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A virtual Big Day with Kenn, Laura & Brian

virtual Big Day
Eastern Towhee was one of the 191 species seen by BirdWatching’s Big Day team. Photo by John L. Absher/Shutterstock

The numbers are still coming in from this past Saturday — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s annual October Big Day — and they’re astounding! So far, a whopping 7,036 bird species were reported on eBird.org around the world on Saturday. By early Thursday, more than 31,600 people had uploaded over 76,600 checklists to the site. The species total isn’t final, but it has already shattered last year’s October Big Day count of 6,622 species. And it surpassed the record May Big Day from 2018 of 7,027 species.

Colombia had the highest species total for one nation (1,288), and three of its neighbors — Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil — each surpassed 1,100 species. The highest count of one species was a report of 90,000 Turkey Vultures flying over a hawk watch in Panama. [The same observer, Domiciano Alveo, also had the day’s high counts for Swainson’s Hawk (40,000) and Broad-winged Hawk (25,000).]

Saturday and Sunday also marked the first ever Global Bird Weekend, organized by Tim Appleton, the U.K. birder who founded the long-running BirdFair festival. More than 100 teams of birders around the world went out in search of birds and no doubt had an impact on the tally of species and checklists. Global Bird Weekend was also a fundraiser for BirdLife International’s work to fight the illegal bird trade. It raised more than $26,700, according to Appleton.

Here’s our JustGiving page to raise money for BirdLife International; please contribute if you can!

Here at BirdWatching, we put together a team to bird together but far apart. Contributing Editors Kenn Kaufman, Laura Erickson, and Brian Small and I birded in our home areas and compiled our checklists for the day into one joint list. We tallied a total of 191 species, mostly thanks to Brian and Kenn. Brian birded around Los Angeles County and found an amazing 142 species, and Kenn added 92 species from birding hotspots in northern Ohio.

A Purple Finch in an October snowstorm. Photo by Laura Erickson

A snowstorm hit Laura’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, on Saturday, as well as the Sax-Zim Bog, northwest of the city, but she and her husband braved the elements and drove out to the bog to see what they could find. Between her backyard and the bog, Laura found 31 species. And here in Milwaukee, gale-force winds kept bird activity really slow. I birded several sites along Lake Michigan and only came up with 30 species for the day.

The highlights for me were a brief glimpse of an Eastern Towhee under a bush at Lakeshore State Park and decent numbers of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, Pine Siskins, Lincoln’s Sparrows, and ducks at a site south of downtown. And I discovered a benefit of wearing masks besides protection from the coronavirus: In cold weather, they really keep your nose warm!

Here is what Laura, Brian, and Kenn had to say about their Big Days with our virtual team.

A snowy Big Day

Laura is happy to have “grandma duty” with her 2-month-old grandson each morning, so while she spent time Saturday with young Walter, she kept an eye on her backyard in hopes of picking out a White-crowned or Harris’s Sparrow among all the White-throated and Fox Sparrows and juncos. She had no luck with unusual birds for the morning, and then she and husband Russ headed to the bog. Here’s her report on the rest of the day:

“The highway traffic was heavy enough that snow hadn’t accumulated in the driving lanes until we turned off the US highway onto the county roads that run through the bog. Those roads were mostly snow-covered now, some with 2 or 3 inches of heavy, wet snow. Few people were out, so we could drive fairly slowly, but snow covered the lane markings as well as the shoulder, and the road was slippery enough that when flocks of juncos or sparrows (or, once, longspurs) flew up, it didn’t seem safe to pull over and stop to more carefully count them. We did stop in good time to identify a Northern Shrike and a couple of harriers—no one was coming so we stopped right in the driving late—and we stopped at a few places where I often get Boreal Chickadees, but the wind was too gusty for any to be calling.

This red squirrel was the only mammal Laura saw at the Sax-Zim Bog during the October snowstorm. Photo by Laura Erickson

“We hiked along the boardwalk at the Warren Nelson bog, which is usually wonderfully birdy. Someone had walked the boardwalk ahead of us—we could see their footprints in the snow and they’d left a small pile of bird seed on the ground. But we didn’t spot a single bird track by the seed. One lone red squirrel gave me my only photo op of the day. I always see dozens of chickadees along that boardwalk in winter, but volunteers from Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog don’t set up and maintain bird feeders until mid-December. I have no idea where all those usual feeder visitors were hiding out on Saturday. I saw lots of Black-capped Chickadee at home that morning, but the only one I saw at the bog that day was flying across the road as we headed out.

“Coming back to Duluth in late afternoon, we made a couple of stops near the lake so I could at least see Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. We lucked into one lone Yellow-rumped Warbler and one Merlin, too.

“With Russ driving nice and slow the whole time we were in the bog, I carefully scanned the surrounding countryside for owls. Great Grays can be found every month of the year (though it’s still lucky to see one even when they’re most expected), and we very often see Barred Owls there, but no luck on my Big Day. I’d set my alarm to get up early in hopes of hearing a neighborhood owl—I’ve heard both Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls calling this month, and sometimes neighborhood crows help by sounding out an alert at first light when a Great Horned is anywhere near, but not Saturday. At day’s end I kept stepping outside, too, but owls aren’t much for calling during gusty, frigid winds. Oddly enough, late Sunday afternoon, a saw-whet appeared across the street, allowing me lots of photos, and Sunday night, a Great Horned Owl alighted in my feeder for a minute or so, as my trail cam revealed. I saw a late Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle, and a host of migrating raptors over my yard on Sunday, too.

“I’d have considered Saturday a rousing success if I’d been birding for just myself. The shrike may not have stuck around for photos but was close and lovely, and several adult Bald Eagles, hunkered down with snow swirling all about them, were beautiful. The blackbirds and owls turning up a day late would have seemed more a great joke than a tragedy. But somehow when we’re birding as part of a team, trying to see as many birds as possible so we don’t let our teammates down, those sparkling moments and little ironies don’t loom as large as the dismal total—a mere 31 species for a full day’s work.

“On Tuesday, two days after the Big Day, my birdbaths were still frozen solid but the ground was snow-free. Temps weren’t expected to get up to 40 for a good two weeks, and a few snow flurries were predicted in the coming days. I expect the cold snap will break, and we’ll have at least a few mild days before winter starts in earnest, but by January, blessed with the perspective of time, I’ll look back on October 17 with fond memories. That 31 species may seem paltry by October standards up here (or virtually anywhere else), but by January, seeing more than 25 or so species in a single day in northern Minnesota will feel like a huge accomplishment.” 

Read Laura’s blog post about the day or listen to her podcast For the Birds!

Hotspots close to home

Kenn and his wife Kimberly (executive director of the esteemed Black Swamp Bird Observatory) live in northern Ohio near a wealth of superb birding sites on or close to Lake Erie.

“I’ve been zealous about avoiding unnecessary travel, and I haven’t been more than 30 miles away from my house since March 11,” Kenn writes. “I’m fortunate to live very close to many fine birding spots, however, so I didn’t have to breach that 30-mile limit on Saturday. I did a total of 16 checklists for 13 different spots, but I only had to drive short distances between them.

“Kimberly went out with me for part of the day, and at one site (the woodlot at Metzger Marsh), she spotted a pair of Carolina Wrens mobbing a perched Eastern Screech-Owl. We watched for a few minutes to see what else would show up and saw our only Cape May Warbler of the day and one of only two Blackpoll Warblers.

“We get good numbers of Rusty Blackbirds migrating through here in November, but mid-October is a little early for them. I saw small flocks at a few places. Since this is a bird of conservation concern (and beautiful in its fall plumage), I’m always happy to see it.

“I had slim luck with shorebirds until late in the day when I went to the Willow Point Wildlife Area, where a small group of Hudsonian Godwits had been reported earlier. Not only did I see five godwits, I also picked up seven other shorebird species, including a flock of 33 Stilt Sandpipers. That species is regular here in small numbers, but it was quite surprising to see it outnumbering all other shorebirds at the site. After I’d been scoping the birds for a while, everything took off as the ponds were buzzed by two Peregrine Falcons — the only ones I saw all day. One of the Peregrines perched in a distant tree, but most of the shorebirds eventually came back and landed again.”

A plethora of birds and special memories

Brian lives near L.A. and is one of the top bird photographers in the world. He is the son of the late ornithologist Arnold Small, who was a college professor and one of the founders of and a past president of the American Birding Association. On Saturday, Brian went birding in one way that he almost never does — without a camera.

Brian had gorgeous weather — a sunny Southern California day that I can attest had his teammates in the Midwest just a tad jealous. Among the 142 species Brian counted, he came across a few surprises. “Vermilion Flycatcher at Malibu Lagoon?” he noted. “I guess they’re expanding their range these days as they seem to be around more and more in places you don’t expect.”

The notion that a birder could locate 142 species in a day in a county that is home to more than 10 million human residents is kind of mind-blowing, so I checked to see how Brian’s species count compares to Big Day records for L.A. County. Well, the biggest Big Day for L.A. County is 224 species (from April 29, 2007). So yeah, Brian didn’t come close to a record, but it’s an amazing total nonetheless.

“As a professional bird photographer for more than 25 years now,” Brian says, “I rarely get out to ‘just’ go birding without a camera or any thought of trying to take photographs. What a joy it was to spend the day that way. I’d almost forgotten how much fun plain old birding can be. I’ve also never been much of a lister, but trying to count as many species as I could in a day and actually keeping track brought back some fun memories of my youth birding with my dad. He’s the one who sparked my interest in birds, and when I was a kid, all I did was follow him around on his birding adventures. It wasn’t really until my 20s that I got the serious photography bug. So, spending the day birding, listing, and thinking about all the good times I had birding with my dad really made it a special day for me.”

Pete Dunne’s blueprint for a successful Big Day

11 Big Day lessons

Learn more about Kenn Kaufman’s field guides and other books

View Brian Small’s photography website

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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