Of the estimated 20 million (at least!) bird-watchers in the US, a relatively small percentage consider themselves to be serious birders, i.e., the kind of people who actually travel around to try to see as many birds as they can, as opposed to simply enjoying the ones that visit the backyard. I explain the nomenclatural distinction thusly: We say that a person goes fishing; we don’t say fish-catching. We say that someone goes hunting; they’re not deer-shooting. The actual reeling in of the fish or releasing of the arrow occupies the tiniest fraction of the overall time invested before the fish is hooked or the deer comes within range.
So it is with birding. The actual watching is but a sliver of time compared to the hunt itself. Birding involves endless study of plumages, songs and calls, life history, habitat, migratory patterns (both spatial and temporal), and distribution. It involves travel to visit the likely habitats at the right time of year, regardless of mud, cold, ticks, heat, etc. It often involves the dead-on mimicking of a bird’s call – or that of one of its predators – to lure it into view for a second or two. It involves stealth and quick reflexes and a sense of belonging in the natural world, as well as the instant recall necessary to identify at a glance one quick look at a bird from among thousands of plumages, shapes, and behaviors stored in our brains. If you think of all the time and preparation that deer hunters invest in filling their freezers each autumn, multiply that by about six or seven hundred, and that’s the level of encyclopedic knowledge accomplished birders carry around with them.
A bird-watcher, in contrast, is usually someone for whom the searching is already sorted. For example, I’ve got a feeder outside my window and as I write this I’m glancing up every so often to enjoy watching the House Finches and American Goldfinches that are gorging on my gift of sunflower seed. So I’m watching, but not birding. A little later, I plan to take a walk outside to count as many individuals of as many species as I can, and report that list to eBird. Then I’ll be birding.
So how many birders are there in the US? It’s hard to say, except that it’s a much smaller number than the total number of bird-watchers that includes us. Wikipedia cites a peak of about 22,000 members of the American Birding Association in 2001. Just off the top of my head, I’d say that about 1 in 5 of the serious birders I know are actually ABA members, so I’ll go with a very rough estimate of 100,000 serious birders among the total rough estimate of at least 20 million bird-watchers.
But that’s not all we have to categorize. Of the 100k birders in the US, an even smaller fraction take part in competitive listing, i.e., striving to develop a list of identified birds larger than anyone else in your state, county, country, etc. Mark Ombasick’s The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (2004) introduced bird-loving folk to the world of competitive birding in North America. For all the non-birders out there (I call them “buggles”), The Big Year offered a rare glimpse at an odd counter-culture alive and well in America. That glimpse was illuminating to birders too, because so few of us actually partake in birding as described in the book or so often stereotyped in popular media. Also, I’m not sure how many buggles actually read that book. For them, if they know it at all, the phrase “big year” and the idea of competitive birding came to light in the quirky movie of the same title, loosely based on Ombascik’s book. (Roger Ebert’s 3-star review here.)
I live in a family of buggles. They’re tolerant of my birding and have been exposed to the culture a bit, but I’m 0 for 3 on birders in my household. For some reason, however, my kids decided that watching 2011’s The Big Year would become a Christmas Day tradition, and we’ve stuck to that. So once a year, my kids spend about two hours feeling a bit warm and fuzzy about birding, either because they love Jack Black so much they’ll watch him in anything, or because it amuses them to see people on screen talking about some of the silly stuff I concern myself with on a regular basis. Either way it’s been a fun, new tradition. I can’t say that I love the movie – and I don’t recommend it to other folks without a string of caveats and apologetics – but I enjoy spending that time watching it with my family.
The movie focuses on three birders who go all-in to complete a North American big year and compete for the bragging rights and personal sense of accomplishment that accompany owning a new record. That record stands at 738 in the movie and (spoiler!) ends with a new record of 755. (In real-life, that record was set at 748 by Sandy Komito in 1998 and then broken with Neil Hayward’s 749 in 2013.) That’s right – one person identifying 749 different species of birds in the US and Canada over the course of 365 days. It’s an amazing feat because one can’t hope to make it to the rarefied air of the “700 Club” without intense focus, luck, persistence, and most important – money. Seeing that many different species can only happen if one is able to jet off to different corners of the continent for the chance to find vagrants from elsewhere. That means south Texas and Arizona, the California coast, the Florida Keys, Newfoundland, and, especially, Alaska’s outer Aleutians. That includes the #1 place that Asian vagrant birds spill over into the ABA’s North American count region, the island of Attu. Attu is almost a nemesis character in itself in the movie – a wild and distant American destination that is indeed closer to Tokyo than it is to Anchorage.
For a bit of perspective, my personal life list – i.e., all the birds I’ve ever identified in North America – sits at just a bit over 500. That’s with about 40 years of birding under my belt. I’ll be lucky to join that 700 Club sometime in retirement. It is extraordinary for me to contemplate a milestone like that attained over the course of one year.
All of which brings me to this: I have often attempted big days, and I really do enjoy them, but never a big year. Many people are about to embark on one, however. January 1st is fast-approaching, and the starting gun will fire for people trying to set new records for birds seen in their home county, their state, or for the seriously ambitious, the entire ABA area in the US and Canada. So here are some of the records for which folks will be gunning in 2016:
I don’t follow folks on this list very closely, but I had the good fortune to meet Lynn Barber a few years ago. She held the North American record 2008–2010. Lynn is gearing up for an Alaska big year in two days! Folks can follow her progress here.
Nothing addressed here thusfar, however, can match the dedication, skill, perseverance, and luck of one man who is about to complete the greatest big year of all time. That man is Noah Strycker, who has been working on a global big year in 2015. It truly is an historic event in our lifetimes that Noah has reached this incredible new pinnacle of natural history achievement, and one that likely could not have been possible without the ease of communications and travel that technology makes possible in the modern world. It was reported today by Ramit Singal that Noah surpassed an incredible 6000 species! He stands at 6007 with still two days to go in 2015. Congratulations Noah, and best wishes to all birding folk planning something big in 2016!