Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: Holiday Chase and Year End Review

This may be the longest gap between posts on this blog.  Other than watching the ABA big year birding saga unfold during the fall, I did not get out myself and bird much until right after Christmas. I spent Christmas in Brooklyn with my wife and our 2 grown kids.  As we were driving up just before Christmas from Chapel Hill, NC, I read that a graylag goose (ABA code 5) was being seen in East Providence, RI, and 3 first year common shelducks (not yet on the ABA list) were at a wetland outside of St. John, NB.

While we were having a fine holiday over Christmas weekend I continued to read that these birds were still being reported.  Since I was already in NYC, it made sense to consider going on up to the Boston area to meet up with other birding friends to look for these birds.  My wife graciously agreed to drive home without me, so I arranged for my friend Bert Filemyr who lives just outside of Philadelphia to pick me up at 10:30 on Tuesday morning the 27th.  We drove straight to Watchemoket Cove in East Providence to look for the graylag goose.  We and many other birders looked for it from about 2 PM until dusk, but it never made an appearance.  While staking out the location, a reporter and photographer for the Providence Journal showed up and interviewed several of us about the goose and why we were there trying to see it.  They ran a nice story the next day.

Having missed the goose, the second part of our plan entailed meeting that evening our friend Laura Keene who had seen the goose at length on Monday.  I wrote in my last post about Bert and me meeting Laura, Marty Riback, Doreene Linzell and John Weigel in August to look for himalayan snowcocks in the Ruby Mountains of NV as part of Laura's big year adventure.  We had a nice meal at an Irish pub in Woburn, MA, and then went to bed at 9 PM because we were getting up at 2 AM Wednesday to make a 7 hour drive up to St. John, NB.

Neil Hayward, who lives in Cambridge, and set the big year record in 2013 (more on big years later in this post), met us to join the chase. The weather was good, and we arrived at the common shelduck site about 10:30 AM, timing our arrival with the high tide.  At first we were unsuccessful in finding the shelducks along a boardwalk where they were most often seen.  We then checked back down the road we drove in on, but also did not locate them.  A couple driving out stopped to say they were back in the area we originally checked.  We rushed back and went down a side trail at the beginning of the boardwalk.  After about 200 yards we came upon a group of 10+ birders who had just been looking at the 3 birds.  Two of the birders, Liz and Morris, were a couple we know from Newburyport, MA.

We all were trying to relocate the shelducks when they flew back in the direction from which we had just come.  So we walked back to the boardwalk, and scoping the marsh we found them back up along the road.  When we got back up to that spot, the ducks had moved further back into the marsh.  Laura was able to get photos of them flying and feeding (at back of 2nd photo--click on any photo to enlarge).

Neil unbeknownst to the rest of us had come prepared with a sign indicating that these ducks (if added to the ABA list--thus the ? on the sign) would raise his ABA life list to 800 total species seen.  You will note the sign reads 797 + 3 because he is also awaiting the addition of Cuban vireo and pine flycatcher to the ABA list.  Bert is on the far left and Laura should be obvious, as is Neil holding the sign.

We had a nice lunch with Liz and Morris in St. John before making the 7 hour drive back to Woburn.

Bert and I were on the road Thursday by 5:45 AM to get back down to Watchemoket Cove at first light to try for the graylag again.  It was quite cold, but clear and windless.  Even though there were no geese when we arrived, we positioned ourselves to scan the golf course that runs along the cove since this is where the goose was often seen with lots of Canada geese feeding in the grass.  About 8:15 we noticed that 2 other birders had arrived, and had parked about 100 yards past our spot.  We got out to talk with them when Bert looked out on the cove to see the graylag goose swimming along by itself.

We proceeded to approach the other 2 birders to make sure they had seen the goose to discover that it was David Nelson and Matthew Matthiessen from California.  I had met them in May of 2009 in Cave Creek Canyon, AZ when looking for a tufted flycatcher.  It turned out that they were flying up later that day to Halifax, NS, to be in position to drive over to see the shelducks.  Then they planned to fly to St. Johns, NF, to bird there as well.  A local stopped to chat and suggested that we drive around to the other side of the cove to get closer looks at the graylag.  He proved to be right as we were able to walk close enough to get the photos of the goose taken by Bert.  We parted ways about 9 AM, and Bert dropped me at LaGuardia airport on Long Island so I could fly home.

It was really great to finish up 2016 birding with several of my friends, particularly with Laura.  She had decided at the end of last year to do a full ABA area big year with the primary goal of taking more photos of birds in a calendar year within the ABA area than anyone else.  The record established in 2015 was 605 species photographed.  As we were driving up to St. John, Laura was showing me on her camera many of the birds she had been able to take pictures of.  Laura is an outstanding photographer, and so it came as no surprise that picture after picture were not just "record" shots for ID purposes, but photos that you would want to hang on your wall, or that would be selected by National Geographic for one of its articles.

Laura's goal was to try to take pictures of 97% of the bird species that she saw, and she finished the year at 741 species photographed--a truly amazing total.  It seemed fitting that I ran into David Nelson at the graylag goose site because he originally set the photo record in 1996 when he took pictures of 412 different species of birds.  His current life ABA list for photographed birds is now over 800.

This leads me into sharing the final results from the 2016 ABA big year birders, and my views on how the year turned out.  First, for the first time ever 4 birders not only saw more than 700 different species in the ABA area in a calendar year, but all 4 of them broke the record of 749 set by Neil Hayward in 2013.  For details of that big year and comparisons to the record of 748 set by Sandy Komito in 1998, please refer to my blog post from January 2014.

The final ABA area totals including provisionals (species that are not yet on the ABA official list) are as follows:  John Weigel (780 + 3 provisionals); Olaf Danielson (776 + 2); Laura Keene (759 + 3); and Christian Hagenlocher (750 + 2).  These results are nothing short of mind boggling if you know the history of ABA area big years.  Dating back to 1983 when it first happened, there were only a total of 15 people who had ever seen more than 700 different bird species in a calendar year. In 1987 Sandy Komito set the record at 722, and then broke his own record in 1998 at 748.  So Sandy held the ABA area big year record for 26 years until Neil moved into first place in 2013.

How did 4 birders in the same year break the old record?  It is simplistic, but it all ties back to late 2015, and the first 1/2 of 2016 being an el nino weather pattern year.  When Sandy set the record of 748 in 1998, it was the last significant el nino year. Sandy also spent 4 weeks on Attu, the most westerly island in the Aleutian Island chain. As a result, Sandy counted 96 code #3-5 birds on his list (the rarities). In 2013 Neil only saw 81 code #3-5 species, but he made up the difference by seeing more code #1 and #2 birds (the lion's share of birds species in the ABA area, and most common) plus the species splits and exotics added by the ABA to its list between 1998 and 2013.

John and Olaf each saw all the code #1 and #2 species.  John saw 110 code #3-5 birds, and Olaf saw 105 code #3-5's.  Laura and Christian each saw all but one of the code #1 and #2 birds.  Laura saw 90 code #3-5's, and Christian saw 80 code #3-5's.  It would not have been possible for all 4 of these birders to pass the record of 749 without having this kind of success in seeing code #3-5 species.  And the fact that John and Olaf crushed the old record is because of their very high totals of code #3-5 birds.  This is the same pattern seen when Sandy's 1987 record of 722 was smashed by him in 1998 with a new record of 748.  Given the history of ABA big years, it will be some time before the 2016 record will be broken.

One of the fascinating facts about the final totals for the ABA area is that as in 1998, Attu proved to be a difference maker.  A small group of birders was able to visit Attu by boat for a week, and John saw 3 birds there (common sandpiper, pintailed snipe and long-toed stint) that Olaf was not able to see since he did not visit Attu.  They each saw 6 rarities that the other did not see:  John (whooper swan, gray-headed chickadee, Hawaiian petrel, smew, white-tailed tropicbird, and cuban vireo); Olaf (siberian rubythroat, great knot, Trinidade petrel, hawfinch, marsh sandpiper, and yellow grosbeak).  John also saw a kelp gull in Ohio, and a graylag goose in Rhode Island that Olaf chose not to try for.

That said, there is a new wrinkle to big year ABA efforts because in October of 2016 the membership voted to add Hawaii to the ABA birding map.  Beginning sometime this year, the ABA will include Hawaii in its year and life list totals, and will retain the old ABA area list data under the heading of continental ABA.  Knowing this change would be happening, Olaf, John and Laura all decided to do some birding in Hawaii at the end of 2016.  While their totals will not be official, they provide a reference point for the new ABA area record potential.  Specifically, their respective 2016 new ABA area totals will probably be:  John (835 + 3); Olaf (832 +2); and Laura (814 + 3).

Other totals for categories in which records were set, or potential targets for setting future records include:

U.S.:  John (832 + 2) and Olaf (827 + 1)

Lower 48:  Olaf (722 + 1)

Doing a full ABA area big year is a monumental undertaking, so the tremendous effort and dedication demonstrated by all 4 of these birders should be acknowledged and commended.  This is true of all that came before them as well, but 2016 had an added dimension that has never been part of the big year storyline from years past.  I am referring to the unfortunate rancor and enmity that developed in the middle of 2016 when Olaf realized that John was also putting in an all out big year effort.

I can't personally speak to 1998, but the book the Big Year painted a largely friendly competition among Sandy, Al and Greg.  Also, back then there were no blogs for a birder to report their big year story.  I think the first of its kind was done by Lynn Barber in 2008.  In my own big year in 2010, I met Bob Ake and John Spahr in the spring. Bob and I shared that each of us were doing blogs.  We would follow each other's efforts after that online, and by the fall when it was mostly about chasing rarities, we would often bird together, and even share hotel rooms and rental cars.

Birding and the focus on making lists has always been compared to playing golf.  There is a similar honor system in both pastimes.  As far as I know, no fellow birder has ever publicly questioned the veracity of another birder's big year sightings.  The expectation is that a birder is applying the equivalent of seeing a lifer for each bird put on his or her list.  This means there should be no reasonable doubt that you saw a given bird.  Sandy Komito is often referenced when he did not add great gray owl to his list in 1998 because he could not be certain that what appeared at a distance in poor light to be a great gray owl was in fact one.

In the modern era with digital cameras now available, most big year birders try to document at least the rarities they find, if not all the birds seen by them.  But you can not always get a "record" shot for ID purposes.  This is all the more reason why a birder needs to apply a very high standard of identification, and preferably if there is no photo there are other experienced observers who also saw the bird "well".

While the ABA has very clear big day guidelines, it has chosen not to establish similar guidelines for recording birds during big years.  The ABA has continued to follow the honor system approach.  I know I was amazed that in 2010 the ABA did not want to see my list.  They just wanted me to submit a total number for their records.  My understanding based on the ABA blog post about the year end totals for 2016 is that all 4 of the leading birders were asked to submit their lists prior to the blog post being published.  This may be an indicator of things to come vis a vis big year efforts and the ABA.

I know that I still fondly remember my big year adventure using birding in the lower 48 states to focalize a year of travel that included visiting favorite places around the U.S., seeing friends, and eating great food.  I saw the joy and elation on Laura's face last week as she was wrapping up her big year.  In contrast, after Olaf worked so hard, traveled 300,000 miles by car and airplane, and spent $95,000 plus used 800,000+ frequent flyer miles, I find it very sad that he wrote in his big year summary on his blog that "I had basically wasted a year of my life chasing and counting birds.  I really had."

In conclusion, I also noticed on the ebird lists that there were several couples who apparently were doing big years together in 2016, in a few cases seeing over 600 species.  I also saw the names of friends or birders names that I recognize who were clearly regularly birding last year.  With all the rarities still hanging around the lower 48 states at the beginning of this year, there are certainly plenty of reasons to be out birding.

Happy new year!

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