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!


  1. "then big year birders would probably work even harder to see a heard-only bird".......Possibly using tapes? I am definitely not a significant player in this game, but I think the obsession of absolutely see a bird in order to count it could lead to some non ethical behaviour from the listers.

  2. Sorry to post my comment in two parts. To compare oranges with oranges, what's about the following formula:
    N=total numbers of code 3,4,5 MINUS the total number of UNSEEN code 1 and 2. This way it accounts for the increased numbers of code 1 and 2, and still force the Lister to chase all of them. Thanks for your blog, by the way, my wife and I are big fans.

  3. Great blog! I have really enjoyed reading and following your adventures. I was hoping to get in touch with you but could not find any contact info on your site. I hope you will message me back.