The concept of a Big Day is a bold one—a midnight-to-midnight sleepless birding blitz to see or hear as many species as humanly possible. Team Sapsucker—Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, Andrew Farnsworth, Marshall Iliff, and Tim Lenz—took on that challenge in Texas last year, setting the North American record at 264, and then they doubled-down for Big Day 2012, drawing up a never-before-tried-route that they hoped would net them even more birds.
Their run started in San Antonio in the wee hours of Friday, April 27. After a promising start, misfortune struck in the form of an old nail at a city dump, traffic in Houston, and a late-day shift in the sea breeze. By the time the clock struck midnight, the team had tied their own record of 264 species, getting their final bird with just four minutes to spare.
Big Day 2012 began at midnight with a Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Brackenridge City Park in San Antonio, then a sweep through the city that included a nesting American Robin beneath a streetlight. A flashlight scan yielded a swimming Least Grebe (as Barn and Great Horned owls called), and a bevy of ducks in the moonlight: Canvasbacks, Redheads, Wood Ducks, and Northern Pintails. Three of the team also heard an Elf Owl, but the other two missed it—crucially, as it turned out.
At daybreak, the Sapsuckers scooted west toward Uvalde, an area rich in Mexican birds. During scouting, Iliff had drawn up a plan to connect the dots between the birds, timed to when they began singing at dawn—a Tropical Kingbird at 6:20 a.m., a Green-tailed Towhee at 6:55 a.m., then a Ringed Kingfisher that regularly flew by the same spot at Chalk Bluff Park at 7:08 a.m. The Sapsuckers arrived at 7:04, but the kingfisher didn’t show. A precious half-hour ticked by. The team scooped up a Rufous-capped Warbler—one of very few records ever in the state—and an unexpected American Pipit, but still no Ringed Kingfisher. From there, the team rolled into the Uvalde Fish Hatchery, where the hatchery manager had granted the team special access to pick up Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Duck, and Yellow-rumped Warbler—three species the team didn’t see anywhere else during the day.
Next, the team made the fateful decision to go for a Chihuahuan Raven at the Uvalde city dump. They pursued one to the top of the landfill before a whishing sound grabbed their attention: a nail protruding from a rapidly deflating tire. And the spare tire storage mechanism wouldn’t release.
Time to call it quits and try again the following day? Not for team captain Chris Wood. “There are no ‘re-dos’ in Big Day,” he said. “A hockey team couldn’t get into the Stanley Cup playoffs, then decide they’re having a bad day and they want to try again tomorrow. Same thing with Big Day.”
The Sapsuckers pulled into Garza’s Radiator Shop in Uvalde and Wood, speaking Spanish, persuaded the repair man to do a quick fix. “Evidently, he likes birds,” Wood said. Farnsworth sprinted two miles to an ATM while Iliff, Barry, and Lenz huddled around their computer to recalibrate the route. Within 30 minutes the Sapsuckers were back on the road. They had to drop a few locations (and birds) from their route to make up time, but soon the team was in the Hill Country, where they nailed Black-capped Vireo, Golden-cheeked Warbler, and Varied Bunting in short order. Iliff called in a Greater Roadrunner, and by 11:08 the team was leaving the Hill Country for Houston—30 minutes behind schedule, but at roughly 150 birds for the day, a little ahead of where they had hoped to be on their Big Day list thus far.
On the four-hour drive to Houston, Farnsworth used his uncanny skill at long-distance spotting, picking out Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Franklin’s Gull from his seat in the back. When the team pulled over to verify the gull they found themselves standing atop a fire ant nest. A painful price, yet worth it, for a bonus bird that migrates at high altitudes and often flies right over Texas.
Near Houston, misfortune returned. Rice fields that were brimming with water, and waterfowl, just a day earlier were almost completely dried up. A flock of 25 Hudsonian Godwits was gone. A few shorebirds pecked around in the muck: Wilson’s Phalarope, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. In a patch of piney woods in Houston, the Sapsuckers hit eastern species including Downy, Red-bellied, and Red-headed woodpeckers and Prothonotary and Pine warblers, but missed Great Crested Flycatcher. The misses were adding up.
So was the traffic in Houston. Still 30 minutes behind schedule, the Sapsuckers hit rush hour. Farnsworth used driving skills honed in Manhattan to weave through the gridlock and reach the route’s most critical point: the ferry to Port Bolivar. Miss that 4:30 connection, and their Big Day would be over. But the team arrived 15 minutes early—enough time for the authorities to conduct a full inspection of this suspicious-looking car filled with five people with binoculars. The team netted a Magnificent Frigatebird during the crossing, and the ferry arrived in port one minute early.
At Bolivar Flats, the team marched down the beach to rack up several gulls and terns, along with a Lesser Scaup, though they missed American White Pelican. In trees just off the beach, the team found a cluster of eastern migrants such as Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and Baltimore Oriole. At High Island, a legendary spot for migratory songbirds, they scored 15 species in 75 minutes, including Cerulean, Magnolia, and Blackpoll warblers.
But then the sun went down, the winds picked up, and the birding came to a grinding halt. At Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge the team listened for marsh birds in the dark for three hours, adding only Seaside Sparrow, Yellow and King rails, and Common Gallinule. At 11:56 p.m., a Purple Gallinule called once, and that was it. The final bird for Friday, April 27.
Thirty seconds after midnight, several gallinules erupted into a chorus of laughter, and Team Sapsucker laughed right along with them. “It had been a tough day, and we all needed a good laugh,” Wood said.
Minutes later, Iliff tallied the day’s score in the dark, his face illuminated by the glow of his laptop screen. Jubilation at first—265 species, a new record!—then mellowed with the realization that the team had to subtract some birds due to the 95 percent rule. This rule states that 95 percent of the birds on a team’s list must be seen by everyone on the team. Upon double-checking the numbers, Iliff realized that that Elf Owl in San Antonio wasn’t unanimous. Off the list it came, and the day’s tally dropped to 264—a repeat of the record.
In tying the record—tallying 11 new species every hour of the day, or one new species every five and a half minutes, all day long—the Sapsuckers proved once again how remarkable a record of 264 species in 24 hours really is. More importantly, though, the generosity of all of our Big Day donors helped us raise needed funds for the Lab’s conservation work. Sponsorship by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics ensured that all donations go directly to conservation.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Sapsuckers aren’t already thinking about getting just one more. As Farnsworth said, “We’ll definitely be coming back to Texas again next year.”
Though next time, they might avoid the dump.
Special Thank-You Video From Team Sapsucker
On the day after Big Day, the members of Team Sapsucker took a few minutes to say a big thank-you to all who donated or pledged in our biggest fundraiser of the year.
And for those of you keeping track at home, here’s Team Sapsucker’s Final Big Day 2012 List
(in taxonomic order)
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Green Warbler
Le Conte’s Sparrow