Biggest of Big Years: a postscript (part 1 of 4)

A final wrap-up - part 1 of 4
11 October, 2017 

Warning: the following includes references to competitive birding. It describes willful and explicitly competitive behavior by birders behaving in an ornitho-politically irreverent manner. The repetitive use of such vulgarities as ‘twitching’, ‘dipping’, and ‘ticking’, may be offensive to both birders and birds alike, and is neither condoned nor encouraged by the webmaster.

The passing of nine months since I encountered that heaven-sent trio of Whooper Swans on the remote Aleutian outpost of Adak during the closing hours of the year has made it a little bit easier to reflect upon a 366-day period that surely contained a decade’s worth of birding highs and lows, and emotional ups and downs - punctuated by myriad adventures in between. What a ride! This post comes quite late for those who followed my blog last year – sorry about that. And there mightn’t be anything new in this offering for you anyway - mostly just gooey reflective stuff. For those who happen upon the Birding for Devils blog for the first time in the future, I hope that this overview provides a glimpse into what it was like to be a part of possibly the most competitive ‘Big Year’ birding contest ever. You can read more about the birds and my efforts to find them by scrolling through my earlier posts. With an impending decision by the American Birding Association (ABA) as to the affirmation or denial of provisional status of my Hawaiian bird sightings post-annexure of Hawaii to the ABA area last October, there may well be one more posting to this blog.

WTF? (Why the foreigner?) 
So far as the question that I was most often asked during 2016 - of why an Australian birder would choose to take a shot at the American Big Year record, I’m still struggling for a responsible answer that doesn’t make me sound quite so naive. But at least I’m ready to admit that it’s a question I myself periodically contemplated throughout the year – especially during my shell-shocked early weeks and months on the American birding road. As best as I can recall, my earliest motivation for crossing the Pacific was to extend the run of extraordinary birding experiences I’d enjoyed during my two Aussie Big Years (2012, 2014). There was also an abstract aim of reconnecting with my home country in some satisfying way (I migrated from the US to Australia in my early twenties to further pursue my fascination with reptiles).

Nah, C’mon! As everyone knows, the greatest of all year-long birding challenges is the ABA North American Big Year. To have completed two Australian Big Year efforts, adding fifty species to the earlier record, and to not then have a tilt at the American brass ring before getting any older would be akin to the established Himalayan climber passing up the chance for a crack at Everest. Even non-birders know about the American Big Year, ever since Hollywood made a funny movie about it for their amusement.

Big Year birding, Australia-style.



Once or twice in recent years I’d toyed with the idea of an American birding year, but the unimaginable logistics, the costs, and the reputed unlikelihood of being able to break the record always left me cold. But not long after my return from my second Aussie birding year, while still suffering withdrawal from the sense of deep contentment that I'd experienced on the road, I did a silly and ultimately fateful thing: I re-read Ken Kaufman’s quintessential book on American birding (and life), Kingbird Highway for about the fifth time in a decade or so. I started getting ‘that’ dangerous feeling in the pit of my stomach, which, along with the tell-tale nervous yearning to be somewhere else, or stuck into some big new (and inevitably expensive) challenge, that always seems to land me in trouble. It’s a process that scares my accountant and worries my wife Robyn, along with our co-managers at the Australian Reptile Park and associated conservation project – Devil Ark (and now, Aussie Ark). Within a week of my American epiphany I re-read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, Sandy Komito’s I Came, I Saw, I Counted, Lynn Barber’s Extreme Birder, and the extensive Big Year bloggings of Neil Hayward, John Vanderpoel and several others. I was irretrievably hooked. These folks all wrote of great adventures traversing breathtaking landscapes; of sensational birding experiences; and the forging of enduring comraderies. Sound's great to me: tick, tick, and tick. In looking at the year-lists and travel patterns of the last few people to have had a tilt at the record, I wondered what an audacious single-minded hack like myself might be able to accomplish, considering the promise of a continuing El Nino weather effect (predicted at that time to deepen and continue through mid to late 2016) that could trigger a dramatic influx of vagrant bird rarities into the ABA expanse.


A guide to birds, life, and everything: Kenn Kauffman's Kingbird Highway. While still in his 
late teens, a hitchhiking incarnation of one of America's natural history legends put more into 
his American 'Big Year' than anyone to come along since, or likely to muster again.




Sandy Komito congratulates Neil Hayward (from Neil's Accidental Big Year blog). It took 15 years for Sandy's ABA Big Year record to fall to the Accidental Birder - in an eventful year of adventure and extraordinary effort in 2013. 




Of course now, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, we all know that the 2015 El Nino conditions didn’t hang around the Pacific rim all that long, and that the seasonal influx of rare birds to the Alaskan outposts in 2016 wound up being amongst the worst in years. And looking back through the same rear-view mirror, my year of years proved to be predominated by another factor I hadn’t anticipated: real competition in the pursuit of an ABA Big Year record - and a competition that at times was anything but friendly. 

Best made plans
As with my Australian exploits, I loved the complex business of planning a calendar year worth of birding. This time around, the process of learning a whole new bird fauna proved to be half the fun, and I enjoyed devoting several hours daily to poring over various field guides and other texts, along with video presentations about the birds and the iconic birding locations of North America. I briefly tried learning the attendant birdsong, but was immediately smacked back to reality: best to just keep looking at the pretty pictures John. I also made reconnaissance trips to some of the must-do US birding locations, the highlight being the annual ‘Biggest Week in American Birding’ festival in northern Ohio for a fun introduction to Springtime bird migration.

I had terrific fun preparing for my American birding adventure, learning as much 
as I could about the birds, the places, and the experiences of others.




An early version of my intended itinerary, which ultimately proved useless
in the real world of ABA Big Year birding.



For months I planned what I supposed would be the ideal American Big Year itinerary, nicely balanced with one-week to two-week segments spread across the most bird-diverse parts of the ABA area, which at that time was defined as the continental United States, all of Canada, and the territorial waters of both. Hawaii would be added to the ABA mix late during 'my' year – but more about that later. I knew I’d need to spend plenty of time on the Alaskan islands during both Spring and Autumn migration periods, hoping for wayward Asian bird species to bump my year-list up into record contention. So far as the logistics of getting out to ‘the big one’ - legendary Attu Island, were concerned, my timing was fortunate. The remote Aleutian outpost, 1,500 miles from the Alaskan mainland, and in proximity to the eastern-most Asian bird migration route, was the place where Sandy Komito added 27 rare-to-ABA-area Asian bird species to his ‘unbreakable’ big year record in 1998. ‘Unbreakable’ because four short years after Sandy's extraordinary result, the WWII vintage airstrip was closed to non-government use. It looked as if birders would never again set boot nor bicycle tire on Attu, eliminating the only access to what was regarded as the motherlode of ABA rarities. But imaginative birding guide John Puschock of Zughenruhe Birding Tours had other ideas, and concocted a highly successful Springtime passenger boat trip to the island in 2010, and followed through with additional missions, with plans on the table for a 2016 Spring trip.

Mighty Attu, and the adventurous man who put it back on the birding map: John Puschock.




After booking my place on the May Attu trip, I began corresponding with John about more general birding matters, as he was effectively my only connection with the US birding scene. John’s principal advice, as painful as it was to hear, was game-changing: tear up my well-researched and hard-fought-for game plan, and free the calendar as much as possible for rarity chases. The ABA Checklist divides bird species into various ‘codes’ to reflect the relative frequency of sightings within the area, from the commonest resident species (Code 1), to those represented by as few as one or two reports ever for the ABA area (Code 5). For an outsider like myself, these five codes can most simplistically be lumped into two classes:  The 672 ‘common’ species, designated by Codes 1 & 2; and the ‘rarities’ (also called ‘coded species’), designated by Codes 3-5. With a few exceptions, all of the common species are straightforward: if you go to the right places at the right times of year, and know which end of the binoculars to look through, you should be able to find them. The rarities by definition are not so predictable, and the Big Year birder needs to consider every reported sighting as an opportunity that might not be repeated.


Hourly electronic rare bird alerts are essential to knowing when and where coded bird species
show up, and have forever changed Big Year strategy.

                                     
             

The suggestion of prioritizing rare bird chases gave me an early insight into what lay ahead – and how different my American birding experience was likely to be from my two Australian year-long birding missions. Committed to the challenge, and emotionally beyond the point of no return, I nevertheless couldn't help wondering if I was effectively substituting joyous weeks-long solo explorations of Australian habitats in search of native birds, for a perpetual cycle of flights, car rentals, motels, and well-attended ‘stakeout’ visits in a foreign land to target wayward birds from other foreign lands – maybe even from as far away as Australia.

Within a week of my arrival in the States, it was apparent that the steady stream of reported rare bird species arising in various corners of the ABA area could well dictate my activities through the coming two to three weeks. Fine. I wasn't disappointed - I knew that this was part of the deal, and a necessary component of a record-breaking effort. I figured that once I'd worked my way through the accumulated backlog of rare birds, and once the flow of new reports had subsided,  the ‘real’ birding would commence. We're talking about a couple of busy weeks of mop-ups here, right? In the meantime, in deciding which coded birds to go after, I considered the practicalities of travel distances and flight costs, before making (woefully) uneducated guesses as to how long each bird might stick around, and the likelihood of future opportunities to sight the species elsewhere. In this manner I optimistically kick-started the year in Arizona with a long-serving Streak-backed Oriole (Code 4) in Yuma, a well-established Rufous-backed Robin (Code 3) near Phoenix, and a resident pair of Black-capped Gnatcatchers (Code 3) beyond Tucson, which I missed, spoiling a hoped-for single-day trifecta. Day two, after a half-day of fruitless search for the gnatcatchers, had me flying to Philadelphia from where I drove to rural Connecticut for an obliging Code 4 Pink-footed Goose, and a not-so-cooperative Code 4 Barnacle Goose - that I apparently missed by 20 minutes. After a second day of dipping on the MIA Goose, I drove to Long Island, New York for a back-yard Tufted Duck, then to a city park in Brooklyn for a Black-headed Gull. Both species, I now realise, were on the common side of Code 3, and were species that I saw numerous times later in the year - without even trying. After a quick detour through a Welcome Back Kotter neighborhood I made the first of many flights of the year to Miami – this time for a friendly Western Spindalis (Code 3). Then, to Refugio, Texas for the final twitch of the week, a secretive Code 4 Golden-crowned Warbler that eluded me on that, the first of three attempts required to eventually succeed. 


Most of the 'Lower 48' and Canadian ABA rarities that I pursued during my year of travel were at sites that had already attracted posses of birders from far and wide, often resulting in a 'stakeout' scenario.



This Rufous-backed Robin at Catalina State Park near Phoenix, Arizona was my second 'rarity' on day one of 2016. This bird then stuck around through the early months of the year,
loosely associating with similar-appearing American Robins.




Unwinding in my anywhere-USA motel room on the night of January 7th, after a good nudge of what wouldn’t be my last bottle of Fireball whiskey for the year (or the month), I looked back on a hectic first week of the year. In seven short days I’d seen much of the country, from the birdy Saguaro deserts of Arizona, to quaint New England townships, and freeways of horn-tooting New York drivers unimpressed with my tendency to keep the Chevy rental too-far to the left (in the same manner that newly-arrived American drivers tend to hug the right side of their lane when in Australia). I’d luxuriated briefly in the Florida sunshine, and been impressed by the friendly ways (and service station Tex-Mex food) of the Texas Republic. But I still couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. Although I’d managed to tick eight coded birds, most were plainly on the ‘common’ side of Code 3, and all had been encountered at well-attended stakeouts - where I’d only accumulated the shortest of common species lists. This wasn’t the sort of American birding experience I’d hoped for. Fueling my malaise was a seemingly increasing flow of ‘new’ rare birds reported within the ABA area, an indication that this phase of my birding journey wasn’t going to end anytime soon. But more worrying news was also beginning to unfold.

End of part 1 of 4 - for Part 2, click older posts


Biggest of Big Years: a postscript (part 2 of 4)

A final wrap-up - part 2 of 4
11 October, 2017 

I’ll be Bach
I knew about Olaf Danielson from his earlier ‘Nude Big Year’ exploits and larger-than-life online persona, and I knew from his ‘He Could Be the Most Interesting Man in the World blog that he’d be undertaking a fully-clothed ABA Big Year in 2016. But I had no idea that this was going to be a serious effort – he didn’t seem to me like a serious guy. The success of his flying start, as reported on his new ‘Bad Weather Big Year’ blog, took me completely by surprise. For a big guy he travelled fast and far, and seemed to have a knack for not missing any challenging bird species along the way. During the same week that I'd done my darnedest to score what I thought was an impressive result, he not only edged past me in the rarities stakes, but more than doubled my total species count.

Something else that I hadn't yet learned about the prolific writer and blogger was that his appealing Swedish name was in fact a nom de plume, associated with the production of racy novels. I suppose that this would be understandable in the first instance: would you be more inclined to buy your spicy pulp from 'Olaf Danielson' or 'Bradley McDonald'? But the concept of a successful 50-year-old physician and entrepreneur bringing a pen-name identity into the real world - and a Big Year of birding, took some getting used to.

Wot the...? As they say in Australia: "Only in America..."




So far, my American adventures weren't unfolding anything like my Australian birding years had, when all I had to worry about was freeing my vehicle from muddy back-country bogs, and deciding where to camp for the night. The rest of my time was spent searching for specialised birds in the diverse and beautifully wild habitats of the island continent. But here I was now, in the midst of a whole 'nother ball game. A new dimension was shaping up this time around, signaled by the news that I wasn't the only one pushing hard for a Big Year record. Unlike almost all earlier ABA Big Years, this one was shaping up to be a real competition - and clearly one that I might not win. This revelation shocked me, and ensured a continued emphasis on the rarity chases, rather than the kind of birding I enjoyed, and rated myself half-descent at. This year was going to be expensive, and both physically and psychologically gruelling. My head pounded, and my stomach tightened. We’re not in Kalgoorlie any more Dorothy.

Sweaty-palmed, I resumed crisscrossing the continent like a madman for a second week, trying to remember to stay on the right-hand side of the road (and in the middle of my lane) in pursuit of three reported vagrant birds – but only connecting with one – a female Crimson-collared Grosbeak in the Rio Grande Valley (a challenge that in itself took two and a half days to pull off). I then headed up to British Columbia, Canada, for successful tilts at two Eurasian species: Redwing and Siberian Accentor, before suffering a traumatic run-in with US Immigration Services at the Vancouver Airport. The agents were incredulous as to the legitimacy of my full-year ‘B’ class travel visa, which is normally limited to a six-month span. They began the interrogation by stating I'd probably have to return to Sydney to reapply for a legitimate travel visa. Perhaps they were cranky to see on the computer screen that I was an ex-pat, presumably sneaking back to enjoy the milk and honey of the country I'd bailed on; or maybe they just couldn't believe that a mature-aged guy could genuinely intend on spending an entire year looking at birds. Shaken, I was eventually cleared and allowed to board my flight to Seattle, with onward connections to Anchorage and finally Kodiak Island, Alaska, to see about a duck.

A typical arrival scene at Anchorage airport.



This trip, which I knew would be the first of many to Alaska for the year, was intended to be a brief one. I had come for an easy ‘tick’ of a Common Pochard - a Code 3 Eurasian duck that had taken up residence in a small lake near town. Unfortunately, upon my arrival at sunrise (almost 10am), I discovered that the lake's surface had frozen over for the first time that season, leaving no open water for lay-about ducks. Distressed, I tracked down local birder Rich Macintosh, who had initially reported the bird a few weeks earlier. Rich generously offered to drive me around the local area to check out the lakes that he considered most attractive to overwintering waterfowl. At one of the first places we visited, Rich somehow scoped the Pochard out of a distant flotilla of nearly identical conspecific Athyra ducks (Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads, and Canvasbacks). “See the one in the middle with the gray band across the base of the bill?” 


Kodiak birder Rich Macintosh saved my bacon by relocating the vagrant Common Pochard that had been frozen out of its established hangout on the night of my arrival - at a still-open nearby lake. 



Despite my success on Kodiak I ended my second week even further behind the winning pace. My accumulated list of 13 coded bird species now sat three behind the competition, and my overall bird count stood embarrassingly at less than half of the leading mark of 322 species.

Who was this guy anyway? I conjured up the opening scene of Terminator, when naked Arnold arrives from the future at his cyber-baddest, relentlessly pursuing global dominance for his kind.



Are YOU John Connelly?



Sticking to my strategy of pursuing all reported coded bird species at the expense of general birding - and any chance of sleep, I resolved that my only way to get back into the race was to further ratchet up my efforts in the single-minded pursuit of reported rarities. I knew that delaying the commencement of general birding for the 672 ‘common’ species was a gamble that I might later regret. To date, no Big Year birder had ever managed to record all of them, even with an earnest start from day one. But I recognised that staying the course for as long as the influx of coded species continued was my only potentially winning bet.



Life on the run: the routine of airport, rental car pickup, rare bird chase, and motel (or car seat), proved to be a nearly continuous cycle during the early months of the year, as rare birds continued to turn up across the length and breadth of the ABA area.




Harden up Princess
I vowed to relegate all remaining margins of comfort, sleep and financial solvency in favour of doing everything imaginable to claw my way up the scoreboard and into a leading position. Yep, this was the ugly side of birding, devolved to its boorish foundation. Blame it on the pride, blame it on the ego, or blame it on the boogey, but at that stage my focus was solely on finishing the year with an ABA Big Year record, not the traditional and more magnanimous pursuit of the birding opportunity of a lifetime. It was at this point, based on my observations of unsettling conduct in the field - and online, that I made the fateful decision to defer launching a public blog – more about that, and the ensuing heated backlash, later. Under the circumstances, I decided it was more prudent to continue running my own race, keeping my results to my Aussie support team and growing circle of American birding pals by way of ‘newsletter’ communications, and to stop looking over my shoulder at the other guy’s progress. I asked my growing band of supporters to stop updating me on the Bad Weather blog, and committed myself to more fully keep my eye on the ball, rather than the man.

By the end of January, I’d ‘birded’ in 14 States and Provinces while successfully navigating a tumultuous flow of logistical, physical and emotional challenges. Invariably, when the question of whether or not a rarity report was trustworthy or not, or if a bird was deemed not likely to stick around beyond day one, I flew first, and asked questions later. A growing proportion of my sleep was delegated to airport benches and car seats.


A weather affected road in Minnesota




A vagrant Ivory Gull near frozen Duluth, Minnesota at the end of January provided 2016 Big Year birders with a real treat, and a chance to avoid holding prolonged vigil along the frozen shores of the Arctic Ocean during Autumn migration. 



At the close of January my year-list stood at a modest 248 species, well behind Birdman Schwarzenegger, who had somehow amassed an impressive month-list of 406 species. Crucially however, my list included 27 coded species - seven ahead of my enigmatic competitor, and nearly double the hitherto best first-month result by an ABA Big Year birder. Although I missed targeted birds on six occasions, for all but two of these dips I was able to succeed on second or third attempts. I managed to photograph all but two of these (if you count my grainy 'big-foot' images of Common Pochard). Of the two I didn't digitally capture, one (the Siberian Accentor) gave me a later chance for photographic redemption on faraway Gambell, Alaska, and the other one (Crimson-collared Grosbeak) was at least witnessed by 'gun' birder Michael Hilchey, who was guiding a large group of interstate birders when I directed his attention to the flighty bird.

On one ill-fated adventure I flew to Florida to twitch a newly-reported Green-breasted Mango (a Mexican hummingbird) only to find that the reported rarity was in fact a slightly aberrant (bill more strongly curved than normal) but otherwise super-common Ruby-throated Hummingbird. On other occasions I missed reported birds by hours or even minutes. Still, I felt that my only chance of finishing the year on top was to stay the course; by keeping my foot firmly planted on the accelerator pedal right through the year, I aimed to extend my lead in the all-important rarities count, while whittling away at the imposing list of the 672 ‘common’ species at every opportunity.



Cousin of the Pterosaurs? The primitive-looking Smooth-billed Ani is a 
barely resident bird in Florida, more commonly present in the Caribbean.



Breathe!
From mid-March, when the incidence of online reports of rare bird species finally began to slow, I enjoyed increasing opportunities to immerse myself in the iconic American birding havens that had drawn me to that crazy year of birding in the first place. These were the traditional ABA Big Year haunts memorably recounted in the writings of those who had come before: Kenn Kaufman, Sandy Komito, Lynn Barber, John Vanderpoel, Chris Hitt, Jay Lehman, Neil Hayward and others. In preparation for my own time within the North American birding scene I’d read so much about these places that my first visits sometimes felt more like happy reunions than first-time explorations.

One of the many breathtaking landscapes of my ABA bird-chase:
Cape Spear, St John's Newfoundland, minutes after a spectacular flyover by a Gyrfalcon.



The bouncy but unforgettable twin-prop flight to Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska, for an unsuccessful twitch for a white egret - initially thought to be a candidate for rare Intermediate Egret. 




Winter in Southeast  Arizona - Ooohh!



                                         Southeast Arizona in the monsoon season - Ahhhh!



North Dakota's peaceful Prairies - was that a Baird's Sparrow?



The depth and diversity of bird habitats in the southern states of Texas - with its lower Rio Grande Valley, live oak forests and coastal wetlands - along with Arizona, and its ‘sky island’ mountains with surrounding seas of desert plains, all chock-full of diverse wildlife, could easily provide an adventurous year of birding on their own. Southern California’s mountains, deserts and chaparral enticed me with its trove of western specialty birds, and the northward drive through the wet Pacific Northwest yielded more. Florida birding proved to be as therapeutic as it was productive, with so many larger-than-life iconic species, typically in easy view. From the legendary gamebird havens of the high plains and mountains of Colorado, to the feted bogs and prairies of Minnesota and the Dakotas, I found myself loosening up and enjoying my American birding experience, while my year-list swelled. Traditional single-bird missions such as the hike up the rugged Chisos Mountains in south Texas for elusive Colima Warblers, and the steep and invigorating high-elevation walk to Lamoille Lake and Island Lake in the gorgeous Ruby Mountains of Nevada for gun-shy Himalayan Snowcocks, will always be warmly remembered. 

The mid-morning hike down the mountain trail from Island Lake - one of the best-known birding sites for Himalayan Snowcocks, and back to the carpark was scenic and refreshing. The earlier hike up the mountain in predawn conditions (which I did on three occasions) wasn't quite so much fun.




The iconic ‘Colima Warbler Walk’ attracts birders and non-birders alike to the beautiful 
Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, Texas.




Throughout April, May and June I tried to juggle rarity chases, important pelagic trips on both coasts, extensive periods on the Alaskan island outposts, and of course the must-do visits to the important Spring migration hotspots of High Island and Bolivar Flats on the Texas coast, Fort Jefferson at the end of the Florida Keys, the canyons and deserts of Arizona, and northern Ohio during the Biggest Week in American Birding.


Magee Marsh - the centrepiece of the annual 'Biggest Week in American Birding' in early May




Fort Jefferson at the far end of the Florida Keys - another important 
Spring migration trap for Big Year birders

                                


Spring gold! three migratory species of warblers caught 'passing through' 
(Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May Warblers)







End of part 2 of 4 - for Part 3, click older posts