2017 Global Big Day Wrap-Up: More Than 6,000 Species Worldwide As Team Sapsucker Finds 327 Species in Yucatan
May 16, 2017
Tawny-winged Woodcreepers are one of the classic specialties of the Yucatán and the Maya Forest. All three teams found this species on their Big Days. Photo by Ian Davies.
The third annual Global Big Day drew a record 17,000 participants from all seven continents. From Adelie Penguin to Resplendent Quetzal, Ruby-throated Hummingbird to Common Ostrich, together birders tallied more than 6,400 species.
“Global Big Day presents us with a vignette of what is possible when people and organizations work together focusing on their respective areas of expertise and together accomplishing what could never be done alone,” says Team Sapsucker captain Chris Wood.
Team Belize finished with 242 species. From left: Roni Martinez, Andrew Farnsworth, Steve Kelling, Brian Sullivan.
Team Mexico finished with 224 species. From front to back: Angel Fernando Castillo, Jessie Barry, Jesus Bombadilla, Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez, Chris Wood, Rafael Calderon.
Team Sapsucker followed this advice to the letter, teaming up with expert birders from local monitoring groups and birding clubs for their Big Day run in the Yucatán Peninsula. For the first time in their 30-year history, the team split into three groups to cover the region’s Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala sections, which are blanketed by the second largest remaining forest in the Neotropics after the Amazon basin.
After pooling their lists, the teams ended the day with a whopping 327 species combined—reflecting not just great birding but the region’s importance to an immense diversity of birds. Team Belize topped the friendly group competition with 242 species (including 40 species the other teams didn’t find); Team Mexico found 224 species (with 43 unique to their list); and Team Guatemala tallied 213 (with 23 unique).
In this map, brighter colors indicate greater species diversity—that big patch of orange in the southern Yucatán is the Maya Forest, where Team Sapsucker ran their Big Day. Explore sightings with the eBird Hotspots tool.
The day encompassed Yucatán specialties like Black Catbird and Yucatán Jay; tropical rainforest birds such as Rufous Piha and Wedge-billed Woodcreeper; migrants such as Magnolia Warbler and Eastern Wood-Pewee still pushing north toward their summer homes; and a thrilling half-hour of raptor watching from the summit of a Mayan pyramid. But among the biggest surprises were unexpected shorebirds that took refuge from heavy rain on salt flats, rice fields, and lake shores—including the Yucatán’s second-ever eBird record for Hudsonian Godwit and hundreds of the normally scarce Franklin’s Gull.
Rain or No Rain, We’ve Got to Try
In Guatemala, midnight greeted the team with pouring rain. They took the opportunity to catch a few more winks, but “at 3 a.m. we said rain or no rain we’ve got to try,” team captain Marshall Iliff recalls. They ventured down a trail hearing nothing but the drumming of rain on leaves, until finally their first bird piped up, a Mottled Owl.
Dawn came late because of the heavy clouds. The team, which consisted of Iliff, Ian Davies, and Tim Lenz of the Cornell Lab, Marcial Córdova of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Marlo García and Pablo Najarro of the Petén Birders Club, climbed into a canopy observation tower in the half-light. Just then “the rain stopped, and then the motmots and Bright-rumped Attilas started calling,” Iliff says, “We got three really special birds: Tody Motmot, Green Shrike-Vireo, and Barred Forest-Falcon, and then we figured the day was going to be all right.”
This animated map of week by week occurrence illustrates how important the Yucatán is for migratory songbirds including the Magnolia Warbler (above) and more than 20 others.
Meanwhile in Belize, Andrew Farnsworth, Steve Kelling, and Brian Sullivan of the Lab, and Roni Martinez of the Belize Bird Conservancy, were finishing up a tremendous nocturnal migration. In the darkness, their ears picked up the faint call notes of migrants passing overhead, including Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, Veery, and others.
As dawn approached they heard the rich, liquid whistles of Great and Thicket Tinamous, and then found Ocellated Turkey, Great Curassow, and Crested Guan—species that are often hunted and whose presence typically indicates places where conservation is working.
For their part, Team Mexico spent dawn at an observation tower overlooking dry Yucatán forest. The team consisted of Chris Wood, Jessie Barry, and Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez of the Cornell Lab, Rafael Calderon, a community birding coordinator from the Mexican government agency CONABIO, and two representatives of community bird-monitoring groups, Jesus Bombadilla of the Mayan Jays and Angel Fernando Castillo of the Yucatán Jays. The team members were thrilled to find a Royal Flycatcher, an endangered species in Mexico, nesting near the base of the tower. Later in the day they visited mangroves and salt flats—they were the only team that reached saltwater—getting key species such as American Flamingo, Roseate Spoonbill, Reddish Egret, Magnificent Frigatebird, and many others.
All three teams came away doubly impressed with the region’s importance for migrants. Even though migration is already peaking in the U.S., the Sapsuckers were amazed at how many thousands of birds were still making their way north. Magnolia Warblers were the most common migrant in every habitat, Iliff says, while Blackburnian Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Eastern Wood-Pewees—which began their migrations in South America—had stopped off here in large numbers to fuel up before crossing the Gulf of Mexico.
As the morning heated up, the Guatemala team climbed the Temple IV pyramid at Tikal National Park and enjoyed 36 minutes of unparalleled raptor watching, finding 11 species including both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. “We got up there just as the raptors started to circle up,” Iliff says, “and then we pretty much just traded raptors for the whole watch,” calling names out one after another as a rather baffled group of German tourists looked on.
Not to be outdone, Team Belize had their own successful skywatch from a ridgeline in the Maya Mountains. Among 11 raptor species, they were stunned to count 41 Hook-billed Kites, evidence of a spring migration for this species that was previously unknown.
The Black-throated Bobwhite, a Yucatán specialty, was worth the heat and chiggers for Team Guatemala. Photo by Ian Davies.
Inevitably, the day grew hot and quiet. “One of the fun things about big days is you have to bird some spot in the heat of the day, and you know it’s going to be quiet and you just have to do it anyway,” Iliff says. South of Tikal, “we stomped through the dry grass, which must have been full of chiggers,” and were rewarded with Yucatán specialties Black-throated Bobwhite and a distinct race of Botteri’s Sparrow. Then, in a strategic masterstroke, they piled out of their cramped vehicle and into a boat for a cool and breezy sunset cruise for marsh birds on Lago Petén Itzá.
A Bright Side to the Downpour
Near sunset, Team Belize was shut down by the heavy rain that had drenched Team Guatemala in the morning—but not before they found Jabirus, Limpkins, a collection of shorebirds, and 850 rare Franklin’s Gulls around the rice fields of Blue Creek.
The spectacular migrant show was perhaps helped by the downpours. The heavy weather likely forced some birds to fly lower to the ground where they were easier to identify, including a lone Hudsonian Godwit spotted by Mexican team members Calderon and Ruiz-Gutierrez; and unexpected Cliff Swallows seen by all three teams. The shorebird spot that Team Mexico was depending on for 7 or 8 species eventually yielded 22 species. Far more than just ticks on a checklist, these sightings underscore how much there is still to learn about migration in this region.
The participation of the local birding community was crucial for the success of the three teams. From finding reliable spots for hard-to-find birds like Northern Potoo and Black Catbird, to organizing trucks, boats, home-cooked meals, and fresh lemonade, and onward to the immense day-to-day impact these men and women have on conservation of the Maya Forest, these team members can’t be thanked enough.
The feeling of the day was perhaps summed up best by Castillo. He was totting up the day’s list as Team Mexico weighed their chances for taking first place in the friendly inter-team competition. Speaking in Spanish, he said, “No matter what happens, today was a win. I got three lifers! We won!”
Official Results List
Here’s the full breakdown of the 327 species and the teams that saw them: