One of the things I love most about birding is how challenging it can be. Note that I didn’t say, how challenging birding is. Because the challenge is what you make it.
“Big” birding is taking the rather passive (and thoroughly enjoyable!) day of birding and expanding or contracting it to add a competitive challenge.
Big Year is trying to see as many species in a pre-defined geographical area as possible, within one calendar year. The challenges of a Big Year can include financing the endeavor, and simply keeping going. To do well in a Big Year means chasing every rarity.
Big Sit is trying to see as many species as possible in one day, while sitting in one spot. The biggest challenge of a Big Sit is that they often turn into parties.
Big Month is the same as Big Year, but…
Which of course, brings us to Big Day.
Big Day is a different kind of challenge all together. It’s fast-paced, requires a different mindset, and, it’s played as a team (usually). Big Day birding can be as frustrating as it is exciting. There’s no time for photography (unless it’s a rarity that needs documenting), no time for study and no time for exploration. Three things that—truth be told—are the most rewarding aspects of birding. And as you’ll see if you click some of the links below, leading to the tales of some of these Big Days, stamina is just as important as birding skills.
But that doesn’t mean doing a big day isn’t rewarding.
Bird-a-thons, such as the World Series of Birding, and the Great Texas Birding Classic, have been popular for a long time. Big Day events such as these are often used to drive fundraising for conservation. Cornell’s Big Day team, the Sapsuckers, have taken that to a whole new level, competing in Big Day challenges in several countries, and setting high bars for themselves. They recently completed a route they called “El Gigante”—across southern Arizona and California—to see if they could hit 300 species in one day. They fell 25 short … this time.
That’s the thing about doing a big day. You can’t just go out there and do it. It takes weeks, if not months or years of planning, scouting and testing. At least at the state level (or higher, as the Sapsuckers attempt).
In the past 4 years or so, I’ve run about 40 Big Days with my buddy Jeff Skrentny. Our goals have shifted, from setting records for just the northern part of our home state of Illinois, to achieving high counts for every month at the state level … and ultimately, setting the all-time state record.
It took all of those 4 years to perfect a route that would beat the record of 184 species set on May 17, 1997. We wound up with 191 species last year, on May 15—just squeaking past another team trying for the same goal of beating 184. That team came in at 187 a week before our attempt. On May 14 this year, our team is at it again. This time, we’ll be trying to see 200 or more species in one day in Illinois.
To put it in perspective, the 1997 record stood for 16 years with no team getting past the 170s (and yes, there was an attempt almost every year). In Texas, where the biggest of Big Days have taken place so far, the record had been hovering around the 260s for some time, but then the Sapsuckers came along with finely tuned route that took them 2 years to perfect, and netted 294 species on April 25, 2012.
By scouting, running and testing the route …and waiting for the day, a new record was set.
Back in Illinois, here’s what our route for May 14 looks like:
We’ll cover over 850 miles in a 24-hour period. Hopefully, if our route performs like it did last year, we’ll clear the 100-species mark by 6:30 am. But it all depends on the weather, and shifting weather patterns can move the day we make the run. You can’t really plan a Big Day far in advance. You have to go when the weather sets things up for you. High winds are a day-killer. Too much rain, you might as well stay home. But in the days ahead, a slow-moving front is expected to move east past our route on Tuesday, ending a 3 day rainy spell. Wednesday is predicted to be relatively calm, clear and with a nearly full moon. Birds should be singing everywhere.
Which brings me to Larkwire. I’ve written about this smartphone app before, and it is crucial for anyone wishing to learn bird songs. It really is that good. I’ll be spending a few hours with Larkwire Master Birder, honing my memory of warbler songs, especially. Picking out songs is absolutely key … and every team should have a ringer where that’s concerned. Ours is a very talented young man, Adam, who can pick out a Blue-winged Warbler while bombing down a gravel back road at 30mph.
But your Big Day doesn’t have to be that ambitious to be fun and worthwhile. Remember: as far as area is concerned, you set the rules. You can do a Big Day in a city park, county forest preserve, National Wildlife Refuge, National or Provincial Park, one county in a state or province… whatever suits your fancy.
Just like with the routes I’ve described already, you have to scout and plan. You have to know where the birds are ahead of time. Or at least as many of them as possible. Our Big Day route has about 140 breeding species, and we’ll be scouting them all. Learning where the hard-to-get species have set up territory. Picking the ones that are closest to the roads. Last year we saw 191 species in one day, and never ventured more than about 30 yards from the vehicle.
The Sapsuckers will no doubt take what they learned on May 3, running their “El Gigante” route, and will make another attempt at 300 next year. I have no doubt that they’ll make it—if not next year, the year after.
Our quest for 200 in one day in Illinois is coming up. You can follow along with us at the hashtag #ILBigDay on Twitter and Facebook.