Biggest of years comes to an end

War is over!
4 Jan, 2017

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.


Author, birder, birding guide, and scientist whiz kid Dr Neil Hayward doing what he does best on Attu Island with a good portion of 2016 ABA big year birders.


Savant birding guide and all 'round nice guy John Puschock 
checking images of latest Attu Island megas.


Birding super-guide Ken Blankenship sound-recording invisible Black Rails in 
south Texas swamp a few minutes after our first Water Moccasin encounter.


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 naïve 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? The year 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).

Big Year birding often feels like 'Big Year traveling'. I can't think of a major city 
that I didn't at least 'freeway' my way through. I can think of at least eight occasions 
that I drove/creeped through Los Angeles traffic through the year.


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: http://blog.aba.org/2017/01/2016-aba-big-year-results.html .

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.

My intention is to add one or two back-dated blog entries in the coming weeks recounting the highlights of the final weeks 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 56 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 56 species I saw). Well, the parrotbill was ‘heard only’, but still...

Hawaiian Hawk


 Kuwai Elepaio


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 835. 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, and very happy 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 despite a predicted severe weather collapse. Within Adak's breathtaking landscapes and fascinating social 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. 


Convalesced Red-footed Booby given a second chance at sea by San Diego Sea World staff. 
More on that eventually. 



Adios Muchacho! Y que te via bien! Hopefully next stop Baja.



Adak Island, looking down from 'Valley of the Lakes'.


Adak Rock Ptarmigan fashionably gearing up a bit early for the snow season.


As the clock ticked down on 2016, it looked like I'd missed the opportunity for one last mega (Bananaquit in Florida) in order to miss another (Whooper Swan) on ex-military ghost town Adak Island, Alaska, and what at that time was shaping up to be an unfortunate ending to a year with many ups and downs.


From rags to riches: possibly the biggest moment of my ABA birding odyssey:
a trio of Whooper Swans encountered on Lake Andrew, Adak Island
during the last hour of the last day of 2016.


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. 

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, Dave Povey, Scott Schuette, Billy ChoateClarence 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.


Alaskan birding legends Aaron Lang and Paul Lehman at Gambell, Alaska closing in 
on a Siberian Chiffchaff that Paul had found. Both were extremely generous with their time 
and expertise in helping me - and the other 2016 Big Year birders throughout the year.
Paul's advice about all things Alaska and pelagic was game-changing for me. 


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.

My California-based support team after a celebration dinner at Roger's place in Riverside 
on 2 January. Left to right: Roger Woodruff, Michael Woodruff, Johnny Bovee, and Matt Grube.  
All of these guys helped me throughout the year with finding birds, provision of valuable strategic 
and logistical advice, and most importantly, friendship and encouragement.


My cherished cohorts for so many birding missions. Without Christian's and Laura's help and friendship, 2016 would have ended quite differently for me. Here we are at Greg and Erin Neise's house in Chicago on 4th of January to celebrate the end of a mighty big year. Christian doesn't have a conjoined twin growing out of his neck. 'Hi Robyn!'


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