American Avocets by Steve Spitzer

Big Days add excitement to the birding game

(published 2-19-14)

In my 2013 highlights column, published in December, one entry still blows my mind: the record-setting “Big Day” in Texas last April. If you recall, a six-person team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, raising money for bird conservation, identified 294 bird species in 24 hours. As my daughter might say, that’s just sick.
Incredible would be another word, especially considering Team Sapsucker bested the old North American Big Day record—their own, set in 2011—by 30 species.  
Birding is a numbers game for those who wish to play it. For the day, for the year and for a lifetime, most birders “keep score” in one way or another. The potential for listkeeping is endless.  It adds to the fun and helps us remember those special sightings.
Big Days are where birding and insanity come together.  I’ve never attempted one but I’m fascinated by the stories. Just thinking about a midnight-to-midnight birdathon in May makes a cold February day a little warmer.
“Serious” Big Days, like the one in Texas, take place around here, too. In fact, a new Illinois record was set on May 15, 2013. A six-man team called the Mighty Jizz Masters pulled it off, tallying 191 species during an 851-mile all-day chase during the peak of spring migration.  
Charting the perfect route was four years in the making, said team member Greg Neise, from Berwyn. The chosen circuit went from Chicago to the northwest corner of Illinois on the Mississippi River to an area south of Peoria. Every mile and every minute was planned. Every stop had a purpose.
Preparations for the Jizz Masters’ historic run included advance scouting by two birders who were not on the road team. It’s critical to have certain hard-to-find species “staked out” to minimize search time.
The team’s 191 species in 24 hours topped the previous record by four. But it was closer than that.  At 6 p.m. the team was exhausted and still three birds short of tying the record.
“The team was losing juice,” Neise recalled. “We were hot, sticky-sweaty, very, very tired and losing focus. Failure was staring us in the face.”
Then the birding gods decided to smile.  A red-shouldered hawk appeared for #187, followed by a broad-winged hawk, the recordbreaker. Onlookers must have thought the group just hit the $50 million Power Ball. Three more birds were icing on the cake: chuck-will’s-widow, American bittern and great-horned owl.
Personal Big Days are cause for celebration, too.  In a solo effort last July 20, Jim Mountjoy tallied 131 species, a remarkable number for mid-summer Illinois.
Birding in 10 counties surrounding his home base in Galesburg, Mountjoy went full out from 1:30 a.m. to about 9 p.m. He obeyed self-imposed deadlines throughout the day to stay on track and at one point took a rejuvenating 15-minute nap. As with the Jizz Masters, his final bird of the day was a great-horned owl.  
Mountjoy, a birder since age 13, loves the challenge of Big Days.
“They test your knowledge of local bird distribution and behavior, your logistics and navigational ability, as well as your identification skills,” he said.
“Of course, the main reward is seeing and hearing lots of beautiful birds.”
A Big Day is whatever you want to make it, and it sometimes involves spending all day at a single location.  As a team or individually, seeing how many birds you can pull out of one site can be fun. We do it every month at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, including all-day efforts in May (Birdwatching Open) and December (Christmas Bird Count).
Last May, on the same day the Jizz Masters were making history, Eric Walters of Zion did a Big Day at Illinois Beach State Park. Except his was a Big Green Day, meaning he only counted birds seen on foot. He scored 111 species, some 20 more than the previous best Big Green Day site (walking only) record in Illinois.  
In 2012, the DuPage Birding Club held a Big Day event in June that was more social mixer than a hard-core competition. Seven randomly chosen teams birded from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout DuPage County, going wherever they wished to build their lists. Teams had to travel in the same vehicle and the standard 95% Rule applied, meaning 95% of all species had to be seen by all team members for them to be countable.
Awards were bestowed for most species, most sites visited, most birds at one site and bird of the day, which turned out to be a black tern. The winning team spotted 94 species and everybody gathered at Portillo’s after the birding.
A Big Day that lasts 11 hours and is followed by good food, cold drinks and storytelling.  That sounds about right to me.
Meanwhile, the Mighty Jizz Masters are plotting strategy again. Neise told me the team will try for its Holy Grail this May: 200 species in one day in Illinois.

Copyright 2014 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.