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!

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