Extreme Birding With Cornell’s Marshall Iliff

Courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

On May 3, a group of scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will hit the road for what can only be described as a 24-hour “birdathon” known as Big Day. The team will attempt to identify as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period. This year, the team’s route will take it from Arizona to California. It sounds crazy, but the scientists have done it before. Below, team member Marshall Iliff talks about the Big Day and how you can help support a great cause.

What is Big Day 2014?
Big Days — called “bird races” in Europe and “twitch-a-thons” in Australia — are a midnight-to-midnight effort by a team to identify, by sight or sound, as many bird species as possible in a single 24-hour period. They test a bird watcher’s ability to know bird habitats and habits, to identify them in even their trickiest plumages, and to memorize their quietest and most subtle vocalizations. In many cases, the notion of pledging a set [dollar] amount per species found has made them a powerful tool for bird conservation, as well as a fun event for bird watchers to test their knowledge and abilities.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been conducting Big Day fundraisers for decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this was conducted through the World Series of Birding. The World Series of Birding is a competitive Big Day run on a single day of the year, in which dozens of teams compete to see the most species of birds within the state of New Jersey on that single day.

In 2012, we decided to try something new, and we began trying for the National Big Day record. It was something we had long wanted to attempt, and we felt it had higher fundraising potential for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its programs. A record of 259 [found species] had stood for a long time and was recently improved to 261. We felt we could beat that [in Texas], and we managed to do it our first time out, finding 264 species in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, a fairly cold spring kept many winter birds in the area into late April, and a perfect cold front brought a fallout of arriving migrants from the south. With luck and planning, we managed to demolish previous records and logged 294 species — a total that surprised everyone, including us!

This year, we want to try the only other area of the United States where we think a single day of driving could yield as many species as Texas. The highest Texas Big Days ever have been 294, 264 (twice), 261, 259, and 248. We believe that our new Arizona-to-California route could exceed the 264 records and possibly approach the 294 total. The reason this could be so high a total is that a Big Day in Arizona could record 200 species and the one in California might get 230 or so, and the species seen on the two routes do not overlap much. California has lots of water birds and some unique land birds, while Arizona has special desert, Mexican and mountain birds, many of which have never been found in California. Big Days have traditionally been conducted in a single state, but no rules prevent crossing state lines. So we’ll give it a try! This year, we will mark the first serious attempt ever to do a Big Day on this route, so we are very interested to see how it pans out.

How long will this expedition take and what does the team hope to accomplish?
We have a team of nine that will be helping us with scouting, including our six team members, along with three expert birders who work closely with our projects at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We will all arrive one week before the event to learn the roads, find sites for special birds, practice our skills with Southwestern species and lay out our minute-by-minute plan for the entire 24 hours. On May 3, we will conduct the Big Day, and we’ll post our progress on Facebook. We have set our sights on 280 species and, of course, hope that good luck and good planning pushes that number even higher. More importantly, we’d like to break fundraising records that will help bird conservation: $400,000 is this year’s target, although it will take a lot of generosity from our supporters worldwide to reach that goal.

What kinds of birds will you be looking for in Arizona, and how will you go about finding them? Is there a particular bird that you’re looking for in Arizona?
Arizona is special because it combines a high diversity of desert species with a high diversity of Mexican species that reach the northern limit of their range along rivers, canyons and the “sky island” mountain ranges that connect Arizona to Northern Mexico. Quintessential species of the Sonoran desert include Gila woodpeckers, cactus wrens and elf owls that literally nest in cactuses. The Santa Cruz River, south of Tucson, will be our best area to find gray hawks, Lucy’s warblers, summer tanagers and brown-crested flycatcher. Grassland species are imperiled everywhere, but just south of Tucson, there are some nice grasslands that have Botteri’s sparrows, eastern meadowlarks and several other localized species. Species that live primarily in Mexico, but reach the oak and pine forests of Arizona’s mountains, will be the key target, since these species can’t be found elsewhere. We’ll be looking for Montezuma quail, painted redstarts, red-faced warblers, Mexican jays, greater pewees, bridled titmouses and a number of others. The holy grail will be the elegant trogon (pictured), which we can find only if we visit Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, since they do not occur as far north as the Santa Catalina Mountains. This is emblematic of the key strategic decision our team will need to make during our time before May 3 in Arizona. We have time to visit only one of the two mountain ranges. The Santa Catalinas offer some northern species like golden-crowned kinglets and red-breasted nuthatches, while the Santa Ritas are closer to Mexico and have a few more Mexican species. We can do either, but not both, so we will need to make that decision during our week of scouting.

Finally, as the world gets warmer, a few Mexican species have been just recently colonizing Arizona, but all these species are so rare and localized that we’ll be very lucky to find them. Short-tailed hawks, rufous-capped warblers, black-capped gnatcatchers and Sinaloa wrens are some of the most exciting birds in the area right now, but finding even one of these on our fast-paced day will require a lot of luck. Our strategy will be to plan a route that visits as many of these habitats as possible and learn where these species are nesting, singing and holding territories, so we can find them without a single minute wasted on May 3. We need to do it quickly, since California has a lot of special species, too, and it is a 500-mile drive to San Diego!

How did the team prepare for this adventure? What is your role?
We have been discussing this route for almost a year, considering what areas we might possibly visit and how much time to spend in each. The most important advance preparation has been to use eBird (www.ebird.org), which is an online website for bird watchers to report their sightings. We all work on eBird, directly or indirectly, in our professional lives at the Cornell Lab, and its best feature is that all submissions are freely available, accessible and mapped for anyone to see. This has allowed us to look up past sightings contributed by thousands of bird watchers to plan what areas have the best species diversity and give the best chance of helping us find the key species.

Most of the preparation happens the week beforehand, when we visit all these areas and get to know individual pairs of birds at many of the sites. For migrant species, which may move on before May 3, we’ll have to learn the areas that they tend to occur, since some may arrive from their nocturnal migrations overnight. We’ll need to predict what spots we might find those species as well. Finally, the hardest job is to assimilate all that information into a plan that gives us enough time to find all the birds in our four route sections (Tucson area in Arizona, and in California, the Salton Sea, Cuyamaca mountains, and San Diego coast) and also cover the 500-plus miles of highway.

We have developed defined roles over the years. Some of us make the reservations, others plan the food for the day, while others focus on reaching out to local friends and contacts, plan the route in Google Maps or mine eBird data. I am known for working up our Excel spreadsheets. These include species lists that are carefully coded by likelihood so that we can focus on the most important species both in advance of the day and on the Big Day itself. The most important one is our modularized route, which has formulas to quickly recalculate with every routing decision. If we decide to detour off I-10 to visit Sweetwater Wetlands, the spreadsheet has been carefully designed to allow us to add it in or subtract it out. This was most valuable in 2012, when a flat tire (and no spare!) threatened to ruin our day. The Excel formulas let us quickly make changes to compensate for the lost time visiting a tire-changing shop and to still have a minute-by-minute schedule for the rest of the day!

Why is public support so important to Big Day?
The Big Day raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the projects at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, like eBird, that directly support bird conservation. It is a time when we can highlight the conservation issues — like controversial water usage, desertification and urbanization — that are a threat to entire ecosystems in the Southwest and elsewhere. And finally, the Big Day highlights the beauty and wonder of North American birds, which have been an inspiration to scientists, bird watchers, artists, writers, tourists and citizens for centuries. We strongly believe in the power of birds to connect humans to the ecosystems around us, and that wise stewardship of our natural areas, and the birds that inhabit them, will directly benefit humans in immeasurable ways. This Big Day is a chance for us to highlight these beliefs and a chance for those who love birds to lend support that will have a tangible benefit, and to enjoy our day vicariously on May 3.

—Kathy Ritchie

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