2016 Big Year Wrap-up

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. 

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.

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. 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. Late note: in December 2017 the ABA decided to accept the Hawaiian sightings of the 2016 Big Year birders. My resulting 'New ABA' species count of 835 species therefore represents the target for future big year aspirants.

To the other three big year birders, I extend sincere congratulations. In terms of ‘going hard’, I take my hat off to them all. 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.

One of the milestones of recent ABA achievements is the annexing of Hawaii to the 'ABA Area'. Three of the four 2016 Big Year birders made trips to Hawaii - Laura Keen and I waiting till ver late in the year to run our dash. Mostly together, we we encountered over 50 species - see my earlier post.

Hawaiian Hawk

 Kuwai Elepaio

Besides Hawaii, I devoted a fair bit of effort late in the year in Washington State and New England whittling down the number of ‘Canada only’ species on my list, eventually contracting it to just 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. 

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. 

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 for 2016, it looked like I'd sacrificed the opportunity for one last mega (Bananaquit in Florida, reported mid-morning, 31 December) 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.

With the colossal joy of finding the swans came the realization that my year-long challenge had ended; there would be nothing more to do. A great weight had lifted from my shoulders, and with it the accumulated tension and consternation of a long and often arduous year dominated by solo travel. No matter what happened at the other end of the playing field now, my Big Year effort was complete; I’d given the challenge everything I had, and left nothing in the tank. I knew that my final species list, whether good enough to win or not, was a complete and honest account of a spectacular year’s effort. And I knew that Robyn fully shared in my joy and relief. She waited understandingly for my eyes to become dry enough, and for my body to stop shaking enough, to talk about what we’d been through, and what finding the swans meant to us both. We were ready to go home.

The Whooper Swans represented my 111th coded bird species for the year (including three ‘provisional species’ still awaiting ABA acceptance) - a crazy 25 species ahead of Sandy Komito’s 1998 rarities count that was once reputed to be unsurpassable. My total species count within the ‘Classic’ ABA area included all 672 Codes 1 and 2 species, and tallied 783; with another 52 species encountered in Hawaii, my 'New ABA' count was 835. 

Hindsight vs insight
Revisiting the question I often asked myself during 2016 - of what I could possibly have been thinking about when I made the decision to throw my hat into the ABA Big Year ring, I can now accept that in spite of the at times intense pressure, which of course in the end I have to take responsibility for, I found plenty of time to explore many beautiful places in search of spectacular North American birds. 

To answer another frequently asked question: at year's end, my choice of a 'favorite' bird species encountered during the year was a split-decision between the elegant and redeeming Whooper Swans of Adak, and that wascally little Winter Wren that I fondly watched from the boardwalks of The Biggest Week of American Birding in Ohio. 

Cute as a button: the minuscule yet mischievous Winter Wren

During my travels I celebrated many of the wild and varied places that I’d read about in Roger Tory Peterson’s extraordinary Wild America during my preparations, and in all of the books and blogs subsequently produced by ABA Big Year birders. I was similarly invigorated through rediscovering the few still-wild places I’d wandered as a kid with an eye only for snakes. I found the Americans and the Canadians - from the earnest Yupik clansmen within a stone’s skip of Russia, to warm French Canadians in the frozen Quebec backwoods - right through to those vociferous yet generous to a fault Joisey birders, along with the joyful Hispanic people of the Texas Rio Grande Valley, all delightful beyond expectations. I made many wonderful friendships that I intend to keep - a measure, I believe, of a reconnection that I did indeed make with my so rudely-abandoned homeland. 

Babes in the woods: British birder, natural history film maker, funnyman and life-long friend Nigel Marven and I celebrate our shared lifer Connecticut Warbler at Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota. We first birded and snaked together in 1986!


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.

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 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!'

Cute statistics, Tassy devils, and carbon footprints
So far as providing the traditional set of year-in-review stats of Big Year efforts: numbers of cancelled flights, miles driven, wheels flattened, Big Macs consumed, and so on, I’ll eventually make proper calculations of the most relevant of these and recount them here, or at the very least, in the book. What I can say now is that yes, as speculated, the costs were way more than I’d expected or could actually afford (or will likely ever fully admit to myself – let alone you lot); and sure, I travelled way beyond ‘environmentally responsible’ distances by air, road and sea. Oh, and I can presently report that I actually only had one flat tire to change during the year, and on average ate at Maccas no more than two to three times weekly - even less so when on the lonely Alaskan outposts or out at sea. The quantity of Fireball Whiskey consumed during the 12-month period will likely remain a matter for speculation. 

Although my intention was to promote Devil Ark extensively throughout my American Big Year, the realities of a high-pressure race to encounter the most bird species possible in a too-contracted time frame were such that almost all of the fundraising work that did take place was accomplished through Devil Ark’s partner organisations – Australia-based Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species (FAME), and US-based Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC). Between the efforts of these two organisations, coordinated by my co-managers back home, a reasonable sum of $138,000 was raised in association with my competitive bird race. This amount is equivalent to nearly half the annual operational budget of Devil Ark, and is greatly appreciated by the entire Devil Ark team, and about 200 lucky little devils.

Devil Ark is a ground-breaking conservation captive-breeding initiative for Tasmanian devils located in the high elevation Barrington Tops of New South Wales. Genetically select social groups of 6-8 devils inhabit each of the many 10-20 acre enclosures predominated by beautiful Tasmania-like forests, safe from the devastating Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) that continues to burn through the wild population.

A lucky devil at Devil Ark, and vital component of overarching efforts to ensure 
the survival of the Tasmanian devil. The Birding for Devils platform assisted in 
generating awareness and funding for the project.

Extinction is not an option.

Considering the extensive carbon footprint created by my perpetual travels during 2016, I asked GWC to calculate and recommend an appropriate carbon offset measure. To this end I donated the funds required to purchase a 30-acre parcel of Ecuadorian rainforest as a handy annexure to the Buenaventura Reserve. The Reserve provides hope for the endangered El Oro Parakeet and a range of other tropical bird species, and provides an important wintering ground for warblers and other migratory species that I ‘ticked’ during the northern Spring and Summer months last year - thousands of miles to the north.  

My Big Year ‘carbon offset’ donation translated into a 30acre addition to the scenic Buenaventura Reserve in Ecuador. The remnant cloud forest reserve provides hope for a range of threatened species, and a winter oasis for many North American migratory bird species.   

Back at work where I belong. For a year anyway. Maybe. 
With Keeper Zac and Regina, Queen Cobra.