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Team Sapsucker's Big Day Plan

article spread
by Gustave Axelson
Photographs by Chris Wood

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."

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Support Team Sapsucker

Find out how they fared—and donate to the cause—at our Big Day website.