Imagine spotting this Canada Warbler--plus 6,840 other
 species--all in the same calendar year. A Dutch birder 
did so in 2016, establishing a World Big Year record for
 the ages. (photo by Jerry Goldner)
Birding by numbers. BIG numbers.

(published 3-7-17)


Sorry, but my recap of the 2016 birding year was incomplete. Two of the biggest stories in birding last year were late-breaking news, coming too late for my December deadline. Both involved stunning individual achievements.

A little background is needed. In 2013, Neil Hayward set the North American Big Year record by spotting 749 bird species. He beat the old record—set in 1998 and later immortalized on the silver screen—by a single bird. Hayward wrote a book about the experience and is now a popular keynote speaker at birding festivals and other gatherings. Audubon magazine declared him “King Bird.”

But Hayward is suddenly old news. In 2016, no fewer than four birders topped his Big Year milestone and one absolutely crushed it. John Weigel, an American living in Australia, finished the year with a jaw-dropping 780 species. Well done, mate!

We also have a new World Big Year record and this story is perhaps even more remarkable. Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis, age 30, tallied 6,841 species in 2016, topping the global record by 800 as he raised money for BirdLife International. A documentary is coming soon.

The previous World Big Year record, set by Noah Strycker in 2015, was widely regarded as untouchable. He shattered the global record, set in 2008, by an astonishing 1,701 species. Before Strycker, nobody had ever seen 5,000 kinds of birds in a single year. He found 6,044. Is there any doubt that he expected to wear his world crown for more than just a year?

There are approximately 10,600 bird species in the world. No one person has seen them all, and fewer than 10 have surpassed 9,000 in a lifetime. The first one, a Brit named Tom Gullick, did it in 2012. Then he quit.

These numbers are almost beyond my comprehension. It’s taken me 25 years to piece together a humble life list of 526 birds, and 20 years to build a Glen Ellyn yard list of 115.
Just the thought of devoting 365 straight days to all-out competitive birding is hard to fathom. I’m quite sure I couldn’t do it, even if I had the money for unlimited travel. I’d suffer birding burnout in a matter of weeks.

But it’s still fun to think about, and to live the experience through others. For me, books like Wild America, Kingbird Highway, The Feather Quest and The Big Year are classics, as thrilling as any John Grisham novel. 

Some Illinois birders have lived out bookworthy adventures, too. The state Big Year record belongs to Pete Moxon with 334 species in 2011. Locating 300 species in one year inside state lines is the goal of many and relatively few ever achieve it.

Likewise, only a handful of birders belong to the “400 Club” for career sightings in the Land of Lincoln. The highest published life list for Illinois belongs to Jeff Sanders, with 402 species. Two birders, Joel Greenberg and David Johnson, hit the 400 plateau in 2016.

The collective all-time list of species observed in Illinois now stands at 441—up by one from a year ago thanks to the common ringed plover sighting near Kankakee last September. (That bit of news did make my year-end report.)

Looking only at DuPage County, the highest life list total is 313, by Moxon. Only four birders have seen 300 or more species in the county.  

Big Days, those madcap 24-hour birdathons, also leave me scratching my head. For Illinois, the single-observer Big Day record is 161 species, accomplished by Eric Walters in 1989, Michael Baum in 1996 and Travis Mahan in 2007. Somebody really needs to break that tie, and soon a highly caffeinated birder probably will.

The Illinois Big Day record for a team is 191 species, set last May 15 (and also in 2013) by the Mighty Jizz Masters: Greg Neise, Josh Engel, Adam Sell, Jeff Skrentny, Amar Ayyash and Larry Krutulis.

A few of the “easy” birds the team missed on its 2016 Big Day run were greater yellowlegs, willow flycatcher, swamp sparrow and blue-winged warbler. Any one of them would have been No. 192. Ouch!

The team will try again this spring. “200 is and always has been the goal,” Neise told me.

The DuPage County Big Day record for a team is 132 species, by Joe Suchecki, Denis Kania and the late Jack Pomatto. They did it twice, in 1997 and 1999. The top individual Big Day for the county belongs to Eric Secker, with 127 birds in 2011. All of these Big Day heroics occurred in early or mid-May.

Listing will always be part of the birding culture. Most of us couldn’t stop if we tried. It’s a game we play, alone or in groups. It’s how we have fun and chart our progress.  

Listing can make us better birders, too. Keeping track and always having a few “target birds” promotes strong observation and birdfinding skills. It motivates us to get outside and look around, and to keep checking that feeder in the backyard. 

The lists I hold dearest are Life, Yard, Cantigny, Florida and Illinois. I keep growing them, little by little, storing up memories of favorite birds, places and people along the way. 

That’s it, really, the memories. Not the numbers. Our lists are a collection of birding moments we choose not to forget. 

But of course it’s more than that, just as watching birds is more than a hobby. 
I love this forward thinking perspective on listing by Cindy Carlson, writing in Birding magazine back in 2004:

“A bird list is about possibility. By listing what we have seen, we document what we have not seen. Not yet. The list gives a name and a validation to what we have experienced; but it contains the promise of what lies ahead. We count because we have seen this bird, and because we believe we can see another. A bird list is about hope.”

Copyright 2017 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.