Delta Wind Birds co-founders Gene Knight, Jason Hoeksema, and J.R. Rigby set out on a Big Day for Mississippi on April 29, 2015, during which they tried to identify, by sight or sound, as many species of birds as possible within the 24-hour period of a single calendar day. The basic strategy for the day was two-fold. First, the day was selected based on weather conditions to provide good representation among transient migrant species. The team would also take advantage of the hours before sunrise to fill in nocturnal species such as owls and rails, beginning with the freshwater marshes on the Ross Barnett Reservoir in Madison County at midnight, before heading south to the coast to begin the daylight hours in earnest.
The Big Day Team (left to right): Gene Knight, Jason Hoeksema, J.R. Rigby
The day was an enormous success. The team tallied 170 species including 21 species of warblers; 11 herons, egrets, and bitterns; and 22 wind birds (shorebirds). In all, the team’s performance raised more than $3000 (based on per-species pledges) for the habitat conservation programs run by Delta Wind Birds. Thanks to all those who pledged! The team also owes a lot to the many individuals around the state who supported the Big Day effort by scouting locations ahead of time. We were a little surprised by the interest others took in our Big Day attempt. One of the great outcomes of the Big Day, for us, was the resulting network of birders around the state who supported us and wished us well. We are really proud to have their support.
We had a very good shot at setting a new record on this particular day. Jason Hoeksema masterminded our Big Day itinerary and did a tremendous job of preparing both the schedule and the intelligence gathering from coastal birders. We timed the attempt in hopes of taking advantage of migrants, and once we checked off 21 species of warbler and had favorable birding conditions, we had a very good foundation for a record attempt.
However, not everything went according to plan.
For one thing, we made the controversial decision (among birders) to include a boat trip in our Big Day attempt. Our rationale was that it gave us much better chances at some species like Reddish Egret, Northern Gannet, and some harder to find shorebirds like Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew. Miscommunication with our boat captain (realized after the fact) about the exact location we intended to land led to the loss of critical time. Among our target species, we picked up Northern Gannet, but not enough for the time allotted. Western Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, and Sandwich Tern were big misses. Team morale took a hit at this point in the day, but we rebounded when a few holes in the checklist, such as Wilson’s Plover, were filled on a later stop.
While we had a stellar day and a lot of fun, we missed matching the current Big Day record by a whisker. As Jason put it, “The birds were there. Conditions were good. It was the day.” Unfortunately, we had too many big misses – especially resident birds that were certainly around but passed undetected (Eastern Screech Owl, Barn Owl, Whip-poor-will, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Hairy Woodpecker to name five that would have tied the record). Terry Schiefer and Malcolm Hodges set the ABA Big Day Record for Mississippi back in 1989 with a tally of 175 species. Given advantages we had on our Big Day relative to the attempt in 1989, we have a much deeper appreciation of their achievement after conducting our own Big Day attempt.
To close, thanks to all who pledged, donated, or supported our Big Day with time, talent, and local expertise. We are deeply grateful and look forward to birding with many of you again. In the meantime, support your shorebirds and local bird habitats. To Terry and Malcolm, well done.
But we’ll be back.
For a complete list of species tallied, click here.