At the Mic: Robert Baumander
Robert, of Toronto, Ontario, is a 52 year old obsessive compulsive who has been the video coordinator for the Toronto Blue Jays for 32 years. He gives equal blame and credit for his extreme birding obsession to Sue Clark for taking him to The Big Year, and Sandy Komito for doing two Big Years and setting him off on this endless quest. When not birding he likes to pretend he is an Iron Chef. His two kids, family, and friends think he is crazy, but in a nice way. His photos and stories can be found at his website, I’m Just Here for the Bird.
In 2011 I was not a birder. I wouldn’t have even qualified as a bird watcher. I was a casual observer and photographer of birds. That all changed that November when my spouse Sue Clark and I went to see the movie, The Big Year. Who knew there was a “contest” to see the most birds?
I have always liked birds and photographed them but the only bird names I knew were Cardinal, Blue Jay and Oriole, mostly because they are
the emblems on baseball uniforms. Otherwise I didn’t really care what the birds’ name was, just whether it was nice to look at or photograph.
Big Year listing changed all that. Now there was a reason to be a birder. There were lists to be made, records to be broken, other birders to compete against. As the movie played out, my obsession built. The scene in the movie that turned me from a normal, average human being to an overly obsessive compulsive birder was the montage scene on Attu. I wanted to do that. I wanted to be there. The idea that you could go out and make a great, big, long list of birds, seeing and identifying new ones nearly every day for one calendar year, is what sent me over the edge. I knew I had the personality traits of all three of the men depicted in the movie. I knew I would be not just a bird watcher, not just a birder, but an extreme birder, a Lister.
I read Mark Obmascik’s book about the 1998 Big Year, featuring Al Levantin, Greg Miller, and Sandy Komito, a man after my own obsessive heart. In Komito I found a kindred spirit. Like Sandy, I didn’t just want to see birds, I wanted to see all the birds. Like Sandy, I obsessively go after goals. For example, when I saw a man at a fair balancing rocks in impossible configurations, I obsessively spent two years becoming one of the best rock balancers in the world.
When I finished the book I was committed – perhaps should have been committed – to experiencing as much of a real Big Year as I could afford. I had no money and a full time job working for The Toronto Blue Jays, but what made this year possible was a number of work related trips to Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and British Columbia. Those trips earned me enough air miles to book trips to Alaska, California, Texas and Arizona. I also kept my expenses to a minimum by eating lots of fast food and spending a number of nights sleeping in my car, though never did I eat Friskies cat food mixed with cold soup.
I went on the internet and read everything I could find on birding and Big Years. I found John Vanderpoel’s blog and read about his attempt to break Sandy Komito’s record. I knew that one day I would know enough to try for it myself, but first I had to learn to be a birder and with the help of Sue, Ontbirds, eBird, FLARBA, NARBA and a host of birders I met in the field, I began my journey.
I set out to do something no one else had ever done: to begin birding with no experience and do a Big Year. For 366 days I was a bird watcher possessed. There were times when I was standing in the middle of a field on a hot July afternoon in Texas, with sweat snaking down my legs and into my shoes, asking myself what the heck I was doing. I even almost died of heat exhaustion chasing a Fork-tailed Flycatcher outside Orlando. But there were times when I was jubilant with the triumph of finding the one bird I was searching for after hours of scanning the trees or ponds or empty fields.
The day I decided to attempt a Big Year, 300 species was my goal, one I could reach just birding in Ontario and wherever I traveled for work. By the end of January I was hooked and knew that this quest had become bigger than I imagined and more important to me than I would have thought possible. It was the near impossibility of seeing 600 birds that pushed me into going to Alaska, Arizona five times and Texas on four occasions. To the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas, and the rice fields of Louisiana. To Newfoundland in July and California in January and September. It drove me to take long pelagic boat trips where sea sickness made me question why anyone would put themselves through such agony just to see one more bird.
I ended the year with 596 ABA countable birds, plus 5 that those pesky folks at the ABA have deemed not wild enough to list for a total of 601, which had become my goal less than two months into the year. Could I have seen more? Yes. If I knew a year ago what I know now I’d have not made at least a dozen rookie mistakes and would have easily passed 600 ABA species. I made tactical errors that cost me a dozen species at least, but I had no road map to follow and didn’t have 30 years of birding experience most birders have when they throw themselves into a Big Year.
I counted birds in 17 states and 3 provinces, saw 138 of my 595 in Florida,(189 for the state), 110 in Arizona,(167 for the state), 45 in Texas, 20 in Alaska,(I only had time for 5 days there, and 147 at home in Ontario,(235 provence wide). I saw 45 species of wood-warbler and I hadn’t the faintest idea there was even such a bird prior to 2012. I saw 16 species of Owl, and I had never seen one outside a zoo before, (now I want to see all the Owls). I flew and drove untold thousands of miles, walked and biked hundreds of miles, and was seasick on 3 of 5 pelagic trips.
Of course it was all about the birds, and I loved chasing and finding the Northern Lapwing, Tufted Duck, Barnacle Goose, and especially the Nutting’s Flycatcher and Pink-footed Goose that opened and closed the very movie that got me going. I loved spotting the Sooty Grouse, White-headed Woodpecker, Rufous-backed Robin and Western Spindalis all on my own. I loved all the flycatchers, especially the elusive Fork-tailed and beautiful Vermilion. The hummingbirds were particularly beautiful, including the Plain-capped Starthroat I saw at the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast and the Allen’s I saw in Connecticut.
But my favorite bird of the year, not just for its rarity and beauty but for the satisfaction of finding it, had to be Elegant Trogon. I looked for it on two occasions up at the Cary Nation Trail in Madera Canyon without success. On my last day in Arizona one was reported in my favorite birding spot in North America, Patagonia Lake State Park. I rushed over there and had about 3 hours to find it before I had to drive back to Tucson to get to catch a flight. I walked the stream bed for nearly the entire three hours when I turned my head at the exact right time to find the bird not 10 feet in front of my nose. Neither of us spooked. The Trogon posed. I took photos. It was one of the more exciting birds of the year.
My final birding trip of the Big Year was to Cape May, New Jersey, to find a Dovekie. On the hour and half ferry ride from Lewes, Delaware, I was treated to an amazing show of gannets and scoters. I enjoyed just watching the birds so much it didn’t really matter that, as the sun set on my Big Year, I didn’t even see the Dovekie. What mattered was that I never gave up. What mattered was that after 12 months of chasing, of just being there “for the bird,” just seeing the birds that were there to see on the ferry and at the beach was satisfaction enough. Sue, and a few
others that view “listers” as birding pariahs, would have been proud of me.
I met the most extraordinary people along the way. Fred in Hamilton, Ontario, was one of the first birders to take me under his wing back in January, but I can’t forget Melody Khel, Matt Brown, Eddie Bartley, Hutch Hutchenson, Ken in Alaska, and the professional guides I hired throughout the year. I met the kindest strangers, sometimes the middle of nowhere chasing rare birds posted on NARBA and eBird, like Hemant, whom I ran into in Texas and Arizona, and Edna, Ray, and Sandy from New Jersey.
I met John Hargrove, who was doing his own Big Year at the age of 69, on two pelagics on opposite coasts and again on the final days of the Big Year down in Florida. With his wife Beverley, we successfully chased down the Western Spindalis but missed the Thick-billed Vireo. And how can I forget Sandy Komito, who was nice enough to keep in touch via email a few times during the year with advice and inspiration?
I know that for most of the year I was inaccessible to friends, coworkers, and family who must have thought I was out of my mind to just pick up one day and devote myself to a single minded goal at their expense, (especially Sue who had to put up with this obsession for 366 days herself). In the end, though, I have no regrets, and I’ve learned and seen so much and accomplished more than I set out to do when this all began.
Now that the Big Year is over it doesn’t mean I will stop chasing. During the first week of January of this year I chased a Townsend’s Solitaire here in Ontario, as I had not photographed the one I had seen in 2012. But I think I’ll confine the chasing to inexpensive local trips and birds close to where I am at the timeand birds close to where I am at the time, which included finally getting the LaSagra’s Flycatcher in Florida this past week. Then, one day, when I have sufficient time, money and birding knowledge, perhaps when I am closer to 65 than to 55, I will
go out and break Sandy Komito’s record.
For the present, though, I can say that this was my favorite year. I hope my story inspires people to take the leap from just casual birdwatching to birding, and will serve as both a road map and a warning as to what they might be getting themselves into. There is a cost, both in the pocket book and in your personal life that goes along with this kind of quest, but it’s worth every dollar spent, every day spent in the field and, in my case, all those nights spent sleeping in my car.
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