From the outset, it was very important to us to document carefully our big day effort using eBird checklists with associated notes, photographs, audio recordings, and video. Most big days are operated on an honor system – there is no witness or judge – and this seems to work overall. We decided, however, that if we carefully documented as many species as possible along the big day route, even if it was in the days leading up to the big day (we would be too busy on the day itself to take photos, recordings, or video), it would serve to bolster our claim to any record.
More important than documenting the big day, however, was documenting the poorly known avifauna of a very interesting corner of South America. We planned to do our big day in the mountains of Abra Patricia and the adjacent Mayo Valley. These little-known regions were some of the last major landscape features in northern South America to be explored by ornithologists and birders. The first exploration, primarily by collecting expeditions from the LSU Museum of Natural Science under the leadership of John O’Neill, occurred in the 1970s as a highway was built over the mountains around Abra Patricia. To this day, the area remains poorly known, as evidenced by the presence of species that still remain to be described and named. This lack of knowledge is particularly glaring given the high number of species and the complexity of bird distributions in the area. In eBird, for example, 735 bird species are known from the two Important Bird Areas comprising Abra Patricia and the Mayo Valley. A major goal of our big day effort was to help fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of birds in the region, and to make that information publicly available.
For planning our scouting efforts, we relied heavily on existing data in eBird, and we thank the eBird team and the many dedicated observers involved in making this resource available. Armed with prior reports, we arrived in the Mayo Valley on 3 October and set out to scout the area. We took careful notes on our effort and the bird species and numbers observed at each site, often using a voice recorder to rapidly record data for later transcription and submission to eBird. We also took photographs, videos, and audio recordings of as many species as possible. You can see a list of all of the scouting eBird checklists below, including embedded media. Our favorites include an hour spent with the spectacular hummingbirds coming to the feeders at Waqanki Lodge. Also rewarding, but much less relaxing, was a hike up to the crest of a ridge in a successful attempt to see Ash-throated Antwren, a species described by LSU researchers. A quick visit to some new feeders with Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail visiting was worthwhile. We ended up spending more time than planned birding in some excellent roadside marshes northwest of Rioja. We found productive night birding in fields north of Calzada. After a week or so scouting in the Mayo Valley lowlands, we headed to the mountains around Abra Patricia, within the Alto Mayo Protected Forest. Our first taste of the mountain birds was during a check of the hummingbird feeders at the owlet lodge at Abra Patricia, and that night we spent some time with the Long-whiskered Owlet itself (this species was another LSU discovery). The road near Abra Patricia itself was very birdy, but that paled in comparison to birding a mega-flock in the subtropical elevations downslope. Despite the rain, we enjoyed spending some time with foraging *Tangara* tanagers, and birding was quite good when the rain let up briefly at Alto Nieva. Finally, we finished our scouting in the lower subtropics staking out Lanceolated Monklet and scanning from bridges. As we had hoped, we found some range extensions and unusual or poorly known species: Least Bittern in the marshes northwest of Rioja, Zone-tailed Hawk, good numbers of migrant shorebirds in rice fields, Ocellated Crake and Stygian Owl (both staked out by fantastic local guide Carlos Altamirano), Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Crested/Southern Caracara, and Gray Elaenia and Tropical Gnatcatcher. We also were able to see a species of manakin still in the process of being described by LSU researchers.
After 11 days of scouting, we were finally ready to attempt the big day on 14 October. We would connect many of the areas mentioned above by starting in Pomacochas west of the mountains of Abra Patricia, crossing over the mountains, and then descending to the lowlands of the Mayo Valley near Moyobamba. The day would be too fast-paced for taking photos, recordings, or video, but we would take time to record at least partial lists for each site for uploading to eBird. Night birding was productive, with a few waterbirds at Pomacochas Lake followed by a good diversity of highland owls and nightjars near Abra Patricia. We did very well birding at dawn and in the early morning, mostly along the road past Abra Patricia. Things slowed down, however, as the clouds cleared and the heat became intense in the lower subtropics. We missed a lot of the species we had scouted here and at the white sand forest around Aguas Verdes. After noon, however, clouds rolled back in and bird activity increased again. Open habitats and rice country were loaded with birds, and we did well in these areas. We were behind schedule, however, when we entered the forest, first at Waqanki Lodge and then at Morro de Calzada. We scrambled to find a last few forest birds right at dusk, and then tallied our total. 335 species! We had beat the previous American Birding Association-recognized big day record of 331 (see a video of Scott Robinson recounting that big day here)! After some night birds (and noticing some birds we had forgotten to mark off), we finished at 354 species, a new world big day record!
The big day was an effort to raise support and funding for the ongoing discovery-based research on tropical birds being conducted by the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS). The LSUMNS has been running expeditions throughout the Neotropics since the 1960s and these have resulted in the discovery of 42 new bird species, provided the catalyst for the formation of several of the extensive national parks in Peru and elsewhere, and improved knowledge of the distributions, identification, ecology, and systematics of Neotropical birds. We are accepting donations through our website, which will be used for research expeditions in the Neotropics by LSU graduate students and researchers. Our big day would not have been possible with the wonderful support we received from our sponsors in Peru and the United States. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to PromPeru, Conservation International – Peru, Cajamarca Travel, Fundo Alto Nieva, The Tabasco Corportation, Eagle Optics, US AID, SERNANP, and the Bosque de Protección Alto Mayo.
You can find a more detailed account of the big day itself at the ABA blog, and the complete bird list is available in a single pdf from the ABA blog. The (mostly partial) eBird lists from the big day are here:
Mike Harvey, Fernando Angulo, Glenn Seeholzer, and Dan Lane
eBird Checklists from Scouting for the Big Day
– Laguna Pomacochas – in search of higher elevation water birds
– Laguna Pomacochas – North End – to check the marshy outflow of the lake
– Aratinga Cliffs – to check on the species composition of a parrot nesting site
– Rio Mayo – Port for Tingana – to see what river-edge birds can be seen from the road
– Laguna Burrococha – to see if some lowland forest birds are accessible on the south side of the Río Mayo
– Laguna Burrococha – property of Jose Marin – to check on more forest on the land of a friendly farmer
– Road to Burrococha – where we checked another small finger of forest near the road
– La Florida – a village with a trail leading back toward a patch of swamp forest
– Near Calzada – a quick roadside stop to check out a soaring Short-tailed Hawk
– Arrozales de Rioja – extensive rice fields, in search of concentrations of water birds
– Carretera Baños Termales – in a (mostly failed) attempt to get some foothill forest birds from the road
– Quebrada on Carretera Baños Termales – a short hike up a small stream in search of forest birds
– Waqanki Center/Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo–Lodge – birding from the grounds of a well-known birding lodge
– Waqanki Center/Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo–Senda – birding up the trail near the lodge
– Waqanki Center/Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo–Hummingbird Garden – for fantastic hummingbird-watching
– San José vicinity – to scout some birds of dry, overgrown fields
– Carretera 5N – to check some roadside wetlands
– Waqanki Center/Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo–Lodge – at dusk to listen for nightjars
– Moyobamba radio tower – to spotlight a hunting Stygian Owl
– Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo – to explore the trail behind the lodge
– Waqanki – above Quebrada Mishquiyaquillo – a continuation of the above list covering the slopes leading up to a ridge
– Waqanki – ridgeline (1450 – 1600 m) – hiking along the crest of a ridge in search of Ash-throated Antwren
– Arrozales de Rioja – in an attempt to relocate good shorebird flocks
– Aguas Verdes – road to cemetary – to check some new feeders and white sand forest
– Aguas Verdes–White Sand Forest Trail – in search of more white sand forest birds
– Túmbaro – a scrubby area, to find a backup spot for Burnished-buff Tanager and others
– Complejo Turístico Yacumama – to check for water and forest birds
– Road to Yuracyacu – where we found some excellent marsh birds
– Rioja to Pósic – roadside birding for grassland/scrub birds
– Pósic to Sta. Elena – roadside birding for scrub/forest birds
– Reserva Santa Elena – our first trip to a new lowland forest/scrub site
– Reserva Santa Elena – a boat ride down a small creek
– Pajonal – a trip out toward the Río Mayo near dusk
– Laguna Burrococha – a quick afternoon check of the oxbow lake
– Pajonal – night birding in the grasslands
– La Casa de Seizo Hospedaje – an incidental observation of Várzea Thrush before leaving the hotel near Moyobamba
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva–Owlet Lodge – our first birding at Abra Patricia, near the lodge feeders
– Fundo Alto Nieva – our first birding near our cabins
– Fundo Alto Nieva – night birding and the owlet!
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva–Senda Royal Sunangel – checking the roadside for Royal Sunangels
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva – birding the road near the pass
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva – birding the road near the pass
– Puente Sin Nombre – a quick exploration of the start of a muddy trail
– Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva–Senda Garcia – exploring another trail through stunted forest
– Bosque de Protección Alto Mayo–Mirador – exploring the middle elevations stretch of the road over Abra Patricia
– Mega-flock – birding the large mixed-species flock often present at this spot in the upper subtropics
– Venceremos – birding forest near the guard station for the Alto Mayo Protected Forest
– Bosque de Protección Alto Mayo–Llantaria – a well-known pulloff great for subtropical birds (including the stunning cock-of-the-rock)
– Bosque de Protección Alto Mayo–Carretera 5N – more subtropical birding this morning
– Aguas Verdes – upper part – staking out Lanceolated Monklet and scanning from bridges
– Fundo Alto Nieva – finally some nice weather in the cloud forest!
– Fundo Alto Nieva – one last morning near the cabins
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva–Senda Royal Sunangel – a last check on the sunangel spot
– ACP Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva–Senda Royal Sunangel – a last check of the parrot roost
– Puerto Pumas Hotel – some birding on the grounds before going to sleep pre-big day!
You can also browse the media from scouting by checking out photos on flickr (these have also been added to the Neotropical Birds flickr group). The audio recordings are available from the Macaulay Library and from Xeno-Canto. The videos are available from the Macaulay Library as well.