Big Days & Bird Races

R Simpson - Wader Quest, A Whitelee - Norfolk Bird Race, D Tomlinson - Big Bird Race ©Creative Commons
A Personal View by Don Taylor

My enthusiasm for Big Days in May was fired while I was living in Canada. On 11th May 1963, during my first spring in that country, I visited Point Pelee and nearby Wheatley Marsh and recorded, or was shown, 135 different species, 59 of which were new to me. They ranged from the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird, through the sleek Prothonotory Warbler, the brilliant Scarlet Tanager to the elegant American Egret. My mind was spinning as I crawled into my sleeping bag that night. The following spring I attempted another Big Day around Burlington in Southern Ontario. I was out between 0500 – 2130 and managed 130 species, traveling no more than 30 miles. There was very little planning and a number of common species were missed – will there ever be a year when you don`t miss one?

Returning to England in the autumn of 1964, I settled in Kent, in which county I have completed a Big Day in May annually between 1965 – 1999 (1996). As the years passed new challenges were taken on board, new targets set and more hours were spent in the field. By the early 1980s I was making enquiries about establishing an inter-county Bird Race. In the Birdwatcher`s Yearbook and Diary 1984 (1983); I wrote about my experiences in Kent and John Mather related his best attempt in Yorkshire. A national record of 155 species was set on 14th May 1983, by a Country Life team comprising Peter Smith, Jeremy Sorensen, David Tomlinson and Bill Urwin against the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society team of John Gooders, Tim Inskipp, Bill Oddie and Cliff Waller (1983). Like myself, both Peter Smith and David Tomlinson had accepted the challenge some years earlier. In 1980 they joined forces. With David Tomlinson`s contacts, the backing of Country Life and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, the first inter-county Birdwatch took place on 11th May 1986. Though a team from Norfolk scored 147, a system of handicapping meant that my Kent team, which included Bob Bland, Andrew Henderson and David Tomlinson, was the overall winner with 143, enabling the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation to benefit by £500. Another angle had been introduced – sponsorship. This enables conservation groups around the world to benefit from the enjoyment and challenge that bird races provide. In Focus followed Country Life as organizers of the event for a few years, then Birdwatch magazine took over. They broke it down into regional, inland and coastal competitions, all of which adds to the interest and encourages considerable sponsorship.

Every Bird Race has its moments, a few more memorable than others. Some years the excitements and successes outnumber the frustrations, but on occasion the latter may dominate. Being stopped by the police in the middle of the night is a not infrequent occurrence. Having your schedule on a clip board usually minimizes any delay, but once, just before midnight, in a brand new BMW, we were chased by hooligans intent on damaging the car and goodness knows what else. With local knowledge and good fortune we drove rapidly to the police station in Canterbury, without suffering any damage. The hooligans were apprehended, questioning followed and we were delayed for over an hour. Nevertheless, we set a new Kent record that year.

Repeating the event annually over many years, reveals the changing populations of certain species. The only Wryneck was seen in May 1965, when a pair was still breeding near Aylesford, my local patch at that time. As their numbers increased during the 70s and 80s Redpolls became increasingly easy to see, but they are now proving difficult again, as the breeding population declines. The change that saw Ring-necked Parakeet added to the British List in the early 80s meant a visit to Thanet became necessary to include that species. The Bittern boomed regularly in the early years, but was last recorded in 1980. However, there are now hopes that it will breed again in the Stour Valley, which suggests a pre-dawn visit to that site. Losses of a more permanent nature may well include Willow Tit, Tree Sparrow and even Hawfinch, which are all difficult species to count on now, as their populations have declined dramatically. On the positive side the establishment, as breeding species, of Mediterranean Gull in the late 70s, Firecrest in the early 80s, Marsh Harrier in the mid 80s, Ruddy Duck in the mid 90s and Woodlark in the late 90s, add more possibilities for the list. The Cetti`s Warbler, that became a regular addition from the mid 70s, virtually disappeared after the severe winters in the mid 80s, but the song can now be heard regularly again. Taking bird racing seriously involves a number of challenges and knowing what is where is only one part of it. The fact that the status of individual species varies from year to year is one of the fascinations and joys of birding.

For those interested in statistics one group, the raptors, is worthy of comment. During the first ten years the mean was just 1.2, while the average for the last 10 years is 4.3. A pleasing reflection on the current breeding status of raptor species in Kent, and the number is likely to rise. Over the thirty-five years 212 species have been recorded, 65 of which have maintained a 100% record, with another 20 at the 90% plus level, while 45 species stand at less than 10%.

The group of 45 includes a number of extreme rarities. One does not expect to add a new species to the British List during a bird race, but that happened on 11th May 1966, when Billy Buck and I identified an adult Laughing Gull in summer plumage at Dungeness – since then two earlier records have been accepted, but that doesn`t distract from the excitement of that moment. On 14th May 1978 we included another first for Britain – a Pallid Swift, but we knew of its presence, it had been found the previous day.

Man is a competitive animal and I have always been attracted by other challenges that can be readily introduced to birding, whether they be based on a local study area, a county, country, continent or world wide. Building lists is fun and as a large percentage of my birding involves studying a local patch, I enjoy comparing the monthly lists from year to year and trying to improve on them, as well as the annual lists, while forever seeking new species.

As a result of a Birdwatch magazine initiative in 1993, I now indulge in an annual Patch Watch on May 1st, which involves spending about sixteen hours, within the study area of some 120 hectares, seeing or hearing as many species as possible. A total of 70 in 1994 is the best to date. The latest variation on the 24-hour theme is the Big Sit – described elsewhere on this Website – a most enjoyable, more relaxing challenge.

References: Oddie, Bill & Tomlinson, David (1983) The Big Bird Race Collins. Pemberton, John (1983) The Birdwatcher`s Yearbook and Diary 1984 Buckingham Press Taylor, Don (1996) May Big Days p.42-47 Birding in Kent Pica Press.

27th April 2001 – New US Record Set

In Texas, on April 18th, 2001 a team of four Canadians identified 233 [in 2014 Cornell extended their Texas Big Day record to an incredible 294 species! Fatbirder] species of birds in one day, toppling the long standing 23 year old North American birding big day record. The original record of 231 species verified in a single calendar day was set in California on April 29th, 1978. The record breaking team, sponsored by Kowa Optics, was comprised of four Canadians, all from Ontario: Tom Hince, Paul Pratt, Bruce Di Labio, and designated driver Ethan Meleg. The Canucks chose a route based in south Texas in mid April where the combination of arriving spring migrants, tropical residents, and lingering winter birds make for rich birding opportunities.

In birding circles, this event is known as a Big Day, where birders stay in the field for 24 consecutive hours, from midnight to midnight trying to identify as many bird species as possible by either sight or sound. The team followed strict rules established by the American Birding Association (ABA); the body that oversees Big Day records. But the the Canadians imposed even tougher personal guidelines on their effort to surpass the existing record. Presently, ABA Big Day rules allow teams to add a bird even if only one observer identifies it. According to Hince, Because honour and integrity is so important in this event, we decided the existing rule was not tough enough. We imposed a two-observer minimum. And only three birds on the entire list were not seen by all of us.

Pratt, a lifelong environmental educator, was also concerned about theethics of using tapes, so he asked for that loophole to be closed. According to Pratt, the trend in birding ethics is away from playing tape recorded songs of birds to get them to respond. Even though ABA rules allow it, and it would certainly have increased our total substantially, we chose not to use tapes on our attempt. Planning played a big part in the team`s success. Hince, who is a freelance television producer with Discovery Channel Canada and the Science Channel in the US, spent hundreds of hours scheming during cold winter nights, trying to perfect a route that would work. Bruce Di Labio, a professional birding guide and educator, scouted out possibilities while on a trip to Texas in late March. Financial support from Kowa Optics allowed all the team members to arrive several days early for detailed scouting of the entire route.

And what a route it was. The day began at midnight on South Padre Island in driving rain. Temperatures dropped to 52 degrees Farenheit temperature, and winds gusted to a horrendous 30 mile per hour. The first bird was a storm blown male indigo bunting disoriented by the lights at the north end of town! According to Di Labio, those first few hours were brutal. But the rain stopped around three in the morning when the crew pulled into the El Canelo Ranch, a renowned birding site, known for the rare Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. The owners generously allowed the team access to the ranch, and the visit was fruitful netting the owl, and several other good finds including wild turkey.

When dawn arrived, conditions hadn`t improved much. Driving cold raingreeted the team at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge along the lower Rio Grande Valley. Despite the almost total lack of birdsong, the Canadians eventually found most of the key species, then headed north up the coast. By days end, the team reflected on the bleak early morning hours. We all knew that a lucky break was necessary. According to Hince, I think we were all thinking of quitting at Santa Ana because activity was so incredibly slow, but fortunately we all kept those thoughts to ourselves.

Designated driver Ethan Meleg kept the team on pace driving an incredible 800 miles during the 24 hour marathon, much of that negotiated during darkness. As team driver, Meleg could not point out any birds to the other team members, but his time-saving contributions provided more birding time for the team. He wrestled an extra twenty minutes of birding for the team by refueling and getting food while Hince, Pratt and Di Labio searched the trails for new species. But perhaps his most valued contribution came late in the day. As the sun was setting, and the record seemed to be slipping away, Meleg pumped renewed enthusiasm into the team`s spirits.

I looked over the team`s checklist late in the day, and noticed that there were a number of birds Tom had forgotten to add, noted Meleg. Those four new birds gave the team new hope when the sun was setting and the record seemed to be slipping away. Just twenty minutes later Chuck-Wills-Widows burst into song to tie the record, and then a Lesser Nighthawk put the team over the top. A Barred Owl hooting on the grounds of Neal`s Lodge, near Concan, was the 233rd and final bird of a tough but victorious day. Despite the feat, Hince notes big days like this are a great way to improve birding skills, but most importantly they focus attention on the diversity of bird life in North America and the importance of conserving habitat for our birds. That`s good for birds and birders alike.

Next month, the Canadians compete in the 18th Annual World Series of Birding in New Jersey. There they will again carry the Kowa Optics banner into battle against nearly 60 other teams in birding`s largest competitive event. They also hope to return to Texas next spring, and push the record higher yet.

For more information please contact:Tom Hince, Windsor, Ontario (519) 825-9070 Paul Pratt, Windsor, Ontario (519) 978-1339 Bruce Di Labio, Ottawa, Ontario (613) 839-4395 or contact: Ethan Meleg, Tobermory, Ontario (519) 980-0842

Useful Reading
  • Birding on Borrowed Time

    | by Phoebe Snetsinger | American Birding Association (ABA) | 2003 | Paperback | | 307 pages (including 45 illustrations | ISBN: 9781878788412 Buy this book from
  • Chasing Birds Across Texas

    | (A Birding Big Year) | By Mark T Adams | Texas A & M University Press | 2006 | Paperback | 254 pages, 15 colour photos, b/w illustrations, maps | ISBN: 9781585442966 Buy this book from
  • Extreme Birder

    | (One Woman's Big Year) | By Lynn E Barber | Texas A & M University Press | 2011 | Paperback | 283 pages, 140 col photos | ISBN: 9781603442619 Buy this book from
  • Lost Among the Birds

    | (Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year) | By Neil Hayward | Bloomsbury USA | 2016 | Hardback | 401 pages, no illustrations | ISBN: 9781632865793 Buy this book from
  • Mad Twitching

    | (The Bird Watching Adventures of a Yorkshire Lad) | By David Houghton | Pentland Press | 2001 | 91 pages, B&W illustrations | ISBN: 9781858217291 Buy this book from
  • The Big Year

    | by Mark Obmascik | Profile Books | 2011 | Paperback | 320 Pages | ISBN: 9780857500694 Buy this book from
  • The Reluctant Twitcher

    | (A Quite Truthful Account of My Big Birding Year) | By Richard Pope | Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc| 2009 | Hardback | 216 pages, Colour photos | ISBN: 9781554884582 Buy this book from
  • UK500: Birding in the Fast Lane

    | By James Hanion | Brambleby Books | 2006 | Paperback | 127 pages, 16 colour plates, b&w drawings | ISBN: 9780954334789 Buy this book from
  • Warblers & Woodpeckers

    | (A Father-Son Big Year of Birding) | By Sneed B Collard III | Mountaineers Books | 2018 | Hardback | 269 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; tables | ISBN: 9781680511369 Buy this book from
Other Links
  • Bird Race - Great Texas Birding Classic

    Facebook Page
    Jasper, Corpus Christi, Mission, TX; April 20-29, 2001 - A competitive birdwatching tournament designed to raise money for avian habitat conservation projects. Teams of birders spend three big days counting species. The top three teams at the end of the week decide which conservation projects will be funded by the Conservation Cash Grand Prize. Contact: Texas Parks and Wildlife, 4200 Smith School Rd., Austin, Texas.
  • World Series of Birding

    The Final Results remain preliminary until any dust settles, and we get the scores from a few more teams. So far, no dust! The Level One, Bird Conservation Challenge results and the Level Three, Zeiss Youth Birding Challenge are likely to stand.They should be final by Wednesday, May 15th.

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