We have a winner

Last summer, something unusual happened in the world of bird-watching: Two men broke a big record within days of each other, each having spotted 750 bird species in North America in a calendar year.

Then they promptly gathered their binoculars and kept racing across the continent to find more birds. Both were after a record known as the North American “Big Year,” which is built on seeing as many as you can of the almost 1,000 species on the American Birding Association (ABA) list for the continental United States and Canada.

By mid-July, Olaf Danielson of South Dakota and John Weigel, a U.S. native who lives in Australia, had surpassed the previous record of 749, which was reached in 2013. By September, when we reported on their chase, they and lots of other hard-core birders were on a frigid Alaska island in the middle of the Bering Sea, hoping to tally some “vagrants” — birds that aren’t typically found in North America but sometimes stop on the island as they migrate south from Siberia. The top birders’ travels throughout the year involved a frenzy of planes, boats and automobiles, as well as lots of cash.

So who won the year?

For the official results, we turn to the ABA, which is polite enough that it didn’t announce a “winner,” but rather congratulated Weigel and Danielson, as well as two other people — Laura Keene and Christian Hagenlocher — who also beat the 2013 record.

But the ABA did provide the final tallies — and the highest was Weigel’s.

Weigel chalked up 780 birds on the official checklist, and Danielson ended the year at 776. Keene and Hagenlocher spotted 759 and 750 species, respectively. All four competitors also saw a few birds that aren’t yet on the ABA list but are being considered; if they’re accepted, the entrants’ final results will be amended, said Nate Swick of the ABA.

But it seems clear that Weigel — who was helping raise money for a Tasmanian devil conservation breeding program — will stay on top.

“It was a roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs, chock full of corresponding mood swings and overreactions, all crammed into a sleep-deprived blur. Next stop, Betty Ford Clinic,” Weigel wrote on his blog recently.

Washington Post