Wednesday, January 15, 2014


I'm writing this from the comfort of a new year. 2014. A year that doesn't involve counting above 700, carry-on luggage, wearing dirty laundry or dealing with stubborn Aleutian plumbing.

Last year was full of surprises - an erupting volcano, a car crash, being eaten alive by ticks in Minnesota, and the biggest surprise of all - discovering there's no prize money for doing a big year. Seriously! And so, I suppose it was only fitting that the end of the big year ought to be a surprise too. A surprise, that is, in the form of an actual surprise party last Saturday. Well, it wasn't entirely a surprise: Gerri's terrible at keeping secrets. Especially a secret that involves her baking a lot of cakes for a mysterious and nebulous *other* party, while simultaneously cleaning the house and texting furtively. But after expecting a surprise birthday party a couple weeks before, I'd Iearned not to get my hopes up. And so, I went out for drinks with my friend Bill, and returned home late enough to assume that it wasn't going to happen.

"Gerri. Why are there so many shoes? Have you been on a massive shoe-buying spree?"

There were an awful lot of shoes. And in the next couple of minutes, after the cries of "surprise!" had died down, I was met by a house full of dear friends and the relief that all those shoes belonged to other people.

Surprise Party - good food and good company.

The biggest surprise was meeting Jeff and Liz Gordon of the ABA, who'd flown in from Colorado. And my friend Jay, who'd driven (!) from Cinncinnati that morning (13.5 hours) arriving only 15 minutes before I did. In all the crazy chasing of 2013, I don't think I ever drove that far. I was thankful for all the driving practice his big year gave him. It was great to see Jay, as well as lots of local birding friends, and friends from my previous job. Thanks to Gerri, Bill and Jackie Campbell and Jim McCoy for organizing the party. Great job!

Talking to Jeff Gordon (center), President of the ABA
(Jim McCoy left, me on the right)

Gerri had printed pics from my blog, so we were surrounded by all these birds - the stars of the big year. While I wanted to circulate and chat, I also wanted to work my way through these pictures. I'd never seen them all together, and the effect was mesmerizing. Like seeing childhood friends after years apart. Each picture was not only a bird, but a story, an adventure. 

The next day, Jeff and Liz returned, with local birding friend Jim McCoy, and we talked about birds and birding. Jay and I were interviewed, and were honored to reveal the ABA's Bird of the Year…

(And yes, I did see this bird in 2013!)

And so, it's January 2014, and I'm still dealing with the fame and fallout of a (successful) big year. I guess I shouldn't be surprised how much interest this has generated - but I still am. So far, I've made front page on the Boston Globe and the Homer News (in their 50th anniversary issue!) as well as appearing in USA TodayI've done a live interview on Irish National Public Radio as well as an hour long interview for the More Than Birds podcast. And - I'm giving a talk in April for the local Brookline Bird Club. And I wrote a guest blog for Leica's Travis the Traveling Trinovid. He's a pretty witty pair of binoculars - although my cat wasn't so impressed...

Khiva Cat is not amused. 
Unlike the inanimate object next to her, she does not have her own blog. 

The interviews have helped me make some sense of last year. It's forced me find logic and reason, when at times both were severely lacking. In some ways, it's easier to apply that logic with hindsight - that knowing the end somehow gives a sense of inevitability to the story. It certainly never felt like that at the time, though.

Sitting in a TV studio in Boston, live with Dublin.

One of the questions I've been asked is "what was the hardest part of the big year?" Perhaps the obvious answer was the physical nature of it -  the travel, the exhaustion, being away from home for so long. But, especially towards the end, I became aware of the psychological discomfort. I didn't really commit to a Big Year until April. If you'd asked me then what my target was - I'd have told you, "umm…too see some birds" rather than an actual number. As April gave way to May, and the blog took on a life of its own, I was thinking 550? 600? 650? Passing each target required a ratcheting up of the bird expectation dial. And the run up to 700 was shear adrenalin (and frustration - the biggest number of misses last year seemed to happen between 699 and 700!) For big year birders 700 is the holy quail (I mean grail - wow, how did I miss that for a blog title?) Before this year, only 12 people had ever seen more than 700 birds in the ABA region in one year. I was number 13. I crossed that threshold in late August. That meant I still had over 4 months left.

"Birds on a wire." A cookie interpretation by Gerri.

Big years are spectator sports. I didn't know that at the beginning. I started a blog - mainly for my own benefit, to immortalize my own experiences, to remind myself in years to come with grainy, out-of-focus digiscoped pics.  I mean - who else would read this stuff and how would they even find it? But somehow they did. I started getting comments, followers, hundreds of views per day, and when I was wearing my Red Sox hat in the field, recognition. "Are you that guy doing the big year?" Or more worryingly, "Are you the accidental person?" Invariably, they were disappointed that I wasn't as funny, as attractive or as tall in real life.

Rufous-necked Wood-rail - Christmas tree ornament - a gift from Marcia Poling.
One of the 3 provisional birds I saw in 2013.

And so, with over 4 months to go, there was only one obvious goal after exceeding 700: the record. Sandy Komito's solid 748 species from 1998. A year of the El Nino effect and the best birding Attu - perched on the western end of the Aleutian chain - had ever seen. Heck - there was even a movie and book about that year. What did it mean then, that on the pace I was on, I might accidentally stumble towards that record? 

And suddenly the world was watching. What started as a personal accident, was now a public spectacle - with near daily updates. And that, for me, was the hardest part of the year. Not the driving, flying, or sleeping in tiny, cold cars. But dealing with the expectation and the hope. Because now, for the first time, I could fail at this. Before, it was just about the experiences - the birds and the writing. Now, there was a binary result - I'd either beat the record, or I'd fail. I was in the unusual position of seeing almost 750 birds in a year, traveling the country, meeting some pretty cool people, and somehow failing at a public goal I'd never really set myself.

A gift from Lynne Miller brought to to the party by Liz Gordon.
Great Skua decoration - see pic below.

As the year marched relentlessly on, and fall turned to winter, I was thinking a lot about John Vanderpoel. He narrowly missed the record by 4 or 5 birds back in 2011. I carried his list with me wherever I went. I knew what he'd seen on which days. And although I've never met John, only communicating by email, I felt like I knew the man from his birds, and from his travels. I was walking, driving, flying in his footsteps. I knew which birds he'd seen and which he'd painfully missed. By late fall based on John's 2011 pace, I thought I could get to 735 - behind John and behind the record that so many had started to think was now in play. I wondered what it must have felt like for John - to succeed at a big year and yet perhaps to fail at the end. To come so close, and to know that a few birds here and there might have made a difference to the history books. (Do big years even fill the tomes of history? Probably not. Wikipedia, I guess, then.)

Great Skua Christmas ornament - by Marcia Poling. A gift from Lynne Miller.
Seen on Dec 29th off Hatteras, this would be my last bird of the year.

Another popular question: "What would you do differently?" The obvious answer is: start at the beginning of the year (I can't stress now how important the "year" part of "big year" is!) Or do some proper planning *before* the big year. The annoying truth is that the best practice for a big year is actually doing a big year. Which wasn't much consolation for me as I knew I wouldn't be doing this again anytime soon (big reveal: there will be no accidentalbigyear2014 or even deliberatebigyear2014!) And so, for much of last year, I would look back on all those birds at the start of the year - Citrine Wagtail, Gray Heron, Spotted Redshank, Siberian Accentor etc - that could have made the difference between a record and finishing second or third. They haunted me at night. The frustration of putting in so much time, and effort and resources and to know that if I'd started at the beginning, I might have actually beaten the record. I'm thankful that I had such a great Nov and Dec that they seem less important now. (I'm no longer having dreams about Citrine Wagtails with knives in spooky houses where the lights don't work. Just the regular nightmare now with the White-cheeked Pintail maniacally laughing at me.)

But really -  I wouldn't change a thing. I think the only way my big year was going to happen was if it was accidental. If I'd planned it back in 2012, and really thought about what I'd be doing - all the travel, expense, days away from home - I'd have booked a flight to Nepal and climbed Everest instead! (Or, more likely, Mount Washington, which unlike Everest has a rather nice range of commemorative car stickers.) And while I missed a few birds, I had the type of year of which many birders can only dream. And non-birders. A lot of the latter came along for the ride, excited about the places and birds I was seeing. 

Finally - an ABA hat of my own! Thanks Jeff and Liz!

Another surprisingly tough question: what number did you end up on? After keeping such meticulous lists on my blog, it should have been a fairly straightforward question. It wasn't. It's my fault there are various numbers floating out there in the media write-ups. Even several days into 2014 I was still pondering that profound big year philosophical question: Aplomado Falcon - to count or not to count?

Aplomado Falcon is on the ABA list - but it really isn't. After being extirpated from the south in the 1950s, its reintroduction program (dating back to the 1980s) hasn't been successful enough for Texas to add it back onto its list (the population is being sustained even now by additional releases.) It's theoretically possible to see the bird as a natural vagrant from Mexico. That was Sandy Komito's argument in 1998. And faced with potentially breaking the record in 2011 and knowing that every bird counted, John Vanderpoel counted it too - arguing that that would make his list comparable to Sandy's. 

When I saw the Falcon, back in April, I wasn't thinking about Sandy's record (or John) and so didn't add it. But now, at the end of the year, I had to make a decision - since my number would likely tie or set the new record. I received lots of feedback - most of which was along the lines of, "Add the damn bird!",  "Sandy did and so did John. The top two big year birders did - so you should too for comparison purposes." and, "Just add the damn bird." I wasn't happy with the argument. And if I'd easily overtaken Sandy, I probably wouldn't have added it - I'd love to have set a new precedent, a new era, where Aplomado Falcon doesn't exist. But that was a luxury I couldn't afford - I couldn't predict how many of my provisionals would be accepted - and so, I added the (damn) bird. It would bring me to my final number: 747+3. One provisional accepted would tie the record, two would beat it. And so the Aplomado Falcon was here to stay.

Owl Cup Cakes - made by Jackie Campbell
(No owls were hurt during the preparation.)

So far I'm enjoying 2014. I was worried about the come down - how do you suddenly switch from big year mode to non big year? From the adrenalin of constantly chasing, hoping, dreaming to the mundane? To be honest, I don't think I've come through it yet - I'm still clinging to 2013 through interviews and articles that 2014 hasn't really become much of a reality. But when it does - I think I'll be fine. I'm still checking NARBA and eBird daily - reassuring myself that I didn't miss anything by a few days and the technicality of a new year. (I didn't.) I'm already planning a trip to Hawaii - my Christmas present to Gerri for putting up with so much last year. (And yes - I hear they have some pretty cool birds there!) 

Scarlet Tanager - from Steve Grinley and Margo Goetschkes.

Perhaps one of the more recurring questions I got through the year from the "fan base" (which by the end of the year had doubled to an impressive 4), was "When's the next blog post coming out? Why don't I know where you've been and what you've seen?" If trying to see over 700 birds in a year isn't hard enough - try doing that while effectively writing a book. And sleeping. Something had to give. The blog became both the bane of my big year, and its greatest salvation. I relished all the time I spent out in the field, alone with birds and nature. Constantly honing my skills, always something new to learn. And the blog gave me permission to relive those moments, to step back in time, to see it from a different perspective. It was like reading a detective novel, and already knowing who did it. Reworking it allowed me to see and appreciate details I'd overlooked at the time. Writing about places and history and birds forced me to learn about them properly - and greatly magnified my own pleasure and understanding of what I was seeing. But, like the birding, it wasn't easy. Each post was predictably the same - there was a bird, I was chasing it, I either saw it or I didn't. How do you write that same story - over 100 times - and make it interesting? The posts weren't long, but took a surprising amount of time and thought. I understood now exactly what Mark Twain had meant when he said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead." 

With the blog, I wanted to entertain and educate. I wanted to capture a moment that I knew was ephemeral - and that if I didn't catch it, and pin it down, it would quickly wilt and wither into the past, lost among all those other half-remembered days. And so, while birding, or driving, or on the edges of sleep, I'd be rehearsing the next post, hoping that I hadn't run out of ways to tell the same story. I'd like to think I didn't.

Boston Globe - essential reading for cats.

What should have been apparent from the seemingly endless blog posts was that a big year involves more than one person. Specifically, I couldn't have done it without the support of Gerri - who, among other things, successfully kept both our cats alive and drove me back and forth to Logan Airport at cruel and unusual times of the day. A big year is a long time - even if you don't actually start in Jan - and it would not have been half as much fun if I hadn't met some very talented, funny and generous people along the way. Some quick shout outs. Thank you: Jay Lehman, for your terrible puns and constant friendship; for Hans de Grys for convincing me to go to Nome and making me laugh so much when I got there (and for awarding me an 11 on your proprietary hard-core birding scale); to Chris Hitt for lively discussions, good meals, your superb meta blog slowbirding, and for generally keeping me on my toes all year; to Debi Shearwater, for showing me the Pacific and not attacking me with a knife; for Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for an awesome end to the year; to Aaron Lang, for showing me the beauty of Alaska; Paul Lehman for your generous time, expert advice and general good humor; and Scott Schuette and Doug Gochfeld on the Pribilofs for finding so many great birds; to Sean Walters in Colorado for my only Long-eared Owl of the year, and probably for being the first to predict the record attempt; to John Puschock for being a funny guy with a bassoon; and to Jon Baker, my biggest (and probably only) fan in Wales. There are way too many others I need to thank. You know who you are. Thank you!

Which brings me to the end. It's no longer 2013. The accidental year is over. I'm not sure what to do about this site. I'll continue to write about birds and birding, but not sure whether that should be under the banner of the 2013 blog. And in a desperate attempt to cling further to the recent past - I'm considering turning 2013 into a book. Although given how slow my blogging has been I wouldn't hold your breathe! Whatever happens next, I'd like to thank everyone that was a part of the big year experience - whether you were birding with me, finding birds and posting them, putting up with me snoring next to you in coach class, or sending supportive messages on the blog. Or just reading the blog because you had nothing else better to do. 

Thank you for reading.

+ + +

BIG YEAR LIST: 747 + 3 provisional (Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, Eurasian Sparrowhawk)