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Why everyone can become a great birder

An interview with Jessie Barry

Why everyone can become a great birder - SWAROVSKI OPTIK Tripods BTX, ATX, EL, CL, Birders, Titchwell

Together with Team Sapsucker, Jessie Barry broke the North American record for most bird sightings within 24 hours in 2013. Yet her down-to-earth attitude makes it easy to talk to this modest but brilliant scientist. As inspiring teacher, Jessie is sharing her experiences in competitive birding with us.


Together with your colleagues from Cornell Lab, you are a member of the birding team called Sapsucker. Do you like competitive birding?

My career in competitive birding started when I was 14. I went on my first ABA (American Birding Association) events and joined a young birders program that took me birding in many places. When I joined the Cornell Lab, I already understood Big Days. Planning a Big Day route is a very specific skill set and sticking to that plan is a huge part which are my responsibilities. My forte is also my bird finding skills. I am good at detecting really distant birds and scanning over water. Other members of the team are specialists in raptors, excel in birding-while-driving or have unparalleled call-note reflexes. All those different strengths come together plus a pinch of “Sapsucker magic” which helps us to find things that are really far away. It all adds up on the Big Day. Another great thing about us is that we have all been friends before we became colleagues. So there is a lot of trust.

Why everyone can become a great birder - SWAROVSKI OPTIK CL Companion, ATX 65, Birders, TitchwellWhy everyone can become a great birder - SWAROVSKI OPTIK CL Companion, Birders, Titchwell

When would be the best moment to start with competitive birding? Is it hard to become a part of the community? Do you have any recommendations on how to kick off one’s competitive birding career?

I would say that the competitive side appeals to some people while to others – not so much. If you are a teenager and you think it could be fun, go for it. Give one of the Global Big Days in spring or autumn a shot. You can join in by entering your run in eBird.

In Brazil, they are setting up a group of experienced birders and invite newcomers. I love that concept because it makes the whole thing a community event. I really wish that more birders were taking other people along to get them excited about birds. If you like birding, that is absolutely critical. In Columbia, 1,000 people went birding during the Global Big Day. This is exactly what we dream about.

However, in general, there is a little too much talk about competitive birding for me. It does not have to be that serious. You can be a birder and just have fun being fascinated by birds. Not everyone needs the thrill of bird races.

What was the most exciting birding experience in your life?

My favorite day birding was one of our Big Days (fundraiser to see how many species we can see within 24 hours) with my dear friends and colleagues from Team Sapsucker. We had already broken the North American record with 264 species in Texas, but knew that more was possible. On April 25, 2013, luck was on our side. Thanks to ideal weather conditions with storms having passed the day before and a front passing by at the end of the day, a massive array of songbirds hit the coast. It almost felt like the clouds were hoarding the birds right towards us. So, buoyed by good weather, excellent scouting help, and one of the largest migration fallouts in recent memory, we raced from the desert washes of south-central Texas to the live oaks of the coast to achieve a total larger than almost anyone had imagined possible. We set the record at 294 species that day which is going to be hard to break.

My role on the team is to plan the agenda minute by minute and to make sure that we stay on schedule. We have also learned what the best food and beverage choices are in order to keep everybody happy, well nurtured and hydrated throughout the day. It turns out that burritos are a safer choice than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, especially if you try to prepare the latter freshly in the back seat of a car jolting down a dirt road. To keep awake, I prefer chocolate-covered espresso beans to coffee.

What would be your greatest wish for your personal birding career?

One of the things that is on the back of my head is seeing all the species of ducks in the world. Tim Appleton has pursued that and it would be great fun for me too. Naturally, this fascination with ducks goes back to my roots with my great-uncle studying geese. In my childhood, growing up at Lake Ontario with the lake in front and marshes behind the house, waterfowl was always nearby. Ducks are definitely my favorite birds.

Geographically, I am still looking forward to exploring Asia and some of those little islands that have special ducks. While I might not make it to Campbell Islands or might never see the Eaton’s Pintails, I certainly want to see some more ducks in Asia and a few tricky ones in Africa, like the Cotton Pygmy Goose. Maybe I’ll be lucky someday.


Thank you for your time and the inspiring conversation.

Why everyone can become a great birder - Global Big Day an interview with Jessie Barry

Global Big Day

Jessie Barry

Jessie is a great promoter for citizen science and bird count events, like the Global Big Day! Join birders around the world in putting together the puzzle of birdlife – everyone may submit a piece of information that makes the picture more complete.

And check out the results of past rallies: globalbigday

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