When I was 52, it was a very good year. It was a very Big Year
full of lots of great birds, on cold winter days and long summer walks.
And now, it is done. I birded from sunrise on January 1 until it was dark on December 31. I set out to do something no one else had ever done, begin birding with a Big Year. For 366 days I was a bird watcher possessed. There were times when I was standing in the middle of a field on a hot July afternoon in Texas, with sweat snaking down my legs and into my shoes, asking myself what the heck I was doing, and there were times where I was jubilant with the triumph of finding the one bird I was searching for after hours of scanning the trees or ponds or empty fields.
And I met the most extraordinary people along the way. Birders, each and every one, are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. I never met a birder I didn't like. There was Fred in Hamilton who was one of the first birders to take me under his wing, back in January. The professional guides I hired along the way, Melody Khel, Matt Brown, Eddie Bartley, Hutch Hutchenson and Ken in Alaska. I met the kindest of strangers, sometimes the middle of nowhere chasing rare birds posted on NARBA and e-bird, such as Hemant, whom I ran into in Texas and Arizona and Edna, Ray and Sandy from New Jersey. And finally, John Hargrove, doing his own Big Year at the age of 69, with whom I birded on two pelagics on opposite coasts, and on the final days of the Big Year down in Florida, by phone and text with his wife Beverly, as we chased down the Western Spindalis, but missed the Thick-billed Vireo,(actually, crazy as it might sound, I believe I did see the vireo the on the morning of the 30th in Fort Zachary Taylor, where I had started the day looking for White-crowned Pigeons, but failed to realise what it was and didn't get a diagnostic photo of for confirmation. Carl, whom I met later that morning at the Key West Botanical Gardens, found it yesterday, photographed and identified it. I was already in Maryland when I found out, and John and Beverly were too far away from the Keys to chase it down themselves). Oh, and I shouldn't forget Sandy Komito, who was nice enough to keep in touch via e-mail a few times during the year with advice and inspiration.
I know that sometimes I was inaccessible to friends, coworkers and family who must have thought I was out of my mind to just pick up one day and devote myself to a single minded goal at, sometimes, their expense,(especially Sue who had to put up with this obsession for 366 days herself). But in the end I have no regrets and have learned and seen so much and accomplished more than I set out to do when this all began.
Quite Frankly, the day I decided to attempt a Big Year, 300 species was the goal, just birding here in Ontario and wherever I travelled for work. By the end of January I was hooked and knew that this quest had become bigger than I imagined and more important to me than I would have thought possible. It was the near impossibility of seeing 600 birds that pushed me into going to Alaska, Arizona five times and Texas on four occasions. To the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas and the rice fields of Louisiana. To Newfoundland in July and California in January and September. It drove me to take long pelagic boat trips where sea sickness made me question why anyone would put themselves through such agony just to see one more bird.
And speaking of one more bird, my final birding trip of the Big Year was to Cape May NJ to find a Dovekie. I flew from Miami on the morning of the 31st to Baltimore, where I had left my car, then drove to Lewis, Delaware to catch the ferry to Cape May and Sunset Beach. I did not get sick on the hour and half ride and was treated to an amazing show of Gannets and Scoters. I enjoyed just watching the birds so much it didn't really matter that, as the sun set on my big year, I didn't see the Dovekie. What mattered was that I never gave up. What mattered was that after 12 months of chasing, of just being there "for the bird," just seeing the birds that were there to see on the ferry and at the beach, was satisfaction enough. Sue, and a few others that view "listers" as birding pariahs, would be proud of me, I think.
That doesn't mean I will stop chasing. Not by a long shot. Another birder I met this year, Andrew, who did an Ontario Big Year, e-mailed me back, after I congratulated him on his year, saying that my goal for this next year should be to see 50 species I missed in 2012. He said it wasn't his idea, but those were just the rules. I will confine the chasing to inexpensive local trips and birds close to where I am at the time for the next few years. Then, when and if one day, I have sufficient time, money and birding knowledge, perhaps when I am closer to 65 than to 55, I will go out and break Sandy Komito's record,(if Sue lets me, that is).
So, as I wrote in my last blog, I end the year with 596 ABA countable birds, plus 5 that those pesky folks at the ABA have deemed not wild enough to list. The only birds I had seen prior to 2012 that I didn't see this year, were a Roadside Hawk and Dusky Grouse, and two Jamaican Hummingbirds. Could I have seen more? Yes. If I knew a year ago today, what I know now, I'd have not made at least a dozen stupid, rookie mistakes and would have easily passed 600. I made way too many tactical errors that cost me a dozen species, at least. Starting out, I had no road map to follow and didn't have 30 years of birding experience most birders have when they throw themselves into a Big Year.
In the end, I hope this inspires people to take the leap from just casual birdwatching to birding, and will serve as both a road map and a warning as to what they might be getting themselves into. There is a cost, both in the pocket book and in your personal life that goes along with this kind of quest, but in the end is worth every dollar spent, every day spent in the field and, in my case, all those nights spent sleeping in my car. I will have more to say tomorrow and in the days that follow, and put up some of the photos I have taken the last week that I haven't had time to sort through. Oh, and I'll submit my list to the ABA and see if I made it in the top 10 of North American Big Year Birders.