Birding In The National Parks: Looking Back On 2013

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Here's to you, Neil Hayward! Great skua photo by T. Müller via Wikipedia.

New Year’s Eve seems as good a time as any to reflect on 2013. It’s been a big year for me, with birding explorations around the country, including the first trips of my life to Saguaro National Park and Chiricahua National Monument.

Still, the whole birding community hasn’t been following my every movement for the past six months. That honor is reserved for Neil Hayward of Boston who has completed an actual Big Year. You may remember that term from the 2011 movie of that name with Steve Martin and Jack Black. The Big Year was based on a book of the same title by Mark Obmascik that chronicled the adventures of three men, each aiming to break the big year birding record in 1998.

A "big year" is a birding competition to see as many birds as possible in one calendar year within a defined geographic parameter. The most prestigious of the big years is the ABA Big Year, covering the American Birding Association area – essentially a loose interpretation of North America.

The record is akin to countless sports records. It’s set and broken regularly until someone sets the bar so high that many fans declare it unbreakable. That is pretty much an assurance that someone’s going to come along and break it.

Roger Tory Peterson of field guide fame joined James Fisher to see 572 species in 1955. That lasted three years until the record was raised to 598. It eventually went to 627, then 669, then 710. In 1989, Sandy Komito took the record to 721. Eleven years later, he and others chased the record again as documented in The Big Year. Komito crushed the competition and established the new record at 748 species. (He saw 745 during the year, plus three species that required review by bird records committees and were later accepted.)

That was considered by many, though notably not by Komito himself, to be unbreakable.

To put that number in perspective, consider there have been just shy of 1,000 birds ever recorded in the ABA area. Seeing three-quarters of those may not seem all that daunting until you realize that fewer than 700 of those birds are breeders that “belong” in the area. To break Komito’s record would require seeing every one of North America’s breeding birds...plus another 50 or so that wander into the area over the course of the year.

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Purple sandpipers, Kirby Adams photo.

These can be flycatchers from Mexico drifting up to Arizona for a weekend, ducks from Siberia spending a week in the Aleutians, or a shorebird from Europe making a migration error and ending up in Newfoundland.

Komito correctly predicted that improvements and innovation in technology would aid future chasers of the big year record. He did his year without the aid of a cellphone or the Internet, relying on a network of birders to alert him to birds that needed to be chased. He had to hunt for payphones to check recorded messages on state Rare Bird Alerts (RBA’s). These days, RBA’s come straight to your phone while you’re in a swamp looking for a bird.

Still, it seemed like an unassailable record.

Then John Vanderpoel got 744 birds in 2011 and suddenly we all knew the record was living on borrowed time. Neil Hayward was casually pursuing a big year in 2013, but around April he realized he’d have a good shot at taking down Komito’s record, so he kicked it into high gear. Given the late start, he dubbed his effort the “Accidental Big Year.”

Hayward came into this last week of the year tied with Komito at 748 birds (coincidentally with 745 plus three not-yet-accepted birds, just like Komito). In looking at the dwindling list of birds that were possible to find, he kept coming back to Great Skua. Great Skuas are seabirds that breed on the eastern side of the far northern Atlantic, but their wandering nature takes them all over the ocean, with vagrants regularly showing up off the coast of North America.

Alternate TextColima warbler, NPS photo.

One of the more reliable spots to find a Great Skua in winter is the waters far off the coast of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. Brian Patteson, owner and operator of Seabirding Pelagic Trips, offered to make one last run from Hatteras for the year to give Hayward an opportunity to tick the skua.

So it was that on December 28th, Neil Hayward boarded a boat aptly named Skua, sailed off the North Carolina coast, and saw his 749th bird of the year, a Great Skua.

A few technicalities involving minutiae of birding rules remain to be sorted out with some of the birds on his list, but it’s virtually assured he’ll end with 749 official species, if not 750. A record that will just as assuredly be broken sooner or later, but still boggles the mind.

Of course, there are concerns with the whole practice of big year birding. Some see these protests as nothing more than a wet blanket, but there are valid points to be made. I can’t help but notice parallels with the distaste sometimes expressed by visitors here at the Traveler for the practice of “collecting” as many of the 401 NPS units as possible.

Chasing birds or parks leaves a large carbon footprint without a doubt. It also requires a significant amount of money. A record-breaking big year can easily cost in excess of $100,000.

For both birders and park fanciers, the standards of recreational behavior seem to be set a little higher than for those outside our interest groups.

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Snowy egret, Kirby Adams photo.

Both are expected to be champions of environmental conservation, so excessive burning of fuel and expenditure of money that could be used for other efforts meets with some disapproval.

Personally, big year birding isn’t my cup of tea. I wouldn’t enjoy the hectic pace. I much prefer to sit back and enjoy a bird or a vacation to a birding destination without constantly being alert to a rarity that might require me to hop on a plane to Alaska.

Still, I find it fascinating. I was rooting for Neil Heyward and excitedly following his blog. (I also predicted in early December that he wouldn’t get the record, just like I predicted there wouldn’t be any Snowy Owls to see this year. I need to get out of the prognostication business.)

Does it make me a hypocrite that I call myself a conservationist, yet I applaud a big year? Many people, including some of my friends, would say so. For me, it comes down to drawing an arbitrary line where nature-oriented recreation becomes more detrimental than its net benefit. I’m not willing to do that. It can’t be quantified.

A big year burns a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of cash when compared to more pedestrian pursuits of birding. On the other hand, the expenditures are wholly insignificant when compared to the environmental toll of other everyday hobbies. On the positive side, the benefits in awareness, education, and recruitment of a big year far outweigh what I can do by birding “normally.” But again, those benefits are minimal compared to what could possibly be achieved by the same dedicated individual taking a different path.

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Black oystercatcher, Kurt Repanshek photo.

There are more shades of grey to the issue than on all the gulls in Gateway National Recreation Area right now. (If you haven’t gull-watched in New York, let me assure you – that’s a lot of grey.)

I won’t be doing a big year anytime soon. (Likely never, although a National Parks Big Year continues to intrigue me.) But I’m here today to congratulate Neil Hayward. I think the birding community is stronger and larger because of his efforts, and a stronger community of birders is a boon to conservation, even if we indulge a little.