by Brad Jacobs
By Brad Jacobs, CAS past-president and retired MDC ornithologist
For bird-watchers, a Big Year is a personal challenge to find as many bird species as possible. In 1991, Tim Barksdale achieved a Big Year record of 314 bird species for the state of Missouri. Though there have been several attempts to break that record in the past 27 years, none have succeeded. The chance to break the record is naturally higher in years with more species tallied collectively by everyone birding in Missouri; past high years’ collective species counts include: 2007 (329), 2011 (328), and 2013 (325). In 2012 (the second-best year so far), the 330 recorded species included 13 gulls, many summer-dispersing long-legged waders, Anhinga, Common Ground-Dove, two redpolls, two crossbills, and Lesser Goldfinch.
I started birding in 1958. I loved going on Christmas Bird Counts and doing a 24-hour May Big Day attempt to break 100 species in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Each year since, I have felt an urge to break my own records and possibly top a state or county record. Over the years, I realized that it takes time, planning, and lots of rare birds to actually set a new record. In 2017, the first year after my retirement from the Missouri Department of Conservation, only 323 species were recorded in Missouri and my personal tally topped out at 310. In 2018, I didn’t wait until the end of May to decide if a great birding year was upon Missouri. I started out on January 1 with all the enthusiasm needed to try for a record-breaking tally. After birding on 249 days, my personal tally reached 323, surpassing Tim Barksdale’s 1991 record (314) by nine species. 2018 turned out to be a great year for birding in Missouri overall, as all the 334 species recorded set a new collective state record as well.
The Audubon Society of Missouri (ASM)’s Missouri Bird Records Committee (MBRC) maintains and regularly updates the Annotated Checklist of Missouri Birds that determines the status and relative abundance of all documented bird species in Missouri, which are grouped into five categories: Common, Uncommon, Rare, Casual, and Accidental (in order of decreasing likelihood; see figures or links for precise definitions). The key to a successful Big Year is finding as many Rare, Casual, and Accidental species as possible, knowing that Common and Uncommon species will mostly be seen while looking for rare birds (in this story, lower-case “rare” refers to all three categories of unusual birds for simplicity). Assuming that I could find all 265 Common and Uncommon species on that list, the challenge in breaking the 1991 Big Year record lay in finding the 50 or more Rare, Casual, and Accidental birds on the list. In the following text, I share my monthly stories and experiences while pursuing this record-breaking goal.
January – 24 days in the field: My Big Year started out on January 1 before dawn. I first tried to re-find the 2017 rare birds that still lingered in Boone County. Chris Barrigar and I independently located the reliable, fifth-winter resident Northern Shrike at Bradford Research Center; we were the last birders to report this bird at this location in 2018. The wintering Evening Grosbeak at Nicholas March’s feeder also helped start me on my year-long journey.
On January 6 in St Charles County, Paul McKenzie and I added Snowy Owl, Tundra Swan, and Sandhill Crane. By the end of January, the rare, casual, and accidental tally had increased by nine species. We found Prairie Falcon and Say’s Phoebe in Barton County, Iceland Gull in Clay County, and Lesser Black-backed Gull in St Charles County, all reported first by others. By the end of January, my Big Year total had reached 111 species.
February – 17 days in the field: I added four more rare birds in February. At Grand Pass CA, Saline County, a Golden Eagle flew across the wetlands and disappeared through the trees along the Missouri River. Paul McKenzie and I located a Red-throated Loon at Table Rock State Park, Stone County. I stopped by Ruth Simmons’s feeders in Lee’s Summit for a Common Redpoll. On February 25 I birded with Bill Rowe, Paul McKenzie, Diane Bricmont, and Tom Parmeter, and finally photographed a Glaucous Gull in Missouri at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary (Riverlands) that I had originally photographed on February 17 below Melvin-Price Dam in Madison County, Illinois. My tally hit 127 species by the end of February.
March – 24 days in the field: I added eight new rare birds in March, including a pair of Cinnamon Teal on March 2 in Green County while birding with Dorothy Thurman and Kathleen Cowens. I then chased after a Golden-crowned Sparrow that Josh Uffman had photographed on March 3 at Bunch Hollow CA, Carroll County. When I arrived on March 4, Tim Barksdale had relocated the sparrow, but I only saw it from 100 yards away. I returned on March 5th and photographed it late in the day when many sparrows came to the edge of the gravel road as the sun set. I drove up again with Paul McKenzie on March 14 and we located it quickly but failed to photograph it. I located a Barn Owl in Dade County, a White-winged Scoter at Riverlands, Greater Prairie-Chickens in St. Clair County, 2 Pacific Loons on Fellows Lake in Springfield, Green County, and 3 male Surf Scoters on Lions Lake, Franklin County. The scoters were first sighted by Becky Lutz on March 28. On March 31, my first-of-year Vesper Sparrow was at Eagle Bluffs CA, Boone County. By the end of March, my tally had climbed to 160 species.
April – 27 days in the field: In April I added nine more rare birds and many common and uncommon species. On April 3, Paul McKenzie and I arrived at dawn near Caplinger Mills, Cedar County, where Derek Kampe and Ricky Hostetler had located a White-tailed Kite the day before. The mist and fog were starting to lift, but it was raining off and on. We finally got some good photos up close as the Kite settled on a power line and watched us peeking out the car window from about 50 feet away. On April 10, Kathleen Anderson located a Red-necked Grebe on Perry Phillips Lake, Boone County. Edge Wade texted me after she found it, and I was able to get over in time to photograph it. American Avocets in Dade County followed on April 12. On the same day, Paul McKenzie, Lisa Berger, Charley Burwick, and I located a Burrowing Owl on a badger burrow system in a pasture next to a bend in County Road 61 north of Lockwood, Dade County. I also found Marbled Godwit and Neotropic Cormorant at Four Rivers CA, Vernon County, Glossy Ibis at Schell-Osage CA, St. Clair County, and Prairie Warbler, listed as Uncommon on the Missouri Checklist. By the end of April, my tally had reached 248 species.
May – 28 days in the field: May produced ten more rare birds. On May 3, about nine birders visited the marshlands of Schell-Osage CA and saw Yellow Rails. We waded through the shallow, moist soil pools after dark after calling the area manager and getting a permit to allow access behind the restrictive barriers and signage. On May 6 at Hawn State Park, five Red Crossbills, observed and photographed earlier by Melissa Roach, flew overhead twice between the pine stands. On May 11, a visit to the Conco Quarry in Green County provided a checklist photograph of the Painted Buntings that frequent the area each summer. On May 12, I worked the shorebird flocks at Eagle Bluffs CA, Boone County, and located a black-colored Ruff and two Ruddy Turnstones in Pool 14. On May 20, also at Eagle Bluff CA, I saw a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck fly into Pool 10 in the dawn twilight and disappear into the cattails. In the mid-afternoon at Unit 1 of the City of Columbia Wetland Cell, a Common Gallinule swam in the open water of the second cell from the Katy Trail. On May 23, I located several King Rails in the Bittern Bottom Unit of B. K. Leach CA, Lincoln County. On May 29, I traveled to Loess Bluffs NWR, Holt County, and successfully photographed the Mottled Duck discovered by Mark Robbins on May 20. Finally, on May 31, I drove around the streets of East Prairie, Mississippi County, for two hours until I located two White-winged Doves foraging in a lawn on a residential street. Later in the day, I drove to Grand Tower Island in Perry County, Missouri, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, and located a Little Blue Heron, a common summer resident in southeastern Missouri that became my 300th species.
June – 20 days in the field: No new rare birds were seen in June, though I did add one new species to the Big Year list, a Black-billed Cuckoo on the west side of Mallard Marsh, Loess Bluffs NWR, Holt County. The total at the end of June was 301.
July – 14 days in the field: I located three rare birds in July. Several birders saw and photographed a Cave Swallow in Bates County on July 14 after it was originally observed by Ricky Hostetler on July 13. After several attempts to see the Wood Stork at Swan Lake NWR, Paul McKenzie, Pete Monacell, and I realized that ongoing construction in the area during the week had shifted the Wood Stork farther off the road. We returned on the weekend and located the bird wading in the quiet water next to the bridge between Swan Lake and South Pool. It was still there when we departed. On July 29, after a six hour search, I relocated the Anhinga that Kent Freemen had discovered on July 26 in among the bald cypress in the borrow ditch along Levee Rd in Dunklin County. July ended with my tally at 304.
August – 14 days in the field: I located five rare species in August. I added a Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Uncommon) on August 2 at the turf farm along US 63 in Callaway Co. On August 3, I saw three White Ibises in Pool B of Duck Creek CA, and on August 9 I photographed a Roseate Spoonbill in Monopoly Lake at Mingo NWR, both in Wayne Co. In the flocks of shorebirds at Schell-Osage CA, St. Clair County on August 16 there were at least 2 Western Sandpipers in the shallows of Barber Lake. On August 24, I photographed and identified a Red-necked Phalarope from the southeast end of Pool 14 in Eagle Bluffs CA, Boone Co that was near the viewing blind on the other end of the pool. I returned on August 26 and walked into the blind area of Pool 14 with Bill Mees, Donna Brunet, Jim Gast, John Besser, Edge Wade, Jean Neely, and Sandy Elbert and took some better photographs. On August 29, Kendell Loyd, Lyndon Hostetler, and I waited until almost dark to see a Rufous Hummingbird stop in at a private home with numerous nectar feeders in Everton, Dade County. My tally now stood at 310.
September – 20 days in the field: On September 5, Greg Swick and I birded the Aldrich Arm of Stockton Lake, Dade County. I added a Common Tern, listed as Uncommon in Missouri, in a large flock of gulls and other tern species. On September 6, Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago called me from Carondelet Park, St. Louis City, where they had been watching a female Black-throated Blue warbler for several hours. When I arrived two hours later, Chrissy and Andy were waiting by the parking lot, having kept an eye on the thicket where the bird had been foraging. I sat in the middle of the thicket at the base of a huge tree for about 45 minutes, occasionally clicking photographs with each fleeting glimpse of the bird, as it hopped low in the dense, leafy branches of the small trees.
On September 19, Paul McKenzie, Pete Monacell, and I arrived late in the day at Mark Twain Lake and went to the Indian Hills Marina to search the harbor and bay area for Sabine’s and Laughing Gulls. While we set up the scopes and started scanning the bay in three different directions, I spotted a tiny, pale-gray colored shorebird sitting on the water and spinning in circles, surrounded by many Ring-billed Gulls dotting the main bay west of the rock breakwater. This was a Red Phalarope about 1500 feet away, a state lifer for me and a lifer for Pete. I had left my cell phone scope adapter in the car, so I walked up to get it and Paul and Pete kept an eye on the bird, which unexpectedly took flight before I arrived back at my scope. Paul saw the bird fly to the west, exposing big white wing stripes. I sat down at a nearby picnic table and sketched what I had seen. Paul and Pete both wrote down the details of what they had seen, but we had not been able to photograph the bird. On October 19 and 20, Debbie and Steve Martin found a Red Phalarope in a borrow ditch at Silver Lake, Swan Lake NWR, Chariton County. They alerted the whole Swan Lake NWR Sparrow Workshop group and everyone got a good look at this rare bird for Missouri.
On September 24, Paul McKenzie and I conducted the Eagle Bluffs CA Sparrow Workshop with Sarah Kendrick of the Missouri Conservation Department, co-sponsored by the Audubon Society of Missouri. During the day, the Uncommon and secretive Nelson’s Sparrow had eluded many Sparrow Workshop attendees, but their efforts made finding this species a little easier. With this bird, I tied my Big Year effort with the 1991 Barksdale record of 314 species.
On September 26, Paul McKenzie, Pete Monacell, and I birded together and shared the breaking of the Barksdale 1991 Big Year record. We photographed a Laughing Gull among other gulls on Thomas Hill Reservoir, Macon County, as it flew along the far shore of the lake. Now we were in new territory, with 315 species tallied so far in 2018.
October – 19 days in the field: I added only rare birds to the list from this point on. On October 15, I saw a Pomarine Jaeger at Swan Lake NWR, located the day before by Terry McNeely, Edge Wade, and Brent Galliart; the jaeger made one clockwise flight around Swan Lake, harassing the gulls as it went and then disappeared from sight. By noon, most of the gulls left the area. On October 23, I searched the gulls on Thomas Hill Reservoir and came upon an adult plumaged Sabine’s Gull. I recorded video and took photographs from quite a distance away. The tally now stood at 317.
November – 20 days in the field: This was the last month in which I found any new birds for the year; all were Rare or Casual species. On November 1, Paul McKenzie and I headed to Buffalo, Dallas County to see a Rock Wren that had been reported at a private farm in the area by one of the many children in the family. We all took turns looking through the spotting scopes at this intrepid bird. I located a Snow Bunting on November 7 at the marina jetty on Long Branch Lake, Macon County. On November 18, Pete Monacell and I saw the Long-tailed Duck that Andy Reago, Chrissy McClarren, Debbie Martin, and Steve Martin discovered on November 16. On November 19, after six hours, Steve and Debbie Martin and I finally found the Black Scoter near the Smithville Reservoir Dam, Clay County that Mary Nemecek had first located on November 18. On November 25, Pete Monacell and I searched for the Western Grebe that Greg Swick and Kendell Loyd discovered on November 24. We spotted it near the peninsula at Table Rock Lake SP, Stone County. On November 30, Paul McKenzie and I relocated the Mountain Bluebird first observed by Paige Witek and Eric Ost on 29 November at Wah-Kon’Tah Prairie Preserve in St Clair County. This was bird number 323 for the year.
December – 22 days in the field: Although I birded for 22 days in December, no additional species were added to my Big Year List. I didn’t count a Black-legged Kittiwake that I watched fly down river from Melvin Price Lock and Dam, technically in Illinois, although it crossed into Missouri on the way down the river. Paul McKenzie and his hunting buddy Tim Turpin heard a Northern Saw-whet Owl in Callaway County. I took three trips to the area, and saw a small owl fly from a cedar grove, but could not see all of the details necessary to lock down that bird to species. I spent my last day of birding in 2018 at James A Reed CA, searching fruit-bearing shrubs for a Townsend’s solitaire, Bohemian Waxwing, and/or Varied Thrush. What a great way to end an amazing year watching birds throughout Missouri.
My 2018 Big Year count of 323 species established a new record for Missouri. I submitted documentation to MBRC for all my observations of Casual and Accidental species. I added location information, identification characteristics used, and behavioral observation for many of the Common, Uncommon, and Rare species in the Details and Comments sections on the eBird checklists for review by the eBird Review Team. I also submitted documentation for all species on the Documentation Review List to be reviewed by the MBRC. I especially tried to get photographs of all of the Rare, Casual, and Accidental species or sketched the birds in the field when I wasn’t able to get to my camera in time.
As a long-time birder in Missouri, I would like to offer my sense of the importance of Big Year records and other bird data on eBird to our overall understanding of bird populations in Missouri. Birding with a purpose provides a means of building partnerships among citizens and scientists for bird conservation. We all learn more by sharing our knowledge and can facilitate everyone’s understanding of the importance of unique habitats in Missouri.
Big Years or Big Days, whether in your yard, county, or public lands you frequent, all are great fun and are valuable especially when you document your findings for all to see. eBird has added a factor of electronic ease in doing something with your bird data that is extremely valuable to conservation. I will continue to start out my birding years as though I will find something new at every turn in the field and woods. I highly recommend the enjoyment that comes from visiting new places and finding what birds are in each of the habitats that you come upon. Find a mentor or be a mentor for someone.
I thank the many people who made this year a wonderful experience. I want you to know how much I appreciated your support throughout the year. You helped me find many of the species that I chased to the four corners of the state. As you can tell by the names that appeared in this story, this was truly a group effort. There are many more names not mentioned; I know we will meet in the future somewhere in Missouri, and I look forward to thanking you personally.
For a complete listing of Brad’s Big Year list, see this MOBIRDS post.