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Big Day 2016: Team Sapsucker Sets New Colorado Record With 232 Species

By Hugh Powell
Team Sapsucker on their second midnight of the day. L to R: Marshall Iliff, Andrew Farnsworth, Jessie Barry, Brian Sullivan, Tim Lenz, Chris Wood. Photo by Jessie Barry.

For additional Global Big Day coverage, see: eBird’s roundup of Global Big Day results (more than 6,300 species, nearly 17,000 participants in 145 countries); and our story on Team Redheads’ victories at the 2016 World Series of Birding.

Over the 24 hours of Saturday, May 14, 2016, the Cornell Lab’s Team Sapusucker battled tire-shredding roads and roaring winds to find 232 species in southeastern Colorado, a new state record. Along the way they enjoyed one of the best migration days of the year, scored double-digit owl species, found surprising rarities, and enjoyed possibly their best dawn stop ever as marsh birds and waterfowl decorated a high lake and the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains provided a stunning backdrop.

It all started with a roadside stop in the Wet Mountains southwest of Pueblo, Colorado, at midnight. No fewer than four Flammulated Owls were hooting in the still night air. Their resonant notes were joined by the sharp piping of a Northern Saw-whet Owl and then a Northern Pygmy-Owl. Finally, from far in the distance, came the first inkling that luck might be with the Sapsuckers as they heard Mexican Spotted Owl, a federally threatened subspecies with only perhaps a dozen breeding pairs in the state.

Team Captain Chris Wood, a Denver native, had picked out this isolated part of the Rockies as having some of the best owling in North America. Sure enough at their next stop the team picked up three more—Western Screech-Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Great Horned Owl—en route to a total of 10 owls for the entire day.

At the first hint of dawn light the Sapsuckers were on the frosty shorelines of Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, bundled into down jackets and enjoying a marsh-bird symphony: an estimated 80 Soras and 30 Marsh Wrens, plus American Bitterns, Virginia Rails, the screeching of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and the winnowing of Wilson’s Snipe.

At nearby San Luis Lakes State Park, as the team scanned across silhouetted Least Sandpipers, the drooping bill and black potbelly of a Dunlin stood out. The day’s first rarity had come before the sun had risen.

As the light came up, Tim Lenz noticed a Franklin’s-like gull with long wings and fully black wingtips—another rare find for the region, Laughing Gull. Working at the limits of his Swarovski 95-mm scope, Chris Wood picked out the dumpy, drawn-out shape of a Long-tailed Duck in flight. Meanwhile, Andrew Farnsworth had been scanning the skies and now he saw a group of 11 Forster’s Terns dropping to the lake from almost invisible heights. This was the first hint that weather conditions had come together to create a series of migrant fallouts that would boost their list throughout the day.

Their route saw the Sapsuckers hopscotching from national forests to state parks, Nature Conservancy preserves, private ranches, reservoirs, rangelands, and more. Wood sees the mix of land ownerships as key to the team’s success. “In order to see the largest number of species, we needed to go to places that were managed by different people in different ways.” Wood said, “That kind of touches on what the Lab does. We don’t own land, but we try to provide the best science and resources like eBird, Macaulay Library, and Education for people to make their own informed decisions. And now here we were benefiting from those varied approaches.”

By 7:30 a.m., the Sapsuckers found themselves revisiting a long-standing tradition: getting a flat tire on a Big Day. It was their earliest flat tire in Big Day history, forcing the team to forgo critical early morning birding plans and head into Fort Garland, where all the service stations were closed. A sympathetic cashier at the grocery store called up Phil, a mechanic who had just returned from a wedding in Denver the night before. Despite the hour, Phil cheerfully got the Sapsuckers rolling again with just over 60 minutes gone from the clock.

The Sapsuckers plan their Big Day routes down to the minute, and this hiccup led to some hasty revisions. Out the window went the highest elevation tundra and spruce-fir species: White-tailed Ptarmigan, Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Fox Sparrow, American Three-toed Woodpecker. The team had picked up American Pipit as a flyover earlier in the morning. It was their only alpine species of the day.

They also had to give up going to the canyonlands in search of Canyon Wren and a couple of species just beginning to stretch their range into Colorado: Acorn Woodpecker and Grace’s Warbler. That windfall of unexpected birds at dawn had just been counterbalanced by their wait in Fort Garland. At this point, the most hopeful aspect of the day was that flock of Forster’s Terns at dawn, and the possibility that more migrants might be doing the same along their route.

Nevertheless, the team held out hope they could still break the state record of 204 species. “We could see that number was in the cards even when we were back in Ithaca,” said Jessie Barry. “During scout week it was clear we had found a lot of those birds, and then it was looking like a really solid weather day. And it’s our seventh or eighth year together as a team so we know how to put those birds together.”

“We couldn’t have done it without the help of the Colorado birding community,” added Wood. “I know Colorado well but didn’t know the current situation, so just being able to use eBird and see where birds had been seen in the last 10 years was great. But beyond that, people were so generous with their advice and information and welcomed us into their state.”  In particular, Wood said, biologist Duane Nelson helped with Piping Plover and other birds at the eastern end of the route. Mark Peterson, a veteran of many Colorado Big Days was also generous with details, advice, and locations. (See sidebar for the team’s full thank-you list.)

Burrowing Owl by Lora
Burrowing Owl by Lora via Birdshare.

After canvassing the mountains, the Sapsuckers’ white SUV headed around Pueblo on I-25 and then east, picking up a nesting Osprey and soaring Mississippi Kites as the team headed to Chico Basin Ranch. The sprawling pastures were dotted with patches of trees that seemed to have sucked in all of the past night’s migrants, including Northern Parula, Blue-winged Warbler, and four species of Empidonax flycatchers. In all they added 27 species, a bonanza considering it was 3:00 in the afternoon. A strong south wind had settled in, blowing at a sustained 20 or 30 mph and driving the Sapsuckers into the lee of their vehicle to try and keep their scopes steady. The wind remained a constant adversary for the rest of the day as the team searched the wide open spaces for birds like Burrowing Owl, Mountain Plover, and Ferruginous Hawk.

The most painful misses came in the afternoon. Earlier in the week, Barry had clambered down a creek bank, past barbed wire and under a bridge to find the only Black Phoebe nest for miles around. But today the young had fledged and moved with their parents off down the drainage. And at 6:00 p.m., still needing to make up time from the morning’s flat tire, the crew made another hard decision: axing the 20-minute drive to a precious Piping Plover nest.

Black Tern by Roger Kirchen via Birdshare.

Instead, they visited Thurston Reservoir, a cattail marsh reminiscent of a prairie pothole lake. It had a sublime view in store for them.  “We ran up to the spot, put the binos up, and it was like, ‘Oh wow, Black Tern. I got one, Oh wow I got another one,'” Barry recalled. A full scan turned up 330 Black Terns—migrants settling onto the marsh just like the Forster’s Terns at dawn. “There were 5 or 6 Black Terns in my field of view at any one time,” Barry said. “Black Tern is such a gorgeous bird when you see it hovering low over the water, and there were so many birds in the sky, with like 10 swallows between every Black Tern, and thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds on the edge of the marsh.”

Dusk came on as the SUV cruised empty farm roads, the team cupping their ears to catch the insect-like trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow over the blustering wind. Their last two birds were Eastern Screech-Owl at 9:00 p.m., a nice bookend to the Western Screech-Owl they’d heard 16 hours earlier; and a Bald Eagle on a nest, silhouetted in the moonlight at 9:28 p.m. From then until midnight, the team visited marsh after marsh to listen for Black Rail—one of the most elusive rails in North America but also fairly common in these marshes—but the wind was relentless. Brian Sullivan heard one in the same spot he had scouted it a day or two earlier, but no one else could pick out the kee-kee-kerr over the background noise.

At midnight the tally was in: 232 species and a new record for Colorado. Above and beyond the incredible birds, “it was pretty nice to do a big day in a place that’s so beautiful,” Wood said. “Having the Sangre de Cristos and the Spanish Peaks in the background to look at—those are just beautiful, beautiful areas.”

Here’s the full species list for the day (taxonomic order):

1. Snow Goose
2. Canada Goose
3. Wood Duck
4. Gadwall
5. American Wigeon
6. Mallard
7. Blue-winged Teal
8. Cinnamon Teal
9. Northern Shoveler
10. Northern Pintail
11. Green-winged Teal
12. Canvasback
13. Redhead
14. Ring-necked Duck
15. Lesser Scaup
16. Long-tailed Duck
17. Bufflehead
18. Common Goldeneye
19. Common Merganser
20. Ruddy Duck
21. Scaled Quail
22. Ring-necked Pheasant
23. Wild Turkey
24. Pied-billed Grebe
25. Eared Grebe
26. Western Grebe
27. Clark’s Grebe
28. Double-crested Cormorant
29. American White Pelican
30. American Bittern
31. Least Bittern
32. Great Blue Heron
33. Great Egret
34. Snowy Egret
35. Black-crowned Night-Heron
36. White-faced Ibis
37. Turkey Vulture
38. Osprey
39. Golden Eagle
40. Mississippi Kite
41. Northern Harrier
42. Sharp-shinned Hawk
43. Cooper’s Hawk
44. Bald Eagle
45. Broad-winged Hawk
46. Swainson’s Hawk
47. Red-tailed Hawk
48. Ferruginous Hawk
49. Virginia Rail
50. Sora
51. American Coot
52. Black-necked Stilt
53. American Avocet
54. Black-bellied Plover
55. Snowy Plover
56. Semipalmated Plover
57. Killdeer
58. Mountain Plover
59. Spotted Sandpiper
60. Willet
61. Lesser Yellowlegs
62. Marbled Godwit
63. Stilt Sandpiper
64. Sanderling
65. Dunlin
66. Baird’s Sandpiper
67. Least Sandpiper
68. White-rumped Sandpiper
69. Semipalmated Sandpiper
70. Western Sandpiper
71. Long-billed Dowitcher
72. Wilson’s Snipe
73. Wilson’s Phalarope
74. Red-necked Phalarope
75. Bonaparte’s Gull
76. Laughing Gull
77. Franklin’s Gull
78. Ring-billed Gull
79. California Gull
80. Herring Gull
81. Black Tern
82. Forster’s Tern
83. Rock Pigeon
84. Band-tailed Pigeon
85. Eurasian Collared-Dove
86. White-winged Dove
87. Mourning Dove
88. Barn Owl
89. Flammulated Owl
90. Western Screech-Owl
91. Eastern Screech-Owl
92. Great Horned Owl
93. Northern Pygmy-Owl
94. Burrowing Owl
95. Spotted Owl
96. Long-eared Owl
97. Northern Saw-whet Owl
98. Common Nighthawk
99. Common Poorwill
100. Chimney Swift
101. White-throated Swift
102. Black-chinned Hummingbird
103. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
104. Lewis’s Woodpecker
105. Red-headed Woodpecker
106. Williamson’s Sapsucker
107. Red-naped Sapsucker
108. Ladder-backed Woodpecker
109. Downy Woodpecker
110. Hairy Woodpecker
111. Northern Flicker
112. American Kestrel
113. Peregrine Falcon
114. Prairie Falcon
115. Olive-sided Flycatcher
116. Western Wood-Pewee
117. Willow Flycatcher
118. Least Flycatcher
119. Gray Flycatcher
120. Dusky Flycatcher
121. Eastern Phoebe
122. Say’s Phoebe
123. Ash-throated Flycatcher
124. Cassin’s Kingbird
125. Western Kingbird
126. Eastern Kingbird
127. Loggerhead Shrike
128. Plumbeous Vireo
129. Warbling Vireo
130. Pinyon Jay
131. Steller’s Jay
132. Blue Jay
133. Western Scrub-Jay
134. Black-billed Magpie
135. Clark’s Nutcracker
136. American Crow
137. Chihuahuan Raven
138. Common Raven
139. Horned Lark
140. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
141. Tree Swallow
142. Violet-green Swallow
143. Bank Swallow
144. Barn Swallow
145. Cliff Swallow
146. Black-capped Chickadee
147. Mountain Chickadee
148. Juniper Titmouse
149. Bushtit
150. Red-breasted Nuthatch
151. White-breasted Nuthatch
152. Pygmy Nuthatch
153. Brown Creeper
154. Rock Wren
155. House Wren
156. Marsh Wren
157. Bewick’s Wren
158. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
159. American Dipper
160. Golden-crowned Kinglet
161. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
162. Western Bluebird
163. Mountain Bluebird
164. Townsend’s Solitaire
165. Swainson’s Thrush
166. Hermit Thrush
167. American Robin
168. Gray Catbird
169. Curve-billed Thrasher
170. Brown Thrasher
171. Sage Thrasher
172. Northern Mockingbird
173. European Starling
174. American Pipit
175. Cedar Waxwing
176. Northern Waterthrush
177. Blue-winged Warbler
178. Orange-crowned Warbler
179. Virginia’s Warbler
180. MacGillivray’s Warbler
181. Common Yellowthroat
182. American Redstart
183. Northern Parula
184. Yellow Warbler
185. Yellow-rumped Warbler
186. Black-throated Gray Warbler
187. Townsend’s Warbler
188. Wilson’s Warbler
189. Yellow-breasted Chat
190. Cassin’s Sparrow
191. Grasshopper Sparrow
192. Chipping Sparrow
193. Clay-colored Sparrow
194. Brewer’s Sparrow
195. Lark Sparrow
196. Lark Bunting
197. Dark-eyed Junco
198. White-crowned Sparrow
199. Sagebrush Sparrow
200. Vesper Sparrow
201. Savannah Sparrow
202. Song Sparrow
203. Lincoln’s Sparrow
204. Canyon Towhee
205. Green-tailed Towhee
206. Spotted Towhee
207. Summer Tanager
208. Western Tanager
209. Northern Cardinal
210. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
211. Black-headed Grosbeak
212. Blue Grosbeak
213. Lazuli Bunting
214. Dickcissel
215. Bobolink
216. Red-winged Blackbird
217. Western Meadowlark
218. Yellow-headed Blackbird
219. Brewer’s Blackbird
220. Common Grackle
221. Great-tailed Grackle
222. Brown-headed Cowbird
223. Orchard Oriole
224. Bullock’s Oriole
225. House Finch
226. Cassin’s Finch
227. Red Crossbill
228. Pine Siskin
229. Lesser Goldfinch
230. American Goldfinch
231. Evening Grosbeak
232. House Sparrow



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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library