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Big Days

This Cape May Warbler hung out throughout the scouting weekend at the row of Bottlebrush at Bill Dorch's house on Dauphin Island, but we missed this species during our big day the next week.

I’ve always loved bird listing. My primary bird listing activity in recent years has been the Auburn and Eufaula Christmas Bird Counts (CBC). I have very bird-rich areas for both of those counts and each year I try to break my CBC big day records. Eufaula is very birdy and my record for that count stands at a gaudy 116. That’s a lot of birds for one party on an inland CBC not in Florida or California.

For a long time I’ve been contemplating an Alabama Big Day, but I never seriously pursued the idea. I’m not sure why. Then, on April 26 last year, when I was working in Washington DC and back home in Auburn for a weekend, my wife decided at sort of the last minute that she couldn’t go kayaking as we had planned. It was about 5:45 am and I decided to head for Tuskegee NF to look for migrant warblers. I ended up birding Tuskegee and then driving to Eufuala NWR by way of Hurtsboro (pine savannah habitat) and by noon I had seen 120 species with few transient migrants. This was a very predictable 120-bird route. I immediately thought: what if I had started earlier and gotten some night birds and then driven down to the coast. Wouldn’t I have been position to make a try for the record?

Alabama may have one of the oldest state Big Day records. In 1983, Dwight Cooley and Mark Brown set the big day mark at 202 species. No birding group has come within pecking distance of that mark in the past 42 years. The next highest total was posted by a team lead by Greg Jackson and Bob Duncan in 1991, but they didn’t get within 20 birds of the record, posting a total of 181. That’s it. The state big days of note then drop into the 170s. The Cooley/Brown mark stands like the Bob Beamon long jump mark from the Mexico City Olympics—a one-time achievement so audacious it seems unassailable. Legend has it that after it was announced that Beamon had broken the previous record by over two feet, one of his competitors said to him “"You have destroyed this event". So too did Cooley and Brown totally annihilate the Alabama Big Year competition.

This year, I decided to try a Eufaula-to-Dauphin Island Big Day. During my year living and working in the DC area, I did a Big Day on the Delaware and Maryland coast with my life-long birding buddy, David Carr. During that relatively leisurely big day, I proposed the Alabama big day to David, and he said he could come in for a Big Day on Sat April 25, pretty much the best possible date for a big day in Alabama if the weather cooperates.

Big Days require some scouting and serious big days really need to be well scouted. Given my focus on my research program at Auburn, I generally don’t have a lot of time to scout, but last weekend, I took my Auburn Ornithology class down to Dauphin Island for our annual field trip. We dodged storms on Saturday and had a nice morning. When the class headed home to Auburn, I stayed back with one of the enthusiastic undergrad student Hunter Walters and we did a “practice” big day. I really wanted to do a trial run to figure some things out and to do some scouting.

We got slowed down in the morning by dawn thunderstorms and so we didn’t even get to do the whole route. We finished up at the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman’s Sparrow spot at 6:45 with not enough time to get to Eufaula refuge by dark. That cost us at least ten species. We ended the day with 144 species having missed a legion of very easy birds like Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Prairie Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk and on and on.

I was clear from this practice run that this route has to start in the forests and fields of Eufaula and Tuskegee and precede to the coast, as I had originally planned. There is no advantage to birding the coast in the evening instead of the morning but many birds are lost by birding the forest in the afternoon instead of the morning. So this Saturday, we are going to start at 1am in Auburn and bird our way from Eufaula to Tuskegee NF to a nice remnant prairie area near Tallassee to Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island. I’ll post the results of that big day effort in my next blog post.

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