Birding as a team

by Greg Neise on October 13, 2011

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Skrentny and I completed two more of our 12 big days of 2011 in the past few weeks. Joining us were Adam Sell, Karen Mansfield and Josh Engel…though not all at the same time. I mention them by name, because birding as a team is what this post is about. But first a bit about our two most recent big days.


Canada Warbler in a tangle. But I took this shot in the spring, on a big day scouting run.

The September effort was magic. It was one of those days that people talk about for years. A quick succession of two cold fronts and rain dropped southbound migrants into northern Illinois in near fallout numbers. Every place we stopped was just crawling with warblers, vireos and tanagers. Birds dripped from the trees. There was almost—no, actually at one point there were too many birds to look at and comprehend. Imagine this scenario (which happened that morning):

We are working through a woodland that climbs up a bluff of the Illinois River. Every tree and bush seemed to have a dozen or more birds in it. I looked at a grapevine tangle and saw a new bird for the day, a Canada Warbler, in the middle of the vines. I quickly described the bird’s location to the other team members and they locked on the spot. I was still watching the bird, as the others focused on the spot in front of us…

“I’ve got a Wilson’s Warbler…oh wait, I’ve got a Yellowthroat too. Where’s the Canada?”

“I’ve got a Redstart, to the left of the Yellowthroat…I’ve got the Cana…oh, wait, that’s a Magnolia.”

“I’ve got a Black-throated Green above the Magnolia. Where’s the Canada? Anybody still have the Wilson’s?”

We’re all looking at one grapevine covered bush 20 feet in front of us. Yeah, it was like that. All day.

We finished up with 146 species for the day, setting a new state record for Illinois for September. The blow-by-blow details are at the Illinois Birders’ Forum (IBF).


If September was a sprint with an awesome finish, October was like the Indy 500. Just gotta keep going and hope you don’t crash.

Philadelphia Vireo, one of my favorites from our October effort.

The birding on this day was dreadful (again, details at IBF). But, because of  awesome teamwork, we pulled off our primary goal of identifying 114 species that day, breaking a 44-year-old record for northern Illinois. To put a cherry on top, in a mad dash at the end, we managed to get to 128 for the day…and set a new state record as well.

The thing about these state records is that before this past September, 10 of the 12 Illinois Big Day records came from southern Illinois, and 8 of those involved the same guy! As I’ve mentioned before, Illinois is a long state. The southern part is like Kentucky and Missouri and the north is more akin to Wisconsin and Michigan. The south simply has greater habitat and bird diversity. So to beat a southern record is a big deal. To do it twice in a row, is huge.

Or was huge. The week after beating the southerners, they came back out to reclaim their title. I woke up last Monday to find that our  record had been beat by 3 species. I quickly skimmed over the report, Red Bull coursing into my veins (Mondays are always tough for me), and noticed an asterisk next to a bunch of the birds they had listed: “(* = only one individual observed).

AHA!!!“, my now artificially pumping brain shouted…they had a bunch of dirty birds!! ABA Big Day rules state, “…the ratio of Shared Total to Grand Total is 95% or greater in any ABA category. The eligible Big Day Count with the highest Grand Total shall be the ‘‘Champion.’” So, out of  100 species, let’s say, you can have 5 that were not identified by all members of the team (5%). Those 5 are what we call dirty birds.

They had asterisks next to 32 species. The crown was ours! But then I got an email from one of my team members pointing out that I had completely misunderstood what the asterisks meant. Another said that my reply was “shrill”. The asterisks meant that they had seen one individual of that species—not that only one individual of their team identified that species. I grabbed the ball and ran to the wrong goalpost. I was an asshole.

I quickly corrected myself on the forum, and ate a big plate of crow. I should have known better. I know these guys, and they’re as good as it gets. The southern Illinois boys are competent and careful birders, and of course they go by the ABA rules. I should have taken a deep breath and read the post again. C’est la vie.


Which brings me to the real point of this post: the team. Doing a big day is very challenging for a number of reasons involving endurance, perseverance and skill. But it’s also strangely enlightening. It makes you a better birder…or more accurately, the 95% rule makes you a better birder.

The goal is to have every member of your team (4 in our case), see or hear every species you record, and agree on the identification. If you think that sounds tough, try it. It’s tougher. The correct identification of pretty much every bird you see or hear is critical. And if you can’t all get on the bird—a flyover hawk while driving down the highway, that only the two in the front seat can see is a good example—it’s dirty.

So, you strive to be as accurate as possible while being as quick as possible. It’s very challenging, and exhilarating. I’ll give you a quick example of the kinds if things you learn, that stick with you. Did you realize that a Semipalmated Plover can sound very much like a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher? Somewhere, floating in the back of my head, I guess I did, but now it’s etched in there.

And that’s the thing about birding. No matter how good you get, no matter how much experience you have and field time you’ve put in, the learning just doesn’t stop. At the top of every plateau you can find another in front of you. No matter how far you’ve gotten, there’s no end to how far you can go.


(The top image is actually of a twitch, not a big day…but I like it, and it’s my blog.)
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  • I’m a great birder, as long as I’m not by myself…doesn’t matter who my companions may be…

  • Bernie Sloan

    While out birding today I found myself thinking about the dynamics of birding
    alone compared to the dynamics of birding with others.

    When I bird by
    myself I find myself completely immersed in the environment, sensitive to the
    slightest movements of birds and animals. When I bird with others I loose this
    sharp focus, but I think maybe I might gain something from the observations of

    Just wondering how others might feel about this…

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