A digital massive day with Kenn, Laura & Brian

The numbers come from last Saturday – the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's annual big October day – and are amazing! So far, a whopping 7,029 bird species have been reported worldwide on eBird.org on Saturday. By late Wednesday, more than 31,500 people had uploaded over 76,300 checklists to the website. The total number of species is not yet final, but it has already rocked 6,622 species on October Big Day last year. And it topped the 2018 May Big Day record of 7,027 species.

Colombia had the highest number of species for any nation (1,286), and three of its neighbors – Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil – each exceeded 1,100 species. The highest number of a species was a report of 90,000 turkey vultures flying over a hawk watch in Panama. (The same observer, Domiciano Alveo, also had the daily numbers for Swainson's Hawk (40,000) and Broad-winged Hawk (25,000).)

Saturday and Sunday was also the first Global Bird Weekend, organized by Tim Appleton, the UK bird watcher who founded the long-running BirdFair festival. More than 100 teams of bird watchers around the world went looking for birds and undoubtedly influenced the species lists and checklists. The Global Bird Weekend was also a fundraiser for BirdLife International's work to fight the illegal bird trade.

Here is our JustGiving page where you can raise funds for BirdLife International. Please contribute if you can!

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

A purple finch in an October snow storm. Photo by Laura Erickson

A snow storm struck Laura's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, as well as Sax-Zim Bog to the northwest of the city on Saturday, but she and her husband braved the elements and drove to the bog to see what they could find. Laura found 31 species between her back yard and the moor. And here in Milwaukee, storm winds kept bird activity very slow. I've observed several locations along Lake Michigan and only found 30 species for that day.

The highlights for me were a quick peek at an eastern towhee under a bush in Lakeshore State Park and a decent number of yellow and palm wobblers, pine siskins, Lincoln's sparrows, and ducks in a location south of downtown. And besides the protection against the coronavirus, I have discovered an advantage of wearing masks: In cold weather they really keep your nose warm!

Here's 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” every morning with her 2 month old grandson. While she was hanging out with young Walter on Saturday, she kept an eye on her back yard, hoping to pick a Whitecrown or Harris sparrow among them all of the White-throated and Fox Sparrows and Juncos. She had no luck with unusual birds in the morning, and then she and her husband Russ went to the moor. Here is her account of the rest of the day:

"The freeway traffic was heavy enough that the lanes did not collect snow until we turned off the US freeway onto the county roads that run through the bog. Those roads were now mostly snow-covered, some 2 or 3 inches in weight, wet snow. Few people were out so we could drive fairly slowly, but snow covered both the lane markings and the shoulder, and the road was slippery enough that if flocks of junkos or sparrows (or even long spurs) were blown, it didn't. It doesn't seem safe to stop and stop to count them more accurately. We stopped in time to identify a northern shrike and a couple of harriers – no one came so we stopped immediately – and us stopped at some spots where i often get boreal chickadees but the wind was too gusty for anyone to call.

This red squirrel was the only mammal Laura saw in the Sax-Zim swamp during the October snow storm. Photo by Laura Erickson

“We hiked along the boardwalk in Warren Nelson Moor, which is usually wonderfully bird-rich. Someone had walked the boardwalk ahead of us – we could see their footprints in the snow and they had left a small pile of birdseed on the ground. But we haven't seen a single bird trail on the seed. A lonely red squirrel gave me my only photo of the day. I always see dozens of chickadees on this boardwalk during the winter, but Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog volunteers don't set up and wait for birdhouses until mid-December. I have no idea where all of those usual feeder visitors were hiding on Saturday. I saw many black-capped chicks at home that morning, but the only one I saw on the moor that day flew across the road when we drove off.

“When we returned to Duluth in the late afternoon, we made a few stops near the lake so I could at least see herring and ringed gulls. We got lucky with a lone yellow hulled warbler and a merlin.

“Since Russ was driving slowly in the bog all the time, I carefully searched the surrounding landscape for owls. Great Grays come every month of the year (although it's still lucky to see one even when the most expected), and we see Barred Owls a lot there, but out of luck on my big day. I'd set my alarm so I could get up early in hopes of hearing a neighborhood owl – I've heard both great horned owls and northern saw owls calling this month, and sometimes neighborhood crows help out by watching first light to set off an alarm when a Great Horned is near but not on Saturday. I kept stepping outside at the end of the day, but owls aren't much for calling in gusty, cold winds. Oddly enough, a saw tooth appeared across the street late Sunday afternoon, which gave me plenty of photos, and on Sunday evening a great horned owl landed in my feeder for about a minute, my camera showed. On Sunday I also saw a late red-winged blackbird and common grackle as well as a lot of migratory birds of prey over my yard.

"I would have considered Saturday a rousing success if I had just watched birds for myself. The shrike may not have been there for photos, but it was close and lovely, and several adult bald eagles huddled with snow around them The blackbirds and owls that showed up a day late would have been more of a big joke than a tragedy. But somehow, when we're bird watching as part of a team and trying to see as many birds as possible with that if we don't let our teammates down, these sparkling moments and little ironies aren't as big as the gloomy sum – just one of 31 types for a whole working day.

“On Tuesday, two days after the big day, my bird baths were still frozen solid, but the ground was free of snow. Temperatures were not expected to rise to 40 for a good two weeks, and some snowstorms were forecast in the coming days. I assume the cold snap will break in and we will have at least a few mild days before winter starts in earnest, but through January, blessed with the perspective of time, I will look back on October 17th with fond memories. Those 31 species may seem sparse up here in October (or virtually anywhere else), but by January seeing more than 25 species in a single day in Northern Minnesota will be a great achievement. "

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

Hotspots near home

Kenn and his wife, Kimberly (CEO of the prestigious Black Swamp Bird Observatory) live in northern Ohio near a variety of excellent birding areas on or near Lake Erie.

"I was keen to avoid unnecessary travel, and I have been no more than 30 miles from my house since March 11," writes Kenn. “I am fortunate to live near many beautiful bird watching spots so I didn't have to cross that 30 mile limit on Saturday. I made a total of 16 checklists for 13 different spots, but only had to drive short distances between them.

“Kimberly went out with me part of the day and in one place (the wooded area in Butcher Marsh) discovered a pair of Carolina Wrens bullying a high-seated Eastern Screech Owl. We watched for a few minutes to see what else would come up and saw our only Cape May warbler of the day and one of only two Blackpoll warblers.

“We have a good number of Rusty Blackbirds moving here in November, but mid-October is a little early for them. In some places I saw small herds. Since this is a conservation bird (and is beautiful in its fall dress), I am always happy to see it.

“I had little luck with waders until late in the day I went to the Willow Point Wildlife Area, where a small group of Hudsonian Godwits had previously been reported. Not only did I see five godparents, but I also picked up seven other wader species, including a herd of 33 stilts. This species is regularly seen in small numbers here, but it was quite surprising to see that it outnumbered any other wading bird on site. After watching the birds for a while, it all started when the ponds were buzzed by two peregrine falcons – the only ones I saw all day. One of the peregrine falcons sat in a distant tree, but most of the waders eventually came back and landed again. "

An abundance of birds and special memories

Brian lives near LA and is one of the best bird photographers in the world. He is the son of the late ornithologist Arnold Small, who was a college professor and a founder and past president of the American Birding Association. On Saturday, Brian went bird watching in a way he almost never does – without a camera.

Brian had lovely weather – one sunny day in Southern California that I can testify made his teammates in the Midwest just a little jealous. Under the 142 species Brian counted, he encountered some surprises. "Vermilion Flycatcher in the Malibu Lagoon?" he noticed. "I think they are expanding their range these days as they seem to find more and more in places you don't expect."

The idea that a bird watcher could find 142 species in one day in a county home to more than 10 million people is mind-boggling. So I checked how Brian's species count compares to the Big Day records for L.A. County. Well, LA County's biggest big day is 224 species (as of April 29, 2007). So yeah, Brian wasn't close to a record, but it's an amazing sum nonetheless.

"As a professional bird photographer for over 25 years," says Brian, "I rarely go without a camera or without thinking about taking photos, just to watch birds." What a joy it was to spend the day like this. I almost forgot how fun a simple old-school bird watch can be. I was never a big lister either, but trying to count as many species as possible in one day and actually keep track of them brought back some fun memories of my youth watching birds with my dad. He sparked my interest in birds and when I was a kid I only followed him on his bird watching adventures. It wasn't until my 20s that I got the serious mistake in photography. Spending the day bird watching, listing and thinking about all the good times bird watching with my dad really made it a special day for me. "

Pete Dunne's blueprint for a successful big day

11 great hours of the day

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

Check out Brian Small's photo website

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