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Birthday Texas Big Day

Sometimes bad ideas occur to me spontaneously. Sometimes I act on those bad ideas. In the middle of the afternoon on Saturday I got the idea to do a big day the next day to celebrate my birthday with style. My wife and I recently bought a house in the Rio Grande Valley, an area where I used to do big days all the time in my twenties. A big day, if you are not familiar, is an attempt to see as many species of birds as possible in a single day.

How different can it be to do a big day at age 43 vs. age 23? The fact that this thought even crossed my mind illustrates that this was a very bad idea. I knew it was a bad idea at the moment I had it but decided to pretend that is was an excellent idea, one I could not resist. Why was it a bad idea? First and foremost, because the two most important aspects of a big day are scouting and routing. When you decide to do a big day last minute, you are taking a shotgun to your foot before you even begin. I had been birding the area for a month, but not with scouting for a big day in mind. I knew a classic Rio Grande Valley big day route, starting in the upper reaches of the Rio Grande River, near Falcon Dam and working through the central Valley to the coast, but hadn’t run it in at least 15 years and even routes you know well need to be tweaked and optimized every year to maximize their potential. Also, in my twenties, my pace would occasionally drop to a fast trot but usually I was running (sometimes with completely waterlogged pants when the cooler I had been using as a pillow exploded, soaking the back seat when our big day driver tapped a deer at high speed. Running with wet pants rapidly becomes painful and when you are running over a mile to get a Louisiana Waterthrush it becomes memorably unpleasant). This year, as soon as I had the idea to do the big day my second thought was ‘Yeah, I’ll do it but I’m not running this time!’ A fast trot was my top speed during this attempt. The main reason, though, is that I get competitive, even with just myself (For example: I once screamed at a teammate that I wasn’t going to take him to the hospital until it got dark if he got injured. In my defense he was COMPLETELY IRRESONSIBLY holding an alligator by the tail when this happened. Somepeople have no idea how to stay focused. CM I’m looking DIRECTLY at you! God I’m still pissed about that). In this case I was competing with my younger self but also in defense of my younger self. I use to say that any big day run in April on any section of the Texas coast should net 200 species, or you weren’t trying. So I had a goal, a goal I believed I should be able to meet but I also knew I was working with several significant disadvantages. Oh yeah, twenty-something Cameron didn’t have a dog who had to be let out in the middle of the day requiring the route to be bent around this requirement (somehow this led to a 10 minute conversation with my barber neighbor about hair cuts, a subject I general avoid since I’m bald, the whole time I’m mentally squirming to get back on the road.)

Because I’m not 23, I did not start the day at the stroke of midnight like I would have in the past. It actually began at 3 am when the aforementioned dog decided she wanted to go out. Oh well, I was already awake; I might as well get started. So a screech owl in my neighborhood in Harlingen during a 3:30 am dog walk got the list rolling. Then the bleary-eyed drive up to Starr County where the day would really kick off predawn amid one of the wildest lighting storms I’ve ever witnessed. Dawn held the songs of desert birds. Touching on as many habitats as possible is absolutely key for a successful big day. After the desert I moved to the water, with time spent searching the Rio Grande River for a few specialties, some of which appeared on cue, some of which were absent.

That’s the way it goes. Big days have a predictable rhythm. There is the early morning high, when new birds are easy to come by, you are doing great, you aren’t tired and your list grows and grows. Then comes the midday lull, when you realized you didn’t do as well in the morning as you thought, your species goal seems impossibly far away, you lament the species you know have been missed and worry about the species you are afraid you are on the verge of missing. You inevitably, yet inexplicitly, miss Belted Kingfisher (the ABA can shove their bird of the year down a deep, dark hole), and you REALLY begin to feel the early start and the intensity of the day. Big days are big days and predictable rhythms are undefeated. Fortunately, part of the rhythm is the rally, when the birds you need are where you need them when you need them, where you pull out a few additional species at the last minute. Things click and you no longer feel tired. The sun sets and you pull out the last few species and then evaluate, what am I actually going to still pick up if I continue on until midnight? One more species? Two? Versus… several hours of needed sleep?

The older me shut it down at 9 and headed home knowing the goal of 200 species had proven too much by a thin margin. Fortunately, the rhythm of a big day was not yet done. There was still the last minute accidental pick up, which on this big day came at 10:30 while I was talking to my wife on the phone in my yard and a Common Nighthawk flew over, calling so loudly that she heard it over the phone. The final inevitable aspect of big day rhythm is poor accounting; you always forget to mark something when you see it. Knowing this I checked the list very carefully and found three- THREE! species I had forgotten to mark. That brought my total to exactly 200 species! Despite numerous misses, my 200 species April Texas big day axiom was proven correct once again!

In reality this is not because I did everything right, I did almost everything wrong, but spring on the Texas coast holds a richness of birds that is difficult to compete with anywhere else in North America. I’ve spent so many of my birthdays on the Texas coast soaking up this richness, that the last 6-7 years, where I’ve spent far fewer of my days here than I would liked, have doubled underlined and highlighted the value a day in April with nothing to do but scrutinize feather after feather holds in my life. If you have never experienced a day like this you should.

The Birthday big day list:

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) Gadwall (Mareca strepera) American Wigeon (Mareca americana) Mottled Duck (Anas fulvigula) Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) Redhead (Aythya americana) Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) {SPI Birding Center} Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) Plain Chachalaca (Ortalis vetula) Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata) Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) Rock Pigeon (Columba livia Red-billed Pigeon (Patagioenas flavirostris) Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) Inca Dove (Columbina inca) Common Ground Dove (Columbina passerina) White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi) White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis) Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) {Sheepshead} Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis) Clapper Rail (Rallus crepitans) Sora (Porzana carolina) Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) American Coot (Fulica americana) Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus) Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia) Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa) Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus) Sanderling (Calidris alba) Dunlin (Calidris alpina) Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Calidris subruficollis) Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus) Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus) Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata) Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) Willet (Tringa semipalmata) Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) Franklin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan) Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) Double-crested Cormorant (Nannopterum auritum) Neotropic Cormorant (Nannopterum brasilianum) American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) Great Egret (Ardea alba) Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) Reddish Egret (Egretta rufescens) Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis) Green Heron (Butorides virescens) Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi) Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus) White-tailed Hawk (Geranoaetus albicaudatus) Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus) Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi) Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata) Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) Golden-fronted Woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Dryobates scalaris) Crested Caracara (Caracara plancus) Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) Brown-crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus) Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) Couch's Kingbird (Tyrannus couchii) Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas) Chihuahuan Raven (Corvus cryptoleucus) Black-crested Titmouse (Baeolophus atricristatus) Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) Purple Martin (Progne subis) Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) Cave Swallow (Petrochelidon fulva) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) Bewick's Wren (Thryomanes bewickii) Cactus Wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) Curve-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre) Long-billed Thrasher (Toxostoma longirostre) Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Veery (Catharus fuscescens) Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi) House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) Olive Sparrow (Arremonops rufivirgatus) Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida) Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata) Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii) Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis) Audubon's Oriole (Icterus graduacauda) Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) Red-winged Blackbird (Red-winged) (Agelaius phoeniceus) Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus) Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorum) Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) {SPI Convention Center} Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) Tennessee Warbler (Leiothlypis peregrina) Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) Kentucky Warbler (Geothlypis formosa) Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina) Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) Yellow Warbler (Mangrove) (Setophaga petechial) Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) (Setophaga coronata coronata) Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) {SPI Birding Center} Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus) Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) Dickcissel (Spiza americana) Morelet's Seedeater (Sporophila morelleti) {Salineno}

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