Wednesday, January 4, 2012

John Vanderpoel and the Myth of El Nino and Attu

John Vanderpoel's monumental effort to surpass Sandy Komito's full ABA area big year record of 748 in the end fell short by just 6 birds. John is undoubtedly still feeling worn out from the effort expended, and maybe a bit frustrated for having just missed setting a new record. But mostly I am sure he is elated from all the incredible memories that he has from his big year. Major congrats to you John!

Having done my own lower 48 big year in 2010, and being a student of other big years, I can say today that Sandy Komito's record set back in 1998 should no longer be seen as unbeatable. The book, The Big Year, helped to create a belief that somehow the combination of an El nino year and being able to bird at Attu created a unique set of birding opportunities that no longer could be matched. Bob Ake's effort last year when he saw 731 birds in the full ABA area began to raise questions about the myth of Attu and El nino. John's total of 743 (plus 1 provisional--the hooded crane) in my opinion demonstrates that it is just a matter of time before Sandy's seemingly insurmountable record is surpassed.

In fact, if John had begun his big year with the same single-mindedness that Sandy had in 1998, and discusses in his book (I Came, I Saw, I Counted), then John could have set a new record in 2011. I have spent some time studying John's schedule, and some key birds that he definitely could have seen but missed last year. For starters, a tufted flycatcher (code 5) was seen all of December in 2010 at Big Bend NP. If john had started his big year on Jan 1 at Big Bend he would have seen the tufted.

He could have gone to Quebec, and either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia in January or February to see a fieldfare (code 4) and a northern lapwing (code 4). His schedule would have allowed him to be on a pelagic trip out of Santa Barbara on 4/30 which would have given him a Murphy's petrel (code 3). If he had been patient and stayed literally a few minutes longer at a feeder in TX, he would have seen a white-eared hummer (code 3) in August that he specifically had gone to see. Similarly, after his extended stay at Adak in December, he chose to go home rather than remain one more day in AK which would have given him a dusky thrush (code 4) in Anchorage.

While John generally had very good timing throughout the year (fork-tailed flycatcher in FL; little egret in ME; curlew sandpiper and little stint in southern CA on the same day; violet-green hummer in TX; and gray-hooded gull in NY), the need to be home for Thanksgiving meant he missed a redwing (code 4) in Seward, AK by 1 day. Hindsight shows if he had first gone for the smew (code 3) in Ontario rather than the hooded crane in late December he would have gotten the smew and still been able to see the crane.

Finally, in late August instead of birding in Colorado for some code 1 birds that he could have picked up at other times of the year, he could have been in the Pribiloffs for a few days before going to Gambell. If he had he could have seen taiga and dark-sided flycatchers (code 4's), a jack snipe (code 4) and a long-toed stint (code 3). All of these birds could have been seen without missing out on other birds that John saw during the same time periods. If he had seen all these additional birds his 2011 total would have been 755.

When I exchanged emails a few weeks ago with Sandy Komito, he wrote that he hopes to live long enough to be able to congratulate a new full ABA area big year record holder. John's big year clearly shows that Sandy just might be doing that in the near future.

I have an airplane ticket on hold to fly out to Arizona and California this coming weekend to try for the Nutting's flycatcher and the falcated duck. Stay tuned!


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  2. Nice summary. Rereading John's early posts its clear he wasn't in it for the record those first months. Now we all know it is possible, I'm sure future big year attempts will start out with the record in mind. Just need some more $ and to get my kids off to college so I can give it a shot myself!