LISTEN: Flight Lines, Local birders shun sleep for record
It's been many years since I was awake over a 24-hour period. Despite the occasional long work day or demanding schedule I have inevitably crashed to sleep before reaching that limit. To the best of my memory it's been nearly 20 years. So it was with some trepidation that I considered an offer by a young and ambitious birder to attempt a North Dakota Big Day this spring.
NDSU's Torre Hovick broached the idea to me last year and kept the thought alive throughout the winter. As a veteran of a couple of state Big Days (Iowa, Oklahoma) he was anxious to try one here. I guess I was too.
A Big Day, as the title implies, is just that: a midnight-to-midnight birding blitz counting as many
different species as possible. The effort has not been attempted many times in North Dakota, at
least as far as available records indicate.
There is an "official" number—168--on the books. That was actually from one county alone:
Grand Forks in 2011. Beyond that there is a somewhat dubious 181 out there. Although,
according to the official/unofficial "keeper" of North Dakota data, it was accomplished by a
person known for, shall we say, iffy identification skills. And it was done alone, something not
allowed by the rules. Oh yes, there are rules.
Big Days must be done by more than one person, for instance. And the final total cannot include
more than 5 percent not seen or heard by the entire team. So it behooves the group to stick
together and help each other "get" the encountered birds.
For weeks Hovick meticulously planned a route with a strict timeline, tweaking it here and there,
dropping some locations, adding others. The basic idea was to travel east to west along I-94
taking advantage of the somewhat longer daylight moving west. After recruiting MSUM's Chris
Merkord (a member of the Grand Forks County record team) our squad was set.
It is known that the top of the bell curve of highest species density occurs somewhere in late May locally. By that date some migrants have already departed to the north, others have yet to arrive, but that moment--May 20-ish--is about the apex.
Everything aligned for us Monday, May 21. Meeting in front of my house at 11:30 PM, throwing
all our gear into one vehicle, and already drinking caffeinated beverages, we set out.
At the stroke of midnight we began playing recordings of owls and other night birds. We traveled
to nearby wetlands for secretive marsh birds. And we positioned ourselves along the woodsy Red River at dawn.
We racked up birds quickly at first light. "Yellow-bellied flycatcher." "Got it...got it." "Chestnut-
sided warbler" "I see it...I see it too." And so it went.
At noon we were at 151 species and it looked like the record was approachable. Miles and hours sped by, so did bottles of Mountain Dew. We hit Horsehead Lake, we scoped McKenzie Slough, all the while keeping an eye on the clock, never lingering in one location.
At McLean Bottoms along the Missouri River we picked up five more. In Bismarck we quickly
added black-headed grosbeak, northern flicker and wild turkey. The record was ours. Still we
pressed on to the Badlands.
In fading daylight along East River Road south of Medora we got what would be our last two
species of the day: common poorwill and yellow-breasted chat. 181!
When we finally, mercifully reached our crash pad in Hettinger it was already past midnight.
Somehow we found the energy to sip a congratulatory beer before collapsing like dead weight
into sleeping bags.
I've run marathons before and the last thing on my mind when crossing the finish line is running
another one. This was different, all of us are anxious to give this another go. It's exciting, it's
exhausting, it's rewarding, it's fatiguing; but for hardcore bird watchers it's as close as one gets to a full-throttle pursuit of passion.
Later, while carefully recounting, we lost a few. 178 now stands as the North Dakota record; a
not-too-shabby first try.
During the drive home the next morning the inevitable self-critiquing took place. What, where,
how could we have done this better? The last five hours only netted us five species, for instance.
Should we not have gone that far west?
We are already fine-tuning a stab at May, 2019. While 178 is a high number, Hovick said it best,
"You always remember the easy ones you missed." For now I just need to get some sleep.