On April 20th, 2022, Ben Lucking and I completed a birding big day across the Southern United States. We saw 272 species on this single day, representing the third-highest species total ever to be found in one day in this country! Below is the full story about this extremely adventurous day!
Before I go too far into the story, below is a link to the story I posted with information leading up to the day, our thought processes, all of the hard work before the day, etc that I posted back in May:
Summer Tanager from Smith Oaks Sanctuary during the scouting day
I intended to post this way back within a week or two of this occurring, but between school, bird counts, work, and the planning of my own Illinois AND our Michigan big days, I got wrapped up and never got this completed. So, here’s a story of one of the most fun, thrilling, and adventurous days of my life, a big day from Texas to Arizona, all in ONE day. This was a “pilot run” and see if it was doable and was ran all based on our curiosity. The “doable” part is referring to flying in the middle of the day to a completely different region in the United States to see as many different bird species in a day as possible (also see my initial post above explaining why we decided to do this).
1:30 AM: Houston, Texas
Because of the time change in Arizona (two hours behind CDT in April), we had to start at 2:00 AM to finish at midnight in Arizona. Ben and I were waking up from a mostly restless night of sleep. We arrived at our hotel just after 9:00 PM and both of us had a hard time sleeping that night. I stayed up late, going back and forth on ebird, our tiered species list, our schedule, and making last-minute changes as usual. This was my “first” big day of the year (first of many to come) and I had to be prepared to conquer this fight, as we had a CHALLENGING day ahead of us. Between all of this and being a very anxious person, let alone about what was to come, I hardly slept a minute, although on most big days this is usually what happens with my sleep schedule the night before.
We only had about a 20-minute drive to the first spot (Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary) to hopefully get some owls and nightjars
Our tentative plan along with the clock as we were leaving our hotel
We pulled into the Sanctuary RIGHT before 2:00 AM. We just heard some robins nearby singing their heads off but those were just before our actual start time. Right at 2:00, I started playing Eastern Screech-Owl, and brought in a Barred Owl instead, our first species of the day! We desperately played nightjar calls and other owls without luck but added Northern Mockingbird and a flyover Swainson’s Thrush. We made a quick stop to hear what turned out to be some of our only American Robins of the day in a nearby lot and shot off to the east.
Barred Owl (photo by Ben Lucking)
We pulled into Memorial Park to hopefully get some staked out grebes. The day prior we checked to see if Least Grebes were still at a location I found on eBird and they were. With prior knowledge that Pied-billed Grebes call at night, we figured it was worth a try to see if Least was the same way, and they were! Not just Least but Pied-billed did as well! Plus, we added our first Red-winged Blackbirds.
3:00 AM: Sheldon Lake, Texas
With the latest Limpkin invasion in the last few years, this species can now be found in Eastern Texas at a few locations. We also learned that Limpkins call at night. We figured to give it a try and luckily scored some LIMPKINS calling at night! We left the north end of Sheldon Lake on time with 8 species for the morning, a lot lower than what I was used to on spring big days at 3:30 AM, haha!
4:00 AM: Anahuac NWR, Texas
We made a quick pass throughout this area at night, spotlighting birds around the area. Before arriving, we made more attempts at owls and nightjars but failed with this attempt. We added some quality birds here, including our only Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and Solitary Sandpiper for the day. We also found a spot with many King Rails calling right next to the road so that was a success!
Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, Mottled Duck, Common Gallinules, and American Coots (photo by Ben Lucking)
5:00 AM: Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
We reached the peninsula with still about an hour left until sunrise, and we needed some coastal marsh species. We made a quick stop at Tuna Road to add birds like Clapper Rail and Seaside Sparrow. Then we pulled into the Bolivar Shorebird Sanctuary and the first rays of light were hitting the horizon to the east. The marshes here were full of Clapper Rails, Common Yellowthroats, and others calling very loudly but added some species including Common Nighthawk and Virginia Rail. We parked the car and started RUNNING down the beach towards the tip, something we did several times throughout the day (run).
The shadows of Sanderlings and Dunlin dotted the beach as we ran the mile to the point. We got situated at the end and started scoping as there was finally enough light to identify birds. This was my first time in the region so the spectacle of all of the roosting shorebirds, especially the avocets was a sight to see for sure, as hundreds, if not thousands were at the tip. We started to pick out a few gull species, most of the tern species, key species of shorebirds such as Piping Plovers and even some Red Knots! I picked out a flyby first-year Iceland Gull that had been continuing while Ben was up trying to get some sparrows or anything else out of the dunes, which he turned up birds like Horned Lark and Savannah Sparrows. We ran back to the car and moved back up the peninsula, adding some Sedge Wrens that were for some reason silent during our predawn pass through the marsh.
Molting Red Knot with other shorebirds (in the middle)
Black Tern with some Forster's Terns
Iceland Gull doc shot as it quickly flew by (photo by Ben Lucking)
We drove east towards High Island, slightly behind schedule, but still adding birds. We needed to catch back up on time in order to stay on schedule. We made a quick stop at Rollover Pass, with no luck with Red-breasted Mergansers and American Oystercatchers we saw the day prior and continued onto High Island. Right before the small town, Ben pointed out a beautiful White-tailed Kite!
8:00 AM: High Island, Texas (Boy Scout Woods)
We pulled into Boy Scout Woods at 8:00 am on the dot, 15 minutes behind schedule, so we had to get in and out of there, which we did. Again, we ran around the preserve and tried to see as much as we could, seeing plenty of new birds for the day. Some of the best birds here included a Philadelphia Vireo, Blue-winged Warbler, and Magnolia Warbler. We only spent 25 minutes here.
8:30 AM: High Island, Texas (Smith Oaks Sanctuary)
We pulled into Smith Oaks just before 8:30. Our flight was at 11:45, just to keep that time in everyone’s mind while reading these next few paragraphs, out of Houston, about an hour away.
We needed to do a quick swipe at the nesting wading birds, go as far in the preserve as anyone could to try and see the Wood Stork that was continuing that we saw the day prior, and along the way throughout the preserve, see all of the neotropical migrants. In just 45 minutes, we went 2 miles, crisscrossing the preserve, and saw over 60 species during our time here. The best bird wasn’t even a bird we needed to absolutely find, it was the continuing Dusky-capped Flycatcher that we would hope to find in Arizona later in the day. SURPRISINGLY this was the ONLY flycatcher we would see during our time at the sanctuary, it was just a tad early for the other eastern flycatchers to be around plus the migrant species composition was not great that day. Also, I somehow spotted the continuing WOOD STORK just chilling next to a branch in the swamp on the southeast side. Besides these two great birds, the birds, especially the migrants were just okay. We were lucky to stumble upon a couple of Purple Gallinule (thanks to Ben for yelling it out), but somehow missed Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, which we saw plenty of the day prior. We saw PLENTY of warblers such as Worm-eating, Bay-breasted, and Wilson’s, but missed some hopefuls such as Swainson’s and Cerulean. Overall, it was a great experience, especially seeing many tanagers, buntings, and grosbeaks, but still had plenty of misses.
Dusky-capped Flycatcher (photo by Ben Lucking)
Wood Stork (photo by Ben Lucking)
Ben walking through Smith Oaks Sanctuary
Least Bittern on the right and adult Purple Gallinule hiding on the left (photo by Ben Lucking)
9:25 AM: Rice Fields north of High Island
The day prior we had scouted out which rice fields to focus on and what not to focus on. There were still hundreds, if not thousands of shorebirds to look through in the fields, a lot to look through when we only had at max ten minutes to spare. We quickly picked up American Golden-Plovers, Hudsonian Godwit, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, BUT missed a few species such as STILT SANDPIPER and White-rumped Sandpiper, both of which were around but due to time, we couldn’t spend time looking for them. We also quickly picked up Glossy Ibis in a flock of White-faced Ibis. Then we were off towards Houston for a 50-minute drive at 9:45 with a couple more stops to go, keep in mind our flight was at 11:45!
We had to miss the Whooping Cranes we staked out the day prior. Although only a 10 minutes detour, we had to skip because we simply did not have enough time. We still had one park to stop at, plus plenty of birds to look for on the way to Houston. We did add Red-shouldered and Broad-winged Hawks on the way to our last Texas stop!
Super distant breeding plumaged Hudsonian Godwit amongst other shorebirds
Distant Glossy Ibis (photo by Ben Lucking)
10:00 AM: White Memorial Park, Texas
We pulled in right after 10:00 am, only having time for AT MAX another 10-minute stop. We needed about 5-10 birds here alone but only added a few birds. Some key birds we added were common “eastern birds” that don’t quite reach High Island, such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, American Crow, Tufted Titmouse, and Pine Warbler but missing some such as Belted Kingfisher and Black-capped Chickadee. We were blazing out of here by 10:15 with still a 40-ish minute drive to the airport.
11:00 AM: Houston Hobby Airport, Texas
We pulled into a parking garage right at 11:00, with our flight being only 45 MINUTES from departing. I thought with being an only Southwest dependent/only airport, it would be easy to get through quickly (with it being a smaller airport) and we wouldn’t have any problems, WRONG! We waited at least 25 MINUTES in security and RAN so fast to our gate. Thankfully (and somehow) they were just starting to board so we were good to go. We got on, departed a few minutes early, and were on our way to Tucson, Arizona!
Ben and I did not sit together due to the ordering of seats with southwest, I spent my time going through the list because although I’d been watching it throughout the morning, I still hadn’t highlighted everything yet and needed to still know what we needed and where we stood for the day. There was NO time for a nap, it was time to continue to plan on the 2.5 hour flight. I figured if we stood at 180+ leaving the airport we’d have a chance at breaking the record or seeing 300+, we only stood at 161 for the day. Granted, we still had plenty to see and do for the rest of the day but seeing 130+ NEW species for the rest of the day was almost impossible based off of the calculations, but that’s okay! It was still going to be such a FUN afternoon. Also, keep in mind we picked a RANDOM day based on our schedules, not the best day possible, so I was still very happy with where we were!
We were still missing plenty of “easy” species I figured we’d have before now, such as Mallard, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Song Sparrow, plus some others like Canada Goose that I nearly see every day back at home and forgot how hard this species can be in the south! This was definitely out of my comfort zone in terms of big day birds so far but seeing 161 species with only 9 hours of birding, with driving and running all over the place, wasn’t terrible!
12:05 PM: Tucson, Arizona
Our flight landed a few minutes early and we were out, in the car before our flight was supposed to land. Thankfully we only used carry-ons, so we were running straight out to the car after we walked off the plane. Ben’s parents flew out a couple of days early and his dad picked us up from the airport for the next 12+ hours of birding. We were very thankful to his dad for doing this, it was such a benefit for our day.
Ben going down the escalator at the Tucson Airport
We shot straight down I19, south of Tucson, and made a quick stop for Gilded Flicker, with no luck, but we started seeing a few new southwest birds already. The best species was Rufous-winged Sparrow which was a crucial clinch for the day this early on in the afternoon.
Rufous-winged Sparrow (photo by Ben Lucking)
Ben and I running back to the car after the Rufous-winged Sparrow
We then made a quick stop at the Green Valley Sewage Ponds on the way out of Green Valley, which we only had 4 duck species for the DAY so far, both whistling ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Mottled Duck. On the way in, my friend Leo Miller gave me a pin for nesting Harris’s Hawks, check! Thankfully, at these sewage ponds, we saw 9 duck species, almost ALL of which were new, including a couple of goodies such as Cinnamon Teal, Mexican Duck, Northern Pintail, and Ring-necked Duck. We also added a few other new species for the day including Northern Rough-winged Swallow, American Pipit, and Brewer’s Blackbird!
We made a quick stop at a nearby park, hoping for Lewis’s Woodpecker, with no luck, but added a few other new ones including Curve-billed Thrasher and Abert’s Towhee!
Green Valley Water Treatment Plant (one pond)
Cinnamon Teal pair (photo by Ben Lucking)
Northern Pintail (photo by Ben Lucking)
Brewer's Blackbirds (photo by Ben Lucking)
Harris's Hawk hiding at its' nest
1:30 PM: Canoa Ranch, Arizona
We made a very quick stop at this park. As always, there were a lot of sparrows right near the parking lot and I very quickly got on a continuing Clay-colored Sparrow amongst the DOZENS of Brewer’s Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows. Also, there were some Redhead on the pond, a Costa’s Hummingbird, and some Black-throated Sparrows, among others nearby for some additions for the day!
Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Ben Lucking)
Brewer's Sparrow (photo by Ben Lucking)
2:00 PM: De Anza Trail, Tubac, Arizona
We arrived here just after 2 PM and were ready to add a bunch of new birds for the day. Ben and I ran out of the car and ran about a half mile down the trail, trying to go straight to the becard spot. It was hard with me leading the pack because I kept spotting birds flying in front of us as we RAN. A MacGillivray’s Warbler flew right in front of me, and we stopped quick enough to get both of us on this bird, a lifer for Ben! We were seeing plenty of new birds, such as Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets, Hammond’s Flycatchers, Bridled Titmouse, Lesser Goldfinches, Lucy’s Warblers, and plenty of others. We ran by my friend, Nolan Walker, who was guiding a group for the becard on the way down. Then we quickly continued to the becard nest, about a mile down the trail, and about a few minutes later, the female becard made a quick stop at the nest! An amazing bird for the big day! After this, we RAN back to the car to make sure we wouldn’t fall much behind time, although we were 15 minutes behind time but just hoped it was enough time to see as much as we could for a “good” total.
We made a quick stop for a roosting Barn Owl (no luck) and continued toward Patagonia. We also made a quick stop at the rest stop to get a few “canyon” species, without much luck.
Female Rose-throated Becard (photo by Ben Lucking)
MacGillivray's Warbler (photo by Ben Lucking)
Bridled Titmouse (photo by Ben Lucking)
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (photo by Ben Lucking)
Hammond's Flycatcher (photo by Ben Lucking)
Lucy's Warbler (photo by Ben Lucking)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher (photo by Ben Lucking)
Habitat at the De Anza Trail
3:40 PM: Patagonia, Arizona
We arrived at Patagonia just after 3:30 PM and went straight to Paton’s Center. Obviously, the primary goal was to see Violet-crowned Hummingbirds, but unlike most years, a couple of Ruddy Ground Doves were still lingering, as this species is usually just a winter vagrant. We very quickly saw a couple of ground doves near the parking lot. We then ran to the back to get great views of the Violet-crowned Hummingbird, among other hummingbirds such as Black-chinned, Anna’s, and one of my favorites, many Broad-billeds. Also, a few other new ones included Gambel’s Quail, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and many Lazuli Buntings.
Violet-crowned Hummingbird (photo by Ben Lucking)
Ruddy Ground Dove (photo by Ben Lucking)
Lazuli Buntings (photo by Ben Lucking)
4:15 PM: Sonoita, Arizona
We made a quick stop by the grasslands (Las Cienegas) just outside of town. On the way in, we saw some Chihuahuan Ravens and “Lillian’s” Eastern Meadowlarks. This previously was a subspecies of Eastern, “(Lillian’s) Eastern Meadowlark,” but is now Chihuahuan Meadowlark. We also added Grasshopper, Lark, and Vesper Sparrows for the day, and Ben found ANOTHER Clay-colored Sparrow, which is very good for this location!
Clay-colored Sparrow (photo by Ben Lucking)
5:00 PM: Ramsey Canyon Cabins, Arizona
Without thinking beforehand, I figured we could just pull into the brand-new Ramsey Canyon Cabins to look for the White-eared Hummingbirds later in the afternoon. I called just to make sure we could bird the property as we were going to arrive JUST after 5 PM. I called the property owners and one of the owners answered and said they are usually close to the public at five, but she was going to check with her partner. I explained we were in the middle of a US big day and were running slightly behind schedule. I got a call back not five minutes later saying we were MORE THAN WELCOME to stop by, amazing news! I was scared, stressed, and anxious about being able to stop here and to be given the go-ahead, I was so thankful for the opportunity to stop by so HUGE thanks to the property owners of this great location! It was a huge asset at the end of the day!
We pulled in just after 5 to the canyon with the property owners awaiting our arrival. We added a couple of birds on the way including AMERICAN KESTREL (yes we were STILL missing this).
We ran right to the feeders as Ben’s dad stayed behind to talk to the property owners about our efforts. We VERY quickly got on the White-eared Hummingbird, only the SECOND ever I’ve seen in the US and first-ever adult male, BEAUTIFUL!! We also added some more hummingbird species including Rivoli’s, Rufous, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. We had possible candidates for Calliope but didn’t have enough time to properly identify one and the photos were not conclusive. Ben and I made a quick walk around the property in hopes of a few other new birds, since this was our first time in the actual “mountains” for the day, we did add a couple including Mexican Jay, and Canyon Towhee.
Male White-eared Hummingbird (photo by Ben Lucking)
Ramsey Canyon Cabins, Arizona
5:25 PM: South of Sierra Vista, Arizona
We made a very quick pass before going up into Carr Canyon to some neighborhoods south of Sierra Vista. We did add a few on the way out of Ramsey Canyon, including Cactus Wren and even Eastern Bluebird (hard during our Texas portion, a small population is in the sky island mountains in Arizona). But the main purpose was to see Scaled Quail, which we saw in the first few seconds of arriving at our spot. We had other goals including Greater Roadrunner and Botteri’s Sparrow but did not want to waste precious time that should be spent higher up in Carr Canyon since sunset was approaching us VERY quickly.
6:00 PM: Carr Canyon, Arizona
Normally, I would have thought we were perfectly fine on time with sunset being 7:30 PM, putting aside the fact it took a long time to reach the Reef Campground (30+ minutes) and areas above the campground. Because this is on the east side of the Huachuca Mountains and the sunset sets to the west, this side of the mountains got darker much earlier than expected which I didn’t even think until we were there at 6:30 PM that day. Because of this, bird activity was VERY LOW. It was a STRUGGLE to get most of the Arizona specialties we had remaining, and we did miss MANY of our “needed” birds, but thankfully we were able to see plenty of birds we still needed for the day.
We pulled into the campground after making a few stops on the way up and added a few birds, including Canyon Wren, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend’s, and Hermit Warblers.
Hermit Warbler (photo by Ben Lucking)
Ben and I birding in the lower parts of the canyon. I had just heard a Canyon Wren
Carr Canyon, Arizona
We very quickly heard some Buff-breasted Flycatchers, and Ben eventually found one for some pictures. We eventually found some other birds, but we spent more time than we needed to head and spent thirty minutes here just for 15 species. Some other new birds included Arizona Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Yellow-eyed Junco, among a few others.
Buff-breasted Flycatcher (photo by Ben Lucking)
Beautiful view of the sunset from Reef Campground
We got the farthest we wanted to go on the trail, and it was nearly pitch dark. We wanted to start playing some owl calls to hopefully get a response from something. The first bird I tried was the Northern Pygmy-Owl. After a few seconds of playing the call, Ben silently says “look right below us”. I looked right below where we were standing, and not even 15 feet away, I saw this large silhouette just staring back at us. Similar to its cousin (the Barred Owl), sometimes Spotted Owls will pray smaller owl species, like in the morning when the Barred Owl came into the Screech-Owl call. This silhouette right below us was a STUNNING Spotted Owl staring right back at us and came into the Pygmy-Owl call. This was a species that was going to be tough and was on my “tier B” list, so seeing this was very exciting! I didn’t have enough time to get good pictures, but Ben luckily got good enough pictures despite the fading light! As we were walking back, Mexican Whip-poor-wills and Common Poorwill were starting to call, ringing echoes throughout the canyon.
Spotted Owl (photo by Ben Lucking)
We then worked our way down the canyon from the trail. We made a couple of stops for other species of owls. At the first stop, I picked out a distant Whiskered Screech-Owl calling, and after a few minutes, we both received the best looks we’d ever seen of this species. After this spot, we continued farther down the canyon and made one last stop, adding Western Screech-Owl and GREAT looks at Elf Owl, the smallest species of owl in North America.
We made a very quick stop in Sierra Vista for POSSIBLE Lesser Nighthawks, but it was just a tad bit earlier in the year and did not have luck.
Elf Owl (photo by Ben Lucking)
10:40 PM: Wilcox, Arizona
We still had a few “water bird species” to add for the day and our hope was to pull a trick that we tried in the morning, to spotlight some birds! Lake Cochise just outside of Wilcox is small enough that we can spotlight birds at night. We quickly positioned ourselves on the east side, and I gave Ben the flashlight, and I used my scope to scan around. I very quickly pointed out Green-winged Teal calling and flying around before we got set up.
After some scanning, I picked Eared Grebe and Bufflehead out very quickly amongst the hundreds of ducks on the lake. We did a quick stop on the west side and did the same thing, and I quickly pointed out some Wilson’s Phalaropes amongst the American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. We finally added Great Horned Owl as we were leaving, and off to Safford we went. It was just after 11:00 PM and we had a fifty-minute drive to our last spot.
11:55 PM: Graham County Regional Park, Arizona
We pulled into the County Park at exactly 11:55 PM. What were we looking for at 11:55 PM? Geese, yes GEESE! What kind of geese were we looking for? A single CANADA and Greater White-fronted Goose. Sure enough, within a minute, we were looking at both Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese at 11:56 PM at night!!! Now, what does that put us for the day???
Canada Goose (photo by Ben Lucking)
Greater White-fronted Goose (photo by Ben Lucking)
Throughout the afternoon, we did not count how many species we were at for the day. On ANY big day (besides our record-breaking IL big day, I did count how many we had seen throughout the day), I usually try not to count our species count for the day. I still highlight the lists/sheets to see what we are missing but try not to count how many species for the day for a “surprise” to see where we stand. It was past midnight, and both of us had stayed up for practically 24 hours of straight birding, the hardest I’ve probably birded in my life, but we all wanted to see where we stood for the day.
I knew between our misses in Texas, a few misses early in the early afternoon, and our problems with Arizona specialties at Carr Canyon, we were nowhere near a record-breaking finish, but no matter what, I was still extremely proud of our accomplishments for the day. Especially since we were just two birders from the Midwest running across the Southern US all in a day. SO much could have gone wrong but luckily SOMEHOW, we survived!
We just thought of this idea only a month prior AT MOST, only had a couple of references for scouting (BIG thanks to my friend Leo Miller for Arizona info among other friends of ours), and relied on the scouts, eBird reports, our past experiences with big days to plan for it, and intense studying which for 2 Midwest birders, still some Arizona birds were missed. This was still EXTREMELY impressive no matter where we stood and will be the most adventurous and one of the most fun days in my life.
I went through, finished highlighting our species, and started counting out the list. At the time, I finished with 271 (but now 272 with the addition of the meadowlark).
Although not record-breaking (294 species is the record), this is the THIRD highest EVER big day in the United States. This means this is the third-highest species total EVER seen in one day in the US by a group, our group! EXTREMELY EXCITING!
I am very thankful to Ben for presenting the idea and working so closely with one another to make this happen. I’m also EXTREMELY thankful to his parents to fly down and help us, especially his dad for driving us around from 12 PM at the Tucson Airport and getting back to our hotel at 2 AM. Below is list for the day!
Ben and I the next day as we were leaving Arizona
Here is our ebird map of the day of the locations we birded
Our birding locations in Texas in the morning
Our birding locations in Arizona in the afternoon
Below is our list for the day! Thanks everyone for reading and hope you enjoyed the story!