Brought Together by Birding—Virtually: Global Big Day Connects Us in the Caribbean and Beyond

By BirdsCaribbean June 16, 2020

The beautiful White-crowned Pigeon was on the backyard bird list for a few birders in the Caribbean. (photo by Erika Gates)

Emma Lewis, writer and member of our Media Working Group, shares with us the unexpected joy and camaraderie we all felt birding “together” on May 9th, Global Big Day. Here is her report on the day’s adventures with photos and quotes from around the world. 

Lisa and Mike Sorenson morning selfie on GBD, coldest May 9th on record!
Lisa and Mike Sorenson morning selfie on GBD, coldest May 9th on record! (Photo by Lisa Sorenson)

On a humid, overcast day in Panama City, Beny Wilson settled down on his balcony with a mug of coffee—“on lockdown.” At the same time, birding colleagues in the Bahamas, also on stay-at-home orders, ventured no further than sunny verandahs and verdant gardens. Meanwhile up in Massachusetts, BirdsCaribbean Executive Director, Lisa Sorenson, put on a brave face as chilly gale force winds blew around her in the Westborough Wildlife Management Area.

All of these birdwatchers were connected by one goal, one event—Global Big Day 2020—a worldwide event in which birders set out to observe the most species of birds they possibly can see in a 24-hr period. However, this year the day came during unusual times, presenting new challenges, but also offering new rewards. There may never be another like it!

Birding “On Lockdown”

Who thought we’d see the day that we were restricted to birding from our backyard?” said Kelsey from Cayman Birding—adding: “Although current COVID restrictions in the Cayman Islands made counting birds and numbers of species a lot harder, the challenge itself was worth it and definitely an experience to remember.

Anneke Mace and her young birder in New Zealand
Anneke Mace and her young birder in New Zealand (Photo by Anneke Mace)

With the Caribbean and much of the world still in “lockdown”, Global Big Day did not seem very promising at first. But the non-profit, BirdsCaribbean, decided to create a campaign to promote safe birding and raise funds for conservation—connecting people through virtual teams so as to promote friendly competition and comradery among birders who would need to be birdwatching alone this year. The days leading up to the event proved that people were excited to be involved, and come May 9th, competing teams spread their nets far and wide.

As May 9 dawned, Anneke Mace in New Zealand (a member of the phenomenal Flying Pintails team) had already completed her morning session with her baby—a “birding buddy who offered a lot of smiles, but not a single bird sighting.” Well, it’s early days yet.

Team Rivalry Heated Up

The rivalry was intense, but after all of the bird checklists were tallied several days later, the Flying Pintails were declared the winners, with a total of 865 species, 78 of which were species endemic to the West Indies. The other BirdsCaribbean teams put up valiant efforts, contributing hundreds of checklists and many additional species seen from around the world. They are eager for a rematch next time around! These included the Florida-based Spoonbills Dream Team; the President’s Perch, headed by BirdsCaribbean President Andrew Dobson; Cayman Backyard Birders; the Dark-eyed Junkies of Arkansas; the Far-Flung Flock of Friends, with members from Britain to Brazil; and the Catbirds and Dogbirds.

Scarborough, on the Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town
Scarborough, on the Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town (Photo by Claire Spottiswoode)

The Flying Pintails Team—88 members strong (including myself)—had a lot of fun and a lot of great adventures. The team’s WhatsApp group was buzzing with activity from the get-go, with Claire Spottiswoode sending in early reports from the Cape Peninsula in South Africa (total of 44 species observed). Virtual hugs were exchanged from the tip of Africa to team members far and wide. A photograph of warm African highlands (“The Orange-breasted Sunbirds flitting among the Erica flowers and the wing-flicking familiar Chats”) contrasted strongly with team member Jeff Gerbracht’s photo of a snow-covered field in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

From my personal vantage point—our hot, dusty yard in Kingston, Jamaica—it was astonishing to see birding colleagues to the north battling the ever-deteriorating weather. “We’re freezing!” they cried, as the sun burned down on our city (now entering drought mode, with bush fires threatening). From either end of the two extremes, these were not perhaps ideal conditions for bird-watching, but perseverance was the name of the game. At home, our two dogs, Freddie and Lulu, lent moral support and searched the yard for cats.

“Today will be my first totally urban GBD,” commented team mate Beny Wilson; he had a nesting Ruddy Ground-Dove for company, obeying stay-at-home rules as well. We all enjoyed some lively Latin music in a video sent from Beny, as his binoculars stood ready for more great sightings. By contrast, in Maine, sleet splashed the windshield as intrepid birders, already inspired by colleagues’ contributions, headed to Mousam River estuary in Kennebunkport. Red-breasted MergansersWillet, and Red-throated Loons showed up to warm their hearts, but not so much their bodies.

Mathias Deming, braving the ridiculous weather in Maine on May 9th. Mathias is young birder friend of Charles and Laura – they called him their “secret weapon.” (photo by Laura Blutstein)

“Bahama Strong” Made a Strong Showing

Global Big Day in the Bahamas was curtailed by their 24-hour COVID-19 lockdown on several islands. But you can’t keep a good birder down, and Pericles Maillis (and family) did their best—reminiscing on a baby Osprey spotted on Goulding Cay the Day-Before-Global-Big-Day (no, sorry, that doesn’t count, Pericles!) and posting a nesting bird on his verandah, as well as an adorable photo of his granddaughter in ballet dress against a backdrop of Bahama Pintails. Meanwhile, Erika Gates did a series of outings in her garden in a beautifully branded outfit. “I’ll be out until the Antillean Nighthawks are ‘singing!’” she posted, reporting at the end of the day: “Four checklists between 6:23 am and 8 pm, total of 6 hours from our garden at home (600 x 250 sq feet) on beautiful “Grand” Bahama—total of 32 species! Birds conforming to Lockdown!”

Erika Gates ready for her third outing under "lockdown" in her garden on Grand Bahama
Erika Gates ready for her third outing under “lockdown” in her garden on Grand Bahama

Martha Cartwright reported: “Locked into our yards for the weekend, Bahamas strong. From East fence to West fence, three times today, 2.5 hours, maybe 208 steps. Heart rate stayed at sluggish. Only garden homies to report, but nice to be part of such a brilliant team. Don’t deserve a drink but will have one anyway.”

Bahama Woodstar
Bahama Woodstar spotted in New Providence, Bahamas. (Photo by David Maillis)

Despite their limitations, Bahamians came in second for most birds seen in the Caribbean after Cuba, and ahead of Puerto Rico—from where Adrianne Tossas received virtual “abrazos,” from a forested hillside, from Esteban Marquez in Venezuela.

Babies, Birds…and Baby Birds

Another couple with baby in tow, Joanne and Glenroy Gaymes, set out on a hot day in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and observed:Considering the state of the world right now, it gave us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty in front of us and make the best of what we have.”

And how were the birds looking? Photographic contributions came from far and wide. A Catbirds and Dogbirds team member reported a Black-chinned Hummingbird trying to convince a female he was worthy of her love. In Venezuela, a Bat Falcon was observed from a window eating a Grey-breasted Martin (see video below) and a Pearl Kite was also tucking into some breakfast. In Trinidad, a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl looked sleepy and inscrutable and an early morning Tropical Kingbird was accused of being noisy (so, what is new for a Kingbird?).

A distant Ostrich (“the Flying Pintails’ only ratite”) was spotted on the Cape Peninsula of South Africa. Then up popped a Bee Hummingbird in Cuba—the smallest bird in the world; what a contrast! In Barbuda, John Mussington reported “lots” of Barbuda Warblers “right outside my window”—welcome news, while in neighboring Antigua a very young Bananaquit surveyed his new world from a low branch. A splendid Spotted Rail was among several rails seen by the Cuban team, who recorded more than 70 species, both at home and a little further afield. A “Dark-eyed Junkie,” Kate Chapman, fell in love with “the fledglings in my yard: Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Downy Woodpeckers. Total of 13 bitty fledglings! Oh and my best mammalian bird was a playful muskrat!” Not to be outdone, a British birder from the Far-Flung Flock, Lee Ridley, spotted a Tawny Owlat 4:00 a.m.!

Spotted Rail in Cuba
Spotted Rail spotted in Cuba by Ernesto Reyes and Tania Pineiro. (Photo by Ernesto Reyes)

Some Birds Were Special

As a golden sunrise brightened the sky in Sacramento, California, a slowly awakening Lois Goldfrank realized she had 103 messages on the WhatsApp group. By that time, over on the east coast, Lisa and Mike Sorenson looked distinctly colder than earlier in the day, with noses turning pink—but sharing a lovely photo of a sweetly singing Rose-breasted Grosbeak“Absolutely frozen!” Lisa posted, “41 degrees and 45 mph winds!” While down in Trinidad, Mark Hulme celebrated his fiftieth species of the day with a glass of rum.

A sweetly singing Rose-breasted Grosbeak in MA. (photo by Lisa Sorenson)

Some of us had our very special “Birds of the Day.” Mine was definitely the White-crowned Pigeon, a gorgeous bird that we see in our yard more and more often these days. This species (once very much a “country bird”) seems to be adapting very well to urban life, and can be seen flying over busy roads in the middle of the Kingston rush hour. For Wendy Lee, my colleague on Jamaica’s north coast, the lovely Caribbean Dove was her Bird of the Day. Both species are very valuable as seed dispersers. Erika Gates’ “Couple of the Day” were two courting Common Ground Doves“a sign of hope as all had perished in our garden in Hurricane Dorian, except for one who finally found a mate.” Down south in Bonaire, Susan Davis’ prayer for a Crested Caracara was granted some 30 seconds later: “A Crested Caracara soared out of nowhere and crossed in front of my car. I put my eyes heavenward one more time, and silently said, ‘Thank you, God.’”

The beautiful White-crowned Pigeon was on the backyard bird list for a few birders in the Caribbean. (photo by Erika Gates)

President’s Caribbean Team Members—Signs of Indiscipline!

So, the Flying Pintails flew away with top honours. A close rival and the team leader of President’s Perch, BirdsCaribbean President Andrew Dobson, commented dryly on seeing the results of the competition: “If I’d known it was that close, I would have tried harder.” His team underwent Zoom training events ahead of the Big Day and participants were advised to not party too late the night before the Big Day. Andrew commented, “Tania Pineiro in Cuba obviously misunderstood my English as she recorded two species of owl just after midnight.”

Other Caribbean team members broke one of the President’s many rules: “Folks in the Caribbean enjoyed the best of the weather but there were serious challenges of staying awake and refraining from alcohol (team rule #48). Martyn Kenefick didn’t read that far as he sat on the balcony of Asa Wright Nature Reserve [in Trinidad] with rum punch in hand—tough posting.” It is rumored that the President may defect to the Pintails, next time around; but somehow I feel his 21-country team may come back with extra determination. There are more “big birding days” on the horizon to contemplate!

Urban Life: Not Only About Humans

Beny Wilson reflected from his balcony: “This year quarantine forced us to look inward: towards the Urbe. The urban that has not respected the natural, assuming that natural is not human and human is not natural. Today, with this exercise, the world realizes the big mistake we have made. We understand by rediscovering that the urban is home to much life beyond human. Watching so much wildlife live well in the urban means we can live well too!”

Beny on his balcony in eBird gear
Beny on his balcony in eBird gear (Photo by Beny Wilson)

eBird’s Jeff Gerbracht commented, “It’s so exciting to live vicariously through everyone’s bird adventures!” Perhaps this was what was so special about Global Big Day 2020. We were all communicating, sharing, laughing together, and most of all—seeing birds! For those who are going through anxious times at the moment, it was a day that lightened the heart and soul. The general consensus was that we should do it again. It brought us all together in surprising ways. As Andrew Dobson put it, “A great day’s birding—an impressive list of birds, new birding friends made, and funds raised for BirdsCaribbean.” 


Thanks to Emma Lewis, blogger, social and environmental activist, and avid birder based in Jamaica for this wonderful recap of Global Big Day! And thanks again to all who contributed to the fun and success of our first Global Big Day Fundraiser – both team members and generous donors!! If you have not yet had a chance to donate, it is not too late! We are still hoping to reach our goal of $20,000 raised for science and conservation of Caribbean birds. Click here to donate, and thanks!

Huge Santa Cruz, was part of the team birding at Macaw Lodge in Santa Cruz. He observed, “Many people, including experienced birders, added “lifers” to their lists, as well as noticed birds for the first time in new places—a result of needing to choose new locations to safely bird during this pandemic.”

Big thanks to Josmar Esteban Marquez for creating this wonderful recap of our  Global Big Day – thanks to all who sent photos and videos! 

More photos from BirdsCaribbean’s Global Big Day are available here. To read more about the results from our team competitions and overall for the Caribbean, check out: BirdsCaribbean Takes Global Big Day by Storm, Despite COVID-19.