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 Swedish-sounding name was a fictitious nom de plum apparently first assumed while producing racy novels.

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 how to free my vehicle from back-country bogs, and deciding where to camp at night. The rest of my time was spent searching for native birds (and the odd snake) in the diverse and beautifully wild habitats of the island continent. But a new dimension was shaping up this time around, signalled by the news that I wasn't the only one pushing hard for a Big Year record. This was going to be a real competition - and one that I might not win. This revelation 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 clinched. 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 the middle of the lane) in pursuit of three 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 of effort 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 confined to a six-month maximum, and began the interrogation by signalling that I'd probably have to return to Sydney immediately and reapply for a legitimate visa. Perhaps they were displeased to see on the computer screen that I was an ex-pat, predictably sneaking back to enjoy the fruits of the citizenship I'd renounced; or maybe they just couldn't believe that a 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 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 layabout 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 managed to see 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 really 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 throughout 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 or financial solvency in favour of doing everything imaginable to claw my way up the scoreboard to 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 on finishing the year with an ABA Big Year record, not on the 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. I decided it was 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, not 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 popular competitor, and nearly double the hitherto best first-month result by an ABA Big Year birder. Although I missed targeted birds on eight 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 (Crimson-collared Grosbeak) was seen in the company of Michael Hilchey, who at the time was guiding a large group of interstate birders.

On one ill-fated chase I flew to Florida for a 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 continue chasing rare birds at every opportunity. 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.

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 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 unforgettable flight to Larsen Bay, Kodiak Island, Alaska, for an unsuccessful search for a white egret - initially thought to be a candidate for rare Intermediate Egret. 

Winter in Southeast  Arizona - magnnifique!

                                         Southeast Arizona in the monsoon season. Ahhhh.

North Dakota's peaceful Prairies - was that a Baird's?

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 - and Arizona, with its ‘sky island’ mountains and surrounding sea 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 to the wet Pacific Northwest yielded even 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 invigorating high-elevation hike to Lamoille Lake in the gorgeous Ruby Mountains of Nevada for gun-shy Himalayan Snowcocks, will always be warmly recounted in my Big Year recollections. 

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) was not 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, visits to all of 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 in early May.

Magee Marsh - the centrepiece of the annual 'Biggest Week in American Birding'.

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