Team Sapsucker Will See More Birds Than You

Chris Wood and five of his closest friends are going bird-watching today. But this isn’t some casual walk in the park; it’s a serious endeavor that comes after a week of location scouting, forecast models, and even car maintenance practice. The six-person Team Sapsucker out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology plans to cover the roughly 500-square-mile triangle in Texas defined by San Antonio, Hill Country, and Galveston in an effort to break its own record of 264 species identified (seen or heard) in a 24-hour period.

The Big Day, as these endeavors are known in birding circles, is the group’s third trip to South Texas. They set the American record in 2011 and, remarkably, tied it last April despite missing an hour of prime birding time due to a flat tire. “This year, we are going to do some flat-tire drills and other stuff to try to make sure we’re OK,” Andrew Farnsworth, one of the team leaders, says, and he’s not kidding.

The 40-year-old birder and “weather guru” who grew up spotting hawks in Westchester County runs BirdCast, a system that attempts to forecast bird migration across North America. Late April is peak time for birds flying north, meaning that ideal conditions could dramatically increase the number of species that Sapsucker could see in Texas. Basically, the team is hoping for rain, which causes the birds to land earlier than they otherwise might, in turn making them easier to spot because they don’t reach the dense, inland forests.

“The birds take off in good conditions at night in the Yucatan or Mexico, fly for 300 or 400 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, and then they hit rain and wind, and it causes them to come down right on the coast,” Farnsworth says.

“Those conditions are not so good for the birds, but they are good for the birders,” Wood says with just a trace of irony.

If all goes well, the Sapsucker crew thinks it can see between 280 and 290 different species, including snowy plovers, red knots, short-billed dowitchers, lesser black-backed gulls, pine warblers, tufted titmice, and downy woodpeckers. “The area we cover has a unique set of birds that you can’t find anywhere else. Eastern birds, Western birds, Mexican birds all meet up in that area,” a third team member, Marshall Iliff, says. (You can follow the progress on the team’s Twitter feed.)

To prepare for the 24-hour blitz, members of the group spent the previous week scouting areas where they think they will be able to find different types of birds quickly and easily. “We have a team of five people who are basically doing nothing except looking for birds. We meet up and have beers and talk about birding,” Iliff says.

The result is a tightly timed agenda. “The morning is about hearing birds. We’re driving by something on the highway, and we stop for a second because we know where the bird is,” Farnsworth says. “We’ll wait 20 seconds for it to sing, and then leave. That’s how the morning is scheduled, almost to the 10- or 20-second period.”

(Scheduled tightly, but fueled by sweets: “The best thing that we eat are these delicious cookies that Andrew’s wife, Patty, makes,” says Wood, who grew up in Colorado looking for fossils in his sandbox. “Those are easy because we can pass them around. We usually get a bunch of subs that are in the back but they are kind of messy.”)

Like any good sporting team, the group also strives to take advantage of its insider information, which includes using the knowledge they have gained over the past two Big Days. “We get creative. There are only 24 hours in a day and you use whatever advantage you can get. If you don’t have to go back to a place during the day because you saw a bird at night, you can be doing something else. It’s all about logistics.”

Logistics are vital because birders take this type of thing extremely seriously. There’s a competitive aspect to elite birding. Birders have lists: day lists, state lists, country lists, life lists. Never-ending sets of lists. Lists create discussion points and bragging rights, a hierarchy for a group of people who thrive on order. Brit Tom Gullick saw 9,000 species in his life, then retired his binoculars. Sapsucker’s Big Day brings out the low-grade fervor as well. “There’s a whole contingent, including a lot of our closest friends, that get really obsessed over personal competitions, like how many birds you can see in a day. There are a lot of people who like talking the nitty-gritty strategy,” Iliff says.

The Big Day is about pride, records, and notoriety, but there’s a secondary goal as well, which is perhaps more important: to raise money for Cornell’s ornithology lab. Wood says that adds pressure to the day because it raises the stakes. Every missed species represents roughly $1,000 in funding that the lab won’t receive.

Even so, it’s generally a fun time with six people hanging out in a car, doing what they love to do. But it can be a tremendously long day. “Some years, some people on the team may wake up at 5 a.m. the day before and not go to sleep until 2 a.m. the following day, like 40 hours,” Farnsworth says. “We usually get to sleep a little, but it’s at least midnight to midnight, and then we collapse.”

“Luckily, we are all close friends,” Wood adds. “At least going in we’re close friends. Marshall and Jessie [Berry] usually get into a fight about 10 in the evening. The next morning often begins with apologies for whatever happened the day before.”

If things go as planned, it should also begin with a celebration of a new American record.

Noah Davis (@noahedavis) enjoys birding, but mostly because frequently there are doughnuts.

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