Friday, November 18, 2011
Is Sandy Komito's ABA Big Year Record of 745 Beatable?
Those of you who have been checking in on this blog over the past few months know that I have been talking about how John Vanderpoel has been doing in his full ABA area big year quest. I first met John this past summer on pelagic trips out of Hatteras, NC. I also saw him in September on pelagic trips out of Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay, CA. The photo just above (fork-tailed storm petrel) and below (marbled murrelets) were taken by Doug Koch on 2 of those west coast trips.
This past Wednesday John saw a female rose-throated becard in south Texas to raise his year to date total of different bird species to 734. This puts him in second place all time, 11 species short of Sandy Komito's record of 745 set back in 1998. My last posting is about the movie the Big Year which is based on the 1998 big year birding experiences of Sandy, Greg Miller and Al Levantin.
When I was doing my lower 48 big year in 2010, I met a birder from Washington state while I was watching a pair of montezuma quail in Texas. I mentioned I was doing a big year, and his comment was, "after Sandy Komito found such a high total number of species, I did not think anyone was even doing big years now." The book the Big Year also makes the point that because of the unique el nino component in 1998 plus the loss of the availability of birding at Attu in the Aleutian Islands after 2000 that Sandy's total of 745 might never be beaten.
In summarizing my 2010 big year, I speculated that Bob Ake, who saw 731 different species doing a full ABA big year in 2010, could have gotten very close to matching Sandy's 1998 total (see my posting on 1/4/2011). After following John's effort this year, and having recently read Sandy's book about his 1998 big year--I Came, I Saw, I Counted--I am convinced that Sandy's 745 total is not out of reach. The following further explains my thinking on this.
First, Sandy points out in his book that between 1987 when he did his first full ABA area big year (then record of 721), and 1998 that 20 relatively easy to see new birds were added to the ABA list due to splits and newly recognized established exotics. There were another 32 rarities also added. He further points out that there were 27 species he saw in 1987 which he did not see again in 1998. And since 1998 another 48 birds have been added to the ABA list as a result of splits and rarities, 7 of which are easy to see birds. Finally, at the end of his book published in 1999, Sandy also suggests that his number can be beaten.
Another way to measure the possibility of passing Sandy's 745 record is to compare the birds that I saw last year in the lower 48 with Sandy's list of birds from 1998. He saw 52 birds outside the lower 48 states that I did not see. Adding those 52 to the 704 I saw, plus 6 others I could have seen but did not because I chose not to "chase" them, then the hypothetical full ABA area total could have been 762.
Turning to John Vanderpoel's big year, the key to his having reached 734 as of this week was the success he had this fall in his trips to the Pribilofs, Gambell, Barrow and Nome, AK. So, is it possible for him to pass Sandy's record with just 6 weeks left in the year? Since one never knows when and where a rarity may show up, it is not possible to say for sure if he can catch Sandy. Looking at other big year records may give some additional insight.
Specifically, in analyzing Sandy's last 6 weeks in 1998, plus Bob Ake's, my own and Lynn Barber's, I would say the probability is not high for the following reasons. First, Sandy only saw 5 more new species in his last 6 weeks, and John has already seen 2 of those birds. Secondly, while Bob saw 12 more new species in his last 6 weeks, there are only 4 birds on his list that John has not yet seen. Similarly, I saw 12 more birds in my last 6 weeks, but John has already seen 9 of those. Finally, in 2008 Lynn did a big year. She saw 13 more new species during her last 6 weeks, but again John has already seen 11 of those birds.
John's possible ace in the hole is to make one more visit to Alaska in December to go to Adak Island in the Aleutians in hopes of picking up 3-5 rarities. He also could still get some rarities out of Newfoundland, south Florida, south Texas, and southeast Arizona. This weekend he is planning to go out on 2 pelagic trips from RI and MA in search of a great skua (photo just below taken by Doug Koch). There is also a graylag goose in Montreal this week. I am considering joining John along with 3 other birders to make a run for the goose after the pelagic trips are over. Stay tuned!