Here are some interesting questions posed by some of my regular readers*
*I don’t actually have any regular readers (yet) so I’ve just made up these questions myself. But I think they’re pretty good questions. If you have some pretty good questions, then please send them to me.
Q: When did you first become interested in birding?
When I was a kid growing up in the UK. It’s kind of hard-wired into you there (one of a number of linked genetic traits that includes talking about the weather, drinking large amounts tea and being very good at inventing games like tennis and cricket, and then being very bad at playing them.)
We had bird feeders in the yard and field guides in the house, and I quickly started looking at both. I liked putting names to birds, both English and Latin. The great thing about birding in the UK is that there are people who spot trains there, so you’re not (quite) at the bottom of the nerd heap.
Q: What do you like about birding?
I love being outdoors, finding and watching birds. Birding keys you into something that’s so much larger than your own fleeting ruminations – the environment, geography, weather, migration. Every time I go out, I see something different – a new behavior, a new plumage or a call that I should know but I don’t. There’s always something to learn when you’re birding, which is both humbling and addictive. There’s enough (and more) to spend a lifetime working at it.
I’m also an introvert and love being alone with my own thoughts. Unfortunately, I don’t have many interesting thoughts so I often have to go birding with other people.
Q: What is a Big Year?
Quite simply, in layman’s terms, a Big Year is like a normal year but (and here’s the technical part) it’s a little bit bigger. An accurate diagnosis usually demands an increase of at least 20% above normal, but medical opinion is split. (Some in the medical field don’t even recognize a Big Year as a disease!) Clearly, more research is needed.
The Big Year clock starts ticking on Jan 1st and ends 365 days later. During that time you try to see (or hear) as many species as possible in a defined territory. If you’re still clinging to your sanity, that territory might be your back yard, your county or perhaps even your state. But those suffering from a serious bout of bigyearitis can supersize all the way up to the major league territory set by the American Birding Association: all of the US excluding Hawaii plus Canada. That’s about seven million square miles, plus the 200 miles of gut-wrenching sea that surrounds it. That was my playing field in 2013.
Q: Why did you want do a Big Year?
I don’t think I really did. My girlfriend, Gerri, wanted to be in a blog.
Q: Wait. You have a girlfriend?
Q: Why did you call it your Accidental Big Year?
- Because it wasn’t planned. By the time I realized I was doing one (April), I was playing major catch up. Unlike other big year birders, I wasn’t adding birds at sunrise on January 1st.
- I had an accident.
Q: You went to some pretty dangerous places, including remote parts of Alaska. We’re looking forward to reading in your book about how you had to outrun a Grizzly Bear, staunch the venom of a rattlesnake and battle for your life with a Polar Bear.
It was also pretty scary in Minnesota.
Q: Could you only count birds that you saw? Were there any species you saw that you couldn’t count?
I counted a few species that I didn’t see but heard. That’s ok, although all birders would rather see the bird than just hear it. According to the ABA (American Birding Association) rules as long as the call or song is identifiable you can count it.
I also saw some birds that aren’t officially countable on the ABA checklist
and others that failed to meet the minimum health requirements…
Q: What is your favorite bird?
The next one?
There were many that were memorable, and with each one there was a story. One of my favorite experiences was seeing a Red-billed Tropicbird in Maine. It’s a Caribbean species. This one was lost, and had been for at least seven years, shunning its fellow tropicbirds each spring and making the unusual migration north. Gerri and I were on a small boat hoping to see Tropi (as the locals call him), when Gerri shouted in my ear “Tropicbird!” A white bird with long tail streamers, like a kite, winged past us and took our breath away.
Q: What is your favorite place to bird?
I fell in love with Alaska. I spent over two months there on eight trips. 2013, the year of my big year, was my first visit to the state, and I was awed by the sheer ruggedness and harsh beauty of the place. Life isn’t easy there, but I appreciated the pace and the proximity to nature. For a birder, the islands of the Bering Sea and those strung out along the Aleutians are some of the best places in North America to find rare birds, the ones that get our pulses racing and test our identification skills. I’ve been back four times since my big year.
This year (2016) will be my first visit to Attu, the island at the far western end of the Aleutian Chain. Attu is much storied in the folklore of American birding. Until the runway was decommissioned in 2000 (when the Cold War became lukewarm) birders visited by plane, fanning out across the island, battling elements and finding lost waifs from Asia. I’ll be visiting by boat – a two-day trip from Adak in the Central Aleutians. As well as looking at rarities I’ll be looking at history. Attu is more than a footnote in the Second World War; it was the only battle fought on incorporated US territory. More than 500 American soldiers died in a two-week battle against an occupying Japanese army. Except for 29 taken prisoner, the latter (some 2,350) all perished, many in a last-ditch banzai charge. Today, the uninhabited island is strewn with military debris, unexploded ordinance and a lonely memorial to those who perished and suffered there.
Q: Did you take photos of the birds you saw during your big year?
Some. I used my phone and telescope. It’s a process called digi-scoping:
It’s not easy when you’re trying to watch birds at the same time.
With some practice I got some great photos…
But most looked like this…
Q: You ended up seeing 749 species, one more than Sandy Komito saw in 1998. How do you feel about beating the ABA Big Year record?
Embarrassed. I never set out to beat the record. And it was never about the numbers – ticking off one bird after another. The success of the year for me wasn’t tied to beating a record. It was about the experiences, learning more about birds, making new friends, and going to new places. But don’t get me wrong – I was happy for my 15 minutes of fame and a place in the annals of Wikipedia.
I moved to the US permanently in 2005. The Big Year, for me, was also an opportunity to kick the tires of my new home, to learn the geography, the environment and meet some of the people. I hope some of that fascination and sense of discovery comes through in the book.
Q: You have two cats. Who fed them while you were away birding the far-flung corners of North America?
Gerri fed the cats and scratched them in their favorite places.
Q: Oh, so you were being serious when you said you had a girlfriend? She put up with the big year? Is there a shortage of eligible men in Massachusetts?
Q: What was it like writing a book?
Really fun and really frustrating. In many ways, it was an extension of my Big Year life – a lot of time on my own, waiting for something interesting to happen. I enjoyed re-living the year through the writing, which forced me to learn more about the places I visited, the birds I saw, and also put into context some of the emotions I was feeling. It was the perfect complement to the Big Year.
Q: I’m a non-birder. Why should I read this book?
It isn’t a book about birds. It’s a story about one year of my life, an uncertain year. I was at a low-point and a crossroads. The focus on the big year helped me defocus from those other problems and somehow made them easier to address. It’s a personal story, but one that’s in no way unique. If you’ve ever felt stuck in your life, or unsure of the future, then the story will resonate with you.
Q: I’m a birder. Why should I read this book?
It’s a book about birds. It’s a story about one year of birding. It’s a travelogue of the US and Canada, to places familiar and wholly unfamiliar. I guarantee you’ll learn something about the birds and the myriad places in which they’re found. If you’ve ever been quietly inspired by birds, or wanted to vicariously roam the continent, then this is the story for you.
Q: Would you ever do another Big Year?