I like Big Days. I’ve been doing them for as long as I’ve been birding. And that’s a bit of a problem—because I’ve been birding for 35 years. You see, I’m the sort of person who likes to mix things up. I don’t like doing the same thing, year after year after year.
But I like Big Days. I hope I’m still doing Big Days 35 years hence. Just not the same way I used to do them.
A couple years ago, in an effort to mix things up, I did a Bare Naked Big Walk. I broke all the “rules”: I counted a hybrid flicker, two warbling vireo subspecies, and a rooster. I didn’t drive; I didn’t ride the bus; I didn’t even ride a bike. I didn’t even use binoculars. The whole 16-hour, 25-mile walk, uphill, was glorious, the most fun I’d had birding in a long, long time.
As much fun as I had that long, hot day two years ago, I haven’t reattempted a Bare Naked Big Walk. What would be the point? Been there, done that.
A couple days ago, eight companions and I did a Big Day. That’s right, nine of us, in three cars: Call it the Ninety-five Percent–Rule nightmare. Rules? Check this out: Our Big Day was to start at sunset, Saturday, May 23, and end at sunrise, Sunday, May 24. Scandal! Perfidy! A Big Day spanning parts of two calendar days? You might as well not capitalize bird names, or start counting heard-only birds.
Folks, welcome to The Big Night—as far as I know, the first one ever attempted.
We were to start at 8:16 pm, local sunset. I asked my teammates to show up around 7:30 pm for some last-minute scouting. That’s right, 46 minutes of scouting, not the requisite days or weeks typical of “normal” Big Days.
At 7:31 pm, it started to drizzle. At 7:32 pm, it started to rain. At 7:33 pm, we saw the first of several spectacular cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes. That’s the safe kind of lightning, right?—except that, up in the high country of western Boulder County, Colorado, we were in the clouds. At 7:34 pm, hail. By 7:35 pm, the hail was seriously piling up. This was going to be interesting.
Fast forward to 8:16 pm. The rain was letting up, but we were enveloped in clouds and humidity. We were at a spot on the trail-cum-creek where the tall conifers were particularly dense. It seemed like an hour after sunset.
What would the first bird be? It was a let-down, a seen-only American robin, right at 8:16 pm. For four minutes, nothing. Then the shrill wing-trilling of a broad-tailed hummingbird at 8:20 pm. Now that’s a cool bird for a Big Night. We heard it or another again, then nothing till 8:28 pm, when we heard the sharp cheep! notes of a robin. Whew. We were able to remove the seen-only asterisk from our entry for Turdus migratorius.
The precipitation resumed, a very fine “wintry mix,” I believe it is called. Or, if detected by an automated sensor, “unknown precipitation type.” Then the precip just as suddenly ended, and the clouds started to lift. Twenty minutes into our Big Night now, my companions and I already were seriously chilled. It’s bad enough to know at sunrise that you’ll be wearing cold, wet sneakers for the rest of the day; it’s brutal to realize that you’ll be doing so all night long.
Enough moaning and groaning. Back to the birds.
At 8:45 pm, our third bird, a female great horned owl hooted weakly a few times. We had to wait well over half an hour for our fourth bird, at 9:25 pm, a cold common poorwill singing u n b e l i e v a b l y . . . s l o w l y . . . p o o r . . . w i l l . . . p o o r . . . w i l l . . . p o o r . . . w i l l . . .
We got back into the cars and drove down Flagstaff Road, where the hail—I’m pretty sure it was hail, and not snow—covered the blacktop in places. Three stops for owling produced absolutely nothing.
It was time to move on, to the Fowler Trail, which provides access to the steep foothills of the Rockies a few miles south of where we had started. Even with all the traffic in Boulder, the drive from Flagstaff to Fowler couldn’t have been fifteen minutes. But what a difference!
When we got out of the cars at the trailhead, the skies had cleared, the wind was picking up a bit, and…We. Were. Freezing.
But a yellow-breasted chat was going off in the distance, bird #5 at 10:50 pm, and our spirits were lifted. A meteor streaked through the starry sky, and another chat started singing. We commenced a steady hike up, up, up into the foothills. Never did physical exertion feel better. Oh, we had a little episode where half the group went left, the wrong way, at a fork in the trail. Finding lost birders in the dark can take a while, we discovered.
That chats were going like crazy. We heard at least seven of them—and no other birds at all—the whole two-plus hours we birded the Fowler Trail. One bird species in two hours would be the ruin of any “normal” Big Day, but our time spent up there was unforgettable: cold but brilliant, with a whiff of ponderosa pine in the air, and the waxwing crescent moon dropping slowly into a steep canyon beyond. And the chats. They were mesmerizing. We couldn’t pull ourselves away from them. Listen to this recording I made of one of them, at 11:47 pm:
When we came upon this bird again at 12:18 am, he was even more amped up. You may wish to turn down the volume before you press play:
As you listen, try to anticipate the next song phrase. It’s impossible! Technically, the yellow-breasted chat sings a song whose phrases are characterized by “infinite variety.” More than any bird I can think of, chats sound like they’re having fun. They’re clowns, they’re crackups.
If the author of Job were alive today in North America, he would rewrite Chapter 39 to be a tribute to Icteria virens. The antics of the yellow-breasted chat perfectly embody what is intended in that exuberant and exultant, wonderfully defiant, screw-the-rules passage from Job.
I think we could have spent the whole night up there, and I’m in danger of doing the same thing in this recap. Let’s move on.
Two stops along Cherryvale Road, a mile or so east of the base of the foothills, featured deafening western chorus frogs and Woodhouse toads—and no birds. Those frogs and toads are said to be poikilothermic, but I’m skeptical. It was so cold, and they were so animated.
Next, at Sombrero Marsh, we doubled our checklist in a span of 16 minutes: gadwall (#6, 1:21 am), American coot (#7, 1:25 am), Virginia rail (#8, 1:28 am), mallard (#9, 1:36 am), and killdeer (#10, 1:37 am).
For sure, the showstoppers at Sombrero were the chat-like gadwalls. Chat-like gadwalls? Come again? Perhaps not if you can see them. Perhaps not by day. But their personality profiles are the same, as any Big Night birder will tell you. The whole time we were at Sombrero, the gadwalls—maybe two or three or them, maybe 20 or 30, who knows—said kvunk, randomly and delightfully. We called them Scandinavian mallards. The gadwalls at Sombrero, like the chats at Fowler, were insouciant and arresting.
From Sombrero, we jaunted over to the Legion Park Overlook, where I guaranteed my teammates the following: Aechmophorus grebes and humans having, ah, discreet encounters. We heard no grebes, and we saw no humans. On to South Teller Farms.
South Teller gave us five more birds: Canada goose (#11, 2:09 am), pied-billed grebe (#12, 2:25 am), western meadowlark (#13, 2:26 am), spotted sandpiper (#14, 3:10 am), and sora (#15, 3:26 am). I have to give a shout-out to the western meadowlark—not the single bird that sang just once at 2:26 am, but rather the berserk chorus, a sort of avian flash mob, that went off about 15 minutes later. I have no idea what precipitated the ruckus. One meadowlark, then another, then another. And not just songs (“Yes, Boulder is beautiful!”), but also flight calls, tinny vheehn! notes. It went on like that for a minute, then ceased completely. This wasn’t the beginning of the dawn chorus. This was just some sort of spontaneous middle-of-the-night celebration, as if in response to the Giants beating the Dodgers or something.
Astronomical dawn (Google it, it’s cool) began at 3:44 am on Sunday morning, at which time we found ourselves at Walden Ponds, where the boardwalk through the marsh was coated in a treacherous patina of ice. At Walden we got a wildly declaiming gray catbird (#16, 3:55 am), followed by a subdued song sparrow (#17, 3:59 am). The beginning of the dawn chorus? Not so fast: one or two Swainson thrushes (#18, 4:10 am), nocturnal migrants on passage. Along with chanting nightjars and hooting owls, the flight calls of migrating thrushes define the experience of birding at night. Next up: a red-winged blackbird (#19, 4:12 am), then no new birds for a full half-hour.
At 4:43 am, 15 minutes into nautical dawn (Google it), the tree swallows (#20) were twittering aloft, and the dawn chorus was legitimately kicking into gear. A Bullock oriole (#21) let loose at 4:45 am, followed by a yellow warbler (#22, 4:47 am) and a mourning dove (#23, 4:50 am). At 5:02 am, we got #24, a flock of nine seen-only American white pelicans roosting on the pond by the parking area. (A brief digression: I have heard the sound of soaring pelicans cutting the air, and I have felt the whoosh of the air as they passed. Heard birds are cool, but actually touching the bird—in the sense of feeling the wind on your skin—is cooler yet.)
For the grand finale, we headed over to Greenlee Preserve, an enchanting mini-hotspot a stone’s throw from my house (and a hot shower, and a warm bed). We arrived at 5:19 am, giving us what I believed to be only 18 minutes to go. The birds came in blazingly fast. We nearly doubled our list: house sparrow (#25, 5:19 am), house finch (#26, 5:19 am), American crow (#27, 5:19 am), common grackle (#28, 5:19 am), violet-green swallow (#29, 5:20 am), house wren (#30, 5:22 am), western wood-pewee (#31, 5:24 am), common yellowthroat (#32, 5:26 am), downy woodpecker (#33, 5:26 am), northern flicker (#34, 5:28 am), seen-only European starling (#35, 5:28 am), barn swallow (#36, 5:32 am), seen-only osprey (#37, 5:34 am), American goldfinch (#38, 5:34 am), seen-only black-crowned night-heron (#39, 5:34 am), dusky flycatcher (#40, 5:34 am), blue jay (#41, 5:35 am), lazuli bunting (#42, 5:35 am), seen-only bald eagle (#43, 5:36 am), brown-headed cowbird (#44, 5:36 am), chipping sparrow (#45, 5:36 am), Eurasian collared-dove (#46, 5:36 am), and clay-colored sparrow (#47, 5:36 am).
It was like the climax of a fireworks display.
And you know how, so often at a fireworks display, a few more go off after the grand finale? Okay, check this out. I was wrong about sunrise. (My phone had died a couple hours earlier, and I was going by memory.) Sunrise was at 5:39 am, not 5:37 am. So I’m sure a great blue heron (splendidly vocalizing as it flew over) and a calling yellow-rumped warbler, heard seconds after the clock struck 5:37 am, made it in under the gun.
And I have to confess something. Back at South Teller Farms, I had heard a Wilson snipe flushing. So call that an even 50 species for our Big Night? I have a problem with that. You see, nobody else heard the bird. We all wanted to hear the spooky winnowing of the snipe. We all wanted to hear it together. This wasn’t a 95%-rule Big Day. This was a 100% Big Night.
And you know what? I’m not going to count the great blue heron and yellow-rumped warbler, either. I want 47 for two reasons. First, I think it’s slick that we started with a broad-tailed hummingbird, that quintessential sprite of the Rockies, and ended with a clay-colored sparrow, so emblematic of the Midwestern avifauna that characterizes the eastern stretches of Boulder County. Broad-tailed and clay-colored, alpha and omega. Second, 47 is a prime number. Birders like milestones, and I like mine to be prime numbers. Maybe I’ll one day get to 797 in the ABA Area.
Epilogue: The Little Run
The next morning, Memorial Day, May 25, my daughter and I ran the Bolder Boulder, the fifth largest road race in the world. Needless to say, the Bolder Boulder is all about complying with the rules. So is eBird. During the course of the Bolder Boulder, Hannah and I compiled an eBird-compliant checklist: traveling count, 10.00 kilometers, 57 minutes. If eBird allowed greater precision, I could have entered 57 minutes, 0 seconds, 850 milliseconds. (Hannah: 57:01:00.)
The two of us have been birding—I mean, running—the Bolder Boulder together since Hannah was seven, and this was our best finish by far: 21 species + 2 other taxa, including turkey vulture, broad-tailed hummingbird, common raven, violet-green swallow, western tanager, and a locally rare northern parula.
It’s funny, I delight in bending the rules on Big Days, yet I’m a stickler to the point of frankly annoying fastidiousness when it comes to following the rules for an eBird-compliant traveling count on the Bolder Boulder. Why is that? How is it that I’m able to switch so freely from one mindset to the other?
I’ll have a provisional answer to that question in a moment. First, one last anecdote.
Epilogue, Take 2: The Bug Walk
Tuesday, May 26. Back to work, back to school. Indeed, back to school for me, as today was the occasion of the annual insect field trip for the second graders at Lafayette Elementary School. My job: to lead nearly 100 seven- and eight-year-olds in a quest for as many insects as possible. Each pupil got a Ziploc bag, and off we went. The kids found centipedes and millipedes, slugs and snails, arachnids and isopods, even frogs and a snake. Hey! Those aren’t insects! They don’t “count.” They’re “against the rules.” We also found bees, wasps, aphids, earwigs, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, dragonfly larvae, beetles of every sort, cabbage white butterflies, an excellent robber fly, and awesome sphinx moth caterpillars. Despite the diversity of form and function, the preceding are all insects. They “count.”
I suspect the students will long remember the snake and the frogs. I hope they’ll remember some of the ecological lessons: why stinkbugs “stink,” how robber flies catch their prey, and what the sphinx moth caterpillars will turn into. My real hope, though, is that they’ll remember the distinction between insects and non-insect invertebrates. For insects: head, thorax, abdomen; six legs; zero, two, or four wings; compound eyes and antennae; and, strangely enough, we talked about ampullas. For non-insect invertebrates: different combinations of body parts. Basically, I hope I imparted to the students a set of rules for distinguishing an insect from a non-insect.
I couldn’t help but notice some birds while we were on the insect scavenger hunt: a soaring Swainson hawk, a singing northern waterthrush (it sounds like laser tag, according to one of the students), a couple cedar waxwings, an olive-sided flycatcher atop a snag, and an African collared-dove. I submitted an eBird checklist for our time afield: 35 species, one of which was the African collared-dove, Streptopelia roseogrisea.
The African collared-dove counts for my eBird life list. But I’m not so sure it counts for my ABA life list. (Could we get some help on this one from the ABA’s Recording Standards & Ethics Committee?) Let’s assume it doesn’t count. That means it’s on one list (eBird) but not on another (ABA). In other instances, there’s no ambiguity at all: The Red-masked parakeet definitely counts for eBird, but most assuredly does not for ABA. Thus: Cedar waxwings clearly count, red-masked parakeets both count and don’t count, and African collared-doves may or may not count.
What’s a stickler for the rules to do?
The Final Word
(Did you catch that? I’ve just penned two epilogues. Are you allowed to do that? Is it against the rules? Are you allowed to start a new section with a paragraph entirely in parentheses?)
ABA President Jeffrey A. Gordon, writing in the forthcoming June 2015 Birding, titles his “Birding Together” column in the form of a question: “Does Birding Need Rules At All?” His answer is yes, but it’s a surprising, qualified yes. We all need rules, according to Gordon. We who follow the rules, or, worse, enforce the rules, “need” rules in our lives. But check this out: We who break the rules, or, better, depose the rules, just the same “need” rules in our lives.
Birding has its various rules, but as Gordon states in his column, those rules are better thought of as sliding scales. And the reality, according to Gordon, is that “most birders slide up and down on each scale, sometimes even covering both ends.” So it is for me, at least on my good days.
By all means, know the rules. Heard-only birds count, according to the ABA, and so, for that matter, do seen-only birds. Names of animal species (cheetah, dog, gypsy moth, hermit thrush) are not capitalized, according to anybody with an understanding of linguistic semiotics. Road races and eBird checklists have their rules. Spiders and snakes aren’t insects. And the rules for counting the African collared-dove require some clarity.
Know all those things, but don’t let them get in the way of getting the most out of all the wonders and blessings in the world around us. You don’t want to count a heard-only black rail?—that’s fine. Do you insist on hearing a robin on a Big Night?—me too. Are you more comfortable capitalizing bird names than not?—go for it. Do you wear your Darth Vader costume, or maybe even compile an eBird checklist, when you run a road race?—I’m happy for you. Speaking of eBird, do you enter eBird checklists with “X” counts instead of actual integer values?—I try not to, but I accept that sometimes you have to. On an insect scavenger hunt, would you dis a second-grader’s garter snake or western chorus frog?—do yourself a favor, don’t go there. And as to the African collared-dove singing right now in the hybrid maple in my front yard: Is that cool, or what!
Emerson wasn’t the first to see it, but I think he saw it more clearly than anyone before or since:
“Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize them, and make the men of routine, the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him.”
—from Essays: First Series (1841)
Below: What are the “rules” for engaging, enjoying, and appreciating this African collared-dove?