Send the troops home!

War is over!
Yoko Ono 1971

I’m finding it hard to find the ‘off’ switch. But I’m pretty sure it's within reach now.  It’s the 3rd of January, 2017, and the war is over. Robyn and I are on a flight going the wrong way – from LAX to Chicago – not Sydney.  But that’s OK, we were in LA to celebrate with the 'California 4' - Roger and Michael Woodruff, Johnny Bovee, and Matt Grube; tomorrow we’ll be partying ‘like it’s 1999’ with additional close friends I’ve made this year to celebrate armistice and survival. Due to logistics and circumstances – three who I wish could have joined us, cannot – Neil Hayward, John Puschock, and Ken Blankenship – the three people who had the biggest impact on my results, and sense of wellness, this year.

For myself – and for Robyn, who’s had to keep things together in Australia in between her six trips to the US, it’s been a mighty big year – far bigger, and far more testing than I’d imagined possible during my na├»ve planning processes and recon trips throughout 2015. In fact, I have a lot of trouble accepting that it has only been one year - just 366 days, since I flew out of Sydney airport on the big red kangaroo. Surely there’s a ‘1’, or maybe even a ‘2’ in front of that ‘366’.

It wasn’t the sort of stretched out year arising from extended boring or unpleasant circumstances – as I’d imagine prison might be like. Rather, it’s seemingly drawn-out nature was a reflection of just how much activity I packed into the calendar year, whipped up by the stressful nature of a big year race – always at a frantic pace, usually with the threat of eminent failure hanging above like the sword of Damocles, ever-likely to drop. Ever seen an Indiana Jones film? It was a roller-coaster ride full up ups and downs, chocked full of corresponding mood-swings and over-reactions, all crammed into a sleep-deprived blur. Next stop, Betty Ford clinic. 2016 started with an off-putting bang in Yuma Arizona, louder than the cheap fireworks show that kept me awake in my two-star digs on New Year’s eve. Streak-backed Oriole and Rufous-backed Robin. As the days and weeks unfolded, and tens of thousands of miles were traversed, it seemed more like the ‘big’ bang of quantum fame - destined to never really come to an end.

Although the guts of my year on the road fitted between the cogs of the perpetual cycle of activity: airport, flight, rental car, motel, airport, flight, rental car motel, and so on, there were sufficient gaps in that background rhythm to allow some of the most exhilarating experiences imaginable. There was time enough to explore some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet in search of an exciting and entirely ‘new’ bird fauna. The greatest proportion of these explorations were undertaken solo – with just enough (6) visits from Robyn, and friends (3) to ward off thoughts of suicide or worst (quitting and going home).

Above was written on flight to Chicago last night, below was written this morning, here in freezing cold Chicago, home of the world-beating Cubs. Change in tone below follows reading ABA Blog announcement of results of 2016 Big Year.

Although I truly thought it would never end – it has. Just now. We landed in Chicago last night, and I’ve turned on the laptop this morning to see that the ABA has announced the final results of the 2016 Big Year competition:

My total of 780 species + 3 provisional species represents a new ABA Big Year record, exceeding Neil Hayward’s 2013 ABA area record by more than 30. That's THIRTY. It includes 111 rarities, 15 beyond the previous record of 96 that Sandy Komito racked up in his legendary big year result in 1998, when it rained rarities upon the lucky springtime Attu birders. The 780 total also includes all 672 of the so-called ‘common’ ABA species (Codes 1 & 2), many of which proved far more challenging than their classification implies.

To the other three big year birders, I extend sincere congratulations. In terms of ‘going hard’, I take my hat off to them all – and consider this an area where we can probably all extend mutual respect. I know that I was driven to far greater efforts knowing that the other guys were as focused and dedicated as they were. To the ABA team who maintain the prominence and relevance of the Big Year ethos, thank you! The organisation is an active and effective one, and has a lot to be proud of.

It was also a year that unexpectedly, for me at least, saw the ABA membership consider, and endorse a proposal to extend the ABA area to include the 50th State – Hawaii, on the admirable grounds that the conservation requirements of the Island State’s highly threatened endemic bird species could attract greater attention and funding. Although the addition of Hawaii’s birds to the ABA area took effect before the close of 2016, its relevance for big year birding is scheduled for commencement in 2017. This left the 2016 big year birders in a bit of limbo – all of whom of course would have preferred to have that gate opened during our tilt at the record books. Still, after such an unexpectedly good result for my birding year, I was drawn to the tropical State in early December, along with fellow Big Year birder Laura Keene and Newfoundland-based birding guide and good friend Jared Clarke for a week-long birding blitz. Laura and I continued our Hawaiian blitzkreig after Jared’s departure for another six days, to finish up with remarkable results. Although it was too late to expect much success from my sea-watching and pelagic efforts, I had a near-perfect score on the natives and established non-natives, notwithstanding the four or so endemics of the allegedly inaccessible north western islands. Not put off by warnings about road closures on Kauai, I backpacked crazy miles for crazy hours – mostly wet, into the last stronghold of two rapidly disappearing bird species, had killer views of one, and a not-quite-tickable glimpse of the other - more than justifying the cold, wet and utterly exhausting circumstances. Probably the toughest mission of the year for me, but providing plenty of material for future reports!

My intention is to add several lengthy blog entries in the coming weeks recounting the highlights of the final months of my 2016 birding missions, and the Hawaiian trip will certainly feature as one of these. A separate spreadsheet akin to the existing ‘the list so far’ page will be dedicated to the Hawaiian list, as per the Bishop Museum list, with indications of the 55 species I saw, and photographs of all but five of these (with sound recordings of two of those – Maui Parrotbill and Akohekohe attained with Chuck from Maui of the 55 species I saw). Well, the parrotbill was ‘heard only’, but still... 

Although I don’t expect that the new/old ABA record of 783 will survive beyond the next wave of big year birders due to the ‘easy 50’ from Hawaii, I take pride in the knowledge that apart from geo-political factors beyond my control, my personal ‘expanded ABA area’ year-list stands at 838. Not a braggart by nature, I nonetheless say to that next crop of lunatics to hit the ABA Big Year birding trail - catch me if you can!

In addition to my Hawaiian mission, I devoted a fair bit of effort late in the year in Washington State and New England to whittle down the number of ‘Canada only’ species on my list, eventually contracting it to four: Redwing, Fieldfare, Yellow-legged Gull and Common Shelduck. The corresponding increase to my ‘USA Big Year' list brought it up to a heady 834. Because I didn’t take the prospect of a ‘Lower 48’ record seriously early enough, my reliance upon Alaskan sightings for northerly species precluded my establishment of that ‘title’ in 2016.

My end of year trip to Adak with Robyn had a lucky ending – finding a trio of Whooper Swans during the last hour of sunlight on the last day of the year. We enjoyed surprisingly good weather, after being warned to not go, due to impending weather collapse. Within Adak's breathtaking landscapes and fascinating cultural heritage, we encountered many other exciting birds – highest on the list being a fluttering kestrel, which we unfortunately were not lucky enough to photograph or otherwise determine species. I will produce a blog story about those eventful days, and another detailing the full story of the convalesced San Diego Red-footed Booby. And of course Hawaii, which I could probably write a book chapter about – and then some, will be reported in good time. 

As also promised previously, I’ll provide a wrap-up of the Tasmanian Devil conservation outcomes relating to my ABA Big Year, and details of the carbon offset measures I outlined before. Please cut me some slack in these regards – it’s been a very, very big year!

I had great luck during the year, what with all the serious things that ‘could have’ gone wrong. Problems of the sort that are hard or impossible to overcome, were surprisingly few in number. Apart from some early unpleasant flak from a birder unhappy with my relative stealth, and the occasional related critiques of my abilities, tactics and character by one or two online birders, I’ve enjoyed nothing but friendship and offers of help throughout my American experience. As they say back home – ‘wouldn’t have missed it for quids’.

The following incomplete list of those who helped me substantially pretty much reads as a ‘who’s who’ of American birding. I intend to thank you all more thoroughly in the near future, and apologise to those who, in this emotionally charged moment, I am overlooking: John Puschock, Ken Blankenship, Neil Hayward, Aaron Lang, Chris Hitt, John Vanderpoel, Laura Keene, Christian Hagenlocher, the ‘California Four’ (Roger and Michael Woodruff, Johnny Bovee, and Matt Grube), Jared Clarke, John Richardson, Paul Lehman, Larry Manfredi, my dad and hero - JW Weigel and super-mum Mary Weigel, the dynamic duo of Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland, Debi Shearwater, Alvaro Jaramillo, Scott Schuette, Billy Choate, Clarence Irrigoo, Chuck from Maui, David Kuhn, the Beatty family (Old Tom, Tommy, and Edith), Tony Battiste, Jay Lehman and Bill Sain. My support team back home was headed up by Tim Faulkner, Paul Andrew, Nigel Jackett, Jenny Spry and R Bruce Richardson, but included so many (maybe all?) of the Australian birding community – those folks will never know how much strength I drew from the notes and emails. A pivot point in my decision to risk divorce and ask Robyn for her blessings came in early 2015 when Rohan Clarke said "You SO should do an American Big Year!". Also my co-workers at the Reptile Park, with whom I cannot wait to feed Alligators and crocs with. Special thanks to Hayley for helping me so much with technical matters. Having my close friend Murray Scott accompanying me through the Texas spring migration days of early April, followed by an epic Colorado chicken run made for perhaps the best chapter of my year.

The people who make ABA the vibrant and effective organisation that it is – including Jeff and Liz Gordon, Greg Neise, Bill Sain, and Nate Swick are essential to the whole idea of a Big Year, and have always been there to provide advice and assistance where it is needed. All are obviously driven by genuine passion for birding and avian conservation – a successful blend that we Australians would do well to consider looking at. There were many other birders who gave me help in many ways; others with whom I shared hours, if not days, birding with, or hanging out with, whom I’ll eventually thank, both publicly and privately.

Thank you to everyone everywhere, and belated but sincere wishes for Christmas and New Year’s just gone.

From my favourite Christmas carol – and one that has rung in my head throughout the brief writing of above message today. Finally, it really feels like Christmas. It feels like peace. It feels very, very good. So far have avoided crying, but safest to close now!

And so this is Christmas…
And what have you done?
Another year over,
And a new one just begun!

A very Merry Christmas!
And a happy new year.
Let's hope it's a good one,
Without any fear.
War is over, if you want it
War is over now.

John and Yoko


Merry Christmas

Robyn and I had a wonderful Christmas day in Kansas with my parents, a scattering of our extended family members, and friends. I’m overdue for an update – I know that. But not that much to report. I’ve added Smith’s Longspur – which Robyn and I saw in Stillwater Oklahoma last week to my list of species seen this year, plus the Graylag Goose as a provisional species, which we saw on 23rd December. After a fruitless day on the job, in which plenty of birders gave up in frustration, we saw the Graylag fly into the stakeout at last light in the afternoon.

I guess this will be my briefest post for the year – sorry about that! Best holiday wishes to everyone who has followed my erratic blog over the year. I’ll eventually find the time to provide more colour to these final weeks of 2016.

Christmas goose: candidate for wild-type Graylag Goose in East Providence, Rhode Island