For most people, 264 species—the
North American record for birds
seen or heard in 24 hours—would
qualify as an epic day of birding.
For the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s
master birding team, the Sapsuckers, it
could have been better. Fair weather and
light winds failed to produce the flood of
migrants that the team had hoped for. “It
was a mediocre day at best, maybe even a
bad day for birds coming up out of Mexico,”
said Andrew Farnsworth, a Sapsucker
and a Cornell Lab research scientist.
The hope of better weather stokes the
team’s optimism for setting a new record
in this year’s Big Day attempt during
the last week of April—as well as raise
a record-setting sum for conservation.
Thanks to Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, the
team’s sponsor, all donations go directly
to support the Lab’s conservation work.
Last year, the Sapsuckers broke the
old record by three species as they birded
a Texas-sized triangle of more than
400 miles from San Antonio to the Hill
Country to Corpus Christi along the Gulf
Coast. It’s a diverse region where previous
Big Day records were set, an in-between zone where eastern and western
U.S. migrants mingle with Mexican species
and central Texas specialties.
This year, the team returns to Texas
with a bigger triangle strategy (stretching
up to 500 miles) that’s never been
tried before—San Antonio into the Hill
Country, then farther north up the Gulf
Coast to Galveston.
“It’s risky, because there’s more drive
time and fewer places to stop and bird.
But we’re expecting to get more birds
per stop,” said Marshall Iliff, team member
and co-project leader for eBird.
“We’ll be farther into the zone for eastern
migrants, so we’re hoping to get Pine
Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, and Downy
Woodpecker. And we’ll ride the ferry out
to Bolivar Flats, where we’re hoping to
pick up Snowy Plover, Red Knot, Shortbilled
Dowitcher, and Lesser Blackbacked
Gull. Plus, almost all the birds we
got on the Gulf Coast at Corpus last year
should still be in play.”
The Sapsuckers will hit Texas for a
week of scouting before their Big Day
run—finding go-to spots for some species,
like a singing Northern Parula in
Hill Country, and plotting a minute-
by-minute plan: from pre-dawn
owls to morning songbirds to afternoon
shorebirds and migrants to rails after
sundown. Farnsworth, the Sapsuckers’
weather expert, will study wind forecasts
to choose the day for their attempt.
Ideally, the team hopes for the perfect
storm—fair winds out of Mexico’s Yucatan
Peninsula smacking into a thundering
cold front from the north. In such storm
squalls, a windfall of warblers, sparrows,
vireos, cuckoos, Bobolinks, and
other birds abruptly halt their migration
across the Gulf and duck for cover along
the coast at High Island.
“In conditions like that, the birds
are too exhausted to keep going, and
if you’re in the right place on the coast
they’ll literally land at your feet,” said
Iliff. “The fallout from that event could
be more than 50 species, easy.”
That would push the Sapsuckers’
24-hour species total into the 280s. But
perfect storm or not, the Sapsuckers are
excited to try their new strategy.
“Last year, we followed what others
had done,” Iliff said. “This year, we’re
getting a little more creative. But it’ll be
the migrants that put us over the top."