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.

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