The legend of Ted Parker hangs heavy around the LSU Museum of Natural Science.
Before dying in a 1993 plane crash in Ecuador, he accomplished so much in the field of ornithology — conserving South American lands, collecting audio of thousands of bird sounds and setting a world record.
In 1982, Parker and a graduate student in Peru identified 331 bird species in a 24-hour period, a contest called a “big day” in the birding community, a record that has stood ever since.
Now a team from LSU plans to break it.
“It would be great if he held the record forever, but I don’t think that’s what Ted would want,” said Michael Harvey, a member of the team and a Ph.D. student at the LSU Museum of Natural Science. “I think he would want people out there trying to one-up him and finding new ways to see more bird species.”
On Oct. 16, although the date could change because of the weather and other conditions, the four-man team will attempt to identify more than 331 bird species in a mountainous region of Northern Peru.
With thousands of dollars in audio equipment, cameras and binoculars, the group will drive from Moyobamba through the mountains, climbing 6,000 feet along the way. As the elevation changes, so will the wildlife.
They will see rare birds like the long-whiskered owl and the small, colorful acre antshrike.
The area’s biological diversity could help them break the record.
Harvey and LSU team members Glenn Seeholzer, Dan Lane and Peru native Fernando Angulo, arrived in Peru early this month to scout locations for the big day. They flew to Lima, the capital, then to the northwest before driving two days to reach Moyobamba.
All of the team members have been to Peru multiple times, and they have studied bird calls for years. Lately they have listened to calls every spare moment downloading audio files to their iPhones and digital music players.
“You learn every little song and sound and tweet they make so when you get out of the car you’re listening, each person on the team probably facing a different direction,” said Robb Brumfield, director of the Museum of Natural Science and an LSU professor.
They will probably identify 75 percent of the birds by sound, he said.
“It’s not the typical way you think about bird watching,” he said, “walking down a nature trail, saying ‘Oh, look at this!’”
This big day is more of an adventure than a research trip. Partly a fundraiser for the graduate students working with the Museum of Natural Science, the public can donate a few dollars or cents per bird they identify on the big day, money that will pay for LSU graduate students to research bird species around the world. Tabasco and several Peruvian conservation and tourism groups are paying expenses for the world record attempt.
In the birding world, LSU is known for its work in tropical research, especially in South America.
Graduate students working with the Museum of Natural Science regularly work in Peru, making counts of birds and occasionally identifying previously unknown species.
Often they collect specimens with shotguns or fine nets, preserve the bodies for research and store birds’ muscle tissue in liquid nitrogen for scientific testing.
“It’s a mixture of Audubon old-school with cutting-edge genetics,” Brumfield said. “We’re using the latest genetics techniques and publishing in high-falutin journals.”
The team decided to attempt a record big day because bird watching has exploded in popularity over the past decade, Harvey said.
“A huge number of people in the U.S. do it and it’s expanding all the time,” he said.
The attempt has caught the birding world’s imagination with articles in the July issue of Birding magazine and on several websites.
When Parker and then-graduate student Scott Robinson set the world record for a big day, they had been conducting research in an area of Peru’s Manu National Park when they noticed a small area contained an amazing number of species, Robinson wrote for TheBiggestDay.com. They hiked and canoed around a river’s flood plain, working from 3:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. They easily set a new record.
It’s difficult to compare this year’s attempt to the 1982 big day, Brumfield said. Back then, a good field guide on the birds of Peru had not been written, and Parker learned the birds’ calls through experience.
“Even if these guys break the record, it’s sort of like comparing sports teams from 50 years ago to teams now,” Brumfield said.
But even with new technology, seeing and hearing 332 birds in a day in a remote wilderness will be a tough task.
“It’s really exciting,” Harvey said. “It’s really intimidating. I feel like there is a lot of pressure. I’m pretty confident we can do well. I don’t know if we’ll beat it, but we’ll come close.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on October 7, 2014 to reflect that Ted Parker died in 1993.