Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Further Big Year Food for Thought

On this day in 2010 I was at Grande Tetons NP, a place I first visited as a backpacker in 1968.  I began actively birding in 1973 when I was backpacking in Big Bend NP, and continued ever since (click on any photo to enlarge).  While the tetons is not necessarily a place a birder would visit during a big year since there are no unique birds to be found there, for me it fit into why I chose to do a big year.  While I wanted to see lots of birds, I also wanted to visit old haunts, spend time with friends around the country, and sample good cuisine including finding good burger joints, and wood-fired pizzas.

I am saying this because as I tell everyone who asks, each birder should know going into a big year what he or she thinks the goals are.  Interestingly, Neil Hayward was just out enjoying himself birding early in the year, and as his blog states, the success of his birding adventures morphed reluctantly into a full blown big year effort.  On the other hand, Jay Lehman knew last fall when he was retiring from Proctor and Gamble that he wanted to do a full ABA area big year in 2013.

Sandy Komito made it clear in both of his big year efforts that it was all about setting the full ABA area big year record, and he did it first in 1987, and then did it again in 1998--a record that still stands.  In 2010 I did not set out to establish a new record for the lower 48 states, but my plan for the year gave me the opportunity to do so in the end because I had the good fortune of many code #3-5 birds showing up in the fall, and made the decision to chase after them even though I had done practically no chasing the first 1/2 of 2010.

Last year Michael Delesantro and Renee Rubin, who live in Texas, set as their goal to do a low budget big year which in the end meant the lower 48 states.  Their goal was to drive their Toyota prius, and to spend no more than $10,000.  By the end of the year they spent a bit more than that and saw 654 different species of birds--an outstanding effort on their part.

My last post laid out where Neil and Jay stood at the 1/2 way point of their respective full ABA area big years.   The post generated a few comments about the probabilities of Neil and Jay passing 700 birds for their full ABA big years.  As a result, I thought it might be useful to provide some more data points for readers/followers of big years to mull over.

First, as I have recently stated, the code #1 and #2 birds add up to 667, and seeing almost all of these makes it easier to break 700 birds for the year.  But there is a randomness to the code #3-5's that makes reaching 700 much more uncertain, no matter how much time, money and commitment a birder has.  For example, Sandy Komito saw 27 species in 1987 that he did not see in 1998, but to reach 748 total birds in 1998 he saw many other mostly code #3-5's.

One of the comments on my last post asked when did Sandy reach 700 in 1998.  The answer is July 12th, and by September 1st Sandy had reached 730 birds (plus 4 provisionals of which 3 were accepted by the ABA after 1998) for the year.  John Vanderpoel in 2011 did not reach 700 until August 27th, but by year's end he missed tying Sandy's record by just 5 birds.   So Sandy only saw 15 more new birds after September 1st, while John saw 43 plus 1 provisional (hooded crane).

Other recent full ABA area big year birders who passed 700 total species seen include Bob Ake who reached a total of 731 birds in 2010 after seeing his 700th on September 10th.  He birded that year with John Spahr who was not able to bird as many places as Bob, but John still totaled 704 birds.  Lynn Barber in 2008 finished her year at 723 after reaching #700 on October 24th. 

But a fast start or spending time in Alaska does not guarantee a big year birder will break 700 which is why there are only 12 people so far who have done it.  For example, Matt Stenger in 2011 by mid August had reached 655 total birds, but ended his full ABA area year at 681.  Similarly, John Hargrove in 2012 had seen about 615 birds by mid August and finished his year at 689.

The point of all this data sharing is that while it is fun to try to "predict" whether Neil or Jay will pass 700 total birds, or whether Neil because of his strong start has a chance to set a new record, the randomness of code #3-5's showing up, and the commitment to chase them makes it very difficult to know how a big year will turn out until the clock strikes midnight on December 31st.

That said, Neil in his last blog post listed the 48 code #1 and #2 birds he still needs to see which would take him right up to the 700 mark, so it certainly is much more likely that he will get to 700.  And as the commenters and I have pointed out, Jay has so many code #1 and #2 birds still to see that he could get there also, but it is fair to say that the statistical probabilities are lower for him.  As a comparison to make the point, Neil only needs to average 2 new birds a week to get to 700 whereas Jay needs to average 7 each week.  Stay tuned!

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