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Team Sapsucker breaks North American Big Day record – 294 species!

eBird project leaders (Marshall Iliff, Brian Sullivan, and team captain Chris Wood) and eBird programmer Tim Lenz joined forces with Merlin project lead Jessie Barry and BirdCast lead Andy Farnsworth in Team Sapsucker’s third attempt at the national Big Day record. In 2011 we were thrilled to set a new record of 264, but a flat tire last year deflated our hopes as we only managed to tie our own record. In 2013, everything came together with a perfect year, perfect weather day (see Birdcast), perfect planning, and mishap-free execution. We even surprised ourselves by exceeding the record by 30 species, setting a new record of 294. The Big Day is an essential fundraiser for the Lab and for eBird, so if you did not pledge before the day please consider making a donation in appreciation of this historic Big Day effort and in support of the Cornell Lab and eBird.

The lead-up to this day required months of planning. Several friends and eBird volunteers (Ken Rosenberg, Tom Johnson, Matt Hafner, and Andy Guthrie) joined us to scout in the week leading up to the day. Ken Rosenberg continued to show a near oracle-like ability to find new species for our route, highlighted this year by discovery of Uvalde County’s first Gray Vireo (at least, the first one in eBird), which we ultimately recorded on our day. And almost like magic, Andy Farnsworth put on his BirdCast hat and predicted the weather more than a week in advance, getting us all ready for the Big Day of our lifetime (See more on BirdCast). By Wednesday night we were loading the car, making final route tweaks, resting up a little, and enjoying our last sit-down meal before our 24-hour birdwatching marathon.

Our route covered roughly 650 miles within Texas, from Uvalde to the Bolivar Peninsula. At midnight, we hit the ground running with a lingering Ross’s Goose in Boerne, Texas (point A on map), followed by a nesting American Robin (our only one of the day!) in San Antonio and a suite of owls and nightjars. At dawn, we found ourselves in deserts west of Uvalde (point B), where a calling Scaled Quail joined the dawn chorus with other key western desert species. Uvalde (point C) is a great focal point for morning birding on a Big Day. Being close to the Hill Country of Texas, southwestern desert birds, eastern forest birds (like Yellow-throated Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo), and Mexican species (like Green Jay and White-tipped Dove) all come together in one narrow zone. After our dawn-calling quail, we drove a route that transected habitats good for all three groups of birds, including the two endemic Hill Country birds: Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. This year, we managed to connect with almost all of our hoped-for species, many of which we found at Chalk Bluffs Park during a quick 50-minute blitz at the park (see the team’s eBird list from 25 April). From Chalk Bluffs we hit a few other key spots, visited the Uvalde Fish Hatchery, made a fateful return visit to the Uvalde Dump (site of last year’s flat tire), and left with 129 species but no Chihuahuan Raven (our quarry at the dump). Especially notable around Uvalde were a returning Rufous-capped Warbler on territory by the Chalk Bluffs boat ramp, a Gray Vireo (the first Uvalde County record in eBird), lingering Greater White-fronted Goose, and a host of late-departing landbirds like Red-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Vesper and Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet (we missed all of these last year!).

Fig. 2. Chalk Bluffs Park, near Uvalde, got us 82 species, many of which we saw nowhere else.

Fig. 2. Chalk Bluffs Park, near Uvalde, got us 82 species, many of which we saw nowhere else.

After birding Uvalde, we drove pretty much nonstop to the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center (point D), where optimal water levels created an impoundment with myriad ducks and shorebirds. Mitchell is a superb birding site (well worth a visit on a weekend!) and a testament to the important habitats that can be created by wise management for migrant birds. We picked up a host of new birds here, including species like Hudsonian Godwit never before seen in our three years of Texas Big Days. Andy Farnsworth and Brian Sullivan lived up to their reputations as the team’s best raptor spotters, pulling both expected Accipiters, Mississippi Kite, and our only Peregrine Falcon from the skies overhead. Our total stood at 183. Mitchell Lake was followed by a long and rather uneventful drive to Houston, but the drive was broken up by a quick stop near Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR where we notched prairie birds like White-tailed Hawk, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, and our first Eastern Meadowlark. From there, we circumnavigated urban Houston and blitzed through the pinewoods at Eisenhower Park picking up four woodpeckers, Tufted Titmouse, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Fish Crow, and several other eastern forest species in the heat of the day. The two gallinule species–Common and Purple–gave us fits last year, so we routed them in early this year with a quick Sheldon Reservoir stop (learning from our past mistakes!).

Fig. 3. Brian Sullivan scans for raptors from his shotgun perch -- his efforts were well worth it!

Fig. 3. Brian Sullivan scans for raptors from his shotgun perch — his efforts were well worth it!

Entering Anahuac we knew we had almost 100 more possibilities (not all of which we could possibly find), so our total of 219 at that point indicated we were on a record pace. Seeing flocks of Indigo Buntings, as well as tanagers and grosbeaks, flushing from the roadside was a good sign and indicated that the hoped-for fallout of the previous day had indeed deposited a large number of birds. Our first ricefield stop was good omen, getting us Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and our second stop scored two Glossy Ibis along with a number of expected but welcome shorebird species.  At 6pm we finally arrived at legendary High Island where colorful Scarlet Tanagers were literally dripping from the trees, with over 100 on our quick circuit of Smith Oaks including birds on the ground and up to 15 in a single mulberry tree. This spectacle was a new experience for many of us, but the Big Day required focus on other more furtive and less colorful species. Veery, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Philadelphia Vireo, White-throated Sparrow, and Acadian Flycatcher were a few of the species we quickly added to our list. Warblers were not abundant, but the diversity was great: Blackburnian, Cerulean (nice male found by Tim!), Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart were all key pickups. Trying one more spot, we hit Houston Audubon’s Hook’s Woods and added Blue-winged Warbler and our best surprise rarity of the day, a Lazuli Bunting!

Fig. 4. Team Sapsucker tried to avoid being distracted by the many colorful Scarlet Tanagers at High Island. That's Tim Lenz, our programmer, front and center. Tim found us Cerulean, Blackburnian, and Blue-headed Vireo here, among many others during the day.

Fig. 4. Team Sapsucker tried to avoid being distracted by the many colorful Scarlet Tanagers at High Island. That’s Tim Lenz, our programmer, front and center. Tim found us Cerulean, Blackburnian, and Blue-headed Vireo here, among many others during the day.

During our whole effort in the High Island woods, Jessie Barry was taskmaster making sure we stayed focused on new species and didn’t get too distracted by the kaleidoscope of colorful tanagers, grosbeaks, and orioles. This was critical to our success, since our schedule only allowed one final hour to collect all the coastal species that the Texas coast is so famous for. So as soon as we left the woods we hit the ground running by finding 8 species of terns, 5 more species of gulls (including Lesser Black-backed and Bonaparte’s), Reddish Egret, Greater Scaup, Black Skimmer, and Marbled Godwit. The three coastal plovers–Snowy, Wilson’s, and Piping–always require special effort but we managed to nab all three.

As darkness finally fell at Bolivar Flats at 8:30 pm, just after we found Red Knot (our last species in daylight hours), we were out of breath and high on adrenaline. But none of us knew our total. Had we broken the record? We had seen so many species in the last 3 hours is was hard to even estimate. Years of Big Day disappointments taught us to temper our expectations. So on our drive back east from Bolivar we began to tabulate, and we reached a record breaking number so quickly that the species yet to be tallied ensured a truly landmark total. When all was counted, our total sat at 291, and the vehicle erupted with cries of disbelief and elation.

Fig. 5. Our mad dash down the Bolivar Peninsula gave us a huge final pulse of birds.

Fig. 5. Our mad dash down the Bolivar Peninsula gave us a huge final pulse of birds.

With so many species under our belts, finding a few more would not be easy. We managed to find a calling King Rail, heard a nocturnal migrant Gray-cheeked Thrush, and finally–at 11:41pm–heard a grunting Virginia Rail that would be our final bird. We had theorized that such a successful day might be possible under perfect conditions, but we never really expected it would all work out. With 294 species, there obviously were not a lot of misses, but Belted Kingfisher, Greater Roadrunner, Chihuahuan Raven, and Least Grebe are four memorable ones that we had excellent chances for on the Big Day, but which eluded us. If we had gotten those, plus migrant Canada and Bay-breasted Warblers, then our wildest dreams of a 300-species Big Day in Texas might have been realized.

Countless individuals helped us reach this lofty total, and we cannot thank them all here–you know who you are. Just as important, the huge community that uses and supports eBird needs to be recognized. We used eBird immensely in our scouting, and in planning leading up to the day. Without the submissions from the eBird community this day would not have been nearly as successful. Thanks to all.  Finally, it is worth noting that this was just a lucky year and a lucky week for us. Not only was it a Red-breasted Nuthatch and Pine Siskin invasion year (we got both species), but it was also a cool and wet spring, which meant that many winter residents were still hanging around. This weather pattern also contributed to the fallout conditions that we experienced on the day (referred to by some as the best Texas fallout in 20 years). Andy Farnsworth, the project lead for BirdCast, was able to watch the weather more than a week in advance to give us warning that Thursday (or possibly Wednesday…the actual day of the fallout) would very likely be the day to conduct our Big Day. Andy reveals how this year’s weather combined to bring perfect Big Day conditions in his post on the BirdCast site.

Please remember that this Big Day is an important fundraiser for us. Our team puts everything we have into this Big Day, but devote just as much and work just as hard for our day-to-day work at the Cornell Lab, for eBird, BirdCast, and Merlin. If you enjoyed this story, the Round Robin story of the day, or our our Facebook posts during the Big Day itself, please consider contributing in the name of the birds we saw. Your contribution goes directly to conservation programs at the Lab and to support eBird development, like the new Hotspot Exploration tool slated for release this summer.  Thanks to all who supported us, shared birds with us in person or via eBird, and who pledged generous donations to the Lab and to eBird!

Fig. 6. Scarlet Tanager at High Island. One of the keys to our success was ignoring these spectacular birds, which were all around us at Smith Oaks. When a bird moved, it was usually a tanager or Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but occasionally proved to be some other new species for our Big Day. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

Fig. 6. Scarlet Tanager at High Island. One of the keys to our success was ignoring these spectacular birds, which were all around us at Smith Oaks. When a bird moved, it was usually a tanager or Rose-breasted Grosbeak, but occasionally proved to be some other new species for our Big Day. Photo by Brian Sullivan.