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Big Days Aren’t Easy

“Big” birding of any flavor is challenging. The essence of it all is simply trying to see as many different species as possible in a pre-determined amount of time. For the past few years, my perennial Big Day buddy, Jeff Skrentny, and I have been whacking away at the various Illinois Big Day records. There’s one for each month, compounded by the two regions we bird in (north and central, or multi-region). Since 2009, we’ve run more than 40 Big Days, setting 4 month records (May, June, and September, plus tied for August … with our May record of 191 being the current all-time record for the state), we’re in the top 5 for 8 other months, and set 16 regional records.

But there are 3 goals that we’ve gotten tantalizingly close to, yet have come in just shy of: March in the northern region (3 attempts, still 6 birds short), the top number for the state in April (2 attempts, 8 birds short), and 200 or more species in May (2 attempts, 9 birds short).

We made our run for the April record this year on the 30th, with a goal of 174 species or more. As always, but especially during migration (and especially spring migration) it’s all about the weather. The weather determines what birds will be there, as well as your ability to see them. Last year we tried a new route that really turned out great. We tallied 165 species on a cold, raw and windy day. Surely, with better weather, we could hit the mark.

WEWA

Worm-eating Warbler. Photo by Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis

We started at Siloam Springs State Park, about a four-and-a-half hour drive south of Chicago. The temperature was in the low 50s, and the winds perfectly calm when we reached our first stop at just past 5am. The target here was a Chuck-wills-widow that has summered nearby in Brown county for the past three years. That stop netted us quite a few species including Whip-poor-will, American Woodcock, Barred and Great Horned Owls … but no Chuck.

Just after dawn at Siloam Springs, the woods were alive with song, and soon most of the breeding warblers were ticked: Worm-eating, Cerulean, Louisiana Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky … but no Hooded or Yellow-throated. Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Yellow-throated, Warbling, White-eyed and Red-eyed Vireos were easily seen. A few Tennessee and Nashville Warblers. But little else.

This past April had been a brutal one in the Great Lakes. Cold and dry. 4 solid weeks of north winds with little or no rain. Birds were piling up just to the south, but expected late April migrants like Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, Blue-winged, or Blackburnian Warblers were conspicuously absent.

But you have to motor on. One pocket of migrants can turn that around in a heartbeat. So motor on, we did.

shorebirds

Dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers and Yellowlegs. Photo by Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis.

A quick stop at a dredging pond near Jacksonville netted a few shorebirds, but even though there were hundreds of birds there, the diversity was low. We left, and started the long slog up the Illinois River, with brief stops along the way. First was Meredosia Lake, which two days before had Snow Geese and two Surf Scoters. The geese were still there, but the scoters, and most of the other ducks had left. And the wind was picking up. It was going to be much windier than predicted.

A little farther along, a wrong turn got us on our only Sharp-shinned Hawk of the day. We knew going in that shorebirds were going to be a problem, but when we arrived at one of our main locations to find it inaccessible … there was a bit of silence in the car, and we kept going. An hour later, we made to our primary shorebird location, Anderson Lake. The lake is divided into two sections; a real lake, and south of the cross-dike another pool to manage floodwater called Carlson Lake. Carlson is about 30% filled and has great habitat, but it’s very hard to bird on a big day. The shorebirds are a long way off, it was now after 1 pm, and not only were the winds howling at 15 mph+, the clear sky was allowing heat distortion that was so bad that we couldn’t really see birds that were a mere 1,500 feet away.

team

The team at Hennepin-Hopper. L-R: Jeff Skrentny, Greg Neise, Fran Morel, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis. Photo by Jeff Skrentny.

A little over an hour with only a Baird’s Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher to show for it, we headed to Emiquon. Emiquon is one of the premier birding spots in Illinois, and we had high hopes that our list of waterfowl would improve greatly here. But as we climbed the observation tower, our hopes were dashed. Heat distortion was so bad birds across the lake were essentially invisible, and the wind was creating whitecaps and small standing waves. We did pick up a few birds, but we were seriously behind schedule, and needed to find some birds fast. By 5 pm, we were headed north to our most favorite magic spot, Hennepin-Hopper Lakes (with a quick stop for a Northern Mockingbird and Vesper Sparrow along the way).

And, as it always seems to be, the hour before sundown was indeed magical at Hennepin-Hopper. The ducks were just determined that we see them, and soon we had racked up 17 species of waterfowl for the day. Two American Bitterns flew past. Common Gallinules and Virginia Rails were calling. The rusty gate sounds of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were music to our ears. We picked up 10 new species, and finished the day with 140. Not bad, but not great.

We missed 15 of our 120 “tier one” (easiest to find) species; and 27 of our 54 “tier two” species. Almost all of them neotropical migrants. As always seems to happen with our April Big Days, the weather switched the next day, and 48 hours after our run, there were new migrants everywhere. C’est la vie. This stuff ain’t easy. But if it was, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

Here’s our checklist for the day (PDF), with the tiers noted for each species: 2014-04-BigDay

swallows

As the sun set we were treated to an incredible display of migrating swallows, over a 1/4 million birds, swirling into the marshes to roost for the night. Photo by Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis.

 

 

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Mike Patterson

    I try to treat every day as a Big Day. Every day is unique for navigating that combination of birding and getting all that other stuff I need to do done. So, each day represents a personal best for that day under those special conditions.

    This Saturday, I will be doing a field trip with my community college birding class. The combination of place and weather and timing and people I’ll be spending the day with will probably not be reproducible. The numbers we get will be the best we can do. We will certainly set an unbreakable record, because nobody will have ever attempted this feat on this day with these people before and nobody will be able to in the future.

    We will do our best, because that’s the best we can do. Our results will be our results and any comparison to the successes or failures of other Big Day aficionados in other places will be statistically irrelevant, though certainly entertaining to read about.

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