report while lying on my couch watching football. In a moment of complete delusion, I decided not to go. I gambled, speculating that there was a reasonable chance that the bird would stick for a few days, associating with the regular, easy-to-find flock of Glossies.

Operation relocate White-faced Ibis began smoothly on the 9th.  On my way down to class in Dover, I rendezvoused with Tim Schreckengost and Ben Zyla along the Shearness Pool causeway. As expected, there was a large congregation of wading birds at the north end of the pool by the drainage pipe. Partially obscured by the phragmites, it took some patience to find an angle to scope the birds. With time, I had a few Plegadis ibis to pick through. Excellent. Glossy. Glossy. Glossy. DERP! Nothing matched. We stalked up and down the road, checking every ibis that flew in. Frustration mounted. Sweat poured. Dust flew. Bugs assaulted. Defeat. The lesson learned? Strike while the iron’s hot.

Just at that moment, Tim and I simultaneously heard an incoming text message alert – a coincidence that could only mean one thing: DELAWARE RARE BIRD ALERT. Scrambling to our phones, we read that a Crested Caracara had just been seen foraging on a carcass on Broadkill Beach Road in Sussex County, about an hour away. It took all of one second of smirks and grins before our cars peeled out in a cliché cloud of dust.

A brief side note: A Crested Caracara had also been observed in Delaware during March 2013. Seen by many over a six-day period, it was a classic case of bad timing as I was in Jamaica the entire time. Tim had missed it as well, having just left for a field season in the southwest.

This was full-on redemption mode: renewed hope for a species long thought lost.

Tim, Ben, and I arrived in record time on Broadkill Beach Road, following the spurious details left by the original observer – all we knew was that there was a carcass and a Crested Caracara.

We drove up and down the dead-end road but saw no carcass, no birds, nothing. We continued the search, driven onward by the nearly palpable presence of a mega-rarity, the early-September heat continuing to take its toll. After an hour, reality finally set in. We were not going to find the bird.

Later, we found out that bird was seen by a man on top of a house under construction, and he saw the bird while looking down into the marsh. The devil is in the details. Another big year mantra.

September 9th was a big-time crash and burn: lots of chasing and nothing to show for it. This becomes a familiar theme in a big year, when time after time you push the envelope in search of the unlikely. The bottom line? A big year teaches you as much about handling failure as celebrating success. In the words of Aaliyah: if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.


To the best of my knowledge, these are the 32 species recorded in Delaware in 2013 that I missed. I’ve lumped them into a few categories to sort it all out.

One-day wonders: 13 — Common Redpoll, Northern Lapwing, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Sandwich Tern, Sabine’s Gull, Mississippi Kite, Rough-legged Hawk, Western Kingbird, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Evening Grosbeak, Anhinga, White-faced Ibis

Pelagic: 8 — Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, Atlantic Puffin, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater

Expected to Find but Missed: 4 — Gull-billed Tern, Long-eared Owl, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Black-capped Chickadee

Chased and Failed: 3 — Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Western Grebe, Crested Caracara

Lack of effort: 2 — Black Rail, Eurasian Collared-Dove

I wasn’t around: 1– Rufous Hummingbird

Crapshoot: 1 — Ring-necked Pheasant (who knows if these are countable anyways)

No need to dwell on the birds I missed, however. I find it much more enjoyable to think fondly upon the many spectacles along the way: 10s of thousands of shorebirds covering the Delaware Bay shoreline in spring, the dawn chorus of songbirds in White Clay Creek State Park in early summer, the record-breaking fall hawk watch season at Ashland, the spectacular fall songbird migration at Middle Run Natural Area, the onslaught of Snowy Owls, and of course my December limp to the finish: Sedge Wren, Northern Goshawk, Sandhill Crane, and Northern Saw-whet Owl.

Here are some highlights of the year…

Picking through the hordes of shorebirds at Bombay Hook, Taj Schottland and I picked out this Ruff. A self-found lifer is always going to be a highlight!

The afternoon of March 29th yielded a report of Northern Lapwing from Bombay Hook. Taj Schottland and I bee-lined down the next morning. Though the lapwing was not relocated, we found consolation in picking out this Ruff in Raymond Pool. A self-found lifer is always going to be a highlight! Year bird #155. Digiscoped by Taj Schottland.


Nothing is more rewarding than finding a special bird in your local patch. Nightly strolls around Newark Reservoir this spring eventually turned up a rarity, with this female Red-necked Phalarope showing up on May 17th. Year bird #230.

I set out on October 16th with the expressed goal of finding Clay-colored Sparrow. I hit the jackpot, finding three at Prime Hook HQ. Year bird #282.

I set out on October 16th with the expressed goal of finding Clay-colored Sparrow. I hit the jackpot, finding three at Prime Hook HQ. Year bird #282.

An unexpected member of a big mixed species flock at Cape Henlopen in November.

Lark Sparrow was  an unexpected member of a big mixed species flock at Cape Henlopen on November 16th. Year bird #290.


Right place, right time on Prime Hook Beach Road. This Northern Goshawk entered and exited my life in a matter of moments on December 13th. I actually spent the entire day looking for Rough-legged Hawks, which I never found. Fair trade in my book. Year bird #298.

and for every highlight, there’s just as many lowlights…


Gull-billed Terns were reported sporadically during the late summer months. I spent many a tortuous afternoon from Ted Harvey to Prime Hook staring through the heat waves at distant tern flocks, never to be rewarded. Tim, however, scored this GBTE flying over Broadkill Beach Road in Prime Hook on Aug 25. Oh, the fickle ways of birding. Photo by Tim Schreckengost.


Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were reported for a few week stretch in mid-July in Sussex County, frequenting golf courses. Despite two impassioned searches in the driving rain, I came up empty. The one day I bailed on joining Tim for the hunt, he scored this killer shot. Such is life.