Thursday, September 30, 2010

Can It Really Be Chapel Hill, NC?

It is Thursday Sept. 30th, the last day of the month, and the end of the 39th week of this big year (51 species seen for the week). I am home along with my wife's truck for the 1st time since early June. With 9 full months completed, it is time to talk a bit about how the overall year has gone, and what it all means for the final 3 months of 2010. But before I do that, I hope that you will first enjoy looking at some more of the Utah hiking pictures--remember to click on them to enlarge.

To refresh for long time followers, or to inform for recent readers, I said way back in late December of '09 that I thought seeing 600 different bird species would be a respectable effort, and seeing 650 would be a very good result. I also said hitting 700 in just the lower 48 states would be highly improbable. So these estimations provide a context for the next few paragraphs.

If you look at the column at the right side of this blog, you will see that in January alone I recorded 247 different species seen--more than 1/3 of the total number of 682 that I have seen so far. Again this is really no surprise given how many parts of the lower 48 states I visited in January, and the fact that I was just beginning the big year. If you scan down the column you will see the number of birds in February dropped down to 107, and when added to January, I had seen 1/2 of all the different birds I would eventually see by today.

March was slower (68 new birds), but then April (99) and May (85) picked up a bit which is no surprise with the spring migration in full swing. As a result, the YTD number hit 605 different species by the end of May--only 5 months into the year. However, since then the number of new birds seen has slowed down dramatically, and in September only 7 new birds were added. Significantly, 5 of these were all new ABA area life birds for me (note asterisks in column).

What I did not say at the start of the year was how many new ABA (American Birding Assoc.) life birds that I expected to see. I had thought the number would end up around 20-25, but so far I have seen 30. I point this out because it is one reason I am at 682 birds YTD. I have been fortunate to see some life birds that I had not expected such as the bare-throated tiger-heron, the red-footed booby, the common crane, the cuban pewee, the la sagra's flycatcher, the orange-billed nightingale-thrush, the plain-capped starthroat, the streaked shearwater and the hawaiian petrel. I also saw a few birds like the northern wheatear, the northern jacana, the yellow-green vireo, the crimson-collared grosbeak, the masked duck, and the blue bunting that I could not count on showing up in the lower 48 this year.

So what does hitting 682 birds seen so far mean for the final quarter of the year? Well, over the past month I have tried to determine how that number stands in relation to other big year efforts over the past 50 years. In doing so, I have found for starters that there are just not that many people who have done full ABA (all of North America above Mexico) big years, and even fewer who chose to do just the lower 48 states. For example, so far this year I have met only 2 people--Bob Ake and John Spahr--who are doing a full ABA big year, and they say I am the only birder doing a lower 48. After 58,000 miles driven and 47,000 mile flown, and having hit all the major birding spots several times, I should have met or heard about any other birders that were doing big years.

While I originally thought there would be a few more birders undertaking major big years, I now realize that the time and money involved precludes most people from doing either a full ABA or lower 48 states big year. I suspect there are far more state big years, and even more county big years done annually.

In reviewing the available historical record, the 1st time a big year number was highly visible was from back in 1953 when Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher did a 30,000 mile tour of North America. In 1955 a book (Wild America) and film were produced, and in the book they mention that they saw 572 different bird species. The bar has kept being raised since then with the current ABA area record (748) being set in 1998 by Sandy Komito. A book called the Big Year was published in 2004 about him and 2 other birders from that year. Now a movie based on the book is in production that will apparently be a comedy starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black as the 3 birders. For even more info on big bird years, check out the Wikipedia entry on them.

I also knew that the ABA puts out an annual ABA big day and ABA list report. In studying the report I found that they track the top big day numbers by state as well as the top big year numbers by state, but they do not do that for full ABA or lower 48 big years. Instead, they publish each year the annual lists for the ABA area, lower 48 etc, that are reported to them. The most recent report shows that the highest number of birds seen in the lower 48 states in 2009 was 618. In 2008 the top number was 670; in 2007 it was 648; in 2006 it was 628; and in 2005 it was 685--which was part of a full ABA big year done by my friend Dan Sanders. In 2004 it was 634; in 2003 it was 610; in 2002 it was 574; and in 2001 it was 618. For now this is as far back as I have been able to obtain ABA report info.

Since these are the only lower 48 records that I have found, and because after 2005, three species have been split in two, I am working on the assumption that 688 is the highest lower 48 number recorded. And finally, I believe that there would be some mention of it somewhere, so I also am assuming that no one has ever seen 700 different species in the lower 48 states in one calendar year.

Based on the information I have uncovered so far, I have set as a goal for the last 3 months of this year to raise my year to date total to at least 690 species. I believe this number is doable based on the birds that I still should be able to find over the next 3 months. As for the possibility of reaching 700, the old cliche that the chances "are slim and none at all, and slim just left town" is probably appropriate, but you never know. To see 700 can only happen if several highly rare birds were to visit the lower 48 states by the end of 2010, and I was able to hear about them and get to them in time before they disappeared.

I am home for the next few days unless a rarity shows up that I can reasonably get to. I will be doing a posting in the next couple of days talking about the non-birding part of my big year. There is a new travel map also. Stay tuned!


  1. Huge fan of big year birding. Congrats on a great year so far. Here's hoping for 700!

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