30 June Update
I made it to the half-time coach!
Half-year total: 730 species
Half-year total: 730 species
It’s a common complaint for many of us that as we get older, the years keep sneaking past us at an accelerating rate. Sadly, I think its partially a reflection of a decreasing sense of wonderment for the world we live in. Maybe we get a little bit stale. For Robyn and I, it is probably also true that decades of 70- hour work weeks building our business with the possibly delusional assumption that once we ‘make it’, we’ll be able to do the things we really want to do. Maybe my staleness theory accounts in part for the appeal that birding holds for me. What I love most about it is that there’s always somewhere new to search for birds. And in the places I’m most familiar with - even in my own back yard, there is almost always a ‘new’ species to keep an eye out for. As a relative late-starter to the hobby - I only got hooked ten years ago, there remains plenty for me to learn from just watching and listening to birds. My two Australian big years (2012, 2014) were voyages of discovery – endlessly enjoyable searches for birds across the continent and its surrounding seas and territorial islands. And yeah, the life-clock definitely slowed down for me – both years stretched to wonderful proportions as I packed in so much exploration and time in nature. It was wonderful, and it was life-changing. Robyn joined me from time to time, and we both enjoyed those trips immensely.
Success finding one of Australia's most elusive birds - White-throated Grasswren with birding pal and co-worker Tim Faulkner during my first Australian big year in 2012.
In contemplating having a crack at the ABA Big Year circuit shortly after the end of my second Aussie bird year nearly 18 months ago, I initially figured that the US experience would be pretty much a continuation of what I’d already become familiar with – except I’d be ‘re-discovering’ the country of my youth. I envisioned driving an SUV back and forth and up and down across the US and Canada to explore, explore, explore. There would of course be plenty of days at sea, and if possible, a visit to Attu Island, Alaska. This would be a chance to immerse myself in a whole new bird fauna, from the ground up. And of course there would be snakes…
Well, not too far into my planning and preparations, it became clear that I’d grossly mis-judged what a record-attempting ABA big year would look like. Reading and re-reading the blogs and books of recent ABA big year birders from Sandy through to Neil, I increasingly understood what the big difference is between breaking an Australian big year record, and even getting into the vicinity of a North American one: vagrant rarities. Lots of 'em. These guys were so focussed on twitching the huge number of rarities reported yearly (sometimes up to 100 species) that they seemed indifferent to the necessity to also find something like 670 ‘common’ resident and regular migrants. In fact there appeared to be an assumption that any serious big year birder wouldn’t have too much trouble scoring all or nearly all of the common resident and breeding birds (Codes 1 and 2) during and between chasing and staking out the all-important Codes 3, 4, and 5 birds. So the only thing separating ‘good’ results and record-breaking results is the number of ‘coded’ species that a birder can add to his or her list by year’s end. And the manner in which that is done can be extraordinarily difficult and usually expensive. It isn’t often what could be described as relaxed birding, and it isn’t always pretty.
In early correspondence from John Puschock re my enquiries into his May 2016 Attu Island trip, it was politely suggested that I take my carefully crafted plan for birding the ABA area over a 12-month period and toss it into the rubbish bin in favour or a simpler approach: start chasing rarities from day one, and don’t let up until there are none left to chase. So much for buying/leasing an SUV for the year, backpacking to remote habitats and sleeping in the bush Australian-style. Instead it would be a year predominated by airports, rental cars and hotel rooms. John P had reinforced what Sandy had written – that its all about the rarities, and general birding for Code 1 and 2 species is a luxury for those times when there are no reasonable options for seeking coded birds.
During his record breaking big year in 1998 Sandy Komito reported encountering 748 species of birds in the ABA area, of which a whopping 96 were Codes 3-5. He later wrote that future big year birders would be well advised to always prioritise rarities, and don’t stop to look at other birds until the target bird has been nailed. BTW in my thinking (which I know is out of step in this part of the world), Sandy’s record should have been adjusted upwards during the years that followed his adventure to include ‘species splits’ that he registered in his notes as having seen during 1998 to reflect the taxonomic regroupings that have given rise to ‘new’ species making their way onto the ABA list. I’m not sure what impact that would have if adjusted to the current ABA list, which includes 671 Code 1 and Code 2 species on the list – with one or two splits currently in the works, but would guess somewhere between 760 and 770.
Apart from working incredibly hard throughout his two big years, Sandy was blessed in 1998 with the advantage of a strong El Niño weather effect, which is generally regarded as conducive to a greater than average influx of vagrant rarities into the ABA North American region. It seems likely that the most recent El Niño event, the one that really only fizzled out a few weeks ago, was a factor in the abundance of rarities in the ABA area over the nine-month period of the anomaly.
My 180 degrees plan change – to forget about reconnecting with the natural wonders of the grand continent and spend a crazy proportion of my year in airports and hotels didn’t sound especially fun – and the costs were obviously going to be far greater than I’d previously budgeted for. Other factors ominously foreshadowed a likely cost blowout. There had been a 35% drop in value of the Australian dollar against the greenback during my planning stage, which came as a kick in the guts. Then, later in 2015 it became apparent that unlike my Australian big year experiences when I was the only lunatic ‘out there’, this time around there would be at least one other serious, and ostensibly highly competitive big year birder on the road. I knew that my inexperience and isolation (I didn’t know anyone!) meant that I’d struggle to find my feet and would make plenty of mistakes, missing important opportunities along the way. I’d have to compensate for this ineptness in whatever ways I could - including working even harder and more intensively than I did during my Australian big years – during which time I certainly hadn’t left much in the tank. I read a stack of regional bird-finding guides, trip reports and field guides and watched lots of video presentations featuring birds and bird identification to become as familiar with the North American bird fauna and birding landscape as possible for a guy with a fairly ordinary learning capacity. Early ambitions had me listening to birdsong for an hour or so each day, but my inability to hang onto bird sounds for more than 10 minutes frustrated me out of that trend.
First 'mega' for the year - the long-serving Streak-backed Oriole at a Yuma, Arizona public park on New Year's morning
Perceiving local sensitivities about accepting another serious big year contender coming onto the 2016 ABA big year scene (especially a foreigner!) when a popular challenger was already being widely touted as the guy to set the next big year record, I decided early in the year to not publish my blog widely, because I believed that it would create a layer of competitive tension that I could live without. I was already in shock at the scale of the challenge ahead, and surprised at how well the well leading big year birder was doing. This guy seemed to be nine feet tall and bullet-proof, and possibly unbeatable on his home ground. My defense was to keep my head down and concentrate on my own challenges and missions while purposely avoiding internet traffic and updates of the progress of other birders. I began circulating newsletter updates to what started out as a small circle of friends and family, but gradually expanded to include nearly 100 birders from Australia and the US who either heard about my big year from others, or whom I met on the ABA birding trail. From those early 'subscribers' came supporters who could give me sound advice and real information about finding birds. I began to worry less and bird harder. In early May I activated my Birding for Devils blog and transferred the earlier communications to it. As the reports indicate, my unblinking focus has been on the birds – especially the rarities. The fundraising work will begin soon – watch for press releases in the coming weeks.
Regarding my non-participation in eBird reporting, my intention was initially to do so, but I just never seemed to find a time to jump in and get star. When I decided to not make a big splash on the birding scene here, it became easy to keep putting it off. Of course I’ve benefited time and again from eBird listings, so I do feel the responsibility of possibly helping other birders by reporting my sightings in that medium - so I do promise to fix that! If and when the luxury of having some time off to figure out the processes and get my listings onto eBird, I’ll also prepare and load edited images onto my ‘list so far’ page. I’m currently tracking to have discernable images for all but a very small proportion of the species I’ve ticked.
My second shot at the Ivory Gull on 21 January was successful, and actually much warmer than my earlier dip - at which time it was a windy -33C (-27F). Wanka photo was for the guys back home who were really supporting me through the early and challenging adaptation to rarities-chasing as opposed to birding.
A point I should make when discussing all of this rarity chasing business, is that getting to a location where a rare bird had been recently reported is only half the battle, and sometimes much less than that. Sure, it was great during many of my chases this year when upon arriving at a so-called stakeout with palms sweating and heart pounding, to see a small to large crowd of celebrating birders high-fiving each other between looks through a scope or camera. I love photographing those happy groups for the blog, and joining in the comradery and celebration. But those cake-walk experiences are definitely the exception to the rule. Far more often, whilst there may well be a fair few birders milling about, there will be much less certainty as to where the bird might be. Up to a day or more of searching was sometimes required before I could make an assessment about whether or not to persevere – or move on. And I suffered plenty of painful dips along the way. Fortunately, my perseverant nature meant that in the majority of cases I was able to make a second or third trip for missed bird and eventually nail it down. In the process I earned about a zillion frequent flyer points from multiple airlines. Also, as is my way, there were plenty mistakes and self-inflicted dramas stemming from lost gear to missed flights – but nothing has yet proved fatal. The question of what to do or where to go next is always a work in progress. During the first ten weeks of the year I tried to balance my decisions about which birds to chase against two competing urges - the need to chisel away at the backlog of accumulated species that seemed likely to hang around a bit longer; and the almost continuous supply of newly detected rare birds, which I assumed would be less predictable in terms of likely tenancy. The resulting non-stop chasing kept me on the hop every day until the 9th of March, when I tracked down the Fieldfare in Newfoundland for my 42nd coded bird in 69 days. I felt like the mountaineer who after the preparation and guts required to climb the most challenging peak imaginable finally makes summit. What a sense of freedom it was for me. And what a view! At long last, for the first in the year there was no backlog of rare bird species for me to pursue – and the rate of new ones being reported had slowed to a merciful trickle.
Fieldfare in Newfoundland on morning of 9 March after four hour night drive through driving snow.
With this slowdown in coded bird chases, I was able at long last to do much more ‘real’ birding - the kind of birding that lured me into taking on this crazy big year stuff. And with the switch I could at long last feel the big dark cloud of anxiety lift. I birded at a whole range of places including Vancouver, Arizona, and Southern California. I had the time of my life when workmate and decades-long friend Murray Scott came over for the first two weeks of April. Predictably, the yanks loved his rugged yet cheeky demeanour and proper Australian accent. We spent the first six days of April in coastal Texas for early migration, with highlights at Sabine Woods and High Island, then had a hugely successful and eventful period in Colorado, where we periodically caught up with Bill Sain. Not long after that Robyn joined me for a fabulous two weeks of spring migration action in Arizona, Florida and at the ‘Biggest Week in American Birding’ in Ohio. Summaries of these trips appear in earlier blog entries.
Happy days. Murray and I can’t contain the thrill of running into Sandra Bullock at the Wray Colorado Greater Prairie Chicken tour. Thinking about you mate - and so is everyone back home.
After a fantastic two days mixing up with the boardwalk crowds at Magee Marsh, Robyn headed back to Australia while I made my way to Anchorage in preparation for the big scary trip to Attu. I have to admit that as the trip loomed closer and closer I became increasingly anxious about what was at stake. Great if we get favourable winds from the west and get lucky with wheel-barrows full of wayward Siberian migrants. But what if conditions weren’t so good and only very few rarities were there to greet us? And what if at the same time a half-dozen new rarities did show up elsewhere in the ABA area? Looming equally large in my undersized brain was the fact that the three-week period that I’d be away would coincide with the peak period of bird activity in the lower 48 States.
Intrepid author and birding guru, Neil Hayward closes the sale on Common Sandpiper
while big year birders Christian (centre) and Laura display varied levels of intensity.
Must have been while John Puschock was out scouting Pin-tailed Snipe.
But as has been proven over and over through my life experiences, and as best summarised by one of the great expressions that my dad is known for: “No guts, no glory”. How could I not take on the rare opportunity to get to the legendary - almost mythical birding mecca for ABA birding that is Attu? And sure enough, as summarised in an earlier blog entry – despite challenges and setbacks (which are part of the nature of such things), and maybe a bit of moping and hand-wringing on my part before things began to happen towards the end of our stay, John Puschock had been proved right: the Attu experience was tremendously beneficial to my year-list, and more importantly, was a magnificent and utterly unforgettable experience that so few birders nowadays are fortunate to share. Not only did we see some crazy-rare birds, but to my great relief there had been very few rarities on the mainland that I’d later regret not seeing. And best of all, I made some wonderful friendships that I have a feeling will last a long, long time.
Of course, after a lightening-like run down to Hatteras NC for back to back pelagic trips with Brian and Kate on the Storm Petrel II, I still had a week of isolation in the wilds of Alaska – this time at Gambell, before finally having the chance to track down the breeding birds of the lower 48 States. This was always going to be the downside of a lengthy stay in Alaska, since by mid-June a large proportion of these ‘common’ species have stopped singing, possibly finished breeding, and in some cases, already dispersing. Scooping those birds is a work in progress – watch my ‘list so far’ tally in coming days and weeks – have made good headway but have a few toughies still to go.
In summarising the first half of my year on the American road, the most fortunate thing that has happened in recent weeks and months is the offer of help that I’ve received from some of the most knowledgeable and capable North American birders, including people from that rarest of breeds, big year birders – past and present. The information and suggestions have been game-changing for me – my list of year-birds would be far shorter than it is without that help, and I’d be far less sane without the encouragement of one or two of the more roguish and like-minded of these characters. I’ll thank all of these folks individually in future blog entries.