A Big Year is an extreme birding event, certainly so this year in more than the usual way.
During a Big Year a person tries to identify as many bird species as possible in a defined geographic area within a defined time period. It’s usually North America in a calendar year.
2016 is an extreme year for these extreme efforts. Big-time records are being set.
I recently read a book entitled “Lost Among the Birds” by a birder named Neil Hayward of Cambridge, Mass. It recounts his record Big Year, 2013, when he recorded 749 North American species. It’s a pretty good book, his birding stories mixed with the tears of his sweetheart who cries whenever he leaves town on another bird quest, which is often.
The previous record was 748, set 18 years ago by a guy from New Jersey. Hollywood made a lousy movie of his adventures and those of two other men on the same journey. It was titled “The Big Year.”
Hayward’s 749 effort impressed me. His miles traveled, days away from home, hours on a boat, money spent — all were big numbers. Hayward worked at this deep into December that year.
Then, on Sept. 2, I read in The Washington Post a story about two birders who have buried Hayward’s record, and did so by early August of this year. That’s five months ahead of closing day. No one can guess what their final numbers will be.
Australian John Weigel, 60, had recorded 760 species in little more than half a year. He is closely followed by a 50-year-old man from South Dakota using the pseudonym Olaf Danielson, who has 759. Those are big, big numbers with months to go.
A third birder, Laura Keene, of Cincinnati, Ohio, has an outside chance to also top the old mark of 749. At last report she had checked off 700 species, and currently is in Gambell, a native village on St. Lawrence Island off the coast of Nome. Ms. Keene’s 700 makes her the second woman to officially reach that number. Officially means recognized by the American Birding Association.
Danielson has kept an expense ledger. His first six months: Nearly $70,000 spent, 124,800 miles flown on 129 flights, 33,934 miles driven, 192 hours at sea, 273 miles walked, 35 states and provinces visited. He says he has slept 12 nights in cars.
Weigel is not posting his expenses. He says simply that the effort is “hideously expensive,” according to the story in the Post (read it at http://wpo.st/7L5w1)
Weigel has been in Minnesota six times this year. He saw 42 bird species while visiting Aitkin, Scott, Dakota, Hennepin, St. Louis, Sherburne, Roseau, and Crow Wing counties.
He was in Duluth three times in attempts to see the Ivory Gull that visited early in the year. That gull, by the way, proved most frustrating for him. It was the only bird mentioned in his blog preceded by the four-letter word sometimes used roughly for sexual congress. He wrote, “f___ing gull.” I think it was standing around in cold Duluth that undid him.
Last I heard, Weigel and Danielson were sitting in fog and rain in Gambell with Ms. Keene. They’re hoping that terrible weather from the west blows Asian migrants into view. On Sept. 5, a report said winds were from the north and northwest, not good for any of the 30+ birders said to be there this year. Not all of them are on a Big Year journey.
Asian vagrants and wanderers from other parts of the world, by the way, are what put big numbers into Big Years.