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Team Sapsucker Goes “Gigante” With 275 Species on Big Day 2014

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On Saturday, May 3, 2014, Team Sapsucker completed their “El Gigante” Big Day run with an astonishing 275 species in 24 hours. The total is the highest Big Day score ever reported from the region, and in North America it is second only to the record the Sapsuckers set themselves in Texas, last year.

The route started at midnight outside Tucson, Arizona, with #1, a rare Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. One flat tire, a vehicle change, and three encounters with the Border Patrol later, the day wrapped up in La Jolla, California, at 10:38 p.m., with the shrill call of #275, a Wandering Tattler.

Big Day is the Cornell Lab’s biggest conservation fundraiser of the year, and their tally is spectacular for what was essentially an untried, largely hypothetical route. After last year’s nearly perfect 294-species Big Day in Texas, the team turned its attention to the 500 bird-rich miles connecting Tucson and San Diego. Though the team had only a scant week to scout for reliable locations in unfamiliar country, they estimate that they finished the Big Day with fewer than 10 painful “dips,” or expected-but-missed species.

And backing up those misses were clutch sightings thanks to Chris Wood’s birding-while-driving skills (Greater Roadrunner, Gilded Flicker), Tim Lenz’s long-distance-gulling ability (Lesser Black-backed Gull), Jessie Barry’s whistling prowess (Montezuma Quail), Brian Sullivan and Andrew Farnsworth’s unsurpassed raptor vision, and Marshall Iliff’s call-note reflexes (Wandering Tattler).

“We’re extraordinarily pleased,” Iliff said of the day’s birding. “It’s such a huge challenge to do that much bird watching that efficiently. But with the number of past Big Days we’ve done together and the teamwork we’ve developed, we don’t even have to talk about it anymore. We just know how to get people out of the car quickly, how to get people on a bird, how to respond to the driver. It’s like clockwork.”

Seven Owls Before Dawn

A Western Kingbird mobs a Harris’s Hawk in this photo from Scout Week.

The day started at midnight with three owls one after another: Ferruginous, Great Horned, and Elf. As the team shone their lights into a sewage pond looking for a sleeping Neotropic Cormorant and Ring-necked Duck they aroused the curiosity of the Border Patrol for the first time that day. “We just told him that we were doing a conservation fundraiser,” Chris said. “So many people go birdwatching around there that he immediately understood and wished us good luck. And then Marshall went back and asked him where an all-night gas station was—so it was kind of a lucky stop.”

Their first true morning spot, and possibly the biggest gamble of the day, was the desert grasslands. The Sapsuckers planned to be in place just before dawn, to hear the very first Grasshopper Sparrow, Botteri’s Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark songs, and to use the first rays of light to see a Chihuahuan Raven on its nest. The price they paid for these species was to spend the next hour of precious morning birding time driving to the top of Mt. Lemmon. But the gamble paid off, and the team got almost everything they expected in both the grasslands and the mountains, including Zone-tailed Hawk, Inca Dove, and Canyon Towhee.

By 9:51 a.m.—a full four minutes ahead of schedule—the team had left Tucson behind and were pointed toward the Salton Sea, where Farnsworth and Sullivan took over the lead, a little after midday.  “Basically, our strategy was to go to this incredibly birdy location and spend as little time there as possible,” Farnsworth said. Despite its thousands upon thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl, the Salton Sea involved more uncertainty than the Arizona spots. The birds are migrants, and they’re not tied to one reliable territory where they can be found time after time.

The team took the approach of visiting three or four good vantage points and spending 8 or 10 minutes at each. Everyone piled out of the vehicle and set up scopes, with individual roles assigned: look for ducks; look for phalaropes; look for Stilt Sandpipers; pick through gulls; scan for the one rare Ruff at the edge of the tall vegetation (which they found). Then get back in the car and keep going.

Birding the Flats

Andrew Farnsworth and Marshall Iliff take the stealth approach.

At the Salton Sea visitor center, Barry’s finely tuned ear picked up a high-pitched hissing that turned out to be air streaming out of the left rear tire. While half the team scoured the bushes for Common Ground-Doves, the other half put their contingency plan into effect, trading vehicles with scouter/support driver/photographer extraordinaire Tom Johnson. They tore out of the parking lot, leaving Johnson to discover that there was no jack in the rental vehicle he’d been left with.

By late afternoon they were through the mountains (having reluctantly left Mountain Quail and Gray Vireo behind them, but picking up Black-chinned Sparrow, the newly split Bell’s Sparrow, and a late Golden-crowned Sparrow). Now they were in chaparral, finding birds like Wrentit, California Thrasher, and California Towhee—and fighting the sun as they drove westward.

They stopped by a San Diego park and raised a few eyebrows among the Saturday afternoon picnickers as they dashed around the pond looking for one Greater White-fronted Goose amid scores of domestic geese and Mallards. When they found it, the bird was standing next to their vehicle, hidden by a small bush. “It was even calling the entire time—and they have a very distinctive call,” Iliff said, “but we didn’t hear it among the cacophony of the introduced geese.”

Even the dips weren’t total disasters. A trip into an obliging birder’s backyard failed to turn up the Lawrence’s Goldfinch that had been there all week, but the team did pick up Costa’s Hummingbird and a passing Peregrine Falcon. California Quail and Inca Doves seem to have become strangely rare along the route, but the team managed to pick them up. Missing the relatively common Ladder-backed Woodpecker in Arizona will go down as one of the most painful, along with Least Bittern, which is not just a hard bird to get but now something of a thorn in the Sapsuckers’ side. Year after year, they find the bird repeatedly during scout week only to miss it on the day.

A Call You Could Recognize in Your Sleep

They raced up to a vista of San Diego Bay just as the sun was setting and found themselves squinting for Least, Elegant, and Royal Terns against a sliver of setting sun. They also found Brant and Greater Scaup, but missed the relatively common Surf Scoter. Later, they found out Johnson had been watching one in the near distance while the team scanned farther out with their scopes. Big Day rules prohibited Johnson from saying anything during the event.

With the light draining out of the day the team swung by their California Gnatcatcher spot right on the Mexico border (giving them chance to say hello to the Border Patrol one more time). They dropped down into the Tijuana River Valley and rolled up at last to the Pacific Ocean to nab Clapper Rail, Red-throated Loon, Little Blue Heron, and to scan the horizon in the hope of a scoter or jaeger (which didn’t materialize).

After dark, the team drove up to La Jolla, where they knew they could see Brandt’s Cormorants in the dark. Energy levels were flagging. “Marshall was pretty catatonic by that point,” Barry said, “but when that Wandering Tattler started calling he was still able to scream it at the top of his lungs to make sure we all knew about it and didn’t miss it.” That was at 10:38 p.m., just about 24 hours since the team had gotten up for the drive out to their starting point. It was bird number 275.

Team Sapsucker at the start of the Big Day: Marshall Iliff, Andrew Farnsworth, Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, Brian Sullivan, and Tim Lenz.

Team Sapsucker and all of us at the Cornell Lab would like to thank everyone who threw their support behind this groundbreaking day of birding. If you’d like to donate to the cause, there’s still time.

Team Sapsucker also thanks all the scouters and local birders who gave their time and knowledge to help them put together such a successful route. In particular, they appreciate the expert scouting help of Andy Guthrie, Ken Rosenberg, and Tom Johnson (who also drove support and took photographs during the Big Day).

For route advice and local bird intel they send big thanks to John Arnett, Linda Benzinger, Barbara Carlson, Andrew Core, Laurens Halsey, Jen Johnson, Eric Kallen, Ken Kurland, Andy Laurenzi, Paul Lehman, Guy McCaskie, Gary Nunn, Scott Olmstead, Jerry and Cookie Popham, Scott Richardson, Gary Rosenberg, Will Russell, Matt Sadowski, Christian Schoneman, Tim Spahr, Mark Steward, Mark Stevenson, Naupaka Zimmerman, and the folks at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. They’d also like to thank the great community of eBirders and regional editors living in Arizona and California.

For anyone considering a similar run, or just curious about this epic day of birding, here’s the official list:

1. Greater White-fronted Goose
2. Snow Goose
3. Brant
4. Canada Goose
5. Wood Duck
6. Gadwall
7. American Wigeon
8. Mallard
9. Blue-winged Teal
10. Cinnamon Teal
11. Northern Shoveler
12. Northern Pintail
13. Green-winged Teal
14. Canvasback
15. Redhead
16. Ring-necked Duck
17. Greater Scaup
18. Lesser Scaup
19. Long-tailed Duck
20. Bufflehead
21. Hooded Merganser
22. Red-breasted Merganser
23. Ruddy Duck
24. California Quail
25. Gambel’s Quail
26. Montezuma Quail
27. Wild Turkey
28. Red-throated Loon
29. Pied-billed Grebe
30. Eared Grebe
31. Western Grebe
32. Clark’s Grebe
33. Brandt’s Cormorant
34. Neotropic Cormorant
35. Double-crested Cormorant
36. American White Pelican
37. Brown Pelican
38. Great Blue Heron
39. Great Egret
40. Snowy Egret
41. Little Blue Heron
42. Cattle Egret
43. Green Heron
44. Black-crowned Night-Heron
45. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
46. White-faced Ibis
47. Black Vulture
48. Turkey Vulture
49. Osprey
50. White-tailed Kite
51. Northern Harrier
52. Cooper’s Hawk
53. Harris’s Hawk
54. Red-shouldered Hawk
55. Gray Hawk
56. Swainson’s Hawk
57. Zone-tailed Hawk
58. Red-tailed Hawk
59. Clapper Rail
60. Sora
61. Common Gallinule
62. American Coot
63. Black-necked Stilt
64. American Avocet
65. Black-bellied Plover
66. Snowy Plover
67. Semipalmated Plover
68. Killdeer
69. Spotted Sandpiper
70. Wandering Tattler
71. Greater Yellowlegs
72. Willet
73. Lesser Yellowlegs
74. Whimbrel
75. Long-billed Curlew
76. Marbled Godwit
77. Ruddy Turnstone
78. Red Knot
79. Ruff
80. Stilt Sandpiper
81. Sanderling
82. Dunlin
83. Least Sandpiper
84. Western Sandpiper
85. Short-billed Dowitcher
86. Long-billed Dowitcher
87. Wilson’s Phalarope
88. Red-necked Phalarope
89. Bonaparte’s Gull
90. Franklin’s Gull
91. Heermann’s Gull
92. Ring-billed Gull
93. Western Gull
94. Yellow-footed Gull
95. California Gull
96. Herring Gull
97. Lesser Black-backed Gull
98. Least Tern
99. Gull-billed Tern
100. Caspian Tern
101. Black Tern
102. Forster’s Tern
103. Royal Tern
104. Elegant Tern
105. Black Skimmer
106. Rock Pigeon
107. Band-tailed Pigeon
108. Eurasian Collared-Dove
109. White-winged Dove
110. Mourning Dove
111. Inca Dove
112. Common Ground-Dove
113. Greater Roadrunner
114. Barn Owl
115. Flammulated Owl
116. Western Screech-Owl
117. Whiskered Screech-Owl
118. Great Horned Owl
119. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
120. Elf Owl
121. Burrowing Owl
122. Lesser Nighthawk
123. Common Poorwill
124. Mexican Whip-poor-will
125. Vaux’s Swift
126. White-throated Swift
127. Magnificent Hummingbird
128. Black-chinned Hummingbird
129. Anna’s Hummingbird
130. Costa’s Hummingbird
131. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
132. Broad-billed Hummingbird
133. Acorn Woodpecker
134. Gila Woodpecker
135. Nuttall’s Woodpecker
136. Downy Woodpecker
137. Hairy Woodpecker
138. Arizona Woodpecker
139. Northern Flicker
140. Gilded Flicker
141. American Kestrel
142. Peregrine Falcon
143. Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
144. Olive-sided Flycatcher
145. Greater Pewee
146. Western Wood-Pewee
147. Hammond’s Flycatcher
148. Gray Flycatcher
149. Pacific-slope Flycatcher
150. Cordilleran Flycatcher
151. Buff-breasted Flycatcher
152. Black Phoebe
153. Say’s Phoebe
154. Vermilion Flycatcher
155. Dusky-capped Flycatcher
156. Ash-throated Flycatcher
157. Brown-crested Flycatcher
158. Cassin’s Kingbird
159. Western Kingbird
160. Loggerhead Shrike
161. Bell’s Vireo
162. Plumbeous Vireo
163. Cassin’s Vireo
164. Hutton’s Vireo
165. Warbling Vireo
166. Steller’s Jay
167. Western Scrub-Jay
168. Mexican Jay
169. American Crow
170. Chihuahuan Raven
171. Common Raven
172. Horned Lark
173. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
174. Purple Martin
175. Tree Swallow
176. Violet-green Swallow
177. Bank Swallow
178. Barn Swallow
179. Cliff Swallow
180. Mountain Chickadee
181. Bridled Titmouse
182. Oak Titmouse
183. Verdin
184. Bushtit
185. Red-breasted Nuthatch
186. White-breasted Nuthatch
187. Pygmy Nuthatch
188. Brown Creeper
189. Rock Wren
190. Canyon Wren
191. House Wren
192. Marsh Wren
193. Bewick’s Wren
194. Cactus Wren
195. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
196. California Gnatcatcher
197. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
198. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
199. Wrentit
200. Western Bluebird
201. Swainson’s Thrush
202. Hermit Thrush
203. American Robin
204. Curve-billed Thrasher
205. California Thrasher
206. Crissal Thrasher
207. Northern Mockingbird
208. European Starling
209. American Pipit
210. Cedar Waxwing
211. Phainopepla
212. Olive Warbler
213. Orange-crowned Warbler
214. Lucy’s Warbler
215. Nashville Warbler
216. Virginia’s Warbler
217. MacGillivray’s Warbler
218. Common Yellowthroat
219. Yellow Warbler
220. Yellow-rumped Warbler
221. Grace’s Warbler
222. Black-throated Gray Warbler
223. Townsend’s Warbler
224. Hermit Warbler
225. Wilson’s Warbler
226. Red-faced Warbler
227. Painted Redstart
228. Yellow-breasted Chat
229. Green-tailed Towhee
230. Spotted Towhee
231. Rufous-crowned Sparrow
232. Canyon Towhee
233. California Towhee
234. Abert’s Towhee
235. Rufous-winged Sparrow
236. Botteri’s Sparrow
237. Chipping Sparrow
238. Black-chinned Sparrow
239. Lark Sparrow
240. Black-throated Sparrow
241. Bell’s Sparrow
242. Savannah Sparrow
243. Grasshopper Sparrow
244. Song Sparrow
245. Lincoln’s Sparrow
246. White-crowned Sparrow
247. Golden-crowned Sparrow
248. Dark-eyed Junco
249. Yellow-eyed Junco
250. Hepatic Tanager
251. Summer Tanager
252. Western Tanager
253. Northern Cardinal
254. Pyrrhuloxia
255. Black-headed Grosbeak
256. Blue Grosbeak
257. Lazuli Bunting
258. Red-winged Blackbird
259. Tricolored Blackbird
260. Eastern Meadowlark
261. Western Meadowlark
262. Yellow-headed Blackbird
263. Brewer’s Blackbird
264. Great-tailed Grackle
265. Bronzed Cowbird
266. Brown-headed Cowbird
267. Hooded Oriole
268. Bullock’s Oriole
269. Scott’s Oriole
270. House Finch
271. Red Crossbill
272. Pine Siskin
273. Lesser Goldfinch
274. American Goldfinch
275. House Sparrow

(All photos by scouter/support driver/photographer extraordinaire Tom Johnson.)

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library