Thursday, December 22, 2011

John Vanderpoel vs Sandy Komito

With John Vanderpoel's full ABA area big year effort breaking thru the 740 level, I have noticed on the ABA blog a debate between Greg Neise and Ted Floyd as to what is the big year number to beat. More specifically, is it 745 as originally reported back in 1998, or is it 748 as Sandy Komito has claimed in interviews this year as a result of the movie The Big Year?

In my post back on 12/10, I said I thought it was 747 actually because in studying his printed big year list in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted), he still had gray vireo on it which in his book he said he had taken off the list because Jon Dunn had convinced him his photo of a gray vireo was in fact a plumbeous vireo. Since then I have gone thru his list carefully, and discovered that his printed list does not include eastern phoebe or willow flycatcher even though he discusses the phoebe sighting in the text and references the willow in the index. So in his book the printed list has only 744 birds on it, including the gray vireo, but when you add the phoebe and the flycatcher, and subtract the vireo, you are back at the 745 different bird species reported.

To clear matters up, I emailed Sandy to ask him about what I had discovered. He responded that I was the first person who had ever noticed the printing error. He also restated the reason for the gray vireo delete. Finally, he wrote about the great gray owl (my photo above) he thought he saw flying at some distance in Minnesota in 1998, but did not add to the list. He has since been convinced from seeing more great grays flying that he did see a great gray in 1998 but still does not count it on his list.

Each birder doing a big year has to set his/her own level of confidence of an identification of a bird (Lynn Barber who did her full ABA big year in 2008 makes mention of this in her recent blog post on the ABA blog site). I was in Minnesota in January of my big year when I flushed a large flock of small birds. I was pretty sure they were common redpolls, but they did not return to the roadway so that I could get the visual confirmation I wanted. As a result, I went to North Dakota in mid December where I was able to see a common redpoll (photo just below--click on it to enlarge) as well as a hoary redpoll.

After exchanging emails with Sandy, and not getting into the discussions about the validity of any of the birds on his list, I would conclude that the number of birds he saw in 1998 is the 748 he has been claiming. He reported 745 at the end of 1998, and clearly says in his book that he thought there would be up to 4 new North American records from his big year (Belcher's gull, Bulwer's petrel, yellow-throated bunting, and elegant quail) that would be finally accepted. Over the next few years all but the quail were added to the ABA official list.

What is primarily generating the current debate is whether those last 3 birds should be counted after the fact. With respect to this issue, back in 1987 when he set the record that year, he initially submitted 721 as his record number, and has said after 5 NA first records were added that his final number in 1987 was 726. He has been consistent for well over 20 years in how he has played the game and reported his results, and being the record holder, I would suggest that it is a bit absurd after holding the record for so long to now be questioning his final numbers. But it is happening because this year there is a possible new record holder in John Vanderpoel.

The debate on the ABA blog has generated 62 replies so far including one of my own. It has also led to some comments as to whether Sandy should have counted in 1998 the aplomado falcon (reestablishment program in south TX), or the white-cheeked pintail (unknown provenance) he saw. Again, this is all because after so many years the full ABA area record is being finally challenged by John V. With all this discussion, it would appear to be time for the ABA to clarify the exact rules of the big year game so that at least going forward there will be less confusion than appears to be the case today.

Turning to John Vanderpoel's final days in his 2011 big year, he was delayed in leaving Adak because of a problem with the weather monitor used by the airlines to land on Adak. He also has not posted for 2 days when he did report that he was able to see a whiskered auklet, which brings his YTD to 741. His expectation was that he would finally leave Adak today. Let's hope that he found 1 or 2 more new year birds prior to leaving. His next target bird would probably be the Nutting's flycatcher that was found 4 days ago near Lake Havasu City, AZ. Stay tuned!

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