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Team Sapsucker Finds 203 Species in the Great Lakes for Big Day 2024

Thank you to the many donors who supported Team Sapsucker on Big Day 2024.

On May 11, 2024, to help celebrate Global Big Day and raise funds for the Cornell Lab’s conservation work, Team Sapsucker headed to the Great Lakes to explore two very different landscapes. One team searched sparsely populated Chippewa County, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior; while the other scoured bustling Chicago on Lake Michigan. Energized by the shimmering aurora borealis and the anticipation of watching migration unfold in the heart of North America, the two teams spent nearly 24 hours finding as many bird species as possible.

Starting with Mallards and Red-necked Grebes before dawn, and ending with a Common Nighthawk after dusk, the teams found 203 total species* (164 for Chippewa County, 132 for Chicago). Team Sapsucker’s cumulative eBird trip report showcases the avian diversity of the Great Lakes, from surprises like Yellow-headed Blackbird and Wilson’s Phalarope to sublime scenes such as a Black Tern coursing over a marsh in the fading light. Along with the tens of thousands of other eBird checklists submitted on Global Big Day and every day, these observations add to our ability to track the status of bird populations and pinpoint which ones need our help most.

The Cornell Lab is grateful to the many donors who supported Big Day, our biggest conservation fundraiser of the year; and to LOWA Boots for sponsoring Team Sapsucker.  There’s still time to support Big Day 2024 with a donation.

A Tale of Two Lakeshores

“Being in the Upper Peninsula is a chance to experience what wild lakeshores are like and how birds use habitats that are basically untouched,” said Marshall Iliff, captain of Team Chippewa. “The birds are more spread out because they have more places to be.”

In contrast, Chicago team captain Jenna Curtis said spending the day in a bustling metropolis that’s also on a major migration route is a chance to witness firsthand the importance of protecting natural habitats in a rapidly developing world. “Chicago is among the top 40 largest cities on the planet. Our key sites in Chicago provide havens for both birds and people,” said Curtis We would never have found the number of species we did if it wasn’t for key conservation areas like Montrose Point and the Calumet Lake area, and the people working to protect them.”

In both regions, migrating birds concentrate along leading lines of lakeshores, which is part of what makes lights and buildings in Chicago such a serious issue, especially during migration.  In Chicago, migrating birds concentrate in small areas of stopover habitat along the lakeshore, where buildings full of reflective glass and shining lights present serious hazards to their health.

Together, the two sites highlight the role of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Flyway both for migrating land birds, which must pause here before crossing the vast lakes, and for waterbirds that use the Great Lakes as a route into the vast wetlands that sprawl across northern North America.

A Migration-Filled Morning in Northern Michigan

Team Sapsucker-Chippewa County knew they would face challenges finding birds in the vast northern forests, fields, and marshes of the Upper Peninsula.

“The easiest way to plan a big day is to know where different kinds of birds are breeding or establishing territories,” says team captain Marshall Iliff. “But birding in this northern region on May 11, we knew we were about a week or two early for most of that, so it became more about how migration was shaping up that day.” Iliff, a project leader with the Cornell Lab’s eBird project, was joined by Lab staff members Gemma Clucas, Chris Tessaglia-Hymes, Tom Auer, and Evan Griffis.

Despite a forecast for rain and overcast skies, the weather turned clear by 3:30 a.m. That’s when team captain Iliff heard the first birds of the day—two Red-necked Grebes calling from a nearby lake. He roused his teammates, they took a moment to bask in the purple light of the aurora, and then Big Day was on.

Their first predawn stop was Whitefish Point, a peninsula that juts out into Lake Superior and acts as a natural concentration point for birds migrating over or around the Great Lakes.

Before dawn broke, the team had identified several dozen species, mostly by call, including American Pipit, Swainson’s Thrush, Common Redpoll, and Long-eared Owl. They even found a fearless Spruce Grouse in the middle of a rural road.

Then it was back to Whitefish Point, now at about an hour after dawn, the perfect time to stake out a sit spot on the dune-edged, sandy point, and let the morning flight of migrants wash over them.

Clearing skies and mild southerly winds meant plenty of birds arriving in the region overnight, and in just under three hours the team picked up 74 species. As ducks, grebes and even a Trumpeter Swan moved over the water, land birds, including 15 warbler species, sought their way along the shoreline. “The warbler flight was really fun because they kind of came up to the dune and then turned around, so they paused for a moment long enough for us to ID them,” said team member Tom Auer.

Raptors, Blue Jays, bluebirds, and a host of other species were on the move as well, including Rough-legged Hawk, Evening Grosbeak, Semipalmated Plover, Canada Warbler, and Bay-breasted Warbler.

“To see the huge flocks of Blue Jays overhead and all these raptors coming by, and loons and sea ducks, and then all the warblers,” said Gemma Clucas, a U.K. native. “It was mind-blowing to see all these different types of birds actually on the move.”

At midday the team left the shoreline to head southeast for prairie potholes, marshes, and a mix of forest types. 

Two days earlier, during scouting, they had found an early-arriving Kirtland’s Warbler, the iconic, endangered species of the region’s jack pine forests. That day they had been treated to great looks and even photos, but on Big Day the team arrived during a midday lull. Luckily, the sharp ears of two of the team members were able to hear the chattery warble of one distant male Kirtland’s.

In a field near Brimley, Michigan, the team racked up an impressive six species of blackbirds, include a rare Yellow-headed Blackbird first found by Clucas during scouting.

The team continued to grow their list, though it wasn’t always a rosy picture. At one stop they were hoping for Golden-winged Warbler along with some species surprisingly rare for the area, such as White-breasted Nuthatch, Wood Thrush, and Downy Woodpecker. After donning mud boots and slogging through swampy fields and woods, they came away with exactly zero of those target birds.

Team captain Marshall Iliff had set the number 165 as the “absolute upper limit” of what the team could hope to achieve on their Big Day. They were around 150 by the late afternoon, thanks to the team’s unflagging efforts (they submitted 43 separate eBird checklists in around 19 hours) including exciting rarities such as Wilson’s Phalarope, American Avocet, Western Meadowlark, and Golden Eagle.

It was after 8:00 p.m. when the team rolled into their last birding locations, the marshes and mudflats at the mouth of Munuscong River, part of a chain of rivers and lakes that flow between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The team picked up seven new species, including Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sedge Wren, Virginia Rail, and Black Tern. This brought their total to 164 species, one shy of Iliff’s best-case scenario—despite missing some “easy” species such as Blue-headed Vireo and Belted Kingfisher. View the Team Chippewa trip report.**

“We set our goal at 150, and would have been happy to beat that,” said Marshall. “To get this close to 165…we are thrilled.”

Making Connections in The Windy City

While Team Chippewa traveled more than 100 miles exploring the Upper Peninsula, Team Chicago had a more compact route, but covered impressive distances on foot. One team member logged around 36,000 steps—at least 14 miles. And like the birds, they also had many more cars, buildings, and people to contend with while seeking out the most productive sites within the Windy City.

The Chicago team got an even earlier start than their Michigan counterparts. It was around 2:30 a.m. when the team identified their first bird—a Mallard flying over Eggers Grove Forest Preserve, a small strip of preserved forest on the east side of the city. That was followed shortly after by the ringing wheet-wheet of a Solitary Sandpiper.

Team Captain Jenna Curtis was joined by fellow Cornell Lab staff Christine Audette, Nick Butts, John Garrett, and Alexis Falise. Thanks to a new nomination process that opened up the chance to be a part of Team Sapsucker to all Cornell Lab staff, the Chicago contingent included three members who had never undertaken a big day. Falise added dozens of new species to her life list over the course of the Big Day and the scouting that preceded it.

“It was just a blast. The adrenaline was so high, at the end of the day I didn’t want to stop. I don’t think I’ve come down yet!” Falise said. Her favorite part of Big Day was a midday visit to Big Marsh, a 300-acre wetland on the Southeast Side with miles of trails. The team connected with staff and visitors, and even saved a few steps by birding on bikes they picked up via Divvy, Chicago’s bikeshare program. “I loved the dual nature of that place,” Falise said. “How they encourage birding along with other recreational opportunities for the surrounding neighborhoods.”

In the predawn hours, the team found birds like Virginia Rail and Sora calling from marshes and Semipalmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, and Dunlin dimly visible in a shallow pond behind a chainlink fence.

After some brief breaks in the birding to enjoy the revved up aurora borealis, the team greeted daybreak at the premier birding spot in the city: Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary.

Montrose Point juts out into Lake Michigan right from the heart of the city: an oasis of green trees and grassy dunes just north of the treacherous canyons of glass, concrete, and lights of the center of the city. Known for its breeding endangered Piping Plovers, and a “magic hedge” that attracts weary migrants in the spring and fall, Montrose Point has seen 273 species recorded in the month of May, according to eBird.

Over the course of the early morning, the team ticked off 20 species of warblers, including a singing Cerulean Warbler, one of the rarest warblers east of the Rockies. They tallied an impressive 79 species total at the site.

The next part of the plan was to head inland to forested remnants like Labagh Woods, where they picked up their only White-breasted Nuthatch (a species missed by Team Chippewa) and Hairy Woodpecker. By 11 a.m. their species total had passed the century mark. While the team in Michigan saw several dozen more species than the Chicago team, there were more than 30 species that the Chicago team picked up that the Michigan team did not, including common birds like Downy Woodpecker and Belted Kingfisher, plus some fun surprises like Cerulean Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher.

Brown, gray, and russet bird in spring grasses with city lights in the background.
American Woodcock in Chicago. Photo by Matt Zuro / Macaulay Library.

Then came an arduous, 16-mile crosstown drive to Washington Park and then on to additional hotspots around Calumet Lake.  At a site called Park 566 they scoured 70 acres of reclaimed grassland to add Sedge Wren, Eastern Meadowlark, and Field Sparrow. It was John Garrett’s favorite stop of the day: “[Park 566] is very different from anywhere else within the city—restored grasslands but like right along the edge of the lake,” he said. “I really loved being there in the evening with displaying woodcocks and nighthawks together all making their buzzy sounds.”

Other afternoon highlights included an unexpected pair of Eurasian Collared-Doves that the team spied while crawling through downtown traffic, and a surprise Red-shouldered Hawk that they spotted in an industrial canal where they’d been hoping to find some Horned Grebes.

As Big Day 2024 wound down, the team made a stop at the Chicago institution Portillo’s for an evening energy boost in the form of hot dogs and cheese fries. Their last new species for the day was at Park 566, a trio of Common Nighthawks in the darkening sky. Over the course of 20 hours they had filed 33 eBird checklists. View the Team Chicago trip report.

Reflecting on their day finding birds in a place where human alterations to habitat are unavoidable, Jenna Curtis noticed a connecting thread for many of the best sites: “So many of the places we visited used to be industrial wastelands or effluent flows and ponds or dumps, or old landing strip or airfield,” she said. “They’ve all been converted back into natural habitats for the most part. That’s something that’s really special to experience…seeing all of these areas being now preserved and restored for native wildlife.”

*The final tally for Big Day 2024 was 203, but the trip report shows 202 species. That’s because Team Chippewa also found a Long-eared Owl, a sensitive species that does not display on eBird public output.

**Team Chippewa actually recorded 168 species on their Big Day run, but not all of those were seen by all team members. A longstanding rule of Big Days states that 95% of all species must be seen by all team members; accordingly, Team Chippewa’s final tally was adjusted to 164.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library