By Tyler Brooks, staff writer
With so many deaths, 2016 is often joked as being the worst year in ages. But for birdwatchers, aka birders, it has been a truly spectacular year. Not one, not two, but four birders have broken the American Big Year record, and the world Big Year record has been broken as well.
The Big Year is an official term that describes when one individual birder goes around either their home country or the world to view or hear as many birds as they can in a single calendar year. People can also have Big Weeks, Big Days, or Big Months, but the most common by far is the Big Year. The expeditions became so popular that a whole movie, The Big Year, was released starring big-time actors Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. In the United States, the American Birding Association, or ABA, sets the rules for the Big Year, such as how to properly identify the bird, the out-of-bounds range for American birding, and a list of all acceptable species that can be counted.
What a big year of big years! Four birders broke the North American Big Year record, and two of them were going neck-and-neck for the new high. Olaf Danielson saw an amazing 776 birds in North America, but John Weigel got a total of 780 species on his list, and that’s out of only 914 species of birds in America. In the last week, Weigel topped out his list with an endangered Whooper Swan while Olaf searched desperately for a Kelp Gull in Newfoundland, Canada. Neil Hayward, the previous record-holder, saw only 749 species. But, in recent bird news, ABA has accepted Hawaii as an American birding zone, adding 48 species to the list that Olaf and Weigel could not access this year.
In other news, the Global Big Year record has been broken. While no individual agency is in charge of the world’s birding, agencies in the United States, Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands keep track of birding records across the globe. In 2015, Noah Strycker saw 6,042 species of bird out of the 9,956 in the world. But Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis saw this record and broke it in less than a year, hitting 6,833 species of bird. To put that into perspective, Arjun saw almost 69 percent of the world’s bird species in 365 days. That’s roughly 19 species a day, every day. Arjun began his trip on January 1, where he saw 117 species in his native Netherlands, and did not slow down until December thirty-first, when he saw his final species, the black-crowned Fulvetta, finishing off his “Biggest Year.”
Unfortunately, this costs a lot of money. Olaf Danielson, for example, spent about $95,000 on his trip around the U.S., so many birders are not given a chance to experience a true big year. Yet it still remains on every true birder’s’ bucket list, including my own. I have, myself, only seen mostly just common species with a handful of rarer birds. A world big year would require funding from an agency such as the Audubon. But deep in the deepest bowels of my avian heart, I know that that Big Year is on its way. A hundred birds species is something that I’m proud of, with by own birding year topped of with a Common Redpoll, bringing me to my final 124 bird species. It would be a crime if a person didn’t try at least once to have their own Big Day where avians alight themselves into your heart and onto your bird count list as so many have done unto me on my own unofficial Big Year.
This truly has been the biggest year in birding. Studies have shown evidence for more species to be announced, beefing-up many young birders’ lists in the future. Other studies have been published about almost every type of bird, explaining many aspects that were unknown prior to this year. Bird species could be doubled due to molecular evidence, hummingbird physics, swift and frigatebird sleeping in flight, the list is endless of this year’s discoveries. While Arjun had his own “Biggest Year,” this year has been perhaps the biggest year for birds in decades, not only for me but to all bird nerds.