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Open Mic: Why do a Big Year?

At the Mic: John Spahr

John Spahr, of Blue Grass, Virginia, is a member of the rarefied 700 Club, birders whose ABA-Area Big Years have topped 700 species in a calendar year.  John reached 704 species in 2010.  


    This past December I had the opportunity to spend several delightful days in south Texas with most of the birders who have ever counted more than 700 birds while doing a North American “Big Year” — notables like Benton Basham, Sandy Komito, John Vanderpoel, Bob Ake, Lynn Barber, Greg Miller, Dan Sanders, Al Levantin and Chris Hitt.  We socialized, shared anecdotes, viewed presentations, and birded many of the Rio Grande Valley “hotspots.”

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Image 1:  Big Year 700 Club members at Quinta Mazatlan, McAllen TX

(from left: Dan Sanders, Greg Miller, Chris Hitt, Benton Basham, Al Levantin, Sandy Komito, John Vanderpoel, Lynn Barber, Bob Ake, John Spahr. (Photo by Jeff Gordon)

On my flights back to Virginia I ruminated on this experience and came away with several conclusions.  First, I had to admit that
these were all better birders than I am.  Secondly, their motivation for doing a Big Year was perhaps different than mine.  They loved the chase,
challenge and competition of encountering as many birds as they could in one calendar year, and I commend them for that level of enthusiasm.

As for me, I’m neither very competitive (to which my high school athletic coaches would attest) nor much of a “chaser” for strays or vagrants.  I do keep a cumulative life list but do not strive for annual, state or regional totals.  Then, why did I do an ABA Big Year in 2010?  The simple  answer is that I wanted to learn more about North American birds and become a better birder.

I started birding in my mid teens.  For the next 3 decades my birding was episodic and casual and my skills average.  I would blame this mediocrity on distractions like higher education, family, and employment.  Although I know many superb birders who were not limited by similar obligations, which left me with the realization that I simply did not put in the time and effort to excel in this avocation of mine.

When I finally decided to ramp up my birding skills in my 40s I occasionally opted for extremes, like visiting multiple foreign countries and up to three continents in one year, or participating in the World Series of Birding for two years.  I also became more active in local bird clubs and my state’s ornithology society, which afforded opportunities to give presentations and lead field trips, both locally and internationally.  From these experiences I learned much about bird identification, avian biology, taxonomy, systematics, as well the habitats and haunts of birds.  As a consequence I’ve since become emboldened to try almost anything to continue this learning curve.

So, when Bob Ake told me in the fall of 2008 that he was planning to do a Big Year in 2009 I immediately asked him to consider postponing it for one year so that I could join him in my first year of retirement.  To my surprise and good fortune he agreed.  Bob is one of those superior veteran birders who I had known for a few years and with whom I had done some quality international and Virginia birding.  He has the right mix of dedication, knowledge, experience and compulsion to plan and pull off a great Big Year.

So, for much of the first 9 months of 2010 I tagged along with Bob as we birded in our home state of Virginia, drove to and from Texas twice — once via Florida, flew to Arizona, California and Alaska twice, chased “chicken birds” in Colorado, joined multiple pelagic trips off both coasts, and many places in between.

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Image 2:  Bob Ake and Florida Scrub Jay. Oscar Scherer State Park, near Osprey, FL

Unfortunately, I had to disengage for several days each month to visit elderly and ailing parents and I also spent two weeks abroad in March.  Consequently, Bob’s list grew at a faster pace than mine.  By the time I left Gambell, Alaska, on September 8 my total was 683.  Bob remained three more days and left with 700.   The balance of the year our travel schedules intersected rarely as our goals diverged.  Bob decided to go for broke and ended 2010 with 731 species, while I was burning out and wanted more time at home.

Were it not for my wife I would have been content finishing the year six birds shy of 700.  However, thanks to Nancy’s urging (shaming?) I made a final foray in December, a solo 8-day swing through South Dakota (Ross’s Gull), Arizona (Baikal Teal, Streak-backed Oriole), California (bean goose, Thayer’s Gull, Brown Shrike {#700}, Tufted Duck) and Calgary, Alberta, where I finished with White-winged Crossbills, Gray Partridges and a Snowy Owl for a final total of 704.

Of course I was thrilled to exceed 700 species in one year, but this was neither my goal nor my reason for doing a Big Year.  As I stated, I simply wanted to become a better birder and learn more about NA birds.  I feel that I’ve attained those goals.  I became a better birder, in part,  by simply birding day after day in both familiar and unfamiliar areas.  I also learned much from Bob’s accumulated experience, birding acumen and knowledge.

Before 2010 most of my North American birding was in the eastern U.S.  In doing the Big Year I gained extensive exposure to the west, including my first Pacific pelagic trips and my first visits to Alaska.  This let me encounter many birds with which I had little or no prior experience.  In fact, I added over 100 “lifers” during this year.  These new birds were more than a tick on a trip list.  They were all special
experiences, many of which remain encoded as long-term memories.

For example, my first Smith’s Longspurs in January at Stuttgart Municipal Airport, Arkansas, taught me about the limited winter range of this species.  As we flushed a small flock we were able to appreciate the buff bellies and diagnostic white lesser coverts.  Three weeks later in the San Rafael Grasslands of southeast Arizona I added another “lifer” with an even more limited winter range in the US, the Baird’s Sparrow.  A single bird furtively sneaking through the snow-dusted short grass prairie paused long enough to afford good looks.  I made sure to note the short streaks of the upper breast and the face pattern that distinguishes this from the only other Ammodramus sparrow here, the Grasshopper Sparrow.

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Image 3:  Snow dusted San-Rafael Grasslands, AZ

     Speaking of Ammodramus sparrows, we had a humbling experience a few weeks earlier back in Texas.  An experienced birder friend led us to some grassy fields near Galveston, where we searched specifically for Le Conte’s Sparrow.  When a likely candidate popped up for a brief view we all exclaimed success.  Bob was even able to take a good photo that he posted on his daily blog.  Several experienced birders who later viewed that photo suggested (or exclaimed) that we blew the ID.  We reviewed the image and were chagrined to admit that our bird was not a Le Conte’s Sparrow but a Nelson’s Sparrow.  Fortunately, only four days later (and, for me, additional field guide study) we found several real Le Conte’s Sparrows at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco.  This time I made sure I noticed the white crown stripe and streaked nape of yet another “lifer.”  From this experience I learned that diligent observation must always trump expectation.

Alaska alone gave me 23 “lifers” and let me experience some fascinating ecosystems.  Ecosystems like the cliffs of St. Paul Island with its clinging colonies of alcids, puffins, kittiwakes and cormorants.  Or the Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, literally within sight of Russia, where I saw Asian vagrants like Stonechat, Rustic Bunting and Common Rosefinch.  For me the most impressive avian spectacle here was the flights of birds that skirted the pea gravel shores.  In one day we saw all four eiders, both guillemots, both puffins, both murres, all the jaegers, a few Ivory and Sabine’s Gulls and thousands (if not millions) of auklets with their rapid constant wing beats.  I learned that most of these birds are here because of the abundant phytoplankton that blossom in the nutrient-rich coastal waters under the prolonged sunshine, and that this in turn feeds the zooplankton eaten by the smaller auklets and by the small fish.  The puffins, murres and larger alcids then consume these fish.  A fascinating ecosystem, indeed.

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Image 4:  Murres and Kittiwakes on the cliffs of St. Paul Island, Alaska

     Although not a total landlubber, prior to 2010 I had only a handful of pelagic trips under my belt.  By doing a dozen Big Year pelagics I got  much more of an appreciation for yet another ecosystem, the open oceans.  Of course, I added more “lifers.”  However, what really impressed me was that these larids, tubenoses, alcids and phalaropes survive and thrive in a habitat of waves and wind.  I was awed learning that millions of least auklets, the size of house sparrows, can survive violent open ocean storms.  And, I learned that the name of the order Procellariformes comes from a Latin word procella, which means violent storm or tempest, a fit name for these families of albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters.

From Bob, I learned the value of persistence, the first time by doing three repeated hikes up Florida Wash in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona over several days in search of Rufous-capped Warbler.  We finally scored the third try.  A second example was the repeated two-mile hike up to Island Lake in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in an attempt to locate Himalayan Snowcock, found nowhere else in the US but these mountains.  Both treks began in the predawn cold and darkness, the first on June 21 when, upon arrival, we stood at the margin of the snow-covered lake for nearly 3 hours without hearing or seeing a single snowcock.  August 17 we returned and repeated the ascent in slightly warmer temperatures (low 50’s).  Shortly after dawn we heard a distant long-billed curlew-like howl from the ridge to our east, almost certainly  our target bird.  Nevertheless, we remained and continued to listen and watch, and were soon rewarded with two birds flying about 100 feet in front of us at eye level.

Other learning experiences include attempting to distinguish Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatcher by their songs, call notes and subtle field marks.  For me this required multiple attempts plus study with digital recordings and field guides.

In marathon ventures of this sort there will be a few counted birds to be identified by song/call only without sighting them, which is OK by ABA rules.  For me, two notable examples were the rapid staccato hoots of a distant boreal owl on Cameron Pass in the dark, freezing mid-April Colorado cold, and the hollow hoots of a flammulated owl on Mosquito Ridge near Foresthill, CA two months later.  Although I was pleased to
add these distinct vocalizations to my list of “heard only birds” I now have the future challenge to return for visual confirmation before I count  them as true “lifers.”  With this hobby of birding there’s always more study and learning to anticipate, which I heartily welcome.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
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