Monday, January 7, 2013

Sky Islands Birding Cup: reflecting on 2012, looking ahead to 2013

Guest post by John Yerger

I can’t believe that 2012 is already over! When I switched over to the 2013 calendar, one of the first things I did was scribble in the next Sky Islands Birding Cup (August 14). Yes, THAT’S how excited I am about it! Ok, so I’m a total bird geek…but I’m especially fond of Big Days, an all-out effort to find as many species in 24 hours as possible. Not only has it been a lot of fun, but it’s a great way to raise money for a good cause: improving bird habitat.

I’m hoping to get everyone else excited about it, too, because it’s not too early to start planning if you want to field a team in 2013! For Registration materials, Game Rules, etc, visit:

If looking back at this summary of our Sky Islands Birding Cup effort may inspire you to sign up, read on. Either way, I’ll hope to see you in the field on August 14!
Cheers, John Yerger

2nd Annual Sky Islands Birding Cup summary: Birding the Midnight Oil 
August 15, 2012 was an exciting day for team “Birding the Midnight Oil.” We had planned for a few months, scouted for a few weeks, slept for a few hours before midnight…and we were feeling good about our prospects for cracking the 200 species mark! We’ve run quite a few Big Days before, but not many in August. We decided to try a different tactic than last year, and began in the highly biodiverse Chiricahua Mountains. Since I now live about 7 miles from the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon, it seemed appropriate to capitalize on my heavy dose of local scouting, and stay at my house to maximize our pre-Birding Cup sleep potential.  

We started off at the crack of 12:01am owling in Cave Creek Canyon. Owling in August is a struggle! We tried our best vocal imitations, since audio playback is strictly forbidden during the Cup. (Imagine a dozen teams playing tapes in the same area, potentially counting each others’ playback as a “real” bird…) Perhaps we sounded wildly unlike wild owls, or perhaps they simply don’t like vocalizing in August, but we ended up with a mere 3 species: Whiskered Screech, Western Screech, and Great Horned Owl. After three hours of valiant effort, we decided a short nap was a better use of our time. 

Dawn saw us at Willow Tank - with travel mugs of coffee in hand - where we detected some roosting White-faced Ibis and a few swallow species, then headed up Stateline Road to nab a few Chihuahuan desert specialties like Chihuahuan Raven (of course) and Scaled Quail. We even lucked out with both Bendire’s and Crissal Thrasher, normally skulking species. A highlight right around 6:30am at Quailway Cottage was a flyover Solitary Sandpiper – a great species for the Birding Cup, but also a stellar new “yard bird” for me! From there we plugged right along through the tiny hamlet of Portal, where my friend Maya’s yard held a prized Lucifer Hummingbird (wow!), a migrant Calliope Hummingbird (always unpredictable), and a bonus: Juniper Titmouse! Cave Creek Canyon was reasonably productive for diurnal birds (a calling Northern Pygmy-Owl was probably the highlight), then it was up to Rustler Park (Mexican Chickadee!) and over Onion Saddle (Zone-tailed Hawk!) down to Willcox. By the end of birding around Willcox, we had figured that over 150 species were possible if we got EVERY bird. Well, we didn’t even get close to every bird…but we were steadily adding species, and the day had been great so far. 

Lucifer Hummingbird

Willcox Twin Lakes gave us about 80% of what we were seeking in terms of shorebirds and early-arriving waterfowl. Now that it was early afternoon, the least birdy time of day, it was time to take the long drive to Patagonia via the sewage ponds at Benson and the grasslands around Elgin. One goal on a Big Day should be to canvass every available habitat, and we were certainly doing that! Another goal is to sweep the common birds – on the Birding Cup, a European Starling counts just as much as a Lucifer Hummingbird. Disturbing, but true! (Good thing we had plenty of chances to pick up a Starling, because amazingly it was 2:00pm and we hadn’t seen one yet...they’re actually a rare bird in the Chiricahuas!)  


We had shockingly good luck in Elgin, starting with a Common Nighthawk perched on a telephone wire in broad daylight! We lingered a moment longer than Big Days normally allow, taking in a beautiful White-tailed Kite floating over the gently waving grasses. We even kicked up a Grasshopper Sparrow, normally a furtive species. But the clock is always ticking, so on to Patagonia! 

At a certain point on a Big Day, you realize you’re either on track for your goal, or based on your “misses” you know you’re going to fall short. Well, we were finding great birds and having a blast, but a recount of the tally made it clear that we weren’t going to hit 200. Now it was survival mode: just find as many birds as you can between now and dusk, so at least you have a shot at first place! A quick review showed plenty of “easy” birds: Ash-throated Flycatcher and European Starling for sure, maybe a Great Egret at Rio Rico, and Violet-crowned Hummingbird was practically a given at Paton’s feeders. 

Well, the Violet-crowned came in practically as soon as we set foot in Paton’s yard. Not only a bird with stunning good looks, but another species for the list! Abert’s Towhee and a few specialties followed shortly thereafter, including Gray Hawk and Thick-billed Kingbird. And wait! Everyone hear that? Sure enough, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo clucked hollowly from the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. Maybe we were back on a roll!  

Yellow-billed Cuckoo by Jim Burns

We pulled up to Rio Rico, spirits high, and waited to tally a few more random species. Annnnnd…got nothing. Nothing, really? Well, nothing new, anyway. Hmm… Time to reevaluate the end of day plan. With daylight fading, we figured we had just enough time to race over to Peña Blanca Lake, where at least 25 species were possible. Even if we got 10 of those, that would push us over 180. And 15 birds? Heck, that would put us in a position to approach 190 or 195 with some creative work after dark. Not bad for a day’s work! (Hey, what’s that flock of small dark birds going down behind the trees in the distance? Oh, you guys missed it? I think they were Starlings… Doesn’t count unless we all see them.) 

We wheeled in to Peña Blanca, and found…five more species? Maybe two more species? Maybe…nope, zero new species. So, we were stuck. Sometimes, that’s how it goes! A count, recount and triple count on the drive to the “Goal Line” in Tucson confirmed the results: 173 species. Well, we could at least stop along the way to pick up an appropriately nocturnal Black-crowned Night-Heron, but then we called it quits at 174. Exhausted though we were, we all agreed: hey, 174 isn’t bad!  

The checklist

The coveted trophy

Reflecting on your Birding Cup run always helps to plan for next year. What were our big “misses?” How should we alter the route to maximize birding time and minimize driving time? The biggest question: how did we miss EUROPEAN STARLING?!?!? Wait, actually I think that’s a highlight!  

See you out there for the 3rd annual Sky Islands Birding Cup, Wednesday August 14, 2013! !

1 comment:

  1. Somebody needs to step up and challenge the Birding the Midnight Oil team! I'll supply some possible team names: Lay my Birding by the Riverside; Break an Egg; Brand Spankin' Bluebird; Cat Bird Seat.... You can probably do better. Pick a name and sign up for the Cup!


Thanks, we value your opinions! Your comment will be reviewed before being published.