Friday, January 10, 2014

Recap of My Birding in 2013

My final installment reviewing 2013 focuses on my own birding during the year.  Since I have blog posts on my various birding trips, I will not go into great detail, but will underscore the highlights.  First off, I made a quick trip to Florida in February in hopes of seeing a bananaquit and a western spindalis in the Miami area.  Over 3 days of searching I managed to strike out on both.

I did get to Virginia in time to see the black-tailed godwit that was at Chincoteague for a few weeks.  Soon after I had  a trip planned to visit friends in Boston, so I did not immediately fly up to Boston to look for the fieldfare, and missed seeing it by a couple of days.

My birding success picked up when Dan Sanders, Doreene Linzell and I spent a week in early April birding in Florida.  We saw white-cheeked pintail, thick-billed vireo, western spindalis, purple swamphen and nanday parakeet--some or all of which we needed for our ABA life lists.  Unfortunately, we missed by a couple of hours finding out about a bahama mockingbird that showed up at Bill Baggs SP.  We were too far away to turn around, but I did chase it the next day by myself without seeing it.

I went out to California in late April to bird in Kern County, and to do a pelagic trip out of Ventura in hopes of seeing a Murphy's petrel at sea.  The birding on land was enjoyable, but no Murphy's showed up. At least I did get to spend a day with Wes Fritz on that trip.  We became birding friends in 2010 during my lower 48 big year, and have continued to stay in touch.  He is one of the best field birders I know, and has helped a lot of birders find rarities in California.  He also is an outstanding pelagic birder, and chummer par excellence.

My next major birding was going to Magee Marsh on Lake Erie which has become an annual rite of spring for me.  A spotted redshank had been found in early April in Indiana, and was relocated in early May.  I waited one day too long to try to see it on my way to Ohio, and missed it also.

The week of birding in Ohio was excellent.  I particularly love being able to see 20-25 different warbler species on most days by walking the boardwalk at Magee Marsh (click on any photo to enlarge).  It is also great to see other birders who are "regulars" there each spring.

In July I made a quick trip out to New Mexico to see the first ever ABA area rufous-necked wood-rail that spent about 10 days at Bosque del Apache NWR.  Next up in late September and October was 3 weeks in Alaska, mostly on the Pribs where I was able to add 9 ABA area life birds.  5 were code #4's (white-tailed eagle, Middendorf's grasshopper sparrow, fork-tailed swift, common rosefinch and gray-streaked flycatcher); 3 were code #3's (olive-backed pipit, common snipe and spectacled eider); and a code #2 (red-legged kittiwake).

While on the Pribs, it was really good to be able to bird with long time friends Dan, Doreene, and Laura Keene.  I got to spend a week birding with Neil Hayward, and met 2 of the giants of ABA birding--Paul Sykes and Larry Peavler.  I also saw Bill Frey who I met first during my big year in 2010, and then again in Alaska in 2011 on a week long raft trip to see gray-headed chickadees.  Plus I got to see Jay Lehman in Anchorage where he, Neil and I shared a couple of meals.

With the great blue-footed booby invasion last fall, Dan, Doreene, Laura and I decided we had to go to southern California to see them, and the nutmeg mannikin that had recently been added to the ABA list.  We also went to Arizona to see the rosy-faced lovebird--another new add to the ABA list--and picked up sinaloa wren for Doreene and Laura's life lists.  I missed seeing a tundra bean goose at the Salton Sea on my way back to L.A.

My last birding foray for the year was in November to look for the amazon kingfisher--only the second recorded in the ABA area.  It was a great last new ABA life bird for the year.

I would say I had a very active year of birding which resulted in my adding 19 life birds to my ABA list even though I missed seeing 5 other life birds.  It is the kind of year that Michael Delesantro will need each of the next 6+ years if he is going to achieve his new goal of adding 139 new species in order to see 800 different bird species over an 8 year period in the ABA area.

I received a couple of comments from my last post that I want to reply to before wrapping up this entry.  Laurent suggested that a refinement of my relative strength of big year measure--dividing all code #3-5's seen by a big year birder by the total number of birds seen that year by the birder--would be to subtract all code #1 and #2 birds missed by the birder.  This would encourage a big year birder to try very hard to see all the code #1 and #2 birds on the ABA list.  As I continue to look at the issue of how to measure relative strength of big years, there so far has not been one method that seems particularly effective.  This refinement would make a slight improvement, but still leaves me feeling that the final big year total will continue to be the primary measure of big year success

Laurent also raised a point about heard-only birds being acceptable on big year lists.  He wondered if trying to see a bird so as not to have it as a heard-only bird would exacerbate the taping issue that continues to be a bit of a hot button in birding circles.  Hard to know, but definitely another good observation.

As promised, I have after 41 years of birding finally added up all the birds that I have seen in the full ABA area, and the lower 48 states.  The numbers are:  780 full ABA area and 741 for the lower 48 states.  I also have 3 provisionals--hooded crane, rufous-necked wood-rail and an elaenia species seen in Chicago that is still being researched.  Most interesting for me is that while I have birded since 1973, I discovered that all the birds I had on my list prior to 2000 I have seen again, so my millenium list on the ABA listing central site is also at 780 birds.

Finally, Dorian Anderson, a birder living in Massachusetts has begun a self-powered big year.  You can find his blog link on the Narba site.  Who knows how many other big year birders will surface in 2014.  I know that my next birding adventure will be in March when I go to Morocco.  Stay tuned!

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Good, the Bad and the ?'s

For the next installment of my 2013 review, I have several points to go over which fall nicely into 3 categories: the good, the bad and a few questions.  The good refers to how great 2013 was for big year birders.  As I have already posted recently, it ranks right up there with some of the very best prior big years, and should Neil Hayward (747 + 3 provisionals) end up setting a new record for the full ABA area, then it might be considered the best so far.

Part of the reason for saying that is because Jay Lehman also had an extremely good year (733 + 2 provisionals).  And his year included time spent at Attu which has not happened during a big year for well over a decade.  I am still waiting for Jay to catch up on his blog, including making his final big year list available to be able to study the details, but I know that if Jay could have been out birding a few weeks more than he was able to do, his big year total also would have been in the 740's.

I cited in my last post that Isaac Sanchez and Dave Pavlik had outstanding photographic big years, but another big year effort also needs to be acknowledged.  Here in my home state of North Carolina, Ali Iyoob, a 21 year old attending UNC, just set the record for a big year in NC--353 total birds.  He broke the record of Derb Carter who I know.

In his recent ABA blog post, Greg Neise discusses how critical the sharing of bird sightings via electronic media has become to assisting all birders, and particularly big year birders, in hearing about rarities.  As Neil demonstrated all fall, Sandy Komito's #1 rule of immediately chasing after rare vagrants is vital to building a potentially record setting list.  And as I have shown in my last post, the addition of more code #1 and #2 birds has also been important.  Two examples of introduced birds that established strong enough breeding populations to be added to the ABA list are the muscovy duck and the nanday parakeet, both countable when seen in Florida (click on any photo to enlarge).

The bad refers to a topic that I first posted about on August 20, 2013 concerning comments Ron Furnish made on his Whatbird blog site in May of 2013 that suggested that one of the then 12 known members of the 700+ group of birders was not legitimate.  He said in his blog post he would be talking with Bob Ake--Ron's professed mentor and a 700+ group member--about this allegation.  Bob Ake later confirmed that conversation had occurred, and he had told Ron he had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of any members of the 700+ group.  As a result, I wrote on 8/20 that I thought anyone blogging who makes that kind of allegation should make an effort to clear up anything that might be misleading or inaccurate.

In an email exchange I had with Ron on 8/29, he told me he had taken note of my point, and planned to address it in his blog.  I have followed his trip reports and posts on whatbird since August, including his big year final report dated 12/25, and nowhere have I seen anything written to follow-up on this matter.  So again I feel compelled to repeat that because of the internet age, I feel bloggers have a responsibility to be careful what they write, and to clear up anything that might be misleading and in turn hurtful.

Moving to the next section of this post, a few questions were raised during 2013.  First is whether the full ABA area big year record can be pushed to 760 or even higher?  The general answer is that it certainly could be depending on as always how many rare vagrants show up in any given year, and can enough of them be seen.  And also how many more relatively easy birds get added to the ABA list because of splits or introduced exotics making the list.

The only historical data I have access to is from ebird.  The number of species reported on ebird has climbed steadily since 1998 which is probably due to the significant increase in birders using ebird over that 15 year period.  I also know that Sandy did not report to ebird during 1998, so some of his rarities might not have made the ebird total.  In 2008 Lynn was the top lister on ebird, and she only reported 705 birds on ebird, but saw 723 for the year.  Bob Ake did not report to ebird in 2010.  John Vanderpoel in 2011 was the top lister on ebird, but only reported 616 birds even though his year count was 743.  And Neil was the top lister on ebird in 2013 with 750 which included all of his provisionals.

I am sharing these data points because another possible way, suggested by Neil, to measure relative strength of a big year is to divide the number of birds seen by a big year birder by the total number reported on ebird for that year.  The following year end totals were submitted to ebird which I have matched with the big year total for that year:  1998--792 species were reported in the full ABA area and Sandy Komito saw 748; 2008--829 species reported and Lynn Barber saw 723; 2010--829 species reported and Bob Ake saw 731; 2011--843 species reported and John Vanderpoel saw 743 + 1 provisional; and 2013--854 species reported and Neil saw 747 + 3 provisionals.  The percentages would be: Sandy--94.4%; Lynn--87.2%; Bob--88.2%; John--88.1%; and Neil--87.5%.

Having done this analysis, I do not think this serves as a good alternative measure of the "quality" of a big year effort for 2 reasons.  First, the number of birds reported to ebird is affected both by the number of birders participating, and by the number of species on the ABA list in any given year.  As I noted in the last post, the number of total birds on the ABA list has climbed from 911 in 1998 to 981 in 2013.  So there is the question of how to create an apples to apples comparison. The second reason is without studying at great length Narba and listerv reports for any given year, it is impossible to know if a rarity that was reported was in fact chaseable.  So many rare vagrants are 1 or 2 day wonders that unless you live locally, you will not get to them in time.

I know in studying Bob's, John's and Neil's big year "misses", because of scheduling conflicts, or not choosing to chase, all 3 of them ended up with fewer birds on their lists than they probably could have had.  I wrote about the specifics of both Bob's and John's misses in earlier posts (1/4/11 and 1/4/12).  In Neil's case, he titled his blog accidentalbigyear because he did not commit to doing a big year until April.  As a result, he did not agressively pursue early in the year the following birds that he probably would have seen: citrine wagtail, bananaquit, black-faced grassquit, white-cheeked pintail, gray heron and spotted redshank.  Also, as Greg Neise observed on the ABA blog, Jay saw 8 rarities at Attu that Neil did not see because he was not on that trip with Jay.

The second question centers on the validity of having heard birds on a big year list.  Ron Furnish made the point throughout his big year posts that he thought heard birds should be unacceptable.  He even went so far in his year end report to say that he thought it was simply a way to pad a big year, or any other bird list.  I had written him last summer about this topic pointing out that I know of no serious birder who ever wants to have a heard-only bird on their life lists.  I know in my case that I still want to go back to Nevada to try to see a Himalayan snowcock so that I will have no heard-only birds on my ABA life list.

In his final report to underscore his point, he writes that 7 of the 8 top listers on the ABA listing central site have no heard-only birds on their lists (it is actually 6 of 8).  If you look at the ABA life list category, you will see that the vast majority of top listers have no heard-only birds on their lists.  And those that do who I know only have 1 or maybe 2.  My point being, again, that for any kind of life list, the preference is to have no heard-only birds

Turning to big years, the guidelines, which is the most that you can call them for big years, months, days, etc., is that heard birds are acceptable.  I wrote again on 8/20/13 about the heard-only birds on the big year lists of those in the 700+ group that I know.  All of them had very few if any heard-only birds on their big year lists, and only John Spahr at 704 total birds in 2010 had enough (6) that would have pushed him under 700 if heard-only birds were not acceptable.

I will also add, that if heard-only birds were not acceptable, then big year birders would probably work even harder to see a heard-only bird.  The difference between a big year list and a life list is that time is of the essence during a big year, so spending more time to see a bird may not be worth it against spending time to find more new birds.  Interestingly, for the full ABA area category on ABA's listing central, only 2 of the top 100 big year listers have a no heard birds list entry--Ron Furnish, and Isaac Sanchez who just set the ABA record for a photographic big year. 

The next question I will write about today concerns a new adventure begun this year by Michael Delesantro.  After he and his wife Renee Rubin completed their low budget big year in 2012, they began to think about whether it was possible for a birder to see 800 life birds in the ABA area in just 8 years of birding.  Michael has announced this past week on his website,, that now that he is retired he is going to attempt to reach 800 life birds beginning with the 661 birds he has on his list that started on January 1, 2012.

He and I exchanged emails on this topic when he first raised the question last summer.  I told him the key would be spending enough time in Alaska which generally is not inexpensive birding.  His goal is still to keep his costs as low as possible, but knows that without Alaska it would be highly improbable to do in 8 years.  To reinforce the importance of Alaska, there is only one birder currently on the ABA listing central lower 48 category with over 800 life birds!  Even Paul Sykes and Larry Peavler, who are #2 and #3 on the full ABA area life list, have not recorded over 800 life birds in the lower 48 states.  An example of a bird that will only be seen by going to Alaska is red-faced cormorant.

If Neil Hayward were to attempt to reach 800 birds in 8 years, with 747 birds already on his list, he would only need to see about 8 more new birds/year over the next 7 years, but even he would need most likely to find many of them in Alaska.  I know in reviewing my own birding records, for the eight year period beginning in 2006, I have seen 771 species, with 704 in 2010 in the lower 48 states.  So I would say seeing 800 species of birds in the full ABA area in 8 years while clearly a challenge, is definitely doable.

The final question for today is one that I have been asked for years--how many birds are on your ABA life list?  My answer has always been I don't know exactly because when I began birding in 1973, I would simply mark down in my bird guide when and where I saw a new bird.  When I was once again asked many times at the Pribs last fall about this, I told my fellow birders that I would finally count up my birds.  You will have to read my next post to get the answer to this question plus see my summary comments on my 2013 birding year.  Stay tuned!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Sandy (1998) Compared to Neil (2013)

As promised in my last post, I am going to examine a bit more closely some of the details that differentiate Sandy and Neil's big years.  As followers of full ABA area big years know, probably the defining part of Sandy's big year in 1998 was the four weeks he spent at Attu during May and June.  In his book, he says he specifically chose 1998 because it was an el nino year, and the ability to visit Attu easily was coming to an end.  Of the 20+ years that birders went to Attu prior to 2000, 1998 was unquestionably the best year ever for both the diversity and sheer numbers of rare birds.

I have said in the past that I wondered if the importance of being able to bird at Attu during a big year is overvalued.  In particular, after Sandy pushed the big year record to 748, many people began to assume that it was an unbeatable number because after 2000 visiting Attu was very difficult to do--both logistically and financially.  Neil potentially breaking the record plus Jay Lehman birding at Attu in May for a week begins to provide more perspective on the significance of Attu for big year birders.

In studying big years, and particularly seeing first Bob Ake and John Vanderpoel creep closer to Sandy's record, I began to outline the "optimal" full ABA area big year schedule that did not include Attu.  One key was the need to spend as much as 8 weeks in Alaska hitting all the prime spots--Gambell, Nome, Barrow, the Pribs, Adak and the southwest mainland (Homer and/or Seward).  Interestingly, that is what Neil ended up doing in 2013.

But even though Neil made 7 trips to Alaska and spent about 6 weeks of his big year there, when you examine his bird list you find that he only saw a total of 19 code #3-5 birds plus 2 provisionals--common redstart and Eurasian sparrowhawk.  In comparison, applying today's ABA code assignments, in 1998 Sandy saw 34 code #3-5's on Attu, and another 8 in the state of Alaska for a total of 42.  I do not yet have Jay's final bird list info for 2013, so I can not yet share how he did in Alaska relative to Sandy and Neil.  I do know that he had a good trip to Attu, but spent far less time than Sandy did in 1998.

Since Neil saw less than half the number of code #3-5 birds in Alaska that Sandy saw, the obvious question is how did Neil put himself in a position to be the new record holder?  First off, Sandy saw a total of 96 code #3-5 birds in 1998 as compared to Neil's total of 79 code #3-5's.  But in Canada and the lower 48 states Neil did some catching up by seeing 60 total code #3-5's as compared to Sandy finding 54 code #3-5 birds. But there is still an overall gap of 17 code #3-5 birds.

The differential is that in 1998, again applying current ABA code assignments,  there were only 657 code #1 and #2 birds on the ABA list, and Sandy missed 5 of the code #2's (mottled petrel, great gray owl, common ringed plover, gray vireo and McKay's bunting).  In 2013 the number of code #1 and #2 birds had climbed to 669, and Neil missed seeing only 1 code #2 (common ringed plover).  Doing the math you get:  Sandy 748 - 96 = 652; Neil 747 - 79 = 668.  668 - 652 = 16.  So you have a difference of 16 code #1 and #2 birds that were seen by Neil, but not by Sandy.  This is how Neil got within 1 bird of tying Sandy, and if 2 of his 3 provisional birds are accepted, he will then be at 749 and the new record holder.

Returning to how critical a role Attu played in 1998, looking more closely at the break out of code #3, #4 and #5 birds sheds some light on this question.  In particular, Sandy saw 34 rarities on Attu of which 27 were categorized as Asian vagrants.  The break out was as follows: 22 code #3; 10 code #4; and 2 code #5.  For the rest of Alaska Sandy saw 7 code #3's and 1 code #4.  Neil's Alaska numbers break out as: 13 code #3's and 6 code #4's.  Each man's year total break down of rarities is:  Sandy (96)--68 code #3's; 22 code #4's and 6 code #5's; Neil (79)--54 code #3's; 22 code #4's and 3 code #5's.  All of Neil's provisional birds would be code #5 if they are accepted.

So sifting through all this leads me to the conclusion that there is no doubt that being on Attu in 1998 was a huge part of why Sandy was able to push his own record from 722 to 748.  And even though there were 20 more code #1 and #2 birds added between 1987 and 1998, I can see why Sandy feels like 1998 was a better big year for him than 1987 had been.  But being able to spend enough time in other prime birding spots in Alaska can make up some of the difference for not visiting Attu.  And finally, because of the addition of more code #1 and #2 birds to the ABA list since 1998, Neil now has the potential to move into the #1 slot.

The photo above of horned puffins was taken by my friend Laura Keene when we were on the Pribs last fall.  My next post will do some more year end wrap-up.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Another Big Year to Remember

As yesterday wound down, I knew that 2013 would go down as another big year for the ages.  Both 1998 and 2010 were years where 3 big year birders each passed the lofty 700 level, but 2013 had 2 birders, Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman, who now sit in 2nd and 4th place in the full ABA area big year rankings. Also, Jay is the first birder during a big year to both break 700+ birds for the year, and to pass 800 ABA area life birds by adding over 20 lifers during his big year effort.

But to back up a bit, just as John Vanderpoel did at the end of December in 2011, Neil and Jay also went out of Hatteras, NC last Saturday on Brian Patteson's small boat appropriately named Skua.  Good fortune shined down on them as a great skua gave them plenty of fine looks about mid morning (photo below was taken by another birding friend, Doug Koch, who I met during John's big year in 2011).

Neil and Jay drove to my house in Chapel Hill later that day to toast their success with some champagne, and share big year stories.  Jay was supposed to catch an early morning flight on Sunday to Arkansas to look for Smith's longspurs.  He missed his scheduled flight and could not get another one to Arkansas, so went back to Cincinnati first to renew his drivers license.  Then he flew to Arkansas on Monday, and yesterday on his birthday he added his last new bird for the year bringing his total to 733 + 2 provisionals (common redstart and Eurasian sparrowhawk).

Neil flew home to Boston, and with no rarities found since Saturday that he still needed, he finished his big year with a grand total of 747 + 3 provisionals (rufous-necked wood-rail, common redstart and Eurasian sparrowhawk).  The great skua was number 746, and since both Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel had counted aplomado falcon in their respective big year totals even though the state of Texas does not have it on the state's accepted list, Neil decided to also add aplomado falcon to his list--a bird he had seen much earlier in the year.  Since Sandy's full area ABA big year record stands at 748, Neil could eventually be the new record holder if at least 2 of his provisional birds--all potentially first ABA area records--end up being added to the ABA bird list.

As I have written a few times since my lower 48 big year in 2010, I felt it was just a matter of time before Sandy's now 15 year old record is surpassed.  Greg Neise on 12/27 wrote a piece on the ABA blog discussing Neil's big year versus Sandy's.  The main point being how do you make an apples to apples comparison of the 2 efforts considering how the "playing field" has changed in 15 years.  Many reading this may be scratching their heads, wondering to what exactly Greg and I are referring.

For starters, since 1998, the ABA bird list has grown from 911 species to 981.  More importantly from a big year perspective, some more code #1 and #2 birds have been added to the list as a result of splits and introduced exotics now accepted by the ABA.  All of these birds are relatively easy to find, and thus would be expected to be on a big year birder's list.

After completing his big year in 1998, Sandy made a point of discussing in his book, "I Came, I Saw, I Counted", that because of the 19 additional code #1 and #2 birds added to the ABA list between 1987 and 1998 (there were actually 20), he viewed his 2 big year efforts as quite close even though he saw 722 species in 1987 as compared to the 748 he recorded in 1998.  So the question this raises again is how do you try to "level the playing field" when comparing big years?

Dan Sanders, who did his big year in 2005 (715), and I have often discussed this issue.  As I wrote recently, because almost 5 times as many code #3-5 birds have been added since 1998 as code #1 and #2's, simply dividing a big year total by the total birds on the ABA list for that year does not give you a good measure of relative strength of big year efforts.

If you assume that all big year birders with the highest totals will see almost all, if not all, of the code #1 and #2 birds during their year, then what seems to give a better measure of relative strength is to divide the number of code #3-5 species seen during a big year by a big year birder's overall total.  I have done some analysis on this concept, and come up with the following percentages for 5 of the top 6 big year birders on which I have data to review.  The comparison using current code assignments for the ABA bird list is:

1998 Sandy Komito: 96 code #3-5 birds divided by 748 total birds = 12.8%

2008 Lynn Barber: 64 code #3-5 birds divided by 723 total birds = 8.9%

2010 Bob Ake: 68 code #3-5 birds divided by 731 total birds = 9.3%

2011 John Vanderpoel: 80 code #3-5 birds divided by 743 total birds = 10.8 %

2013 Neil Hayward: 79 code #3-5 birds divided by 747 total birds = 10.6%

!!!!! Edit comment (1/5/14)--After originally posting these calculations, I reviewed the code #3-5 birds and found that muscovy duck is now listed as a code 2 because of the addition of the introduced population that is now countable in Florida.  I checked this because I knew that Neil had not listed muscovy duck as a code #3. As a result, I have adjusted the other 4 totals and resulting percentages above!!!!!

I have more to say about this topic, but I will wait until my next blog post to further elaborate on this idea as well as look at some of the specifics that differentiate Sandy and Neil's big years.  For now, let's honor again the awesome big year efforts of Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman.  Also I would be remiss in not mentioning the 2 outstanding photographic big years delivered by Issac Sanchez (600--ABA record) and Dave Pavlik (585).  Stay tuned!