On May 4, the Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker finished up 24 hours of Big Day birding with a cumulative list of 242 species (exceeding their goal of 225 species by 17 species). Spanning the U.S. Gulf Coast with teams located in Florida, Alabama, and Texas, Big Day 2019 combined our biggest conservation fundraiser of the year with a tribute to the Gulf’s incredible importance to migrating birds, with more than 2.1 billion birds passing through the region each spring.
At different points throughout the day, all three teams endured the same bad weather—a major front of ferocious thunderstorms and heavy downpours that turned out to be exactly what the teams needed. One key to big numbers on a Gulf Coast Big Day is migrant songbirds—but these species had been thin on the ground in the days leading up to the event. Typically, these birds take off from the Yucatán Peninsula in the evening and fly all night, some 600 miles, to reach the U.S. the next afternoon. Prevailing southerly winds in springtime often mean the birds can fly far inland before they land.
But on Big Day itself, bad weather forced migrants to battle heavy rain and north winds, leading many of the birds to land exhausted on the first strip of coast they could see. Team Sapsucker was there to greet them, on St. George Island, Florida; Dauphin Island, Alabama; and High Island, Texas. All told, the three teams tallied more than 1,900 individual migrant songbirds during the day, helping to push their team species totals to 131 for Team Florida, 191 for Team Alabama, and 193 for Team Texas.
We checked in with Jessie Barry of Team Florida, Chris Wood and Kathi Borgmann of Team Alabama, and Tim Lenz of Team Texas to get some of the highlights:
Team Florida (Franklin County, 131 species):
- Any key species highlights? First bird was a Green Heron at 4 a.m.; last for the combined list was a Merlin at 6:27 p.m. Other key additions were Swainson’s Warbler and Lesser Black-backed Gull.
- What about painful misses? “We were getting nervous about Downy Woodpecker by about 3 in the afternoon,” Barry said, but the team finally got it. Their main misses included generally low numbers of migrants, because of the weather (see next item).
- The weather factor: The weather system that hit Team Texas at 3 a.m. didn’t arrive in Florida until 8 p.m., when it was too dark to see any migrants that might have landed to dodge the weather. By Sunday morning, the team were seeing the first Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Swainson’s Thrushes they’d seen all week.
- Any breakthroughs with your route? “Restricting our Big Day to just one county made the birding more fun,” Barry said. “We were able to adjust our route based on our birding intuition, because we didn’t have so much distance that we had to cover.” The team scored a Reddish Egret by improvising a low-tide visit to an oyster bed, when they knew the bird might be foraging.
- What was the birding spot of the day? “Bald Point State Park,” Barry said. “There’s a sand spit, and when the tide drops there’s oyster beds, plus a huge bay with lots of ducks. You’re also looking at the ocean so we had scoters, gannets, frigatebird, and a really nice saltmarsh where we had Seaside Sparrow singing. It’s a really nice state park.”
- What was unique about Florida in the team effort? Pine flatwoods specialties like Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow, plus strong showings for late waterfowl and shorebirds such as Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, Common Loon, Marbled Godwit, and others.
Team Alabama (Mobile County, 191 species):
- Any key species highlights? First bird was an Eastern Screech-Owl at 2:22 a.m.; last for the combined list was a Green-winged Teal at 4:56 p.m. ”On a Big Day it’s not always the rarities you get excited about,” said Chris Wood, noting he was grateful to find three American Robins—scarce on the route this time of year—that showed up in a park they were checking for American White Pelicans. “American Robins are incredibly cool birds,” Wood said, “and boy did we ever appreciate them that day.”
- What about painful misses? It turned out to be a lot harder to find Swainson’s Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Bachman’s Sparrow within Mobile County, Wood said, at least in a publicly accessible location that could fit into a rushed Big Day schedule. Just beyond the county line, the team had found all three species easily.
- The weather factor: The big thunderstorm front came in from the west in the midafternoon, which was almost perfect timing. The team scored Swallow-tailed Kite and Mississippi Kite before the rain hit; then afterwards the live oaks on Dauphin Island were full of tired warblers that had dropped in as the storms blew through.
- Any breakthroughs with your route? The team had the foresight to find an AirBnB with a view over the beach. When the downpour began, they raced home and spent the time on the balcony, scanning the beach and ocean to pick out birds like Black Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser, Wilson’s Plover, and a rare Glaucous Gull.
- What was the birding spot of the day? “By numbers, it was probably Blakeley Island mudflats,” said Kathi Borgmann. That’s where the team picked up shorebirds galore, from Stilt Sandpiper to Roseate Spoonbill. “But the most fun birding was at Goat Tree, because we finally had warblers, and they were moving fast, so it was really exciting.”
- What was unique about Alabama in the team effort? The Alabama route had strong shorebird migration as birds headed for Mobile Bay, plus it probably had the best timing with the storm system arriving just in time to bring the day’s new-arriving migrants down to the ground.
Team Texas (Galveston County, 193 species):
- Any key species highlights? First bird was a Common Nighthawk at 3:43 a.m.; last for the combined list was a Black Rail at 10:10 p.m. “It was really an incredible day for us,” said Tim Lenz, “It felt even better just to have all those migrants come in and have everything work out, after it was so quiet during scouting.” Some notable birds included Golden-winged and Cerulean Warblers, Crested Caracara, and the key Black Rail that finished out the Big Day at 242 species.
- What about painful misses? The team found Lark Sparrow reliably during scouting, but couldn’t find any on the Big Day itself. The team had also hoped for Central Flyway shorebirds like American Golden-Plover and Buff-breasted Sandpiper, but could not find them.
- The weather factor: Team Texas got the brunt of the thunderstorm front at 3 a.m. The downpour and especially the wind noise all but ruined their chances at night birding. But after the front passed, it set up sunny weather and hot temperatures for the rest of the day—and calm winds for the next night, when the team got a second chance to pick up night birds like Great Horned Owl and Black Rail.
- Any breakthroughs with your route? The savviest move the team made involved the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula. On weekends, so many cars head to the beach that the wait for the ferry can be several hours. Team Texas stashed a second car on the far side of the ferry so that they could skip the line of cars, walk onto the ferry, and then pick up their second car on the other side.
- What was the birding spot of the day? A friend of the Lab offered access to a beautiful patch of private land in Galveston County. That’s where Team Texas spent the morning, finding 95 species in just under 2 hours. A close second was High Island, which was bubbling with migrants in the afternoon.
- What did Texas contribute to the team effort? As the farthest west and farthest south team, Texas had several advantages: cool specialties like Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, and Fulvous Whistling-Duck; as well as birds that tend to migrate around the edge of the Gulf of Mexico instead of flying straight across—including Golden-winged Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Baird’s Sandpiper, and several flycatchers.
In a new feature for Big Day this year, each team confined their route to a single county: Franklin County, Florida; Mobile County, Alabama; and Galveston County, Texas. The move saves gas, reducing a route’s ecological footprint while also putting a premium on knowledge of the local landscape. Driving fewer miles also frees up more time for bird watching, making for a Big Day that’s more fun overall.
Global Big Day Nears 7,000 Species
Also on May 4, bird watchers all over the world took to the field for Global Big Day. Reports are still coming in, but already more than 30,000 people have taken part and the species total is climbing past 6,700 species. There’s been a tremendous turnout all over the world, with Colombia and Peru at the top in terms of country lists: more than 1,500 and 1,400 species so far, respectively. The Western Hemisphere is just ahead of the Eastern Hemisphere, and the top continent is South America with more than 2,800 species. See the full lists and most recent numbers here—and thanks to everyone who participated!
Team Sapsucker Thanks:
Big Days are group efforts that go far beyond the individual team members—especially in new locations where local knowledge is crucial for success. Team Sapsucker thanks all the Florida, Alabama, and Texas eBirders who, by sharing checklists, have gathered such rich, detailed knowledge of where birds occur. For specific help in the field, they thank Alan Knothe and Todd Engstrom in Florida; Ken Hare, Larry Gardela, Andrew Haffenden, and the Alabama Ornithological Society in Alabama; Tom and Laura Bacon, Stennie Meadours, Lalise and Greg Mason of Scenic Galveston, University of Houston Coastal Center, Houston Audubon, and The Nature Conservancy Texas City Prairie Preserve in Texas. We also send a huge thanks to LOWA Boots for sponsoring Team Sapsucker’s Big Day 2019. And of course, we couldn’t do any of our work without the support of our many members and donors—thanks to everyone who donated to support Team Sapsucker!
Full Species List
QUAIL, GROUSE, AND ALLIES
PIGEONS AND DOVES
NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES
RAILS, GALLINULES, AND ALLIES
SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
Lesser Black-backed Gull
FRIGATEBIRDS, GANNETS, CORMORANTS, AND ALLIES
American White Pelican
HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
IBISES AND SPOONBILLS
NEW WORLD VULTURES
HAWKS, EAGLES, AND KITES
Great Horned Owl
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
NEW WORLD PARROTS
Great Crested Flycatcher
CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
TITS, CHICKADEES, AND TITMICE
THRUSHES AND ALLIES
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
FINCHES, EUPHONIAS, AND ALLIES
NEW WORLD SPARROWS
TROUPIALS AND ALLIES
NEW WORLD WARBLERS
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
CARDINALS AND ALLIES
OLD WORLD SPARROWS
WAXBILLS AND ALLIES
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