Saturday, March 18, 2017

Post #96 - Birding in Extremadura, Spain - Part 1 (of 2) - History, geography, and what to expect on your visit!

Just a quick administrative note before we get started. At least one regular reader emailed me that he has had issues commenting on recent entries. Apparently a filter that I was unaware of was somehow triggered and blocked some people from commenting. I have removed that filter, and everyone - registered with Google or not - should now be able to comment. I would greatly appreciate it if folks would give it a go to let me see how it is working! Thanks. Also, please consider "following" this blog if you haven't already done so (a link to do this is below the Blog Archives in the right hand column of the blog.)

Now on with Spain!

This is the first of two posts I will use to recap my recent travels to and birdwatching experiences in Extremadura, Spain (Feb 18-28, 2017)! This first post will introduce you to the region and highlight some of its history and demographics. I will also outline some general birding expectations for your visit. In my second post, I will review the precise birding areas I visited and the exact species that I observed in each. OK, let's get going!

Extremadura is 1 of the 17 autonomous units within Spain, and, with a population just over a million, is one of the least populated regions of the country (Spain has 46 million people total). Agriculture and livestock are the major industries, though deer hunting and ecotourism are growing rapidly in popularity. At 16,000 square miles, Extremadura is quite small; It is quite possible to bird most of it in 4 or 5 days (for those from the US, Massachusetts is 10,500 sq mi and and West Virginia is 24,000). A central or semi-central location will leave only 2 hours driving time to all of the birding locations that I will describe in the second installment. Extremadura itself is less than a 3 hour drive from Madrid or Lisbon, so reaching the destination from either Spain or Portugal is very straightforward. Roads are easy to drive and in good shape. I wouldn't hesitate to rent a car and drive myself around on a return visit.

The regions of Spain with Extremadura highlighted.
Madrid is dead center.

Extremadura is comprised of two provinces, 
ceres in the north and Badajoz in the south.

Extremadura flag

To fully appreciate the amazing bird watching opportunities in Extremadura, it is first helpful to understand at least a small amount of Spanish history and how it contributed to present day demographics. Prior to the arrival of the Romans in the second century BC, the Iberian Peninsula was loosely inhabited by many groups including - among others - Iberians, Celts, Basques, and Phoenicians. The Romans conquered and subjugated these various folks and, in 27 BC, established the province of Lusitania. This municipality encompassed present day Extremadura as well as neighboring Portugal. Mérida was designated as the provincial capital in 25 BC and was subsequently used as a retirement community for Roman Legions (soldiers). The Romans ruled Lusitania until the early 8th century when the region was conquered by Muslim armies. Christians retook the region in the 13th century and held the territory until the arrival of the Napoleonic forces in the 18th century.

Roman bridge in rida

Roman amphitheater in rida.
This was built before Rome's Coliseum!

Roman theater in rida - all but 3 columns are original.

The 20th century saw a brutal civil war that ultimately installed General Francisco Franco - a facist - as dictator in 1939. He ruled until his death in 1975 whereupon democracy was reinstituted. The 1978 constitution designated 17 autonomous states and 2 autonomous cities with the country. These units are still intact today, but rumblings of complete independence for some, particularly from Catalonia in the Northeast, seem to be a continued source of discussion within Spain.

The square towers of Trujillo's fortress 
identify it as Islamic

Catholic Church in the
religious center of Guadalupe

This rather turbulent history manifests itself in a demographic unlike that of anywhere else I have traveled. It seems as though absolutely everyone lives in established villages and towns, none of which sprawl or have any sort of suburbs. This was historically done for protection, and today guarantees that the vast majority of the Extremadura landscape is unsettled. This means lots of habitat is available for birds!

Trujillo and Extremadura countryside beyond.
A large festival associated with Carnival 
can be seen at town's center.

Contemporary habitats range from rocky ridges, to mixed oak woodlands, to forested grazing pastures, to open farmland in the plains, or steppe, regions. Hundreds of small dams create an equal number of artificial ponds and lakes that attract a host of water birds. This variety of habitats regularly supports ~280 species, and over 350 species have been recorded in the region. My visit occurred in late February, a time when wintering species, most notably cranes and waterfowl, are still present and the first spring migrants are arriving.


Steppe pasture

Rocky ridge 

Wooded hillside

If traveling a long distance to Extremadura (i.e. from the US), I would suggest a visit sometime between mid-April and early May. This will guarantee that more of the migratory, southern European and Mediterranean specialty birds are present. A solid week of spring birding should yield ~175 species, virtually all of which will be new for birders making their inaugural European venture. Weather in late February was pleasant but not particularly balmy. Temperatures rise as spring progresses, but so does the chance of rain. I had no rain of consequence in 9 full days of birding, so that's one huge perk to coming a bit earlier. Lodging fills faster later in the spring, so coming earlier will make finding places to stay a bit easier. Bustards and sandgrouse might require a bit a more work later in the spring as the steppe grasses grow in with the spring rains. I've been told though that finding those species in April/May is still possible, so please don't let this qualification dissuade you from coming later if you wish to see those species. Summer is very hot and should be generally avoided.

Biking for Birds, Spain edition!

With basically zero traffic, getting from place to place is a snap. We spent several nights in Torrejon El Rubio (Adjacent to Monfragüe National Park) and a few more in Trujillo. There's not much lodging between towns, but staying anywhere basically gives you access to everywhere. Most of the lodgings are boutique hotels or converted family estates. Airbnb is a possibility as well and would offer a similarly immersive lodging experience. Everywhere we stayed had character and contributed to our experience in ways that staying in some big box hotel chain would not have. At one place, the owner's son played his clarinet while we ate dessert. It was super classy an reminded me of my clarinet days as 14 year old - except that I was beyond awful at it.

Hotel lodging in Torrejon El Rubio

 Our guest house outside Trujillo

I hope that this post gives you a general overview of what to expect in Extremadura. The real beauty of birding in Extremadura is that there is so much history and culture to experience beyond the birds. In that respect, Extremadura (and Spain, more generally) is an idea destination if you've got a non-birding spouse in tow. In the next installment, I will focus on those birds and the locations where one can view them. Please stay tuned for that in the next few days!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Post #95 - Announcing my contribution to "Real Birders Still Don't Wear White"!

I leave for Belize and Guatemala in a few hours, but I wanted to leave you guys with at least something since I'm still grinding away on the Spain recap. That something is "Real Birders Still Don't Wear White". This just-released collection of essays is a follow-up to "Real Birders Don't Wear White" which was originally published in 2007. The most recent installment, like its predecessor, features essays by well-known birding personalities on a wide variety of birding and conservation topics. Most of the authors are true heavy-hitters in the bird world, so I was understandably surprised when the publisher contacted me about contributing. It took me a bit of time to come up with a topic, but I eventually settled on the relationship between birders and hunters. My general message is that birders would be well-served to liaise with hunters for conservation purposes, but you'll have to read the chapter to see how I reached that assertion. 

Without getting too political, I would say that recent attempts to sell off public lands to the highest corporate bidder have highlighted the importance of a birder-hunter conservation alliance. Hunters actually put up the greatest resistance to the proposed sales, and as a result many of the politicians pushing for those sales backed off for fear of marginalizing the hunting and gun-owning voting block. I don't understand hunting and I never will, but that doesn't mean that hunters can't be powerful allies in the conservation fight moving forward. It's really important to see that we have more in common than might be gleaned from a quick and dirty, surface inspection. Like I said, I write more about this connection in my essay in the book. 

Lastly, please consider following the blog is you haven't done so already. It will make you the life of any party! You can do this using the link below the "Blog Archives" on the right hand side of this page. Thanks! 

Here's one I got at my local patch yesterday afternoon. I just went over there with my camera to work out a few settings before my trip and BAM - I unexpectedly got this!

Ruddy Duck - Oxyura jamaicensis
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 2x III TC on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/1600 at f/8, ISO 640, handheld

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Post #94 - Seeing rarities where they aren't rare is the best.........

I am back from Spain! It was an incredible trip, and I promise a full recap in the very near future. But I must first make a really important plea. I have added a "Followers" gadget under the "Blog Archive" tab on the right hand side of the page. PLEASE considering following this blog if you like it. All it takes is a Google account (i.e. email) and you'll be set to go. You'll get email updates about new posts, and you'll really, really help me quantify and display the collective interest in this blog. As I have resigned my scientific position at USC, I am now officially unemployed, starting all over as an aspiring writer/photographer. I have no idea where this path is going to take me, but I do know that a blog with a loyal (and hopefully large) readership will certainly help me grow my writing brand moving forward. Please share this blog with friends and please also consider following me on Instagram (dorian_anderson_photography) as that platform will help me advance the photography arm of my new career/brand. My content is 100% free, so please take just a minute to help with this. It would really mean a lot to me. I'll just say 'Thank you' in advance!

The referenced Spain recap is being temporarily held up as I am now in San Francisco searching for an apartment ahead of our upcoming Bay Area move. I'm here for a few more days, then back to LA for 2 days before heading to Belize and Guatemala for the following 10 days. We'll move after that trip and then - finally - things will settle down a bit. At that time, I'll crank out the Spain recap (to be followed thereafter by the Belize/Guatemala recap).

I did en route to SF collect the now long-staying Emperor Goose in Pacifica. The bird was initially reported to the birding community by a non-birding local on January 24th. In the days that followed, the bird behaved very predictably, as though it already had an established routine. This suggested that the bird might have been present well before the 24th and therefore might be wintering in that precise spot. Knowing that I would be SF in early March, I decided to forgo chasing the bird in that last week of January. That strategy paid off, and I was this week rewarded with my first ABA bird of 2017!

ABA seen bird #714 - Emperor Goose!
(Record shot only, shooting east, into the morning sun)

He's the normal range of Emperor Goose.
The above bird is well off course in CA!

Emperor Goose records away from Alaska.
The species is a rare but regular visitor to the Pacific Coast.

I will confess that seeing this magnificent bird on a California golf course was quite anticlimactic. Some of the lackluster was due to the fact the the bird behaved so predictably and was all but guaranteed to be found, but some of it was the precise setting in which I saw the bird. Emperor Goose is a rugged species, a species that survives on the edge of the world in the Bering Sea. I always figured that I'd see this species when I finally made it to Alaska, possibly as it winged its way past me at Nome, Gambel, or Dutch Harbor. I envisioned a small group of them fighting into the wind, winging over the churning waves with distant but unspoiled lands as a backdrop. Instead I got a golf course with dozens of adjacent houses. Don't get me wrong, I was stoked to see the bird, but the sighting just lacked some of the splendor that I had envisioned. I probably won't stop chasing would-be ABA life birds anytime soon, but I will try to appreciate observing species in their more usually habitats and haunts whenever possible. Just some thoughts. I'd love to hear yours on the same subject!

I'll leave you with another recent shot. I think this guy looks as though he was just caught with his hand in the cookie/acorn jar!

*click for higher resolution vew*
Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Orange County, CA
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/2000 at f/8, ISO 800

That's it for now. Much more coming moving forward!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Post #93 - When life hands you lemons, go birding. Plus a GREAT OPPORTUNITY for reader participation!

This post is coming to you live and direct from Spain! I've now been here for 6 days and have enjoyed every minute of it. I promise a full recap when I return, but for now I want to focus on an episode that happened en route to my current Spanish surrounds. 

Birding Spain
11 Little Bustards flew into the field just after the photo!

Almost unbelievably, there isn't a single direct flight from Los Angeles to Madrid, so I was forced to connect in Dallas to an overnight flight to my final destination. However, my flight out of LAX was delayed by more than 2 hours due to weather, and I missed my connecting flight (I know, a weather delay in SoCal, right?!!?). The path of least resistance was to accept a seat on the same flight the following night and kill the intervening day in Dallas. I sure as hell wasn't happy about losing a day in Spain, but I didn't really have any other option.

With ~20 hours kill in Texas, I rented a car at the airport, and, the following morning, set of for some suburban birding at Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA). I chose that particular spot so that I could have a late lunch with a childhood friend before returning to the airport. En route to that locale, I hit a local supermarket to grab a few snacks to get me through the morning. I ended up with two bananas and a box of granola bars. Upon removing the first of the granola bars from the box, this is what I found.

For those that might not be able to read the tiny text, it says, "Chewy Challenge #7: Go bird watching. How many different birds can you find?" I found it an all-too-appropriate way to begin my day of birding in Dallas. I have since dispatched the following note to Quaker customer service. 

Dear Quaker

My name is Dorian Anderson, and I am a life-long fan of your Chewey Granola bars. I am also a life-long bird watcher. This past week, I was stranded in Dallas for 24 hours as I missed a connecting flight to Spain where I was to spend the next 10 days - you guessed it - bird watching. With a day to kill before my rescheduled flight, I decided to do some bird watching around Dallas. En route to Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA,, I purchased a box of your tasty Quaker Chewy peanut butter chocolate chip granola bars. I removed the first bar from the box and appropriately found a note on the wrapper that stated, "Chewy Challenge #7: Go bird watching. How many different birds can you find?".

Well, in the following 4 hours I found exactly 60 species of birds at LLELA ( Beyond touting my love for your product, this note is to serve as a request that Quaker donate $300 ($5/species) to LLELA for my completion of the stated bird watching challenge. LLELA does much environmental education, and I think any additional funds that the park/organization receives would be helpful in inspiring future generations of bird lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.

I have also posted a copy of this letter on my very popular bird watching and bird photography blog, The Speckled Hatchback ( The blog is widely read by both American and foreign birdwatchers. It was because of the successes of this blog that I was invited to Spain as a guest of the Extremadura Tourism Board, a region of Spain with wonderful birdlife that is looking to increase its visibility in the American birding community.

Yes, I understand this is all a bit strange, but, at the end of it all, I'm only asking Quaker to help an organization with which I have zero connection. Doing so would be a great gesture on your part and would certainly warrant a follow-up post on my blog that further touts your products as a tasty, healthy snack for birders and other persons on the go.

Thank you so much for your consideration of this matter. I look forward to your response.

Dorian Anderson, Ph.D.

Birder, Photographer, Writer, Blogger, Lecturer

Now we wait. Sure, I missed my flight and lost a day in Spain, but, with the help of birding, I still managed to find something positive in the entire experience. That's the beauty of birding. It's always there for you no matter what else goes wrong.

Oh yeah, if anyone else feel particularly motivated to follow up with Quaker and prod them about my donation request, you can use this link and copy and paste the below message into your comment to them. You never know, right? It'll take 2 minutes and could make for a great story if they actually follow through!

Dear Quaker

This note is to serve as follow up note to that from Dorian Anderson regarding a $300 donation to the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area. I fully support his request and hope that Quaker is able to help the center provide outdoor education for young school children moving forward.


(Your name here)

***Click images for higher resolution views***
Loads more at my Instragram Account

Los Angeles County, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Post #92 - Guidelines for posting rare bird sightings to public message boards, social media, and such....

Sorry for the lag between posts, but between my last day in my research lab at USC yesterday and leaving for Spain in a few hours, it's been incredibly hectic around her this past week! This trip to the Extramadura Region is going to be amazing, so please do stay tuned for a full report when I get back.

Here's where I'm headed

Here's a short video about the festival I'm attending

In other non-fake news, I'll be headed to Belize and Guatemala from March 9-18, so please keep that on your radar as well. 

So, Sonia and I were cruising around doing some errands recently and somehow the topic of birding message boards came up. During the conversation, Sonia said, "There's no way, even if was 100% sure of a rare bird, that I would EVER post it. I'd be WAY too scared. The whole message board thing is so intimidating!" I was so intrigued by this comment that I figured I would use it as a blog topic. I am hoping that this precipitates comments/discussion, so please chime in with your own thoughts in the comments section.

There isn't a written set of rules on how to post bird sightings to public message boards and rare bird alerts, but I'll offer a few suggestions based on my own experiences. Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, so please keep that in mind. He's a Cinnamon Teal to get us started.

***Click images for higher resolution views***
Loads more at my Instragram Account

Cinnamon Teal - Anus cyanoptera
Orange County, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II +1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Be concise
Just tell us what you bird(s)saw and where you saw it/them. We really, really don't need, "Our intrepid group of 12 birding souls arrived at Plum Island at 7am. Weather on that Saturday was cloudy, a light wind blowing from the north. It was reminiscent of the winter of 1927......." and so on and so forth. GET TO THE POINT. Many birders read posts on the fly, so brevity is important. A bird post is not the place to exercise your latest and greatest prose. 

Do capitalize birds names
Again, please make it easy on readers. CAPITALIZATION makes bird names stand out from the surrounding text. This is particularly important if you post in the verbose style discouraged above. If you're going to torture readers by writing a novel, make THE BIRDS standout, particularly if it is a rare bird in which there will be a lot of interest. Contrarily, capitalizing HOUSE SPARROW (or even posting about it, for that matter), is grounds for a swift kick to the ass.

Do not use 4-letter codes without defining them
Though convenient, a significant proportion of birders do not understand the 4-letter code convention. Take the 2 seconds to write out the full name. If you wish to use the 4-letter code, please define it after first using the full name. "I saw a Varied Thrush (VATH) in a tree. The VATH ate a berry and then took a dump." See, its that easy. But, please avoid being a 4-letter wise guy "I saw a Ruff (RUFF) at the pond. There was also a Sora (SORA) present." Doing so would make you a PUNK.

If you don't understand the 4-letter code thing, it's just a way to make recording birds sightings easier. It comes from a bird-banding shorthand. Information on the coding nomenclature can be found here.

Here's a rarity that we'd want to hear about!
Fork-tailed Flycatcher - Tyrannus savana
Lyme, Connecticut (Oct 2013)
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D
1/1600 at f/7.1, ISO 320, handheld

Post rarities ASAP
Birding in the 21st century moves fast. Posting from the field will allow others to keep up. If you wait until 10pm to post that you saw a Spoonbill Sandpiper at Bolsa Chica at 9am, then you can expect a midnight visit from the birding mafia. You might even wake up with a broken spotting scope in your bed. Learn to post from the field as that will benefit everyone. It is also worth noting although eBird is great for documenting sightings, it is NOT the preferred method to disseminate sightings quickly. If you find a rare bird and you create an eBird checklist to reflect this, it could take hours or even days for the moderators to review the sightings and make it public. Online rare bird alerts of various sorts (message boards, Facebook, Twitter) should thus be used in addition to eBird. If all else fails, you can always call someone who can make a quick post on your behalf.

Add a photo if possible
This is difficult to do using traditional email groups but easy to do on Facebook and other social media platforms. If you find a rare bird and have a camera with you, take a photo of it and then take a photo of the bird on the camera's display screen and post that. That way we have some hard evidence of the sighting before people start rushing towards it.

Go ahead and post if you're not 100% sure of the ID, but make sure to say that you're not sure

"I saw a Yellow-green Vireo" is different than "I saw a bird that looked like a Yellow-green Vireo." It's worth letting others know what you're thinking if you are reasonably sure that you saw something rare.

Give specific directions
We've all been lazy/guilty of the "previously reported location" offense at some point. This posting default is generally useless and functions to send readers scurrying through older posts to as they try to find more specific details. We've all benefited from nice, precise descriptions of rare bird locations, so please go ahead and return the favor to others.

Refrain from posting about ridiculously common stuff
Yes, that Northern Cardinal on your feeder is beautiful, but so are the 15 that I saw in my local patch that same day. There needs to be some kind of line drawn so that message boards aren't cluttered up with sightings of common birds. I think most birders understand this, but a few have been known to abuse public access to boards.

Don't make it personal
As amusing as I find message board personal feuds, try to refrain from attacking others. I know it's rare (and it is really funny when it does happen), but please remember that once you hit the send button, it's a done deal.

OK, that's it for the moment. I am very curious to see what I have missed. I'd love to hear from you about what you like about message and even more about what drives you crazy. I think it would be a good laugh for everyone.

Here's one that probably won't set message boards on fire....
American Pipit - Anthus rubescens
Orange County, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II +1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld

Monday, February 6, 2017

Post #91 - Upset of the century - Northern Shoveler beats out Emperor Goose!?!?!?

A few administrative notes before we get rolling!

First, I am super stoked to announce that I have partnered with Zeiss as part of their Prostaff program! I've been using their amazing Victory SF binoculars for just over a year now (I love them), and I am very happy to promote all of their optics moving forward. Interestingly, I have a connection to Zeiss that goes far beyond birding as I've been using Zeiss microscopes in a scientific research capacity for the better part of 2 decades. My current CRISPR protocols have been greatly aided by the Zeiss scope on which I create my transgenic (genetically engineered) animals. It's great to be working with an optics company with which I have so much personal history!

Second, I have finally started an Instragram account and would love to have you follow along. This is going to be strictly for birding and travel purposes and won't be diluted with any irrelevant content. I've loads to share, so please get on-board, stat. Here's the sort of stuff that's already waiting for you!

Great Gray Owl - Strix nebulosa
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (-10F!)
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld
***click all images for higher resolution views***

I am also trying to drive traffic toward my flickr account, so - if you're on that platform - I'd really appreciate it if you follow me there as well. It's actually quite important that I build a presence on both of these photography platforms, so thank you for helping me do that.

OK, when we think about the greatest upsets of all time, we'll undoubtedly visit the USA ice hockey team beating the Russians in the 1980 Olympic semifinal. But what about when the Duke Blue Devils beat the then-undefeated UNLV Runnin' Rebels in the 1991 NCAA basketball championship? or Maybe James "Buster" Douglas knocking out a then-37-0 "Iron" Mike Tyson in Tokyo in 1990? Maybe it was Leicester City winning the Premier League title last year? But Northern Shoveler over Emperor Goose? I'll explain.

 "Miracle on Ice"

 On Tuesday, January 10th, an Emperor Goose appeared in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. This species, which usually generally resides in the Bering Sea and nearby Aleutians, only rarely makes it to the lower 48 states. When it does, usually along the Washington, Oregon, and Northern California Coasts, it causes a predictable commotion in the birding community as folks mobilize to chase the wayward bird. However, this individual caused no such initial buzz. Why? Because it took 2 full weeks for the photographs of the "strange goose" on a local golf course to reach someone who could recognize it for what it was! When that finally happened, on January 24th, the expected all-hell broke loose, and birders rushed towards Pacifica with hopes of seeing the rare goose. That day was a Tuesday, and as such I was glued to the Zeiss microscope as above described. The bird stuck around through the week, and on Friday I prepared for a 6-hr chase that I hoped would at least partially redeem the derailed Ross's Gull chase of two weeks prior. As a final preparation, I checked the weather. It was going to be crystal clear up and down the California Coast. Seeing that, I quickly cancelled my chase.

What the heck, what gives? Why would perfect weather make me abandon my chase? Well, we've had an unusually wet winter here in Southern California, and, as a result, many recent weekends have been either rainy or cloudy. This has prevented the sort of naturally lit, color-saturated photography that I generally prefer. Looking at the forecast, I saw that my goose chase would cost me my best photographic opportunity in months, and I decided that I wanted to use the light to shoot rather than to drive. I had the previous week visited a spot with loads of active Northern Shovelers, and I thought that I could do some real photographic damage on them if I just had the right light. It was in favor of this plan that I abandoned my goose pursuit, and that's how the common duck beat out the rare goose. I think I made the right decision. I saved a ton of gas (and $) and had a really relaxing 2 morning's worth of shooting. I just hope I can get Emperor Goose in its normal range if I ever make it to Alaska. Incidently, the bird is still present. Maybe it will stay until the first week of March when Sonia and I go to SF to find an apartment.

Northern Shoveler - Anas clypeata
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld

Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Post #90 - The death of the ABA Big Year.....(and Wood Duck photos!)

First, a quick housekeeping note. I have started an Instagram account specifically for my bird and travel photography. I'd love for you to follow along! Also, PLEASE feel free to share any of my content (blog, flickr, Instagram, etc) with other birders or potentially interested parties. It would be huge help as I try to build my birding brand and a community around it. Thank you in advance for anything you can do! Now down to business.....

I was this week contacted by Olaf Danielson of recent ABA Big Year fame. He asked me what - if any - connection I think exists between Big Years and bird conservation. I told him that I would integrate those thoughts into an upcoming blog post on which I was working. I think that his question provides both a nice starting and an ending point for some recent musings I've anyway wanted to share with you. I present these thoughts as point-counterpoint, and I'll from there tell you what I see as the future of the ABA Big Year.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld
(on stomach in mud and goose crap)
***As always, click images for higher resolution views***

Point - Put a stick in the ABA Big Year. It's over, done, kaput....
It has never been easier to find birds in North America than it is right now. There are more birders covering increasingly fragmented habitat, and news of any notable finds spreads instantaneously through phone, text messages, eBird, Facebook, and a host of other electronic means. With everyone privy to exactly the same information, information no longer matters in the Big Year equation. Information rendered moot, money becomes the overriding - almost perversely so - predictor of Big Year outcomes. Number of species observed correlates only to the funds expended; Love of birds, ability to identify them, drive to educate others about them, or desire to conserve them have exactly zero bearing on the numerical outcome of a Big Year. The fact is that anyone with a big enough checkbook can amass 750+ species during a Big Year.

Beyond that obvious - and potentially fatal - flaw to the Big Year model, increased amounts of information further skew the already unbalanced ratio of birding time to travel time towards the latter. With rarities being reported from multiple places at once, there's little to enjoy one bird before the rush for the next commences. This imbues birds with the qualities of temporary bounties, a mindset that does not lend itself to anything outside of running up one's list.

The environmental impact of Big Year associated travel should not be ignored. Yes, the planes are generally going wherever they are going with or without Big Year birders aboard, but there needs to be more discussion of what this might mean moving forward. It's only a matter of time until someone uses a private jet for a Big Year. That is exactly why we need to have this discussion before it reaches that ridiculous point.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning the confusion including Hawaii in the ABA region will cause. It seems a "+ Hawaii" or "- Hawaii" designation will have to accompany any Big Year moving forward in order to give it the appropriate context. It's just cumbersome. Travel to Hawaii will required yet more money from Big Year birders and compound the financial considerations outlined above.

Summary - When money becomes the prime indicator of outcome, it's over. It's as sadly true in birding as it is politics or sports. This is why the ABA Big Year as currently modeled is dead.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Counterpoint: The ABA Big Year is alive and well!
With the aforementioned access to information, Big Year totals once mythical are now completely possible. It's inspiring to see what can be achieved with the aid of these new technologies and speed of communication. This past year was a perfect example of this; Having 4 birders break the previous record was fun, especially for those folks unable to undertake such indulgences themselves.

Secondly, not every Big Year need establish a new record to be valuable or worthwhile. A Big Year is a personal journey and a fun experience and a birder can take it as seriously as he or she desires. No one has to spend the $100,000 that a record breaking Big Year requires. Big Year birders inevitably report that the people are the best part of the adventure. The birds are just the excuse to interact with the world and the people that populate it in new and interesting ways. 

The travel that birders do is negligible in the grand scheme of general world overpopulation. PR is priceless, and the attention Big Years garner will outweigh their environmental impacts. The community would be advised to spotlight Big Year efforts; That exposure will likely draw additional people into birding. The wider the tent, the greater collective our birding voice will be. If properly harnessed, that voice could be a potent force for conservation. Any attention paid to birding is ultimately a good thing. 

Summary - A Big Year is a personal project. If birders and those beyond latch onto it, that's momentum on which the entire community would be well-advised to capitalize. We should therefore encourage similarly ambitious efforts moving forward.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

At this point we're right back were we started, at Olaf's question. Is there a connection between Big Years and conservation? In my mind, than answer is a loud and resounding "No". Which Big Year birder blogged the most about conservation last year? Who raised the most money for conservation? Were funds raised significant compared to the cost of the Big Year itself? We don't know because as a community, we generally don't care - at least in the context of Big Years. We ask about species totals, but generally ignore the conservation, outreach, and education aspects of the equation. 

We, as a birding community, need to demand that Big Years be about more than species totals if the existing big money, big travel model is ever to evolve into something more substantive and sustainable. We need more creative Big Year propositions, efforts that try to do more while using less. How many species can be found with only $5,000? With only 10 flights? With just hitchhiking? With only a bicycle? There are an infinite number of possibilities. How about a Big Year with a ~week in each of the 58 National Parks? How about a public transportation Big Year? It would be fun and easy to put an education or conservation slant on any of these alternatives, and I think they'd be really popular within and beyond the birding community.

The Big Year isn't dead, but it does need some fresh life breathed into it if it's going to be relevant well into the future. Right now it's a circus - a really fun and exciting circus, but a circus nonetheless.

NOTE: My dream Big Year if I had the money and/or the desire? I'd put 52 ping-pong balls into a bag, 1 for each state and 2 wild-card balls that must be used on Canadian provinces. Every 7 days (as I went along, not ahead of time) I'd pull a ping-pong ball and immediately fly/drive to the state/province indicated and bird that area for the next week. Once a state/province was visited, the ball would be tossed out so that each area is visited only once in the course of the year. I would make some form of rule so as to avoid going FL > AK > SC > HI, for example, but generally the entire adventure would hang on the balls (ugh, that didn't come out right, sorry). Pull Alaska in January? Rhode Island in June? That's the adventure!

Curios to see if I get skewered or supported on all of this. Have at it in the comments section either way!

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld