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Open Mic: 431 Species in One Day – Testimony of the Non-Participating Companion

At the Mic: George Paul

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There has been an intriguing development in the world of birding. A team has identified 431 species of birds in a 24-hour period — more than on any other day in history. Where can one encounter that many species in one day? How did the team do it? Dušan Brinkhuizen, Rudy Gelis, Mitch Lysinger and Tuomas Seimola now have the honor of having identified more species of birds, in 24 hours, than anyone in the history of mankind. Who are they and what happened?

 

hoatzin

The Hoatzin was identified by sound at 5:18 am. Photo: Dusan Brinkhuizen

 

The Inca Jay was encountered at 12:40 pm. If you have not made friends with at least one of the neo-tropical jays, perhaps you should try to do so.

The Inca Jay was encountered at 12:40 pm. If you have not made friends with at least one of the neo-tropical jays, perhaps you should try to do so. Photo: Dusan Brinkhuizen

I can recount the story because I was there. I was the “non-participating companion” on the count, which was conducted pursuant to ABA rules. My job was to document events. All my video and sound recording files are time-stamped and can be correlated to the records generated of when, where and how each species was identified. The granularity of the record keeping was minute-by-minute.

Accordingly, I am a witness to something special. I feel a duty to report not only to the global birding community, but also to the Larger Society. If you read on, in a vicarious way you too can become a member of this expedition. I have edited films for you and their links can be found within this post.

 

THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

First, what does it mean to identify 431 species of birds in 24 hours? How can one comprehend the accomplishment? Is it just some ostentatious stunt? Or is it more? And what should it be? To understand, it helps to put things into perspective and to that end there are two other “Big Days” that bear discussion. Each is an historical event with a special story and meaning.

1982: Genesis of the Global Big Day

TP SR

In the late 1970s the world’s top ornithologists began keeping track of how many birds they could identify in a day. John W. Fitzpatrick of Cornell, discoverer of 7 new bird species, was one who had fun trying. But at the beginning of the 1980s no one could surpass 275 species.

In 1982, 27 year-old Princeton graduate student Scott K. Robinson was working on his Ph.D. thesis at the remote Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon. Six weeks would pass between shipments of supplies. The Mashco-Pico, a secretive Amazon forest tribe, lived nearby. Birds? There were places where the territories of as many as 170 species overlapped. If you had a fantasy about scientists in the Amazon – mist-netting and mapping and trying to understand why the neo-tropics is so biodiverse — this would be it. Such a spot did exist and this is where our story begins.natives

 

Cultural and linguistic diversity is one element of biological diversity. At right are members of the Campa Tribe, living on the Pachitea River in Peru in the mid-decade of the last century. The Mashco-Pico, a more secretive tribe, lived nearby the famous scientific station where the 1982 Big Day unfolded. Photo ourtesy of George L. Paul

 

Robinson’s Ph.D. adviser, tropical ecologist John W. Terborgh, was in charge of the station. The two had invited 29 year-old Ted Parker to the remote study area. Robinson, who was already friends with Parker, thought to himself something along the lines of “Ted is here. This is a chance to break the world’s record. Let’s do it.” Parker agreed and the two invited Terborgh. He considered joining the two friends — but ultimately decided not to participate, perhaps to leave the record to the two “birders” in the group who cared the most about it.

WB Antpitta

 

 

The White-bellied Antpitta, at left, was identified by sound at 1:53 pm. They use their long legs and upright posture to forage for insects on the forest floor. Photo: Dusan Brinkhuizen

 

 

On September 5, 1982 Parker and Robinson roved the study area using all their knowledge and powers of observation. According to Robinson’s recollection he and Parker surpassed the existing tally at 11:00 in the morning. By noon, they were at 300 species. At about 8:00 in the evening they called it a day at 331 species. They had established a world’s record for the most bird species identified in one day.

The Gilded Barbet was identified at 7:20 am.

The Gilded Barbet was identified at 7:20 am. Photo: Dusan Brinkhuizen

This is the genesis of what can perhaps be conceived of as the “Global Big Day.” Robinson has said it was rooted in science. The effort remains unique in that there were no vehicles, no “playback,” and everything occurred in a small area where there were so many bird species it was mind-boggling. Parker and Robinson’s 1982 tally of 331 species remained unsurpassed for 32 years. In fact, it remains unsurpassed to this day as the most bountiful ever “Alpha Diversity Big Day,” meaning all the biodiversity was observed in the same small place. Perhaps it is a record that will never be broken. What was the day really? At its core it was a day shared among friends who respected one another, who wanted to have fun and make a little history.

Golden-naped Tanager

 

There are 4 species of “tanager” in the United States. There are 143 species in Ecuador. The Golden-naped Tanager, at left, was identified at 12:33 pm. Photo: Tuomas  Seimola

 

 

But let us not gloss over the painful facts. One of these men has passed away. At the end of his life he was part of a “rapid assessment” team of eminent biologists who were being inserted, often by helicopter, into remote biodiversity hotspots in order to quickly survey and report back. Can there be a more noble existence – to save life on Earth? And that is how he died. His small plane crashed through the cloud forests of Ecuador on one of these missions.

Humanity should embrace his sacrifice and contemplate its meaning

Humanity should embrace his sacrifice and contemplate its meaning. Photo: Haroldo Castro/Conservation International

Ted Parker was one of great field biologists of the 20th Century, if not of all time. His skills, even during his life, were legendary. But he is an infinitely more complex figure. Because of his sacrifice, the 1982 Big Day will always be remembered. And the Global Big Day shall, from this point forward, remind us that our species now faces its Great Test — which is to preserve the sublime diversity of life on Earth.

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2014: The Global Big Day Becomes Self-Aware

We now turn to October of 2014 — 32 years later. We had more knowledge and better technology. But more importantly, the very idea of a Big Day had evolved. The Big Day must now have an ethos. In LSU’s 2014 expedition, the Global Big Day became aware of its cultural significance and is now seen as service to Society.

Part of LSU’s collection of neo-tropical species

Part of LSU’s collection of neo-tropical species

Everyone knows about LSU’s dominance in neo-tropical ornithology. Its scientists have run expeditions to remote areas of the neo-tropics every year since the early 1960s. And LSU, of course, had Ted Parker and many others and over a thousand publications and it is a globally important institution.

The Green Kingfisher, an icon of the neo-tropics, was encountered at 10:52 am.

The Green Kingfisher, an icon of the neo-tropics, was encountered at 10:52 am. Photo: Dusan Brinkhuizen

The ornithologists at LSU know they are custodians of a grand tradition. Two of the graduate students there, Glenn Seeholzer and Mike Harvey — ornithologists who themselves discovered a new species in their early twenties — decided to join with two others and attempt to break the long-standing record set in part by their legendary LSU predecessor. They decided to use vehicles, to enable their counting of birds in a variety of landscapes, making their effort what might be called a “Gamma Diversity Big Day.”

Dan Lane

 

 

At right, Dan Lane at his desk at LSU. Seeholzer and Robinson have remarked that, just as the “Ted Parker effect” helped enable the 1982 world record, a “Dan Lane effect” would help the LSU team excel. Photo: George L. Paul

 

But there was more. The LSU team made clear they were raising societal awareness. They knew their actions surpassed the mere act of identifying birds and that they had a larger, cultural context. They even transformed their efforts into a sort of celebration – for example having Scott Robinson to the school to recount his friendship with Parker and their day together.

Carunculated Caracara

 

The Carunculated Caracara was identified at 5:18 pm. Molecular studies suggest that it, and other members of the Falconidae, are more closely related to parrots than true raptors. Photo: Tuomas Seimoloa

 

 

Dan Lane, Glenn Seeholzer, Fernando Angulo and Mike Harvey have gone down in history. They were the men who surpassed the 331 species tally set in part by their venerated predecessor Ted Parker. You can comprehend the continuities if you look at their shirts — and compare them to Ted Parker’s hat. What a special moment, frozen in time, was captured after their triumph!

The LSU Team sets a new world’s record

The LSU Team sets a new world’s record

Accordingly, after LSU established a new world’s record with its “Gamma Diversity Big Day” there was a score of sorts in the friendly contest of where humanity can identify the most bird species in one day. The score was Peru: TWO. Remainder of Planet Earth: ZERO. This lopsided score gained the attention of certain birders in Ecuador.

THE RECENT 2015 BIG DAY

I learned about things the same time as everyone else. There was a GoFundMe on the Internet, initiated by my friend Rudy Gelis. I donated and thought: “Wow that sounds interesting.” And so I invited myself.  What birder wouldn’t want to experience such a thing?

Rudy Gelis well into an exhilarating week of scouting

Rudy Gelis well into an exhilarating week of scouting

Rudy had been my guide on a previous trip to Ecuador. He is an American living in Quito but he guides throughout Ecuador and Colombia. He was Co-Organizer of the effort and in charge of its logistics. Rudy is known for his super-sensitive hearing and ability to identify birds by sound. I saw this repeatedly and you will too if you watch the film. Rudy is 6’8” tall. He has a sense of humor. He is irrepressibly ebullient. Above all else Rudy Gelis is a kind and helpful person.

My rationale for tagging along was I could do sound recording. Rudy liked the idea. He wanted “something to remind myself of the crazy thing I did when I was young.” Gradually, a notion emerged that the trip should be documented as fully as possible given the constraints. Rudy checked with the others. They said I could come and I purchased a plane ticket.

The Masked Flowerpiercer was identified at 1:48 pm.

The Masked Flowerpiercer was identified at 1:48 pm. They use their hooked bills to pierce the base of flowers. Photo: George L. Paul

But there was a ground rule. Rudy’s message was: “I am going to be birding with buddies. Maybe break a world’s record. It is for our memories together.” Accordingly, Rudy conveyed that no “documentary interloping” could foul up the plan – which was to have fun enjoying the company of respected friends. This was fortuitous, as I too had been planning on fun but had been concealing it to some extent. The trip was shaping up nicely and one of the first instructions I received was to bring along some fine whiskey.

I gathered my gear. I have to be honest with you. I imagined a fantastic journey, with intriguing characters, and at the end there would be triumph. And then I flew to Quito, Ecuador.

The Participants and their Scouting Days

Upon my arrival three younger men picked me up at the airport hotel. One was Rudy and two were strangers to me. When I met them, I immediately took note that one of the strangers was a Scandinavian fellow, laughing, and smoking a cigarette. He had a ponytail and earrings. He had flown in from Helsinki, with his Swarovski spotting scope, rather like an out-of-town gunslinger of a very special sort. He spoke five languages. Like Rudy, he was a professional bird guide specializing in the neo-tropics.

I observed a debonair gentleman

I observed a debonair gentleman

Tuomas Seimola is a multi-faceted person. I could not have invented a more intriguing character. Each of the members of the expedition had their own particular skills – areas where they were specialists so to speak. For Tuomas, it was his unusually good eyesight, and the others called him “Eagle Eye.”   But this was not just acuity of vision. It was an uncanny ability to separate bird silhouettes from the riotous vegetation of the tropics. It was as if his nervous system had been fine-tuned.

The other stranger was Dušan Brinkhuizen (pronounced “Dushan”). He was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch father and a Serbian mother. His parents are archeologists. After obtaining his advanced degree he was true to his love of birds and moved to Ecuador to become a full-time bird guide. When I met him, Dušan already held the Big Day Record for the Netherlands. I later concluded he had a great deal of experience in these “bird finding races,” as Rudy called them. Dušan really enjoyed the fun of it.

Dušan Brinkhuizen

Dušan Brinkhuizen

Dušan had done a huge amount of work beforehand. He had formulated a different sort of plan — to be revealed in due course in later installments. During the scouting trips he was keeping minute-by-minute records of what birds were identified when, how and where. He was inputting information into his computer for “data comparisons.”

Dušan Brinkhuizen at 12:36 pm on October 4, 2015

Dušan Brinkhuizen at 12:36 pm on October 4, 2015

I gradually noted that Brinkhuizen, as if it were only natural, was telling people what to do and he was quite specific about what he wanted to happen. He was diplomatic in these communications and he exuded calm. In the grand adventure inside my mind, Dušan Brinkhuizen appeared rather like a field marshal — surveying a battlefield of time and chance — and commanding a birding army in a struggle for historic greatness.

We traveled to the Amazon and made our base in a German youth hostel, high on a hill overlooking the settlement of Tena, Ecuador. We got up each morning at 4:30 am and the three relentlessly birded — gathering data, analyzing data, and formulating strategies.

Rudy relaxing above Tena

Rudy relaxing above Tena

Obviously these birders are skilled and experienced. But what does that mean? To give an analogy, I love to bird and have done so in the neo-tropics since I was in high school. And I like to play basketball too. But I wouldn’t want to play Michael Jordan. It is like that. There are just a handful of people who can seriously attempt a Global Big Day and I had landed in an exclusive club indeed.

The Black and Chestnut Eagle was identified at 2:59 pm. It was first seen at a great distance, by Tuomas, during a pitstop at a gas station. This photo is of a juvenile.

The Black and Chestnut Eagle was identified at 2:59 pm. It was first seen at a great distance, by Tuomas, during a pitstop at a gas station. This photo is of a juvenile. Photo Luis Recalde of Fundacion EcoMinga

The First Films

At this point you can watch a film. You can see these three birders as I knew them during the five days before we rendezvoused with “Magic Mitch.” What do they sound like? How did they interact?   There is a montage of all the multifarious experiences we had – the things Rudy told me he wanted to remember for the remainder of his lifetime.

The three knew they might be making birding history. I felt that too and so early on, I began to consider myself the historian on the trip. Slowly, they let me film them more and more until it became almost natural and they simply ignored what I was doing. Part of the excitement was there was no guarantee they would succeed. There was uncertainty, particularly regarding the weather, and this made the experience all the more exhilarating.

Rudy playing basketball

Rudy playing basketball

But at the same time, I observed they felt it only natural to break the record. You can’t do such things unless you feel that luck is on your side. But this attitude was not infused with pride or bragadoccio. It seemed merely to be a necessary aspect of the visualization process. They deserved their shot at history! And so, during the scouting days, I witnessed the emergence of One Mind — absolutely dedicated to identifying more species of birds in one day than anyone in the history of Mankind. Watch the film of our five scouting days together below.

Scouting for the Biggest Big Day in Birding History from George Paul on Vimeo.

Until the Next Installment

The preliminary scouting drew to a close when we traveled to Cabañas San Isidro on October 6. There, we were to rendezvous with Magic Mitch. What would he be like, I wondered?

There is more to share, in future installments, if people want more information about this expedition. In the meantime, you can also watch interviews of Rudy, Dušan and Tuomas at the links.

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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]