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Open Mic: A New World Big Day Record – 354 Species!

The LSU Peru Big Day team has broken the world record for the most species observed in a single day! Their total of 354 ABA-countable species breaks the previous record by Robinson and Parker set in 1982 (as well as a non-ABA-recognized total of 342 set in Kenya). Below is a report on their effort with additional details. This was an effort to raise support and funds for research on Neotropical birds. You can find out more about the LSU Museum of Natural Science research program and donate to the cause at lsubigday.org.

 –=====–

 At midnight, at the inception of 24 incredibly intense hours of birding, we were standing outside the eccentric Puerto Pumas hotel in Pomacochas, Peru waiting for a tiny brown bird called a Baron’s Spinetail to call. We were unable to rouse it, perhaps not surprisingly given the hour. We raced down to the lake below town, where calling Plumbeous Rails became the first bird of the day. After hearing a few more water birds and spotlighting some sleepy Mitred Parakeets, we wound our way from the dry valley around Pomacochas up into the humid mountains of Abra Patricia. Moonlight formed a ring in a thin veil of high clouds overhead.

At Abra Patricia, we checked off night birds one-by-one – the bizarre Long-whiskered Owlet, the elegantly plumed Lyre-tailed Nightjar, and other species of the high-elevation cloud forests. At dawn we were at the Owlet Lodge, where we listened to dawn-singing Trilling Tapaculos and Chestnut Antpittas while watching the hummingbirds making their first visits to the lodge’s feeders. Before the sun was even up, we were jogging down the road from Abra Patricia, picking up birds calling in the valley below and sorting through mixed-species flocks. Dan adeptly picked out Tangara tanagers by their flight calls as they moved between trees, and Glenn spotted a Variable Hawk flying over a distant peak, an unusual bird here away from its typical grassland habitat. Royal Sunangel, Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant, and Bar-winged Wood-Wren were cooperative in the stunted forest around Alto Nieva, and we were feeling pretty good with our total of 91 species as we dropped out of the high elevations around the pass and into subtropical forest sloping down toward the Mayo Valley.

A map of the approximate route taken by the big day team.

A map of the approximate route taken by the big day team.

We began to exchange fearful murmurs, however, as the high clouds of the early morning began to dissipate with the rising sun. We managed to find the “mega-flock”, a huge mixed-species flock in the upper subtropical zone. This single flock added thirty-three species to our list! After that, however, the forest started to become quiet except for the increasing din of insect noise, and our backs started to drip with sweat as the heat became more intense. This was not good news for birding. We eked out a few more species in the subtropical zone, but arrived at the white sand forest of Aguas Verdes just before 11 am to find it completely dead. We missed almost every single target species here, excepting a distant Zimmer´s Antbird and some hummingbirds at the feeders. We did a quick tally and estimated we had about 190 species, but if this sun and heat continued through the afternoon in the Mayo Valley, we wouldn`t have a shot at the record. There was talk of calling off the big day.

These thoughts quickly dissipated after we refueled with bread, cheese, and Gatorade, however, and clouds began to roll in as we raced across the floor of the Mayo Valley. With the cooling shade from the clouds, activity was high when we arrived in the rice country surrounding Rioja. The open habitats here facilitated very fast and efficient birding, and we quickly racked up species, including the retiring Pale-eyed Blackbird, Black-billed Seed-Finch and localized Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch. The shorebird fields that we had scouted intensively in the week prior produced as well, with Stilt Sandpipers and Wilson´s Phalaropes among other northern migrant species. We found Masked Ducks in their preferred pool, but we were now nearly 20 minutes behind schedule and knew we would have to sacrifice time somewhere.

The last stage of the day involved searching a series of sites with more forested habitats. At Waqanki Lodge we racked up some hummingbirds at the feeders and then raced up into the forest. We found Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher, an uncommon species we had failed to locate during scouting, and resisted the urge to spend time trying to get good looks or photos. We found a Cerulean Warbler found during scouting, but decided not to go further into the forest for Fiery-throated Fruiteater and Spot-winged Antbird, which saved us ten minutes or so. We made a long, rough drive to a forest-fringed oxbow lake. We added some species from the near shore, but flooding from the recent rains prevented us from hiking a trail into the forest. This certainly cost us some species, but put us back on schedule time-wise for our visit to Morro de Calzada.

We knew we were close to the ABA big day record of Parker and Robinson when we arrived at the cliff-ringed peak of Morro de Calzada. Their record was 331 species, and a rough tally had us somewhere around 310. We also knew we could get at least ten additional night birds after dark. The last 45 minutes of daylight became critical. We raced down the roads, nearly got our vehicle stuck in wet sand, and sprinted up two trails into forest and scrub. We ticked off species as quickly as possible, trying to get the whole team on each (we were near our limit, per ABA rules, of 5% of species that may be missed by one or more team members). Dusk arrived quickly, birds became silent, and we tallied our additions. 335 species! We had beaten the Parker and Robinson record!

We knew, however, that another record existed, although it is not recognized by the ABA. In 1986, Terry Stevenson, John Fanshawe, and Andy Roberts had set a big day record in Kenya of 342 species. We thought we could beat that, too. We spotted Barn Owl and Blackish Nightjar around the cliffs of Morro de Calzada, and then tracked down a few more nightjars and owls and also found a few species we had accidentally left off the list. We got skunked by Ocellated Crake and Band-bellied Owl, but found both Stygian and Striped owls. At 9:30 pm, we finished the day with a trip to a slot canyon where Oilbirds nest. Struggling to keep our eyes open, we counted the peculiar Oilbird as our 354th and final species.

A photo of the LSU Peru Big Day team right after they observed their 354th and final species, the peculiar, nocturnal Oilbird, outside of Moyobamba, Peru.

A photo of the LSU Peru Big Day team right after they observed their 354th and final species, the peculiar, nocturnal Oilbird, outside of Moyobamba, Peru.

We were elated with our success on the big day! Even so, we know that our total can be improved upon. We estimate the hot, sunny weather between 9am and 12pm cost us at least 20 species that are generally easy in the lower subtropics and white sand forest in good weather. Additional scouting and fine-tuning of the route could certainly add more species. Is a 400-species big day possible? We think so! And the Abra Patricia and Mayo Valley certainly are not the only places to attempt this feat. We think areas in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, or elsewhere could also approach this mark. So get out there and go birding in some of these ultra-diverse, poorly known, and endangered places! And stay tuned for more photos, videos, eBird checklists, and audio recordings from scouting and from the big day (check lsubigday.org or www.facebook.com/LSUBigDay for updates).

Statistics

ABA-countable species observed: 354

Total species observed by all 4 team members: 339

Total species including those seen by only one team member: 361

Species seen (ie. not including heard-onlys): 232 (65%)

Species observed in the area covered by the big day route either during the day or during scouting: 525

Distance driven: 400 km (250 miles)

You can see the entire list of species seen on this record breaking Big Day here.

The LSU Big Day team (Dan Lane, Glenn Seeholzer, Fernando Angulo, and Mike Harvey)

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • Jos stratford

    An impressive day list, but why is the team now editing their story to delete their boasts that they drove at speeds of 150km/hour and averaged 110km/hour? Their story changed when it was pointed out that their admission revealed they had broken ABA rules for Big Day attempts.
    Since they are claiming an ABA record, then I presume it should be approved by the ABA. The ABA has a set of regulations that cover Big Day attempts, Rule 5 of which is that the teams must abide by the ABA Code of Birding Ethics. This code expressly states in point 2b “Follow all laws, rules and regulations governing roads and public areas, both at home and abroad”.
    By their own admission, this team has clearly violated the ABA rules – by speeding, they have effectively given themselves extra time to record additional species …basically the same as adding an extra hour or splitting the team to visit additional sites, etc.
    If the ABA is to have any credibility, surely they cannot accept this record …or, if they do, just add a little footnote to their Big Day rules to allow teams to just pick whichever rules suit them.

    • Terry Bronson

      I find it hard to believe that it would be possible for the LSU team to have averaged 110 km/hr (i.e., 68+ mph). Take a look at the map of their route–almost all squiggles that would require frequent turns except for the long stretch east of point C. I could see high speeds on the stretch east of point C, but not in the squiggles of the route. I presume the state of Peru’s roads may not be up to U.S. standards, requiring some caution to avoid potholes and rough surfaces. They only drove 400 km total, and that over a period of 21.5 hours, since they ended at 9:30 pm., which is an average of about 19 km/hr (which, of course, includes lots of time not actually driving).

      But to the point of obeying speed limits. Does anyone seriously believe that speed limits are taken seriously in the U.S. and elsewhere (based on accounts of driving in third-world countries that I’ve read)? When was the last time you were out on the Interstate driving the speed limit of 65 mph without being the only vehicle doing so? I’d be willing to venture that the vast majority of Big Day teams have exceeded the speed limit at least occasionally and maybe more frequently–just as society in general does. I don’t see how that particular aspect of obeying the listing rules in the Code of Ethics is enforceable, and it probably should be revised to reflect reality.

    • Jim M.

      “Clearly violated the ABA rules”? Nonsense. The Big Day rules don’t say anything about traffic regulations at all, and only require participants to “strive to follow” the code of birding ethics, which also don’t mention speeding and are designed mostly to protect birds, not govern Big Days. I think you raise a valid question about how to interpret the rules, and the extent to which speeding should be allowed, but to suggest there was a clear or intentional violation of ABA rules is baseless.

      • Jos Stratford

        Sorry Jim, it is not my interpretation – it is direct quotes from ABA
        rules: review the ABA publication below, it does not say strive, it says
        must.

        https://www.aba.org/bigday/rules.pdf

        RULE 5: The bird must have been encountered under conditionsRULE 5: The bird must have been encountered under conditions that conform to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics.

        This was published in 2010 – has it been modified since?

        And for the code of birding ethics, it does specifically mention following road rules, see below:

        http://www.aba.org/about/ethics.html

        2(b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad.

        My
        simple point is if the ABA are publishing rules to govern Big Days,
        then what is so unreasonable in expecting teams to follow them – and
        boasting of speeds of 150 km/hr in a country where the legal maximum is
        100 km/hr is clearly not in accordance with the standards the ABA is
        setting.

        • Jim M.

          You are quoting from the wrong rules Jos (the Recording Rules rather than the “Big Day” rules). The “Big Day” rules state simply “Each participant should strive to maintain proper birding ethics at all times.” http://listing.aba.org/big-day-count-rules/ They don’t say any Big Day is automatically void if the Ethics rules are violated in any small way at any time. And the recording rules you quote from specifically reference when the bird is “encountered”–you aren’t encountering a bird when driving down the highway.

          • Jos Stratford

            So, in a country with a legal limit of 100 km/hour, this team claimed they averaged 110 km/hour and reached a maximum of 150 km/hour …is this ‘striving to maintain the ethics listed by the ABA’? Of course not, totally laughable to think otherwise.

          • Andrew Haffenden

            There is no speed limit in South (and Central American) countries. Those signs, like the stripes on the roads, are a tepid suggestion at best. Speeds are determined by road quality, the driver in front of you, and of course, topes, or whatever their local name. Unless you want to go deaf, you drive as fast as possible.

          • Dalcio Dacol

            Mr. Haffenden: This is an arrogant comment that borders on ethnic insensitivity. The quality of law enforcement varies within and from country to country. Try this attitude while driving in Sao Paulo state in Brazil and you will accumulate a nice and expensive set of tickets that the car rental company will charge to your credit card.

          • Todd Mark

            Yes, throw out the cultural insensitivity card when you can’t make a cogent argument. Nice work.

          • Kevin Easley

            Hmmm…I guess I shouldn’t pay those speeding tickets I get in Costa Rica since there is no speed limit here…wander what the judge would say. Or the speeding tickets taken with cameras which are everywhere in Brazil and then automatically charge your credit card through the rental agencies.

          • Pat O’Donnell

            What Kevin says! You don’t want to speed in CR nor anywhere else in Latin America even if it sometimes seems like everyone else is. Jos brings up a good point but I also don’t see how the team could have averaged such a high speed on those mountain roads. Having spent a lot of time on roads like that, I dare say that someone traveling 110 km/hour would probably see an untimely end to the Big Day and their lives. Maybe not but off hand, it seems more likely that they were exaggerating about speed.

  • Rick Wright

    This is awesome, in the good old-fashioned meaning of the word: “Species observed in the area covered by the big day route either during the day or during scouting: 525”

    • David

      That is a spectacular number of species! I think I’ve got a new dream vacation location..

  • David Fisher

    While this is an amazing effort by the LSU team and one can only applaud any activity aimed at raising funds for research on Neotropical birds, I would question the claim that this beats the previous world record set in Kenya by Terry Stevenson and friends. The reason I question this is that I believe the rules that they were playing by set a maximum to the number of species that could be counted if only heard. I think – though I’m not 100% certain of this – that on the Kenya races at least 90% of the birds on the list had to be seen. No more than 10% could be heard-only. If I am correct about this then quick maths suggests that the Kenya record included at least 308 species seen. Identifying birds on sound is, of course, much quicker than having to see them, and hence in a race you can move much faster – so it gives you an advantage. My point is simply that you need to have been playing by the same rules to claim you have beaten previous records. A little more research may be required to establish the exact details.

    • Todd Mark

      When Terry Stevenson’s had his big day, voice recognition was at a pioneer stage. I know it is disturbing to most birders who mostly enjoy birding on a visual level, but voice can be the most positive ID there is for a number of species. I still don’t understand in modernity why birdsong is so underappreciated amongst birders, but I understand in evolutionary terms. Nevertheless, it’s always hard for people to accept record-breaking against their heroes. Terry Stevenson is a hero in birding. That will never be denied. Hair-splitting is derelict. Champion the new achievers. Yes they take steroids (I.e. better infrastructure, better understanding of voice, etc.) There is a name for comparing the ages: it’s called presentism.

      • David Fisher

        Todd, I don’t underestimate the importance of bird vocalisations, both for finding birds and identifying them. It’s an amazing skill perfected by the top birders to Olympian standards – and Dan is at the forefront with this, as was Ted Parker when they set the previous Peruvian record. My point is simply that playing by different rules affects what is achievable. A team that knows that there is no limit to the number of species that can be counted on vocalisations alone will play a very different game to a team that knows they have to have seen 90% of the species on the final list. The first team can move much faster, simply ticking things off on call, whereas the second team has to move much more slowly attempting to make visual contact with as many birds as possible. The fact that 35% of the species on the LSU team’s list were only heard underlines this. The records set are therefore not comparable. Yes, the LSU team has set a new world records for species recorded (seen and heard) in a day and are to be congratulated on that – it’s an amazing achievement. But their big day doesn’t ‘beat’ the Kenya big day where seeing 90% of the species was a requirement. The days were played by very different rules, and in all competitive sports records set (and compared with others) have to be achieved under the same rules. David

        • John

          That’s not the best analogy. Organized sports rules change all the time, but you don’t see multiple record lists kept for the various incarnations.

          That said, I agree that these big day records are of different games with different rules. Just as a traveling big day record doesn’t “beat” a big sit record.

        • Todd Mark

          Whatevs. You missed my point entirely. Peace, bro.

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  • John

    Agree with Jos. Why bother having rules if they don’t mean anything?

    My next big day will consist of 37 non-consecutive hours spanning two months.

    • Kevin Easley

      Well put…if you are going to play the game you have to go by the rules.

      • Jim M.

        What rules were broken? Jos was quoting the wrong rules. The ABA big day rules say nothing about traffic regulations, let alone speeding. Nor do the big day rules reference the ABA code of birding ethics, which also don’t mention speeding. Even if they did, the code of birding ethics surely applies when you are birding, not traveling between birding destinations. Maybe the big day rules ought to restrict speeding; but that’s a different issue. It’s not fair to participants to make up rules after the fact and then claim they were violated.

  • Andy Kratter

    In need of performance enhancement (itself a messy ethical area), they may have resorted to such bird unfriendly practices as drinking Cokes with high fructose corn syrup and non- shade-tree coffee, Surely this should cast aspersions on this so-called record. What next, drug-tests?

  • Barry Walker

    I thought they were claiming a world record? – what has ABA to do with Peru in terms of birding records.? It certainly does not recognize the Kenya record. So does it really matter to us Peruvians if its not recognized by ABA ?? I wonder. Perhaps ABA may not accept but it stands globally unless you are suggesting every country on the Planet should abide by ABA Rules – where can I see these rules? I am not suggesting that ABA is anything but a great philanthropic organization warranting praise but do they make rules
    for the world

    Barry Walker
    Peru

    • Barry Walker

      Ok so no standards , no set rules according to my friend David Fisher, so ABA rules not globally accepted so why all the bitching and moaning? LSU wins, Peru wins, world birding wins – whats the deal? If there is one I for on do not want to go deeper. I break the ridiculous speed limits in Peru every day. So I would like someone out there to tell me how to bird in Peru and what I have been doing wrong for 35 years.

      • Barry Walker

        maybe the use of Spam was against ABA rules? Would like to see the rules please and how they apply to Peru and Kenya.

        Jeez this griping is a royal pain

        respectully

        • Todd Mark

          Well put Barry. I wonder if the participants had gels or sharp objects. How were they ever admitted into the country?

  • Kevin Easley

    The word observed is mis-used in the statistics portion of their report. Observed means seen and you cannot dispute that. Recorded is the proper term which means seen and/or heard. Many beginning birders would be led to believe that they saw 354 birds which was not the case. Based on their numbers they saw 232 species which means another 122 were heard only. They seem to shy away from that admission. More seen birds would have been nice. The Kenya record is more impressive to me…by far.

    • ichnuemon

      Not sure where you get your impression of “observed”, but I’ll dispute it (only since you said I can’t!). It means – by any definition I’ve found “to notice or perceive” (that’s google’s, but the others I checked were similar). I don’t even think in common parlance observed implies saw (but I guess when out birding I usually hear “saw” or “had”).

      In addition, I don’t think they shy away at all…

      Let me quote: “Species seen (ie. not including heard-onlys): 232 (65%)”

      Not sure why you (and others) have such a bone to pick with these guys. A big day is a silly “competition” (and I do them regularly…). That area is a goldmine compared to most places people bird. I’ve done their route before – I picked up ~400 birds (observed – seen or heard) in ten days or so (unguided – but birding 12 hours a day) – 354 in less than 24 is absurd.

      Is this record more impressive than Kenya? Or a biking record at Cape May? Or a walking record at Pt. Reyes? Or just 24 hours of breakneck birding anywhere? Its comparing apples to oranges. These guys are top-notch birders – they identified 122 birds by call for christsakes (and I’ve birded with the Peruvian in that group – he can do ten times that many). They did a hell of a job, cut them a break.

    • Pat O’Donnell

      I’m sorry but I don’t see how the Kenyan record is far more impressive. If the playing grounds were the same then yes I would agree with that but there are some valid differences, the main one being that it is far easier to visually detect birds in many of the Kenyan habitats compared to the mostly forested habitats of the Peruvian route. In addition, one could also argue that for most people, it’s easier to recognize birds by sight than by sound (not for everyone of course but for most). Out of curiosity, do we know how many species in Kenya were identified by sound? We also have to factor the plane ride into the mix…

      • David Fiser

        Hi guys – sorry if I’ve set off more than I intended to. I was only really responding to the claim that the LSU team had beaten the Kenya record. I was just pointing out that the two are not comparable when played by such different rules regarding heard-only species. Just received an e-mail from Terry Stevenson – who is away leading a tour at present – to say that in the Kenya races the rules were that at least 90% of the species on list had to be seen and no playback was allowed. Between them (3 members) they SAW 333 species, though 3 of these were only seen by one observer. David

  • Mr. David C. Kupfer

    A great achievement! My question – why Peru? Thanks.

    • Mr. David C. Kupfer

      O.K. Let me rephrase. Is there anywhere else that offers a greater ornithological biodiversity? I would have thought that Costa Rica or Hawaii gives as good or better results.

      • Terry Bronson

        Hawaii is a non-starter in any Big Day competition. According to Avibase, only 335 species have been seen in the state, and only the Big Island of Hawaii has more than 200. Compare that to Costa Rica (915), Panama (982), Colombia (1,895), Ecuador (1,646), and Peru (1,793). With drug activities making large parts of Colombia unsafe, Peru becomes the natural choice for a Big Day.

        • Mr. David C. Kupfer

          Appreciate the response.

    • Pat O’Donnell

      As Terry indicates, more species to choose from equals higher chances at connecting with more species. Some believe that a new record could be possible in Manu National Park. I think Costa Rica is also a valid option but based on personal experience, only if a bunch of variables work in your favor. Possible though!

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