Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Big Year

Since I started birding, Jim keeps asking me if I plan to do a Big Year. Like every hobby, sport, or avocation birding has its own vocabulary and competitions. For birders the ultimate extreme sport is a Big Year. Casual birders and non-birders may have never heard this term, or even considered that birding could be a competitive sport--but it is.

During a Big Year, birders compete to see who can spot the most species of birds in North America during a yearlong quest that starts on January 1. The concept started in the 1930s and, while there are a few rulesthe only referee is the ABA checklist (although there are often arguments among birders). Birders compete using the honor system and, according to some sources, can spend around $10,000 a month getting to birding locations to add species to their lists. This is different from life lists, the very noncompetitive activity where birders keep track of species they encounter over a lifetime.

With only 675 or so indigenous species of birds in North America, beating the record requires chasing rarities and vagrants--birds that show up where they don't belong or normally wouldn't be found. In the movie The Big Year, which stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black (and first brought the concept of extreme birding to a wider audience), it was said that winning was possible primarily because of a strong El Niño weather pattern that pushed birds off course from Asia, Europe, and South America. However it gets here, once the bird is in North America, it counts! 

Because of the weather pattern, and the fierce competition of 1998, some birders thought Sandy Komito's record of 745 species would be impossible to break, but don't tell that the the 2013 competitors. Birds have to be listed on the American Birding Association's checklist of 976 accepted birds (Sandy Komito claims his record is 748 because he also recorded 3 birds that were not, at the time, on the ABA checklist but now are). The list includes species that breed in North America, regularly visit here, stray here from other regions, and introduced species that are now part of the avifauna of North America. In the ever-changing world of birds, some species have been split and a couple of species have been added to the North American lists. 2013 competitor Neil Hayward recorded 746 birds plus 3 provisional birds as of December 29. He's waiting for a definitive ruling on his Big Year but regardless of how the ABA counts, it sounds to me like he broke a 15 year record! This is a big deal in the birding world.

Amazon Kingfisher
Photo used under Creative Commons license.)
Not having the money, time, or "fire in the belly" to do a Big Year, I do still admit to feeling the lure of an exotic species that has shown up when I see posts on the Rare Bird Alert sites (see below). Could I rush down to the Rio Grande Valley to see the Amazon Kingfisher reported to be hanging out at a rest stop? It would only be a four hour drive each way. Gas up the car, Jim!

Then again, it's probably easier (and less expensive) to experience a Big Year vicariously by reading (or viewing) about other people's experiences. In addition to the film, a few good books include:

  • The Big Year stars Owen Wilson as the all-time Big Year champ who sets out to beat his own record. A retired CEO (Steve Martin) and a "everyman" techie-type (Jack Black) are just as determined to kick him out of the nest. The movie is based on The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik.
  • Wild America: The Record of a 30,000 Mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and His British Colleague by Roger Tory Peterson is not, per se, a Big Year story but it may have started the challenge. During a 100-day tour of America's wildlife refugees in 1953, Peterson and a friend observed 572 species. Three years later an Englishman broke that record following the same route and the competition began. 
  • Kingbird Highway; The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand  is Kenn Kaufamn's story of his Big Year. In 1973, at the age of 19, he headed out hitchhiking around the country to try and break a birding record that had stood for 15 years.
Two Grackles at Central Park, Austin
  • Lynn E. Barber did a big year totally in the state of Texas and was able to count 522 bird species. In Extreme Birder: One Woman's Big Year she tells the story of doing the full Big Year and finding 723 species. 
A Big Year starts on January 1 and birders generally try to start the year with an exotic or hard to find bird so that you are off to a good start. No one wants to start their Big Year with a grackle. Me? I'm off to see Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes to start my Big New Year. Happy New Year to all!

Note: Rare birds are reported on www.narba.orgwww.narba.org. A sub-site tracks rare birds in Texas http://www.narba.org/default.aspx/MenuItemID/105/MenuGroup/Home.htm.

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