A Chicagoland birder recounts lessons learned while doing three years of monthly Big Days
By Beau Schaefer | Published: 8/30/2017
Every month from January 2013 to January 2016, I did Big Days in Lake County, Illinois, where I live. I missed only three months out of those 36, so I was able to put together 33 monthly Big Days in a three-year period.
I’ve slowed down for various reasons since then, but I still do Big Days off and on in some form or another, and I probably will until I can’t. I just like doing them.
I like Big Days for a number of reasons, but the one I want to elaborate on is how much I learn from them. Admittedly, they’re not for everyone, but I think doing one would make anyone a better birder. So what have I learned? Here are 11 lessons:
1, A lot more birds sing or call at night than I previously thought.
When I began doing Big Days, I pretty much thought that just owls and rails called at night. While it is true that owls and rails are the most consistent nighttime vocalists, I have heard Marsh Wrens, Sedge Wrens, a number of different sparrows (Henslow’s was the most notable), both cuckoos, mockingbirds, catbirds, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, herons/egrets/bitterns, and numerous waterfowl species either singing outright or giving some sort of call during the night. During migration, thrushes and some warblers also give audible flight calls. Listening at night during Big Days from May to July is very cool, indeed; I’ve tallied upwards of 15 species before sunrise.
2, Big Days make you learn your county.
As far as local birding goes, there’s no better way to learn your county’s ins and outs than by doing Big Days. Routes have to be mapped out, detours need to be planned, and backup sites for tougher species must be found. Doing this requires spending a lot of time exploring Google Maps. I’ve also obtained permission to access private property and volunteered with my forest preserve district and department of natural resources to find even more birds. The benefit of knowing your county well is that you can help other birders find birds and not travel really far, thereby reducing your carbon footprint. It also helps me feel like I know where the best spots are to find birds, and I like finding new locations that other birdwatchers haven’t noticed.
3, Teammates can be valuable resources.
I’ve been fortunate to bird with knowledgeable birders who are also a pleasure to be around. One of my frequent teammates has tons of entertaining stories and also knows a lot about birds. I’ve learned flight calls from him, and he taught me habitat preferences that you can’t read about in books. For example, he was the first to explain to me that Smith’s Longspurs and Le Conte’s Sparrows love fields where foxtail is growing. Similarly, Bobolinks like alfalfa fields. This information has proved invaluable in finding each species.
I’ve also learned about myself — like how to lighten up and just enjoy the birding. I tend to be really driven and a little negative at times, while my partners are much more laid back and easygoing. This apparent personality conflict has actually worked out well for us and has taught me how to enjoy Big Days more.
4, Rain causes fallouts.
I like to schedule my Big Days for nice weather with little wind, but I’ve learned that morning drizzle on top of heavy migration is much more productive. That was exactly the scenario in May 2015, when my team broke a Lake County Big Day record that had stood for 20 years. I was ready to quit and go home at 6 a.m. because of the steady drizzle, but there were lots of birds, and it stayed that way all day. Thanks to the fallout caused by the rain on top of southwest winds, we finished with 164 species.
5, Bird populations change with the seasons.
Bird populations are dynamic, and they don’t all change at the same time of year. Probably the most notable to me were the blackbirds. While most birders know that songbird migration peaks in May and September, I was not aware of the summer movements of blackbirds. In Lake County, it becomes extremely difficult to find Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds after June. By the end of August, all blackbirds are gone except for Red-wingeds. I never knew this. Also, I never knew that Long-billed Dowitchers peak in their fall migration almost a month later than Short-billeds. eBird has helped immensely with knowing when to find birds, but it was the Big Day event that taught me how species dynamics change from month to month. Very interesting stuff.
6, Big Days help you learn vocalizations.
Although the Stokes CDs were awesome in helping me learn many songs, I still didn’t know numerous vocalizations and chip notes very well. Then I started doing Big Days and Big Day scouting, which immersed me in all manner of bird sound. Simply by volume of exposure, I became familiar with the call notes of Common Yellowthroats, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, and the flight calls of thrushes and other birds. Knowing call notes helps immensely in doing Big Days.
7, Little idiosyncrasies and plumage characters can help you ID birds.
Probably the one thing that helped me the most was learning how to identify birds quickly, or at least more quickly than I did before doing Big Days. Now I can ID birds without seeing their faces, pick out flying birds quickly (especially on lake watches), and notice behavioral idiosyncrasies, like the tail-pumping of Palm Warbler or Eastern Phoebe. Yellow Warbler is the only warbler that is completely yellow from the throat to the end of the tail. Cape May is the only warbler with yellow on top of a dark-streaked breast. Red-eyed Vireo has a really long bill compared to the other vireos. Observations like these help make my bird ID faster and more accurate.
8, Sometimes you have to let a bird go unidentified.
Having just mentioned how much better I am at identifying birds, it must also be said that there are some that I won’t ID. Empid flycatchers, except for Least, Yellow-bellied, and Alder/Willow, will never be identified by me unless they are singing; that’s the only way I can tell for sure. Distant raptors I will not ID. I couldn’t work at a hawk watch; I need a better eyeful to be sure of my ID. The songs of Worm-eating Warbler and Chipping Sparrow sound the same to me at times, so I need to see them. Pine Warbler, however, sounds completely different than Chipping Sparrow, and I’ve never been wrong on that song. Unless a call is close and clear, I almost always need to hear it more than once to be sure it wasn’t background noise. Sometimes you just need to let the bird go.
9, Each month has a special highlight.
Granted, this will vary from place to place, but for northern Illinois, monthly birding plays out like this:
January: Owls, gulls, and finches. We regularly have the opportunity for seven gull species and six owl species. During irruption years, Snowy Owl is also a good possibility on the lakefront. Finches can be great during irruption years as well.
February: The same as January, with the added incentive that geese and Northern Pintail, Canvasback, and other early waterfowl begin moving toward the end of the month.
March: Waterfowl month.
April: Spring raptor migration and the beginning of passerine migration, with early sparrows. By the end of the month, warblers are moving.
May: The big one. Go get ‘em!
June: Breeding bird month and the height of vocalizations.
July: Still breeding birds at the beginning. Shorebird season starts midway through.
August: The peak of shorebird migration. Warblers move at the end of the month.
September: The height of fall passerine migration.
October: Waterfowl and raptor month.
November: A big rarity month; November is when weird stuff shows up along the lakefront, like Say’s Phoebe or Mountain Bluebird. Also Golden Eagle time.
December: Winter diving ducks and loons on Lake Michigan.
10, It pays to watch chickadee flocks.
When I started birding, I ignored chickadees completely. In fact, I would get annoyed when I saw them instead of more sought-after birds. After birding a while, however, and especially when searching for warblers, I started to wish for a chickadee flock. Other birds often follow chickadees around, and you can almost always find something interesting in association with the chickadees during migration. So listen for those chickadees!
11, I like finding birds more than watching them.
This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but doing Big Days has taught me that I like finding birds more than watching them. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy watching them as well, but what really gets my adrenaline flowing is the hunt. I love the chase, the planning, the anticipation, and, ultimately, the satisfaction of claiming the prize when the bird is spotted. Joy is short-lived, however, because the urge is always to move on to the next bird. This obviously can dilute your appreciation for birds. I at least have gained some self-awareness and found a way to channel my inner adventurer into an activity that’s relatively safe, inexpensive, and always good.
So there you have it. This is what I have learned from Big Days, and why I continue to do them. My hope is that I may have sparked an interest in you to get out and surprise yourself with what you might find during your own Big Day. Go get ‘em!
Beau Schaefer teaches biology and genetics at Libertyville High School, north of Chicago, Illinois, and leads field trips for the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and Lake-Cook Audubon. Along with Andy Stewart and Eric Lundquist, he holds the Lake County, Illinois, Big Day record with 164 species.
Big Days for the record books
Global Big Day Record
Reported to eBird by 17,242 participants worldwide on May 14, 2016.
World Big Day Record
Recorded by Dušan Brinkhuizen, Rudy Gelis, Mitch Lysinger, and Tuomas Seimola at Cabañas San Isidro/Yanayacu, Guacamayos Ridge, Cocodrillos, Loreto Road, Jatun Sacha, the Tena airport, Napo River, Misahualli, Tena, Baeza, Guango, Papallacta, Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Salinas, Punta Carnero, and Ecuasal, Ecuador, on October 8, 2015.
North American Big Day Record
Recorded by Jessie Barry, Andy Farnsworth, Marshall Iliff, Tim Lenz, Brian Sullivan, and Chris Wood at Boerne, San Antonio Botanical Gardens, Mitchell Lake, Uvalde, Chalk Bluffs Park, Uvalde National Fish Hatchery, Uvalde Landfill, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Eisenhower County Park, Anahuac NWR, High Island, Bolivar Peninsula, and Bolivar Flats, Texas, on April 25, 2013.
Canadian Big Day Record
Recorded by Yousif Attia and Stu Mackenzie at Cold Lake Provincial Park, Jesse Lake, Kehewin Lake, Red Deer River Valley, Brooks, Mountain View, and Waterton Lakes NP, Alberta, on June 4, 2012.
Illinois Big Day Record
Recorded by Robert Hughes, Larry Krutulis, Greg Neise, Michael Retter, Adam Sell, and Jeff Skrentny at Upper Mississippi River NWR, Mississippi Palisades SP, Hennepin and Hopper Lakes, Emiquon NWR, Meredosia NWR, and Siloam Springs SP, Illinois, on May 15, 2015.