2013 BIG YEAR SUMMARY, Part 1
I hope that you will allow me one last report regarding my 2013 BIG Year. There are a few thoughts I would like to share with the group regarding the project. In terms of birding the ABA area, this year went way beyond anything that I imagined or ever intended.
While sitting in the Tucson airport one day, back in early November, I originally wrote Part 2 of this summary with no intention of having a “part 1”. Over the course of the next couple of months, I got to thinking that people may want to read something about statistics and birds. Since this sort of information wasn’t really included in the original draft (now known as Part 2), I figured collecting some additional thoughts might be a good idea.
During 2013, I traveled all over the ABA area searching out species for my life list. It was never my intention to do a BIG Year, but it sort of worked out that way, as the trips kept falling into place. I work a full-time job, and with the exception of three or four weeks, my birding was limited to the weekends (many of them of the three-day variety). With time not on my side, I typically would catch a plane on Thursday evening/Friday morning, then return home to Virginia Beach on Sunday night. I would end up flying to almost every destination, rent a car, a hotel room, and go chase my intended targets. During this process, I would visit 19 states, flying 113,898 miles, would drive 16,511 miles, and hike about 218 miles.
Relatively early on (March, I think), I realized that it would be a good idea to get a Southwest Airlines credit card. I would put as many purchases on this card as I could, racking up airline miles in the process, then pay the card off each month before interest charges could hit. I did the same thing with the hotel frequent stay programs. This helped tremendously, with roughly every third flight being free. As a matter of fact, I would fly so many times that Southwest Airlines would issue Marie (my wonderful girlfriend) a “Companion Pass”, allowing her to fly free every time.
With the intention of growing our Life Lists to 350, Marie and I headed out early on the morning of January 1, 2013. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel gets a variety of neat waterfowl out at the first island and I thought it would be really cool to kick off the year with a northern visitor like a Long-tailed Duck, one of the three Scoters, or possibly even a Common Eider or a Harlequin Duck! We woke up early, leaving the house about an hour before sunrise. About a mile down the road, an American Crow flew across the windshield, claiming the #1 spot on the year list! I should’ve known right then, that this year wouldn’t necessarily go as planned. Oddly, this was the only day all year that I would encounter a Baltimore Oriole.
In my mind, a BIG Year was a chase for 700 birds. Shooting for 350 species, I didn’t really consider what I was doing to be a BIG Year. For the majority of 2013, I was uncomfortable with the BIG Year title, thinking that I would come nowhere close to 700 species. It wasn’t until June that I began thinking that I had an outside shot at 700. During the month of January, we would go birding on the 1st, do a weekend trip to Florida, and another weekend in Maine. Other than that, we would do virtually no other birding. If something needed showed up at the feeder, we would obviously count those species, but those ran out pretty quick. As I look back, we only birded about half the weekends up through the month of May. In hindsight, if 700 had been our target out of the gate, we would’ve easily reached it, even with a full time job!
The concept of counting “heard birds” was never considered to be an option for me. Candidly, while it might be a great way to pad a bird count, I think it is one of the more idiotic things I’ve heard of. While having the calls and songs of species locked away in permanent memory is an accomplishment, just like learning a language is, it wasn’t vital to my project, especially as the need list dwindled and the targets became more specific. Too many times to count, I would find myself sitting in the car, listening to the call of my intended bird repeatedly, until I had it stashed away in my short-term memory, prior to hitting the trail. In today’s world, with so many great recordings available (xeno-canto is especially useful), I never felt the need to permanently memorize the sounds of so many species (also largely due to lack of time or desire). Seven of the top eight all-time ABA Listers don’t count heard birds. During my travels (especially to remote places like St. Paul Island and Gambell, Alaska), time and time again, I would meet very accomplished birders who took great pride in not counting heard birds. It’s funny…as I did this traveling, the two most common questions I would receive is 1) “What is your number?” and 2) Do I count heard birds? When I answered “no”, I would almost always receive a positive reaction. Not once, did I come across anyone who tried to convince me otherwise! Well…there was one time. I met an older couple down in Florida once, who told me that their Life List was over 500. Of those 500, they claimed that almost half of the birds were “heard onlys”. In my mind, I look at the guidebooks, and see photographs of all these species, so I know that it is possible to see all of them. Not all are easy, but then again, very little that is worthwhile is. I was especially concerned about the Rails, Owls, and Goatsuckers. Of all those, the Black Rail is the only code 1 or 2 bird I wasn’t able to see! I realize the ABA allows the counting of heard birds, but it’s my BIG Year, and I consider the accomplishment to be greater without the “heard onlys”.
I believe the highest number of suspected heard birds that I had at any given time, was three. At one point, I heard what might’ve been the Black-billed Cuckoo, the Rufous-capped Warbler, and the Chukar. Three distinctive sounding species. Even though I never did find a Black-billed Cuckoo, my views of the Rufous-capped Warbler and Chukar were that much more rewarding, when I did legitimately find them. Maybe someday I’ll get to count a Black-billed Cuckoo, who knows? But if I do, I will appreciate it so much more.
A similar type thing happened with photographs along the way. Although I was able to get photos of almost all of them, getting a photograph wasn’t a requirement for me to make the tick. On several occasions, I would initially miss out on a photo, but then get a chance to obtain one later. Every time, landing what was a missed photo, made me appreciate the bird so much more than I would’ve otherwise. In the case of the Mississippi Kite, I rushed through the trip report, and ended up deleting all my photos of the bird! Ugggghhhhhh! It was extremely frustrating at the time, but now I really look forward to seeing the bird again, as a result! There are other species out there that I will hopefully get to upgrade/obtain photographs of. When that day comes, each one will be more special to me than they ordinarily would be.
From a strategy standpoint, anyone going after 700 typically makes a spreadsheet consisting of all the code 1 and 2 birds on the ABA List. Next to each species they list where they intend to see each bird, in most cases listing more than one possible location. Unfortunately, this is something I didn’t start doing until June (when I actually started thinking 700, although unlikely, was possible). As a result, I missed many birds that I may have otherwise gone after before they escaped (Bristle-thighed Curlew and Aleutian Tern are a couple that come to mind). I also would’ve gotten out to the lekking grounds of some of the Grouse birds earlier in the year. Without question, the Grouse section of the ABA List is my weakest section, still needing a whopping six species! Of all the code 1 birds, I managed to see all but two of them; the aforementioned Black-billed Cuckoo and the Greater Sage Grouse. The list of remaining code 2 birds is significantly higher, still needing 21 of them.
For anyone who ever decides to take on the maniacal task of trying to get 700 species in one year, the number of rarities you get are the difference makers! If you somehow manage to get every single code 1 & 2 bird, you will still be about 35 species short of 700! When I say the rarities, I’m referring to any species that is rated code 3, 4, or 5 by the ABA (code 6 birds are considered to be extinct and are non-countable, including the California Condor). I was privileged enough to see 43 of these rarities. In taxonomic order they were:
White-cheeked Pintail (4) Buff-collared Nightjar
Bakail Teal (4) Green Violetear
Tufted Duck Berryline Hummingbird
Specatcled Eider White-eared Hummingbird
Stellar’s Eider Amazon Kingfisher (5)
Fea’s Petrel Budgerigar
Flesh-footed Shearwater Nutting’s Flycatcher (5)
Maked Booby Yellow-green Vireo
Blue-footed Booby (4) Sinaloa Wren (5)
Brown Booby Black-capped Gnatcatcher
Northern Lapwing (4) Clay-colored Thrush
Lesser Sand-plover White Wagtail
Common Sandpiper Red-throated Pipit
Common Greenshank Tropical Parula
Black-tailed Godwit Rufous-capped Warbler
Red-necked Stint Slate-throated Redstart (4)
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper White-collared Seedeater
Ruff Black-faced Grassquit (4)
Black-headed Gull Five-striped Sparrow
Slaty-backed Gull Flame-colored Tanager
Little Gull Shiny Cowbird
In addition I saw the code 3 Aplomado Falcon down in Texas, but I’m not counting it. The general feeling is that the population would cease to exist if the birds were not being bred and released into the wild down there. In the past, several of the 700 members have included this bird on their totals.
Of all the birds on the list above, the only one that ever gets questioned is the White-cheeked Pintail, which are sometimes kept as pets. This particular one was seen in Florida, very close to the bird’s breeding grounds and had no evidence of being anything other than wild. I’m comfortable with the bird as being wild. In the past, whenever one of these shows up in Florida, the Florida records committee makes a ruling that they are not able to determine if the bird is wild or not, which makes no sense to me. Florida is the state where this bird is most likely to show up and I’m fairly certain there are some that are wild and some that are not. Historically, the records committee seems to have an attitude of indifference towards this species for some reason. Anyway, this particular bird is as good as it will ever get, and I’m comfortable counting it, regardless of if a ruling of “undetermined” happens again or not.
Over the course of the year, Marie and I would visit many places we had never seen before. Candidly, birding takes you to areas you would never think of otherwise visiting. Places like High Island, Texas and Magee Marsh. Any place in the Rio Grande Valley. The Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota. I had never even heard of most of these places until we saw The Big Year movie! One of our favorite trips was the visit to the Dry Tortugas. And we’ll never forget the Owl experiences at the Hawk Ridge Observatory in Duluth! We quickly learned that the folks who don’t go birding have no idea about these great places. Non-birders are really missing out on a lot of wonderful experiences!
St. Paul Island and Gambell in Alaska are the rarity hotspots of the ABA area. Anyone north of 700 species on their ABA Life Lists tend to visit these places over and over again, especially as their numbers climb, hoping to land another rarity or two! Living in Virginia Beach, flying to these outreaches is the equivalent of two back-to-back cross-country flights. After the grind of the past year, I’m ready to take a break from airplanes for a while. The other deterrent preventing return trips to these locations is justifying the cost. I actually had to fight this battle the last three months of the 2013 year. I was fortunate enough to have the resources, but I simply couldn’t convince myself that spending $800 - $1,000 to go chase one or two birds was a good idea! It’s the same with Alaska, only you can multiply the price a few times. I would rather take the money and go explore areas with a much larger number of new species…more on that in a bit.
Thinking about the agonizingly long flights to Alaska, reminds me of how several of these trips were contests of endurance. Two particular outings immediately stand out. The first was my rarity chasing trip in Texas. I flew into the southernmost tip of the state, arriving in Harlingen, birded all that day, then drove to the very western part of the state the next day, woke up the following morning, hiked 9 miles in the mountains, then drove to Austin. I didn’t arrive home until 1:30 AM on Monday morning. It was tiring, but I did add 18 new birds though, with nine of them being code 2s, and five of them being code 3s!
My first trip to Colorado entailed 1,619 miles of high-altitude, mountain driving over 3 ½ days! I was exhausted after that trip. The weekend got off to a slow start, but by the time it was over, I had ended up with a ton of new birds. These were two of the trips I did without Marie, which added to the grind. I never had as much fun when she wasn’t around. Candidly, she would urge me out the door to chase birds, and once I reached the destination, I spent a fair amount of time beating myself up mentally. I’m grateful that there were very few of these solo outings!
On November 10, I saw the Amazon Kingfisher and the Sprague’s Pipit at the Rio Grande Birding Festival, putting the number for the year at 688! I took a peek at how many rarities had shown up during the months of November & December, 2012. Realistically, there were five species that I would’ve had the opportunity to go chase. When I added that to the number of code 1 and 2 birds that I felt were still in play for me, I determined that my final number would end up around 697. Mentally, I was at a point where I refused to leave Marie or my dog anymore. For the last two months I’d been dragging myself to the airport, much at Marie’s prodding. I estimated that those final 14 birds were going to cost somewhere between $10 - $14,000; another factor which made the pursuit less appealing. I don’t mind spending money on the trips, but again, picking up only one or two species at a time had lost its charm quickly.
Originally, Marie and I had intended on spending the entire week of Thanksgiving flying from one location to another, making as many as five stops across the country to beef up the count. My twenty three year old daughter then called and said that she wanted to cook the entire Thanksgiving meal for us, a first attempt for her. She will be graduating college soon and possibly be moving to who knows where, and I’m valuing my time with her more than ever. I take her to dinner at least once a week and I’m worried that soon I won’t be able to see her as often as I do now. Her wanting to do Thanksgiving made the decision to stay home very easy.
Then things got busy at work. Due to the nature of some of the business that had developed, it was very important for me to focus my energies there. If I pushed it, I still had a chance at 700, but the trade offs weren’t worth it to me. I wanted to sleep in my own bed during the weekends, and I just missed being away from Marie, my daughter, and my dog.
We did make one final outing for the Whooping Cranes down in Rockport, Texas. It was a bird we were looking forward to seeing for quite some time. Looking back, it seems like a fitting bird to end the project with. The first species of the year was the very common American Crow. The last species was, world-wide population-wise, the rarest of any bird I saw all year. The American Crow and the Whooping Crane make nice bookends for the year. 689 is a heck of a big number for someone who had hoped to reach 350. In my opinion, the year has been a huge success.
So what’s next for us birding wise? We hope to continue the growing of our Life Lists and are currently in the process of planning trips to Costa Rica and to Ecuador for 2014. There are a bunch of places out there in this world we would like to visit. I may occasionally go chase an ABA rarity or two depending on what shows up.
As always, thank you so much for letting me share these reports with you. It has been my pleasure getting to know so many of you.