At the end of 1998, when Sandy Komito logged 745 species (+ 3 provisional) in one year, the common wisdom was that the record could never be broken.
Why? Because Attu Island, the furthest-west piece of land in the ABA area (so far west it’s within a few miles of being the furthest-east bit of land…) had become very difficult, if not temporarily impossible to get to. And it was 4 weeks on Attu that spring that delivered the prize for Sandy.
In his 1999 book about that year, I Came, I Saw, I Counted, Sandy writes, “Will someone armed with a laptop computer, cell phone and the necessary contacts, time, resources and desire, shatter this record too?” The only way he could have been closer to the mark, was if he had prognosticated Facebook.
Neil Hayward, armed with a laptop computer, cell phone and the necessary contacts, time, resources and desire, has—at the time I write this—tied Sandy’s record of 745 +3 provisional. Sandy had correctly predicted the importance that technology would play in any serious run at his record … but let’s take a look at the whole playing field.
If you had to single one thing out that was make-or-break for Komito’s 1998 record, it would, without question, be the 4 weeks he spent on Attu Island in the western Aleutians, that spring. Those 4 weeks netted Sandy nearly 30 species of Asian vagrants. The weather aligned just so, and Attu’s greatest spring dropped an amazing array of birds on Sandy’s head. Here’s a snapshot of some of what he netted during those four weeks at the end of the world:
Pechora Pipit, Eyebrowed Thrush, Whooper Swan, Rustic Bunting, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Pintail Snipe, Red-flanked Bluetail, Far Eastern Curlew, Olive-backed Pipit, Common Pochard, Yellow-throated Bunting, Terek Sandpiper, Black-backed Wagtail*, Temminck’s Stint, Smew, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Hawfinch, Bean Goose*, Siberian Rubythroat, Common Greenshank, Great Knot, Long-toed Stint, Oriental Greenfinch, Green Sandpiper, Dusky Thrush, Gray Wagtail, Spotted Redshank.
That’s 28 species … any one of which would have been the highlight of most ABA area birder’s year (*yes, I know Black-backed Wagtail and Bean Goose are no longer species; we’ll get back to that).
By contrast, Neil has had 16 comparable Asian vagrants, scattered across the year, and across the ABA area.
Eurasian Sparrowhawk , Common Redstart, Rustic Bunting, Little Bunting (CA), Whooper Swan, Dusky Thrush, Tundra Bean Goose (NS), Eyebrowed Thrush, Gray-tailed Tattler, Olive-backed Pipit, Gray-streaked Flycatcher, Common Rosefinch, Siberian Stonechat, Baikal Teal, Wood Sandpiper, Red-flanked Bluetail (BC).
It’s worth noting that, although the classic accommodations at Lower Base are no more, the island itself is still accessible. Our own John Puschock’s Zugunruhe Birding Tours travels there by boat every spring. In fact, had Neil gone to Attu with the Zugunruhe Tours trip last May, he would have likely picked up an additional 8 or so birds, including: Smew, Short-tailed Albatross, Common Sandpiper, Common Cuckoo, Siberian Rubythroat, Far Eastern Curlew, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Gray Wagtail.
So, not having Attu in his lineup did cost Hayward some birds—he’d be comfortably over 750 if he’d made that trip—but, obviously, it did not cost him the year.
SPLITS AND LUMPS
The ABA Checklist has about 70 more species on it today than it did in 1998. A lot of these are very rarely occurring vagrants. But some of these are species-splits: where one species becomes two.
Examples of splits in favor of Neil: Sagebrush/Bell’s Sparrow, Mexican/Eastern Whip-poor-will, Tundra/Taiga Bean-Goose, Greater/Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Black-crested/Tufted Titmouse, Cackling/Canada Goose, Sooty/Dusky Grouse, Winter/Pacific Wren. So, for example where Komito had only one possible species of “Winter Wren”, Hayward now has two.
Lumps are the opposite of splits, and remove a species. There has been a lot more splitting (due mainly to DNA studies) than lumping going on in that past 15 years, but there has been at least one lump that favored Komito: Black-backed Wagtail into White Wagtail (* getting back to that).
The ABA coding system has changed a bit in the past 15 years as well. There are more Code 1 and 2 species. Code 1 and 2 are common or fairly common species that a birder should be able to see with a certain amount of effort. The main difference between 1 and 2 is range. Code 2 birds are either present in smaller numbers or have a limited range in the ABA area.
In 1998, Sandy Komito saw every Code 1&2 species possible: 622
In 2013, Neil Hayward’s combined total of Code 1&2 species is: 666
ABA AREA EXOTICS
Some of the “new” species are established exotics added to the ABA Checklist. Some examples of species countable for Neil that “didn’t exist” in 1998: Purple Swamphen, Nutmeg Mannikin, Common Mynah, Muscovy Duck (Florida population) and Green Parakeet.
On the other hand, Sandy counted one exotic species that has been removed from the list: Crested Mynah
In his book, Sandy writes “It is important to emphasize over and over again, go for the rarities first!” Indeed that was the core of his strategy, and it proved to be a winner (and I think it still is). ABA code 4 and 5 species are the rarest. Vagrants and accidentals. Birds that require chasing and a lot of luck. In 1998, Sandy saw a combined total of 70 Code 4&5 species. By comparison, Neil has seen about 26 Code 4&5 species this year.
Hayward got started late also. He didn’t really start putting in a serious big year effort until April. As a result, he missed quite a few rarities seen early in the year including Bahama Mockingbird, Spotted Redshank, Gray Heron, Siberian Accentor, Common Crane, Western Spindalis and Bananaquit.
So far, Neil has been away from home, in the field 193 days (with 4 days left in the year). By comparison, Komito spent ~270 days in the field in 1998. A lot of that was chasing rarities.
TECH AND COMMUNICATION
While the logistics and expense of getting around the ABA area have certainly become more difficult and costly, one thing has certainly changed the way we bird, and has had a huge positive impact on Neil’s effort is the Internet and cell phones. Okay, two things.
I was chatting on the phone with Sandy this afternoon, and he was telling me stories of trying to find pay-phones to keep in touch with NARBA and work through his logistics. Now, as we are all well aware, everything from alerts about birds he needs to chase, to making flight and ground transportation arrangements … you name it, is done with a small device Neil carries in his pocket. Yes, there were cell phones (and even a few cell towers) in 1998, and yes, the internet did exist. But there was nowhere near the amount of participation in 1998 that there is now. Today, almost every birder carries a smart phone, and can instantly alert the world (or just a few pals) if a rarity is found. On the same device that delivered the news of the bird, airline tickets or car rental can be secured in moments.
Both the mechanics and the playing field of doing an ABA Big Year have changed dramatically in the past 15 years, and the changes definitely fall in favor of the birder. I think that for a future big year birder that’s off with the starting gun on January 1, and puts in the kind of effort chasing rarities that Komito did in 1998, that 760 is probably in play.
“…the new question becomes, “Just how high is up?” Twenty years ago the question was, “Is 700 possible?” Ten years ago, the revised question became, “Is 750 possible? Have we reached the upper limit? Will someone armed with a laptop computer, cell phone and the necessary contacts, time, resources and desire, shatter this record too? …
For tomorrow’s Big Year listers, I wish you all much luck, God speed and hope the winds in the Aleutians will be strong out of the west and southwest during the Spring.”
- – Sandy Komito, 1999