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The Biggest Big Day: Q&A with Marshall Iliff

By Gustave Axelson, Photo by Tim Gallagher
Big Day Birding with Marshall Iliff

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Most of the year, Marshall Iliff works at the Cornell Lab as a project leader on eBird. But every spring, he joins Team Sapsucker, the Lab’s ace birding team, for the Lab’s biggest conservation fundraiser of the year—Big Day. Last year Team Sapsucker tied their own North American Big Day record for the most bird species seen or heard (264) during a 24-hour birding blitz in Texas. And donors to the Big Day effort set a new fundraising record with more than $250,000 for the Lab’s bird conservation efforts. As the Sapsuckers plot their return to Texas and their Big Day 2013 strategy, Iliff filled us in on why he thinks they’ll set a new record this year.  –Gustave Axelson

Last year must have been agonizing. For a few minutes, you actually thought you broke the record?

Right after midnight, we called Fitz [Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick] and told him we broke the record, but we still needed to do a final check of the numbers. Because of the 95 percent rule, where only 5 percent of the birds are allowed to be counted without being seen or heard by every team member, our total came down to 264. The discrepancy was an Elf Owl that we had marked as a shared bird, but it had only been heard by Andy Farnsworth.

What’s your strategy this year?

Last year, we knew we had run a great Big Day, but we got burned by a flat tire when we ran over a nail at the Uvalde city dump while trying to find a Chihuahuan Raven. We lost an hour and a half overall, when you figure that the wasted time in the morning put us behind schedule, which in turn had us driving through Houston in the thick of rush hour. So we were playing catch-up for the rest of the day. But still, just one more moment of luck, one more time getting everyone on a bird, and we’d have broken the record. So we really want to run the perfect Big Day, on what we believe is the best birding route in the country, and see how high we can get. Our basic strategy, from midnight to 6:00 A.M., is to get as many difficult birds, like owls and nightjars, out of the way as early as we can. Then we head to the Hill Country, where eastern, western, and Mexican birds all come together. There, in a single spot, we might hear a Yellow-throated Warbler, a Canyon Wren, and a Green Jay. Then it’s a four-hour drive to Houston. That middle part is the biggest strategic challenge, because there are 10 or 15 birds we have to pick up along the way. They’re eastern forest birds, like Pine Warbler and Tufted Titmouse, so we have to stop at parks close to the highway to get them, but we also want to get to the coast as fast as possible to look for migrants, coastal birds, and shorebirds. We finish at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, although this year we might reverse that last leg of the trip and hit Anahuac during daylight hours to get Wilson’s Phalarope, Stilt Sandpiper, and gallinules. If we do that, we’ll probably finish at Bolivar Flats on the coast.

In addition to your birding goal, you’ve got a fundraising mission for Big Day, too?

Big Day is our biggest conservation fundraiser of the year. Fans make a pledge for every bird species we list during the 24 hours of the Big Day, putting the pressure on all of us on Team Sapsucker to get as many species as we can. Our sponsor, Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, LLC, covers our expenses, so all of the pledge funds go directly to support the Lab’s conservation work. But whether people donate or not, we hope to make the Big Day a fun experience for everyone who follows us on Facebook, the Round Robin blog, and all of our other communications channels.

So, is it safe to say you’ll avoid the Uvalde city dump this year?

Last year the spare tire storage mechanism wouldn’t release, so we had to take the car to a shop. This year, we’ll practice jacking up the car and changing the tire. We’ll probably think twice about going to the dump. Your chance of getting a flat tire definitely increases when you drive into a dump, but you also have a good chance of seeing a Chihuahuan Raven. Last year we chose to go for it and got the flat tire—and we ended up missing the raven to boot. The irony is that if we had gotten that raven, we would have broken the record even with the flat tire.

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