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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.

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 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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