271 species of birds in a single day, in the United States, between two, college-aged birders from the Midwest, who would have thought?
How the Idea Started:
To be honest, this crazy, adventurous plan was crafted within the last couple of months, mostly in the last month. To introduce ourselves, I’m Colin Dobson, a 21-year-old birder from Central Illinois and my teammate is Ben Lucking, a 23-year-old birder from Southern Michigan. While I was gone on a birding vacation in Mexico in the middle of March, Ben and I were texting about birding and travel in general. We eventually go to the subjects on big days, knowing we’ve both done them and have birding big days within our states coming up this year.
Through this conversation, the subject of “big days” became much broader. I’ll admit, Ben first brought up the idea when he dropped the “have you ever thought about doing a United States Big Day” line the day after I flew back from Mexico as I was sitting in my 11 am Ornithology class on the 21st of March, basically a month exactly from when we did conquer this idea. At first, I thought it was a general idea, or perhaps a thought for next year since it WAS already mid-March, and typically country big days occur mid to late April and take months of networking and planning. Then the idea of this year was brought up, and after some quick thinking and a very quick look at the calendar, it seemed like this COULD be an option.
To be clear, to those who may not know, a birding big day is when a group of people (can be alone as well) set out to bird most of the day (or the whole day) to see as many species as they can. There are different levels for this and how specific a region is to do this as well. Anything as broad as a world big day to as specific as a county park or local National Wildlife Refuge big days are done annually throughout the globe. Most common are state or countywide big days, and sometimes there are even big day birding competitions (like the Birding Blitz here in Illinois) for big day groups!
After this idea was brought up, both of us then spent the rest of the day looking into eBird and into plans. We both have a million other things going on, but we still were focused on thinking if this was even plausible for this coming spring. After my Champaign County Audubon Board Meeting that night, Ben and myself hopped on Zoom and talked for several hours, until I realized it was passed 2 am and it was time to get some sleep, but ending the call we both agreed, that we are doing a big day this spring.
Initial Big Day Thoughts:
Our ideas came from that a United States birding big day had not occurred in quite some time. Looking at previous big day runs, most were done in Texas, a great start to thinking about a route. Texas has such a rich bird diversity between eastern and western bird species, so it is a great place to do a big day, although other states like Arizona and California were obviously on the table as well, as these two are also very rich in bird diversity.
The main big day technique we were trying to accomplish was the aspect of drive time. With doing plenty of big days in Illinois, the amount of time driving can be crucial in determining how much birding time one gets during a day, and in theory, less travel time and more birding time should equal more birds. But just because more time is available, doesn’t necessarily mean this either, one must go to completely different habitats, if not completely different regions during a big day to maximize the potential for the highest species totals possible at the end of the day. If you want a high number if not a record-breaking day, you must go to many different areas but also try to limit the amount of travel time as well, it goes both ways!
Most of the United States big days, or at least those with the higher species totals, typically had a route from Central Texas over to the Southeastern Coast of Texas to end the day. A great route but also required at least a four-hour drive during the middle of the day just to get from Central Texas to near Houston. Now, with that drive time, what if we took that amount of driving time and flew somewhere completely different, theoretically seeing a completely different bird group? Yes, therefore the past big day groups had this drive, but still the Hill Country of Texas and the Gulf Coast are not completely different as opposed to flying to somewhere out west, a truly different group of birds. Although I’m aware of one unsuccessful attempt in Illinois with flying during an instate big day, I am unaware of a United States attempt. The closest to this is when Team Sapsucker did a big day from Arizona to California back in 2014 with a species total of 275 in two completely different regions (found after the fact, I was not aware of this species total until I was typing this post-trip report).
Early on Route Ideas:
The first area we were targeting was SoCal, flying into San Diego and birding Southern California for the remaining parts of the day. We had our minds set on starting in the High Island area in the morning and flying elsewhere during the day. Thankfully, that area is not far from major airports (Houston) but also had a rather large bird diversity for being such a small area, between amazing coastal birding, migrants flocking to the small community every spring, and nearby rice fields and prairies make this ideal for a big day, especially one like ours. It was figuring out where to go the rest of the day.
After spending a whole day plotting out this whole route, Ben came up with the idea that an afternoon in Arizona or California would be better. Between less flight time, same time zone, much more in terms of passerine diversity, and potentially summering waterfowl, among other factors, made this route more appealing to us. So, the next day we decided to focus on seeing if this (Arizona) was a better route, which ended up being the case.
Since all of this was practically last minute, any changes had to be thoroughly discussed and plotted out quickly, so we had enough time to thoroughly plan the day itself. Thankfully our major changes occurred very early on, and we could focus on planning for the day itself for weeks before the day itself. After spending a whole day planning the south from Tucson shooting straight east towards the magical Chiricahua Mountains, I then noticed a reliable male White-eared Hummingbird at the newly opened Ramsey Cabins in the Huachucas near Sierra Vista, way off our route. I then jokingly sent a screenshot of the report with a picture to Ben saying, “this would be great to see during the trip,” and alas, I received a response not even an hour later saying, “I believe that route could even be better”. Since that day on March 23rd, we stuck to that route for the rest of the planning period and for the day itself.
Then it really was to the drawing board, which places do we cover or not cover along or near the route. I want to go ahead and thank all of the local intel we received from these areas because between our knowledge of birding these areas in the past and eBird alone, it was not enough to fulfill our planning needs, especially including Leo Miller in Arizona and Ian Davies in Texas, among others with smaller suggestions, we thank you very much to the help and guidance given to us for our big day!
The following weeks were spent texting back and forth with Ben, spending multiple nights a week on zoom with each other for several hours during the nighttime hours planning, scouting over eBird reports, and making changes to the itinerary and tiered lists, amongst other ideas.
The main question first was, what flight would we take and when from Houston and Tucson, as this very heavily relied on how we planned our itinerary. We were first leaning towards a 12:15 departure from Tucson but after noticing a Southwest flight that departed (daily during our time) out of the smaller airport, William P. Hobby Airport, at 11:45 am with even a shorter flight time, making it the ideal flight for our big day. Since we figured out the flight, now it was time to plan the route out, on top of making tiered lists and picking which day(s) to do this adventure!
A map with the locations we were planning on hitting on the day
Timing is always key for a big day, in terms of when it is conducted based on the time of year. For Illinois Big Days, they are best run around the middle of May. As mentioned before, most US Big Days have taken place in the latter half of April and into May. Ben brought up early on that the timeframe that we should think about running our route would be from April 19th to April 26th, but based on our schedules, the earlier timing would be the best. The main problem was that because of our schedules, there only ended up being one day that worked for us, April 20th.
Although this date was within our range, there were a lot of problems with only picking ONE date for a big day. To put it in perspective, the previous big day tallies revolved around 4-6 birders within a group, scouting for a span of nearly a week, with having about 4-7 days open for their big day, picking the day with the best weather and best chances in seeing the greatest number of birds. For us, with only picking one day, it really was luck if birds and the weather both cooperated with us, which thankfully both were fairly cooperative. Just more challenges to be brought up for us and still having an astronomical species total in one day in the United States, quite astonishing with all that was against us compared to previous big day runs.
Getting Around on the Day:
Now we have the general route set up with information flooding in about birds along the route, date marked, flights booked, and THE day was coming closer and closer. Now, some of y’all may have some questions about HOW we did this. Ben and I drove down on the 18th, throughout the night, scouted all day Tuesday, the 19th, and used his car for transportation on the Texas portion. But how did we get around Arizona? Through the gracious generosity of Ben’s parents, they flew down to Tucson before the day, Ben’s father offered to rent a car, and drive us around to all our spots during the afternoon. This was amazing and I am very thankful for this! Our idea was if we had someone, likely a non-birder, driving us at least in the Arizona section, we would not have to worry about driving, we both would be focused on birds as we went, and making quick planning decisions as we drove, which was key in spotting birds like Western Kingbird and Chihuahuan Raven that we didn’t have to spend extra time looking for off of the route.
One other MAJOR thing to key in on is the concept of time. More time birding should equal more birds as I have mentioned before. Thankfully with our route, there was fairly a low amount of driving attributed to it. Due to this, we had NO added time for gas stops or food stops. All the food was, and water was packed before had, and the filled-up vehicles before so no gas stops were needed throughout the day, we got gas right after the end of the day, at Safford Arizona at 12:10 am after our last two additions, with about 30 miles to E, so close and thankfully worked in our favor. This would give us at least 30 minutes of more birding times because we did not have to stop ONCE, which usually on big days one usually must make at least one gas stop, so this was also key.
Tiered Species Ideas:
Now we had all the driving and traveling during the day set up, what else needs to be done? Throughout the time we had been making itineraries repeatedly, along with an advanced A/B/C tiered bird list. Birds in group A would be birds we should see during the day but will miss some with how time-constrained we would be at each spot, plus there are always those few birds that always get away. Birds in group B are birds we would possibly see or may require more effort; we should see at least some of the birds in this group but not most of them. Finally, birds in group C are birds that we are unlikely to see, likely only see a few from this category on the day.
We had to revise this list many times, and there was probably not a day in the last few weeks we weren’t moving birds around from category to category, occasionally adding birds to the list. Of course, there was probably a bird or two we may not see on our list, but for the most part, everything is on this list. This list ended up having around 425 species that were “possible” throughout the route, with obviously a lot of birds in our B and C categories. Still, we ended up feeling fairly confident with 294 species in our “group A” list, the United States big day record number surprisingly. You may ask, are we expected to see all of these? The answer is simply no. As stated before, there will be plenty even in this category that will be missed, before the day I strategized we would see 90% of these (we ended up with 85% of group A). In group B, we ended up with 72 species, and with this list, I was expecting about 25% (ended with 24%) and in group C, we had 50 species and I was expecting 5% (ended up with 4%). The list is below, please note that these are not in order, as we were moving and changing this list throughout the time, and I ended up making a more spot-specific list to use during the day itself.
Spot-specific Bird List
So that’s what I did next, on the Monday, the day we left and since the tiered list was mostly finalized, I thought it was best to go spot by spot, creating an excel checklist sheet to see what we should see at each location as we went throughout the day instead of just making a general checklist for the day. By doing this, as we go along, we can see what we were missing for the day at each site and make it easier not just knowing what’s missing, but what we have in general. We tried hard not to count to see where we were standing for the day, but we obviously had to for the flight as we went through this list extensively to see what was still missing from our Texas portion, which included birds like Mallard, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Song Sparrow, and many others still birds we would likely see in Arizona.
I will also provide screenshots of this list below, but the general idea is to label each site with the time we were expected to leave with the tiered list of species listed below the location, so I can highlight them as we go throughout the day. This was also very helpful because this required more specific knowledge of where each possible species on the route we should or possibly have a chance to see the species, so to even know exactly where to get the common birds along the route, plus cleaning up some holes of information on where certain birds were. This list is below.
One more thing before we leave, with two birders from the upper Midwest, how would we know how to identify the birds along the route if we do not live in these areas? Thankfully both of us have been to most of the locations on the route, so the birds seen throughout the day are not completely foreign to us and because of this, we had a basic knowledge of what habitats each species should be seen in. For weeks leading up to the day, we spent learning bird calls and making sure we had our visual identification down. It was much easier with the Texas birds as most of these birds were birds seen in the Eastern United States, birds we’re more familiar with. We obviously had the challenge of learning about the birds of southwestern Arizona, which we still did fairly well with, although I am sure we missed a few birds calling throughout the afternoon which is something to look into for the future.
The Drive Down:
We have all our plans set in stone, have spent dozens of hours planning and making sure everything was cleaned up, and it was Monday the 18th, the day we left for Texas. Ben had to work most of the day Monday, and I of course had surveys and classes here, along with a board meeting. It worked perfectly as Ben had a 5ish hour drive to here, was leaving at around 3/4ET, and I would be done with my meeting by 8:30 pm, have all my stuff ready to go, and leave by 9:00 for the 13+ hour drive. Thankfully the day went very smoothly, Ben got to my place with no problems, and we were off by 9:15 pm!
I started out driving since Ben had just driven the last 5 hours to get to my place. Our whole drive down went very smoothly without any problems, we switched a few hours in once we got into the bootheel of Missouri, then switched again about an hour outside Little Rock, and then I continued to drive throughout the day after this point. As the sun came up, we found ourselves driving in far Southwestern Arkansas, just north of Shreveport with a stunning sunrise to our east. We kept chugging along and reached the rice fields just north of High Island t around 10:30 am. We then spent the afternoon between these fields, Anahuac, High Island, and spots closer to Houston. We figured not to do the Bolivar Peninsula because most of that stuff was either at night or like the Bolivar flats, the shorebirds and other water birds will either be there or not.
We scouted the fields nearby, finding plenty of goodies from our B like American Golden-Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit, Glossy Ibis, etc., and key birds within Anahuac like Fulvous Whistling-Duck, other ducks, and wading birds, as some are pictured below! High Island was fairly good. I’d never been there so all of this was new to me. We tried a faster pace of scouting to see how quickly we would have to be but also took enough time to make sure we had most of the birds scouted out for. It was still apparent that migration was slightly lacking and behind, which caused a little alarm, but still, a majority of the migrants were still around. Although it is important to note the lack of flycatchers that were there at the current time, something key for our big day. Seeing both cuckoo species were fun as well! I figured I would run into at least one person I knew, and I did! At Boy Scout Woods we ran into Pat Lueders and Yvonne Homeyer from Central Missouri! You never know who you will see at this birding mecca!
Rice Fields (hundreds of shorebirds somewhere in the pic)
Herd of cattle blocking the road at the rice fields, can not have this happen on the big day!
Deck at Boy Scout Woods
The Final Hours:
We then drove towards Houston, making two quick stops to look for more truly Eastern birds like Carolina Chickadee and Pine Warbler, birds that we can not see at High Island at White Park just off of the interstate, and a quick check for Limpkin at the north end of Sheldon Lake, which we planned to do at night since we learned that Limpkins are active and call often at night! We finished the evening by checking a couple of sites in Western Houston, most importantly scouting out Least Grebe that we last second found out about in a small park just west of downtown!
We sat down for dinner at around 8:00 pm, knowing this was our last actual meal for over 24 hours and THE day, that we have been prepping for weeks, was just a few hours ahead of us. We got to the hotel by 9:00 and had about 4.5 hours to make finalized plans and get SOME rest before our day as we were planning on leaving the hotel by 1:45am (due to Arizona being two hours behind, we had to start at 2am) and I was in bed by 10:30, full of both stress and excitement about what was to come the next day!