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!

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