By the time you read this blog post I will already have spent nine hours zooming around my home borough desperately trying to see as many species as possible during a Queens Big Day. But it is not as if I rushed out of the house this morning and ran willy-nilly from park to park without any plan or thought as to what I was doing. No, a big day is a serious endeavor and one must prepare carefully if one hopes to maximize the number of species one will see. So what, exactly, does one do to prepare for a big day? Good question! Hopefully, by the time you have finished reading this blog post I will have provided an answer…
First off I suppose that I should explain what, exactly, a big day is, just in case you don’t know. A big day is a day in which a birder or team of birders seek to identify (see and/or hear) as many species of birds as possible. Usually a big day is limited in some way geographically (a park, a town , county, a state) and it is always on a 24-hour clock. Big days can be done at any time of year but they are most rewarding when migrant species are moving through and supplementing the resident species. In the northeastern United States the best time of year to do a big day is mid-May.
So how does one do a big day? First, one must pick a date and a location. Then, one must decide on going solo or with a team, and, if with a team, how big a team? More people mean more eyes and ears but also more logistical issues. If you are by yourself and have to use a bathroom it is no big deal but if you have a team of five and everyone has to use the bathroom and there is only one public toilet, well, some precious time will be lost. And in a big day, time, a non-renewable resource, is the most precious thing you can imagine.
Once your team size is determined you need to decide who the other birders will be. Things to consider when deciding who to ask to join you, in no particular order, are birding skill, stamina and perseverance, personality, willingness to scout, and possessions. Birding skill is self-explanatory; you want the best birders you can convince to join you. Stamina and perseverance might not seem that important, after all, it is just one day’s birding, but birding from pre-dawn to post-dusk can be absolutely exhausting and you don’t want anyone who is going to give up or lag behind and slow the team down. Personality? Well, if a person is not personable or is just a jerk you might end up wanting to kill them during the big day. Also, disagreements sometimes arise about routes, identifications, and a host of other issues and you do not want someone with no people skills in situations that call for tact and negotiation. A willingness to scout can be key, especially if there are some species that you are not sure of being able to find in your selected turf. If you have four teammates all scouring your area for a week prior to the competition you are far more likely to do well than if it is just you trying to pin everything down. Finally, the most crass of considerations: possessions. The more people with good optics, including spotting scopes, the better – you don’t want to be scoping distant birds on the wing and end up with a teammate who is unable to see what the rest of the team is seeing. A reliable and roomy vehicle can be make-or-break for a big day and if one of the chosen teammates happens to own a restaurant, well, you might not see a lot of birds but you will have the consolation of good eats.
Now that your team is assembled you need a route. Putting together a route is tricky business because so many variables enter the equation. Traffic, tides, types of habitat, time of day, and too many more things to list all will effect your route. Generally speaking, one wants to be where nocturnal birds like owls and nightjars are calling at night, at a marsh or wetland for calling rails and other marsh birds pre-dawn, in the woods at dawn for migrants, in fields shortly thereafter, and on and on it goes. Shorebirding can generally wait until afternoon when passerine activity tends to die down but that might depend on tides if you are on the coast. Your route must also take into account staked-out raptor and woodpecker nests to say nothing of other breeding birds, lingering birds that should have migrated out already, and migrant traps that attract exhausted birds looking for succor. Of course, you will have all of these necessary stops figured out because of the extensive scouting that you and your crack team have done. Whatever you do be careful not to spend more time in the car than you spend out and about on foot. Though you can find birds by car you will see and hear many more species when you are on your own two feet.
Other considerations you want to figure into your route include public bathrooms, good places to get food and drink (especially coffee), and, provided you are not in a specific competition with rules preventing getting tips from others, ways to check in with other birders, whether in person, on listservs, or via a phone hotline. You don’t want to find out at the end of your big day that you were five minutes from a great rarity but never heard about it!
Above all, while doing your big day, whether you find a horde of great birds or get skunked because the migrants aren’t showing up, the most important thing to do is to have fun! After all, you aren’t doing this for a living, right? If you aren’t having fun why are you bothering?
By the way, think good thoughts about the birds I’m seeing…I need all the help I can get!