Picture a van screeching into the parking lot of Devil’s Punch Bowl on the Oregon coast. Four men jump out of the van and run full speed carrying spotting scopes to an ideal spot to look at the ocean, as local birder Noah Strycker describes it to Eugene Weekly.
“And then just shouting out bird names, ‘wandering tattle.’ ‘Got it!’” he says. “I imagine people are saying, ‘What is happening?’”
But that’s what the typical stop was like as Strycker and three other birders broke Oregon’s Big Day record. The four identified 228 bird species in 24 hours, which is nine more than the 2007 record set by Strycker and three other birders. Preparing for a Big Day, when birders try to identify as many birds as possible during a 24-hour period, takes more than just planning a route, though. It takes scouting out areas to ensure you can maximize the number of birds identified at a certain stop.
“For many years birders in Oregon have thought, ‘Is 220 bird species in a day possible?’” Strycker says. “It was satisfying to break the record and set the bar that much higher.”
Big Day attempts are a team effort, Strycker says. The May 10 group included Strycker, a published author on birding who also set the world Big Year record in 2015; Jay Withgott, who’s written textbooks on birding; Rich Hoyer, a tour guide for the bird company Wings; and Adrian Hinkle, a grad student at University of California, Berkeley, who had just set a Big Day record two weeks earlier in California.
“Collectively, we have a lot of birding experience,” Strycker says.
They picked May 10 for the challenge because it’s around this time of the year where you get “best of both worlds,” Strycker says. You can find migrant birds, summer birds and winter birds around this time, he adds.
Over the years birders have learned more and more about bird habitat, which seasons you can find them and fine tuning routes from past Big Day attempts, he says.
“It’s a challenge to see how intimately you know the birds of your own state,” Strycker says about Big Days. “Can you find a certain species of a bird not just in a habitat but a tree it can be reliably found in?”
The group plotted a route that started at Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, east of the Cascades. Next, they stopped at Summer Lake and some of the mountain habitats nearby. Then they traveled the Willamette Valley, up through Corvallis and then ended the day at Newport. And while in the van, which was driven by Hoyer the whole trip, they were spotting birds while on the road.
Strycker says the route is more than 500 miles long and goes through almost all of the state’s major bird habitats.
The group of birders met at 9 pm in Eugene, three hours before the Big Day would start. “It was completely full on for 24 hours until we ended up looking for owls at Finley Wildlife Refuge,” he says, adding the four were awake for around 28 to 29 hours straight.
Daytime birds don’t wake up until 4:45 am, Strycker says, but the group had a good session of night birding. Using flashlights, they saw a great grey owl in a forest meadow, in addition to other species. And although it’s supposed to be in the Arctic, he adds, the group also saw a tundra swan.
Withgott wrote an in-depth report on the day that was posted on the Birding Lists Digest web forum. According to the report, the group saw 98 species in an hour at Summer Lake, which Withgott called a “‘big hour’ within a big day.”
Each member of the birding group took on scouting duties for different sections of the route. Strycker scouted from where Highway 58 meets Highway 97 on the other side of the Cascades to Eugene. A few days before the Big Day, he went along the route and staked out some birds — and placed a hummingbird feeder at Gilchrist.
“When we came along, there was a little calliope hummingbird sitting on the hummingbird feeder,” he says. “It was the only one we saw all day.”
That sounds like putting your thumb on the scale, but Strycker says it’s OK. Some of the rules for a Big Day are that birders in the group have to turn off their phones so they can’t get rare bird alerts, and everyone in the group has to see or hear at least 95 percent of the found species.
What was different about the route this year compared to 2007’s Big Day, Strycker says, was that they decided to travel east to west, ending the day on the Oregon coast. That meant risking looking for sea bird species who are less active at the end of the day and a setting sun glaring over the Pacific Ocean, he says, but it gave them about 20 more minutes of daylight, which is enough for a couple of stops.
While at the coast, Strycker says they saw 27 species of shore birds — including sandpipers and plovers. In a typical year red knot birds aren’t typically found, but this year there’s been flocks of up to 500 birds on the coast, he says. “Which is crazy,” he adds. “We’ve never had those kinds of numbers of red knots before.”
Pulling off a Big Day takes more than local knowledge of birds and their habitats, Strycker adds. There’s an element of luck involved, too. “It’s kind of a rush for a birder,” he says.
Visit EugeneWeekly.com/Noah to bid on an opportunity to go birding with Noah Strycker. Proceeds from the auction will go toward costs of operating EW. Strycker is the son of arts editor Bob Keefer.