Biggest of Big Years: a postscript (part 4 of 4)

A final wrap-up - part 4 of 4
11 October, 2017

As just reward for a year of perseverance by true believers (Robyn never quit believing that I could pull this whole ‘American birding thing’ off), three Whooper Swans – a pair of adults with one young, glided slowly and majestically across the middle of the two-mile by two-mile lake. It took me a few seconds to absorb what I was seeing through the spotting scope - and longer to accept that it was real. I interpreted the forwards and backwards tipping of the lead swan's head and neck as a validating wave sent my way. Its bill and cheeks flashed the extensive yellow markings that distinguish Whoopers from other swans, including the similar 'Bewick's' race of Tundra Swan. The scene will not soon be forgotten, and I hope that the feeling will never be: I was Michael Jordan shooting the game-winning three-pointer on the final buzzer for one last Bulls championship. 

Swan Lake: The Big Year game-ending Whooper Swans materialised in the middle of Lake Andrew in the nick of time for a storybook ending to my American birding odyssey. Cropped photo taken with fully extended 80-400mm zoom lens.

A maximum crop view of the angelic swans
in the late afternoon light of New Year's Eve


With the colossal joy of the moment came the realization that my year-long challenge had ended; there would be nothing more to do. A great weight 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. I pointed the cooled F250 back towards town in the fast-fading light (the headlights on the old Ford didn’t work). But I could just as easily have flown – just like Mike.    

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, a whopping 34 species ahead of the previous record, and five ahead of Olaf’s submitted total of 778 species. For a best guess of my ‘ABA with Hawaii’ record, I will await the aforementioned pending ABA decision before posting a summary analysis, but can approximate, based on the Bishop Museum template, that my count would stand at 839 species. An account of my birding experiences in Hawaii appears in an earlier blog entry. 

In addition to the big South Dakotan and I, both Laura and Christian surpassed Neil Hayward’s 2013 ABA Big Year record of 749. And Laura’s 762 species total- as impressive as it is, is possibly overshadowed by the fact that she managed to photograph 746 species – an incredible achievement, that seems unlikely to be surpassed any time soon, if ever.  Christian, an impressive young man with a background of generosity and accomplishment in his chosen field of education, recorded 752 species during his Big Year, despite being severely constrained by monetary challenges and associated periodic work commitments. It's an unusual thing for someone my age to see a role model in one so young.

Hindsight vs insight
Getting back to that opening question of what I could possibly have been thinking about when I made the decision to throw my hat into the 2016 ABA Big Year ring - now over two and a half years later, I can now accept that the gushy portrayal of great adventures, great birds and great new friendships recounted by most of those earlier Big Year birders, ultimately rang true for me as well - at least to some extent. Despite the pressures, 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 - which I inevitably fell in love with. And there were so many to fall in love with - from diverse and colorful warblers, to whimsical puffins and majestic eagles. Although I still suck at identifying some (lots) of the sparrows and gulls, and casually pretend to not notice seemingly identical Empidonax flycatcher species when in the company of better birders, I do genuinely feel an affinity for the birds of North America - and I plan on revisiting them often in the years to come (as at time of writing there have already been two return trips).

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 decision to not publicize my Big Year progress by blog or eBird until early May proved to be a highly provocative one for my chief competitor and his most zealous online supporters. A prolific British online birder led the backlash against the interloping Australian with considerable sting, first on the 'comments' section of the Bad Weather Big Year blog, then on the popular 'ABA Big Year' online discussion sponsored by BirdForum - the net's largest birding forum. The year-long commentary included over 1,800 conversational posts, most being fair and positive contributions to an interesting and at times informative discussion. Nobody would choose the role of the mud-splattered and uninvited antagonist on an international platform established to follow the zany exploits of a popular protagonist - least of all me. For the remainder of the year, I would feel the heat from twin flanks: suggestions of unethical behaviour and cheating were casually aired to surrounding birders at rarity stakeouts, pelagic birding missions and Alaskan group birding trips by my frustrated competitor, while ill-informed, and largely erroneous assessments of my motives, character and birding abilities were periodically reinvigorated on the BirdForum discussion. I knew that any online or personal proclamation of innocence would hardly be a good look; my only option was to 'man up' and get on with the job of winning. I tried to stop focusing on the yucky stuff, and to seek out - rather than avoid interactions with birders at communal birding events on the islands, at attended twitches, and at sea. In this manner, over the course of the year I managed to stay reasonably sane, and to happily befriend many of the region’s best-known and ‘best-charactered’ birders. Today, Teddy Roosevelt's famous parable about the critic rings ever true for me, and I'm further heartened by the likelihood that the stunning irony underpinning the harshest assessments of my abilities and personal integrity will more widely emerge in the fullness of time.

Looking back now, nine months after lip-syncing Ault Lang Syne in the 'Bluebird Cafe' - literally the only place on Adak Island to celebrate the end of a record-smashing ABA Big Year, I can accept that even the most confronting stuff that I dwelled on when staring at motel ceilings across the continent ultimately had a silver lining - generating powerful motivation to dig ever-deeper and push ever-harder to a successful finish line, come what may. In less single-minded circumstances I would have sensibly left many of the toughest twitches and birding challenges in the 'too-hard basket' - as others chose to do. Maybe I should thank my critics.

Beyond the ugly side of the most competitive aspects of my year, I have no significant regrets (except, obviously, that the winds almost never blew out of the west during my many weeks of shivering on the so-called migrant traps of the Alaskan islands). My American birding year will always represent a special time of my life, and I acknowledge the role of crazy fortune in getting me there. As Frank Costanza put it in an irreverent, but not entirely irrelevant metaphoric context: "Million to one shot Doc; million to one."

A sign of the times at Silverton, Colorado in early April? 

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. 

End of year celebrations with Christian and Laura, a magnificent ending for all three, 
having survived the biggest of big years. Robyn can be seen lurking behind Christian. 
Her six visits to join me in the US and Canada for up to two weeks at a time made 
the difference for me in keeping my head in the game - rather than losing it.

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.