A new Illinois Big Day record and FIRST time ever at least 200 species were seen by a group in one day in Illinois; Friday the 13th was very good to us for once.
After last year’s run of seeing two species short of the record that was set in 2013 and tied in 2016 by the “Mighty Mighty Jizz Masters”, which started in Northwestern Illinois and finished in Central Illinois on both of their runs, we wanted another try. In 2021, a group of us (mostly from Champaign) set out to break that record, and came up two species short with 189, with many misses that were almost laughable. We wanted our chance at redemption, so time to make another run at it, right?
We have been in discussion since our run, mostly Mike Ward, a professor within NRES at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and myself throughout this year trying to come up with a better route in hoping to break the long standing record of 191 and POSSIBLY a 200+ number in a day in Illinois. Most of this planning came within the last couple of weeks, after waiting for the river levels, bird reports, and seeing where birds were lingering at. Just like the United States Big Day, I was looking at ebird nearly every day, making different itineraries to see which plan would work the best, and making a tiered list and making changes to it often.
Thankfully, two of our team members from last year were back, Mike Avara, also from the university as well as Mark Vukovich, from Southern Illinois, were ready to try and attempt this again! Months ahead of time, we planned on running this May 13th based on the timing of when to do this and our availabilities. I was a little skeptical about running this ON Friday the 13thh, but I was ready to try it out!
Throughout the week leading up to the day, and coming out of running two Spring Bird Counts, I was planning the whole week as information continued to flood in. Unlike last year, I only did one whole scouting day unlike going multiple days last year, but thankfully Mike Ward also went and scouted Havana on Tuesday, which helped planning and helped me along my scouting day. Our early thoughts on the itinerary were that last year we spent too much time driving which in return may have cost us some missed birds due to the lack of birding time. We were first thinking of starting in Jersey/Calhoun counties OR Monroe County, then to East St Louis, and up to Havana to finish the rest of the day. By doing this, we are much more north which equaled less driving time, but also south enough to see MOST of the southern species.
During the week I picked the Pere Marquette route to be done, based off Bill Atwood’s findings on the SBC in Calhoun. But, during the week, with how warm it was and so many birds migrating every night, I started to get worried about a south route and going north. Starting south may mean missing some earlier migrants and even warblers that will move on earlier than expected because of four unseasonably warm days around 90 degrees with ample winds for migration. I was also worried about lingering waterfowl with these factors but alas this all worked out. Because of this, I figured to start at Sand Ridge State Forest and work our way south for the day. Based off this route, and hopefully making it to far southern Illinois based on timing, I came up with 195 tier A species, 39 tied B, and 28 tier C species for the day, over 250 species possible!
The day leading up to my scouting day, I was going through and making changes to the route to try and scout the most spots before the day, to make sure we were doing the right and making sure that some spots on the route were worth going to. I went out all day, leaving at 12:30 am and getting back at 10:20 pm, seeing 180 just by myself on the route, a new individual big day record in Illinois (I saw 176 species by myself on a scouting day for last year’s route which was the record), and missed MANY birds, even Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, among others. But I even found plenty of great birds as well, most notably two out of season scoters at Chautauqua amongst the lingering diving ducks on the north pool, a female BLACK, and a female WHITE-WINGED SCOTER! I knew based on what I saw on the scouting day, I knew a record number was likely for the next day!
11:00 pm: Champaign County
We all met at the south side of Champaign at 11:00pm on Thursday Night to leave and start the day. I had just returned about thirty minutes prior from my scouting day, so I was hot on the heels of all of the information I figured out from the day before and so excited for the day to come knowing how well the day before went. We left at 11:00 on the dot, and not even a minute after leaving, we ran into a train that already led us to be five minutes behind leaving Champaign. In my mind, I hoped this was not a sign that the big day would be a flop.
12:10 am: Shelby County
We pulled into Guzy Pothole Prairie in Shelby County at 12:10, surprisingly on time after the train situation. As we pulled in, Killdeer in the parking lot was our first bird of the day, which Mike Ward was correct in guessing what our first bird of the day would be. Not even a minute after leaving the lot, the marsh was loud with King Rails and Marsh Wrens calling already! Throughout our time here, we added many species that were key at getting at night, like Great Horned Owl, Virginia Rail, and Henslow’s Sparrow, along with a couple that would require some time to see in the daytime, like the Ring-necked Pheasant. Besides American Bittern, we were able to get all our targets here including a couple of extras like a flyover Yellow-billed Cuckoo calling at night and left with 17 species by 12:50 am.
3:00 am: Brown County
We reached our first spot by 3:00 am in hopes of adding Barn Owls which Mike and Tony Ward found on the Spring Bird Count the weekend prior. Despite dipping on these, we heard our first flyover thrushes of the day, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked. We did some more owling along the bluffs here and added the two others expected owls for the day, Eastern Screech-Owl and Barred Owl.
3:50 am: Cass County
We reached our next night birding location at 3:50 am, Beardstown Marsh, and slightly ahead of schedule at 3:50! We cruised up and down the road, adding many new species for the day that I staked out the day prior. These included Common Gallinule, Least Bittern, Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. We also added some other birds including a Common Nighthawk and a surprisingly Willow Flycatcher that was singing most of our time here, a bird I missed the day prior!
We reached our last night birding spot at 4:40, to try for the remaining goatsuckers and American Woodcock. When we pulled up, many Whip-poor-wills were already calling. The day before, the Chuck’s did not start calling until 4:50 when I was there, so that is why we hit this spot so late. Sure enough, around 4:50 the Chuck-wills-widow did start to call! After this, we pulled up a little more and heard two woodcocks peenting, great! We were leaving for Havana with around 45 species!
5:45 am: Mason County
We made it to Mason County just before 5:30 after crossing the Sangamon River on Highway 78. Our first spot was on 2600E just south of the entrance of Sand Ridge State Forest. The day before I went to scout to see if Horned Larks and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows were easy to pick up here early, along with checking to see if a Western Meadowlark or two was around. I was successful with all and was surprised to find at least 4 singing Western Meadowlarks, a C bird on my tiered list, so this was a must-stop before going into the park! We did just this at 5:50 and were able to add all our targets, including MULTIPLE Western Meadowlarks!!! We left here to enter Sand Ridge State Forest by 6:00 am!
Sand Ridge was thankfully not lacking birds but was not great by any means and we had to try hard for some of the birds. Many species, we only saw one or two of, but that was good enough for the big day of course! We drove on the south road out of Bishop, around areas to the east and west of Pine Campground, then north to the pumphouse road, and lastly into the fish hatchery. Despite missing many birds like Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Blue-winged Warbler, we were able to see most to find most of the expected migrants, which included some better ones such as Alder Flycatcher, Bay-breasted Warblers, and Mourning Warbler. We were leaving the park with around 120 species, ten more than I thought we would be at, and it was only 7:45, and had seen very little in terms of water birds, which was our next stop!
The day before I figured it was only worth covering Chautauqua from the Eagle Bluff parking lot, and not doing both Goofy Ridge and Eagle Bluff. We got there a few minutes late and were ready to pick out all the lingering ducks and shorebirds that have been there. Unfortunately, the Black Scoter from the day before did not appear to be around, but the White-winged Scoter WAS there, a great pick up for a May Big Day! We added other lingering ducks, such as Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, and Bufflehead, among others. Mike Ward pointed out two Ruddy Turnstones flying off of the close shore, which was also there the day prior, along with a stunning breeding plumaged, Black-bellied Plover on the far shore. Other goodies included Bonaparte’s Gull, Black Tern, and most of the swallows. Mike Avara was focused on the woods, and we picked up our first Northern Waterthrush, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warblers of the day. After an amazing stop, we were leaving Chautauqua at 8:40 with 149 species, and we hadn’t even been to Emiquon yet!
Before reaching Emiquon, we needed to cover areas just south of Havana, between a fluddle adding our first Solitary Sandpiper and peeps of the day, and the Western Kingbirds at the usual location, and Mike Avara pointed out our first Rock Pigeon of the day, we were leaving Mason County at 9:15 with 158 species!
Downed Tree at Sand Ridge that was frightening at first, luckily we could go around it!
Very distant gulls and terns at Chautauqua, with the Black Tern being middle right, two Ruddy Turnstones on the far left, and Black-necked Stilts behind.
9:30am: Fulton County
Emiquon was amazing, thankfully we had access (through both Mike’s) to the back levee at Emiquon, which is restricted to the public. We made a brief stop on the south side when Mark found a CLAY-COLORED SPARROW!!! A bird I was not expecting to see (tier C). Through Mike Ward’s scouting on Tuesday, he scouted out which parts to stop at. We were starting to see more ducks at the south end already, such as Gadwall and Redhead, and new shorebirds like Short-billed Dowitchers and Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Common Terns out on a stump. We continued north with seeing more and more shorebirds up ahead. Mike A. picked out our first Green Heron, Mike W. picked out our first Osprey and White-crowned Sparrow, among many others! Our next shorebird stop included our first White-rumped Sandpipers of the day in a flock of 300+ of mostly Dunlin!
The north side was even better for us, between a mud spit with many species of ducks and a shallow water pool with over 500 shorebirds, we were adding even more. We were adding around 5 species at every spot, and I began to lose the count of where we were for the day since we were adding so many, some unexpected! As Mike W. said, “I’d rather be stopping and adding five at every spot than running on time”, as we were starting to get behind schedule, but still adding many birds! At the first stop, we added our first Greater White-fronted Geese, Green-Winged Teal, Hooded Merganser for the day. At the second spot, I was hot on the shorebirds, picking out our first American Golden-Plover Stilt Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and another surprise, a stunning breeding plumaged AMERICAN AVOCET of the day! Mike W. quickly picked out a male American Wigeon flying in, and we were off to the Observation tower for a quick look.
Our quick look turned into a very excited spot, when I saw that long-necked bird in my scope and yelled “I HAVE A WESTERN GREBE” after only looking for a minute. We added our first Great Egret, Franklin’s Gull, and Caspian Tern of the day. On the way over I entered all the species in and saw we were at “173” for the day. I thought something was off as we were at 158 coming into Emiquon, but after Mike A said we were at 183 when we were leaving the observation tower, I realized I did not enter the birds south of Havana into ebird. WOW! 183 species, already??? We quickly went to Prairie Road and added White-eyed and Bell’s Vireo to the list. We were leaving Emiquon with 185 species, at 11:45am. Yes, we were only 6 species from the record BEFORE NOON. WOW! I was still in shock!
As I mentioned before, I was not sure about the timing and how far south we would go. Despite being a little behind, we were still determined to go to Southern Illinois based on how high our species total was, and there were many more birds to add down there.
Distant Clay-colored Sparrow, Mark has much better pictures than I do!
American Golden Plover
2:20 pm: Madison County
Horseshoe Lake was the next stop, upon arrival we added Snowy Egret in a nearby marsh for 186. After a quick drive around, I was able to pick out two continuing NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS for our 187 for the day, along with Carolina Chickadee for 188, and Bank Swallow for 189, only missing Black-crowned Night Heron.
Neotropic Cormorant on top!
2:50 pm St. Clair County:
Time to head south, straight to Oakwood Bottoms. On the way through Belleville, we added a Red-shouldered Hawk flying over for 190, one from the record and beating our total from last year. Then I saw a group of cattle near the road and joking about Cattle Egrets being with them, and sure enough FIVE Cattle Egrets were there for our tying bird.
We made a quick stop at Baldwin Lake, which I planned on possibly doing based off of Common Loon, Franklin’s Gull, and Glossy Ibis being found on the SBC. We pulled in and at 3:52 we did it, a flyover calling Fish Crow was our record-breaking bird for 192! Mike W. picked out a breeding plumaged Common Loon on the lake, and a Belted Kingfisher flew over, up to 194 with plenty of birds to be added over the next four hours! Was 200+ possible, what we have dreamed about this whole time?
Distant Cattle Egrets, we ended up seeing another one at Baldwin Lake!
Common Loon, Mike W also found a pair at the end of the day at Mermet as well!
Snow Geese, we saw around 50 during the day!
5:00 pm Jackson County
On the way into Oakwood Bottoms, just to the north we added our first Black Vultures of the day, 195. The day prior, I found dozens of Little Blue Herons in the lowering moist soil units, and sure enough they were still there, 196. On a past blitz, I remembered seeing a roosting, Black-crowned Night Heron at a nearby pond just south of the road, and sure enough I walked in and one was there, 197!
We then went to Grand Tower but DIPPED on the two Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that were there the day prior. There is a much easier species in Union County but required more time.
Great and Snowy Egrets and Little Blue Herons
5:45pm: Union County
The day before I scouted out all of the summering warblers I thought we would need by this time since Sand Ridge does not have most of them. We made a quick stop for Hooded and Yellow-throated Warblers while entering, and we were at 199. The Cerulean Warbler spot was on up a ways, but someone was like, what if that was our 200th for the day, and I agreed, so we went right to that spot. It took a while, but eventually I saw that small white and blue bird with that neckless just above my head and yelled “I HAVE THE CERULEAN” for our 200th species of the day, HOLY COW! We then added Worm-eating Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush for 202!
We missed Mississippi Kite in the bottoms and Mark had a spot scouted out in Jonesboro from previous years and I quickly picked out a distant one on top of a tree while driving through the town for 203. We then and checked the BBWD spot near Cobden and sure enough saw the continuing few dozen Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, mostly starting to roost in the trees above the house for 204! It was around 7:00pm now.
We then hit a staked-out spot for Prairie Warbler for 205, then charged to Mermet Lake in hopes of adding a duck or Yellow-crowned Night Heron for the day with no luck.
THE 200th, the Cerulean Warbler! What an special bird for our 200th!
Distant Mississippi Kite
The group (minus me) at one of our last stops of the day
So, 205 species it was, we were all very excited and extremely satisfied with our efforts. We did have some missed species, but luckily saw 96% of our tier A list. Our missed A birds include:
We saw 20 species of waterfowl, 21 shorebirds, 8 waders, 9 flycatchers, 13 sparrows, and 30 warbler species!
Our list from the day is below! Thanks for reading!
The route! Around 750 miles!
272 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!