Sunday, May 06, 2018

Intense competition in Central America on Global Big Day

I am currently in the jungles of Panama, staying at an eco-lodge (quick shameless plug for Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge). Now, I am an interested but very much inept amateur birder, but I am surrounded here by a bunch of obsessive, mainly American twitchers. Our Panamanian guides - who have an absolutely extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge of the local birds, in English, Spanish and Latin, not to mention their calls, habits, distribution, taxonomy, etc, etc - are also, perhaps understandably, somewhat obsessive on the subject, and it is interesting to witness the competitiveness that Global Big Day has engendered here, at least among those who care.
For those who have never heard of it, and that included me up until a few days ago, Global Big Day is a kind of worldwide bird-spotting competition, organized by Cornell Lab and the online birding service eBird. The competition, now in its fifth year, involves birding teams around the world trying to spot as many different species as possible during one 24-hour period, which this year fell on May 5th. The rules are stringent and the competition fierce, as countries vie to make the top 10 or 20 in avian diversity, both for reasons of their country's tourism potential and apparently also for their own national pride.
Because of its geography, Central America, as a narrow land-bridge between two large continents, is a birding hotspot, and one of the fiercest Global Big Day competitions is between Panama and neighbouring Costa Rica, both of which bat well above their weight in the birding stakes considering their small size. Each year, the battle is close-fought, and the two small countries usually place in the top 10 in the world. Costa Rica, though, usually places just above Panama, often by the narrowest of margins, and, from talking to the Panamanians, this is clearly an irksome and aggravating turn of affairs.
It is a relatively big deal here, then, that Panama is cuttently sitting in 7th place, just ABOVE Costa Rica. The difference, though, is just ONE BIRD (659 versus 658), and what makes it a compelling spectator sport is that, although the 24-hour period is over, the competition is not yet finished. Because the counts are submitted online, though eBird, and because some of the areas involved are quite remote and far from cellphone coverage, the competition allows three days for submissions to be entered. So, the count and the rankings could still change, and we wait here with bated breath....
Just for interest, the overall rankings (subject, as mentioned, to minor changes over the next couple of days) are as follows: perennial winner Colombia in first, followed by Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, United States, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Argentina and India. Canada is currently showing in 19th place, which, considering our late spring, and the fact that many migratory species have not yet arrived there, I thought was pretty good.
Another interesting aspect of all this is the level of participation in the various countries, which can be measured in terms of checklists submitted. Far and away the most checklists were, perhaps predictably, from the United States (42,287) followed by Canada (6,893), and then, as befits its reputation as a birding superstar, Colombia (4,745). The UK, though, a country that I think of as a big birding country, only submitted 363 checklists, and France and Germany barely broke the 100 threshold. I guess the Europeans are just not as into it as I expected them to be.

Hold the presses! Costa Rica have just equalized, just 10 minutes after writing this entry! It's not over yet.

Well, the tension is over. Colombia once again tops the charts with a massive 1,535 species, followed by Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, with Venezuela making a late vault into fifth place, and confirming the continued dominance of South America in the birding world cup.
Panama is the top Central American country, handily beating out Costa Rica this year, and registering an impessive 750 species. That makes it the 6th best country in the world for bird species, with Costa Rica coming in 11th, just after Mexico, the United States, Bolivia and Argentina. The first Eastern Hemisphere countries are India (12th) and Australia (14th). And Europe - gaah, don't even think about it...

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