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