Pete Dunne’s blueprint for a Big Day

Big Day birding team
A Big Day team should include members with varied birding skills. Photo by Martin Hrouzek/ Shutterstock

Most birders are aware of the notion of a Big Year, but surprisingly many are unaware of another birdwatching institution, the Big Day. While few of us are in a position to carve a year out of our lives and run up a list of North American bird species (a.k.a., a Big Year), almost everyone can find a day to tally a head-turning species total.

Anticipating that your question might be “why do that,” I’ll offer a pre-emptive answer.

Because it is fun and challenging. A Big Day is a real test of your birding acumen and how well you know the birds of your region. Fun and challenge are the same motivators behind a Big Year.

Commonly restricted to birding within a state or county, the institution that is the Big Day goes back to at least the 1930s and ’40s, when Charles Urner of New Jersey and Ludlow Griscom of New York undertook several. Their Big Days in New Jersey, commonly planned by Urner, were during the height of spring migration, when the state’s avifauna would be bolstered by waves of migrating warblers.

The technological catalyst for this new birding institution was the automobile, a device that made it possible for birders to link multiple habitats separated by many miles into a workable 24-hour framework. Roger Tory Peterson, among others, was seduced by the challenge of Big Days and joined Urner and company on several “May Runs,” as they were also called.

Urner and company ultimately set a Big Day record of 172 species that stood for many years. Then, every year they would set out to best their best.

Ambition and drive

Now, in this new age of eco-friendly birding, and sensing the impending end of the motorized Big Day, I thought I might use this column to lay down the basic elements of a Big Day so that future ornithohistorians will know that we in these carbon-darkened times had both ambition and drive.

Regarding ecological concern, I submit that if your Big Day team consists of a manageable four or five birders, your Big Day is actually carbon neutral. Instead of every team member getting in their SUV or, in Texas, a Chevy Suburban and driving independently to the rarity of the week, you are, by car-pooling, conserving fuel and being eco-friendly.

So, your first Big Day challenge is choosing a vehicle. It should be a four-door to facilitate easy evacuation. It will need to have enough clearance for light off-roading. Roll down windows all around to hear birds. Have a sunroof. And cargo space so that tripods need not be fully closed. And might I suggest a hybrid?

Your choice of teammates is, of course, critical. They will need to have commendable but varied birding skills, with at least one trained young ear on board (i.e., someone who can actually hear a Cedar Waxwing), one keen-eyed hawkwatcher who can cross over to other species as well, and one person who can manage your checklist so that at 7 p.m., you don’t suddenly discover you missed Black-capped Chickadee when you are 200 miles deep into Carolina Chickadee land.

All of your companions should be both competitive and genial. Nothing is worse than being stuck in traffic with a Big Day companion who begins every other sentence with: “I told you we should have…”

Which brings us to your route. Several fundamental principles apply:

1. The best way to boost your total is to mix habitat types. More habitats equal more species.

2. The trick is to link the most habitats along the shortest route. Digressions are time killers. Your dawn site should offer an array of micro habitats: woods, fields, marsh, and lots of open sky.

3. Realize that the shortest distance between points may, in fact, be the elimination of one of those points.

3a. Ruthlessly eliminate redundancy along your route. If you have two ace migrant traps along your route, incorporate one, not both. Dawn only comes once a day. But it doesn’t hurt to have a logistically tenable strategic backup spot if it becomes evident your alpha site is a bust.

Adjust your schedule to match conditions and what birds you already have vs. what you need. This is where a good Listmeister is invaluable. If you can cut a stop because a target species is already in the bag, you win.

If you are doing it right, by noon you will already be slightly behind schedule (by minutes, not hours). But being forced to cut a key site at the end of the day because you are running late or arriving at your evening site after dark is the way to really cripple your effort.
Watch the clock and adjust your route to take advantage of conditions and opportunities.

This means monitoring the weather and traffic on your smartphone.

It also pays to have someone on the team who is intimate with the birding opportunities where you plan to end your Big Day. Someone who knows precisely where to get that screech-owl you missed at your dawn site. But try not to make your last hour a scramble for missed birds.

Getting started

A basic route might look like this:

Midnight to 1 or 2 a.m.: Go to a rail- and bittern-rich marsh.

1-2 a.m.: Scavenger hunt for owls or key nocturnal vocalists that you’ve staked out.

2-3 a.m.: Grassland stakeouts under migrant-rich skies with a view to the east. This is where your audio ace can grab nocturnal migrants by the ears and where your sharp hawkwatcher can pry silhouettes out of the dawn sky.

3-4 a.m.: Get to your dawn site and gas up your vehicle. Break out the sandwiches. Eat.

4-9 a.m.: Get out of the car, scoop up your staked-out breeders, and be alert for migrants.

9-???: Drive to the coast or that big inland lake.

Afternoon: Your objectives depend upon where you are, what opportunities are available, and what you still need. Listmeister, you call the ball. (Here in New Jersey, we head for Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and then the southern breeding-bird riches of Cape May.)

Dusk: A place with a view and a mix of habitats.

Further tips

As a general rule, don’t invest more time for a bird you know is there but isn’t singing. Stick to your schedule. Appoint a Sitemeister for each location. You go when they call “time.”

After the morning rush, presume that no single species is worth more than a 10-minute investment of time (including drive time). Always favor sites that offer multi-species payback.

Plot backup locations along your route for hard-to-get species.

Don’t speed, etc. The way to ruin a schedule is to invest an hour with a state trooper explaining “Big Days.”

At nocturnal locations, advise local law enforcement in advance about your presence and ambitions. It may save lengthy, unscheduled discussions, which in border areas will almost certainly mean emptying, then repacking your vehicle.

Do not presume police officers know what “owling” is.

Big Days can be done any time of year, and you needn’t go midnight to midnight. Dawn to dusk is a perfectly sensible time frame. Good luck. Have fun. Be safe. And above all, be courteous. When you are wearing binoculars, you become an ambassador for our avocation.

Oh, and if you are using a rental car, make sure it has a full-size spare.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. He is now New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador at-large. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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