A Big Year

A Big Year is the term used to describe an informal competition where birders find out who can identify the most species of birds by sight or sound within one calendar year in one specific geographical location. Big Year competitions became popularized within North America and are commonly confined to single states, Canadian Provinces, or within the parameters of an official American Birding Association area. However, Big Years can be held in larger areas. John Weigel from Australia set the 2016 ABA big year record, recording 783 sighted species. Arjan Dwarshuis from the Netherlands set the ABA big year world record in 2016 as well recording 6,833 sighted species.

A Big Year Roger Tory Peterson WorldBirder

The first modern field guide published in 1934 by Roger Tory Peterson was truly the turning point for birding. It revolutionized the hobby. Although, in those times birders did not popularly travel. A traveling businessman by the name of Guy Emerson conducted the earliest recorded continent Big Year. He timed all of his yearly business trips to parallel the top bird seasons for the different regions within North America. 1939 was his best year when he recorded 497 sighted species. However, in 195 his record was broken by a man named Bob Smart who recorded 515 sighted species.

A 30,000 mile road trip was taken by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher in 1953 where they visited all of North America’s wild places. They created a film documenting their travels in 1955 named Wild America. In the footnotes Peterson mentioned that the recorded list at the end of their travels included 572 sighted species. Although in 1956, Stuart Keith from England, surpassed Fisher and Peterson’s list while following their same route. Keith recorded 594 sight species.

In 1971, fifteen years later Keith's record was broken by Ted Parker. Parker was 18 years old and in his last semester of highschool. He traveled the eastern seaboard of North America thoroughly. The following September, Parker went to college at the University of Arizona and sighted dozed of Pacific coast and Southwestern United States specialities. He totaled a list of 626 recorded species.

The American Birding Association regulated and standardized the North American Big Years in 1969. The ABA regulated 49 US states (not including Hawaii), St.Pierre and Miquelon French Islands, Canada and all adjacent waters within 200 miles of the land or halfway to the nearest continent (whichever is less in distance).

A Big Year Kenn Kaufman WorldBirder

Birders Kenn Kaufman and Floyd Murdoch decided to break Parker’s record in 1973. Murdoch broke Parker’s record totaling 669 sighted species and Kaufman set the North American record totaling 671 sighted species within the ABA regulated areas. James Vardaman in turn broke Murdoch’s record in 1979 recording 699 sighted species. He recorded all of his sightings in a published book named ‘Call Collect, Ask for Birdman’ where he cataloged all of his 161,332 miles worth of travel. However in 1983, Benton Basham topped Vardaman recording 710 sighted species. 1987 was the first year to hold two competitions, with Steve Perry totaling 711 and Sandy Komito ending at 722.

Mark Obmascik wrote a book called ‘The Big Year’ focusing his story on the 1998 Big Year competitors. The book starred birders Al Levantin, Sandy Komito, and Greg Miller as they chased after breaking Komito's record of 722 sighted species. However, Komito ended up keeping the record bringing in 745 recorded species with 3 additional submissions that were accepted by the ABA comities ending 1998 with a record of 748 sighted birds. In 2011 Obmascik’s book was made into a film named The Big Year by 20th century fox.

Lynn Barber finished 2008 as the ABA big year record holder with 723 recorded species. She was originally the Texas big year record holder. But Chris Hitt from North Carolina set out on a mission in 2010 to sight as many diverse species of birds as he possibly could within the lower 48 states. He was the very first birder to record over 700 species within the lower 48 states in one year. He ended the year with 704 recorded species. Although, within the same year Bob Ake from Virginia brought in an astonishing record of 731 sighted species. Neil Hayward from Massachusetts decided to join in on the ABA big year in 2013. Neil ended the year with 749 recorded species! He broke Komito’s record and set a new ABA Big Year record. Hayward documented his story in a book named, ‘Lost Among the Birds.’

In 2016, four birders attempted the ABA big year. A doctor from South Dakota, Olaf Danielson recorded 700 species by May calling it his ‘Bad Weather Big Year’. While Australian conservationist John Weigel called his big year ‘Birding for Devils’. Christian Hagenlocher, a blogger and American birding activist, blogged his birding experience through a more positive light in hopes to attract more people to the hobby and named his big year, ‘The Birding Project’. Hagenlocher at 27 years old was the youngest birder to break the 700 ABA big year species barrier. Lastly in 2016, Photographer Laura Keene broke the woman's big year record in September.

2016 marked the first year when four birders broke the 700 species barrier within the ABA Area. It was on July 16th of 2016 when Weigel spotted his 750th species which broke Hayward’s standing record. Surprisingly Hagenlocher and Keene broke Hayward’s record soon after which makes 2016 the first time four people broke the big years current record within the same year. Additionally, in October of 2016, Hawaii was voted a countable area for ABA Big Year birders. This was a great addition to the big year areas but birders were unaware that it did not take effect until the middle of 2017. So many birders that had set out to break the current big year record could not count all of the species they found within Hawaii during 2016.

Olaf Danielson began a new trend of keeping two separate birding lists. One recorded the New ABA region species while the other recorded species he found solely within the ABA present states list. Joining Danielson, Laura Keene and John Weigel both explored birding within Hawaii. Weigel brought in the highest amount of sighted species in the US as well as the New ABA with a total amount of 832 recorded species. Unfortunately, it is not likely that the New ABA totals taken during 2016 will count as official ABA records, but they will definitely be used as future standards for young big year bird watchers.