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

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Post #89 - Extremadura Birding Spain - Southern Spain, February 23-28, 2017!

I am stoked to announce that I have been invited to attend the Extremadura Birding Festival in Southern Spain, February 23-28! This festival looks amazing, and I would encourage everyone to watch this very cool promotional video they have put together from last year's festival. Spain will be a new destination for me and is a place I have wanted to bird for many years. I'm super excited!

Extremadura Birding Festival Promotional Video

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Post #88 - Alder Flycatcher and the bird chase that never was....

Congrats to Tim Avery (UT) for being the first to figure that out that I am missing Alder Flycatcher from my ABA list. I know, I know, it's criminal. I am sure that I've seen one at some point, but without a call to definitively separate it from the very similar Willow Flycatcher, it's remained off my list. Alder was one of those birds I just figured I would run into at some point but never did. The sad truth is that this bird was a casualty of my alcoholism as much as anything else; Birding took a very distant back seat to drinking for many of the years I lived in Alder's range. Once I got sober and found bird photography as a replacement addiction, Empids (Flycatchers of the genus Empidonax) honestly weren't a high photographic priority. I guess it's appropriate that I bring this up this week, the 7th anniversary of my sobriety. 

Alder Flycather? Hell no! It's an underexposed Willow
from my very early photography days....

As for the rest of this installment, most of you know that I am a avid (though not rabid!) ABA lister. So, when California's second Ross's Gull showed up in Half Moon Bay (HMB) this week, I prepared for my first big bird chase since May of last year. That particular chase took me 6 hours north, from LA to Sacramento, to successfully tick the Code 5 Marsh Sandpiper as ABA bird #703. This Ross's Gull chase would prove to be of equivalent length and hopefully net me a species rarely seen outside the Arctic Circle. 

Self explanatory (I hope)

Ross's Gull sightings in Southern Canada, US

The HMB Ross's Gull was found and identified on the afternoon of Thursday, January 12. Here, I should pause to explain my "third day" theory of bird chasing. This applies to chases where a good chunk of the day ( > 3 hours, one way) will be required to reach the sought bird. It seems to me that a significant portion of rarities are of the "one and done" sort; They appear one day and disappear the next, and, in so doing, guarantee that any second day chase necessarily fails. However, if a bird stays long enough to be observed on a second day, then at least something can be said about its behaviors and tendencies from one day to the next. At that point, the first data set exists, and it is from that information that I decide if I'm going travel some great distance to try/travel to see the rarity on the third day. In short, I'm willing to trade some amount of success ('ticks') to avoid some amount of failure ('dips').

In the case of the wayward CA Ross's Gull, I was anyway unable to chase on Friday (Day 2) as I had work responsibilities that couldn't be postponed. Work responsibilities and the "third day" theory thus dictated that Saturday would be the day of the big chase - assuming the bird was seen on Friday (which it was). The problem was that I had an unbreakable commitment in LA from 10am to 2pm on Saturday. Even if I left right after that event, it would be dark when I reached HMB, so my search would need to be conducted the following morning, on Sunday (Day 4).

Watching my phone during that Saturday commitment, I could see the HMB bird was showing well through the morning and midday of Day 3. It was feeding in the same muddy field as it had been on Friday, and the chances that it would be present there or very nearby on Sunday to me seemed very good. All systems were "go" for a Saturday evening drive and Sunday morning search.

Incidently, Ross's Gull has been sitting like a splinter in my mind for the last 3 years. It was actually the last species that I chased a great distance but failed to tick. I drove 5 hours from Boston to Montreal and 8 hours return - in heavy, heavy snow - only to come up empty in December of 2013. 

And so it was with redemption in mind that I wrapped up my Saturday commitment, loaded up the car, and prepared for the 6-hour drive. Adrenaline was pumping, and I had my favorite Celine Dion CD in hand to keep the high going. Well, not really. Anyway, just after I locked the front door and turned to walk to the loaded car, I received word that a Peregrine Falcon had just caught and killed the Ross's Gull. The chase - like this story - ended that fast.

Here is an eBird checklist showing the Ross's alive - and in the grips of the falcon. 

It was like this...

....or this

Instead of chasing the gull, I had a surprisingly productive weekend of photography around my usual SoCal haunts. I'll leave you with one of the shots, a nice consolation prize for the shortest bird chase in history.

Osprey - Pandion haliaetus
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800
*click for larger, higher resolution view*

Friday, January 6, 2017

Post #87 - New for 2017: Travel info, Art contest, ABA list

First off, Happy New Year! I hope 2017 holds good stuff for everyone! Anyway, this is just a quick update to let everyone know about some new stuff that I have added to the blog for this - the blog's third - year. These new features are presented as tabs below the main banner photograph, so please take a few minutes to check them out. But, before I dive in, I'll give you this Ruddy Duck from last week to get things started.

Ruddy Duck - Oxyura jamaicensis (winter plumage)
Los Angeles County, CA
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO + 2x III on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/800 at f/8, ISO 800

Without further photographic interruption, the first new feature is a the "International Travel" tab. On that page I will archive posts from my various international trips. I hope that my experiences abroad will inspire you to visit some of the amazing places I have been fortunate to visit in the last few years. I have some really exciting travel planned for 2017, but you'll have to check out the page to see where I'm headed. I might at some point try to create a similar directory for domestic destinations, but I'll start with international for now.

The second new tab is the "Art contest". As the Speckled Hatchback is an imaginary bird, I invite (nay, beg!) readers to submit renderings of what the bird looks like in your respective heads. Submissions will be displayed and archived under the tab, and links to contributing artists homepages or online portfolios will accompany each submission (if so desired). There's a special incentive for the first submission.

The final tab is my "ABA list". As an unapologetic ABA lister (though not enough to fly for single birds), I figured I may as well formally present my ABA list, as much for myself as anyone else. As a fun challenge (should anyone be serving a life sentence or be generally bored to tears), I'm missing one Code 1 bird. It's painfully embarrassing, so much so that I'll only tell the story of how I've missed it if someone figures out it's missing.

*note - Tim Avery correctly pointed out that I am missing the Code 1Willow Ptarmigan. Interestingly, I overlooked this bird so there are two Code 1 birds that I am missing. The absence of WIPT isn't awful since I've only a few days in their usually range, well north of my various points I've ever called home. The other missing Code 1 bird, by contrast, is inexcusable considering I lived in the heart of its nesting range!

*another note - Shelley Rutkin has correctly pointed out that I am missing the Code 1 Horned Puffin. She is correct but again, that's not the bird about which I was thinking. I should clarify that I've never birded Alaska or Northern Canada. The bird I'm missing is a regular in the lower 48, which generally rules out WIPT and HOPU.

*yet another note - Tim Avery has figured it out. I'll hold off posting the answer in case anyone else wants to take a crack at this silly thing.

OK, that's it for right now. I am trying my best to make this blog as informative and as fun as possible. I hope to add new features as ideas strike me. If you have ideas for things/features you'd like to see, please let me know.

I'll leave you with this guy. He was photographed at absolute last light, and the small hill behind which he was standing cast a horrible shadow over his lower ~third. I decided to go with a portrait to eliminate it.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cunicularia
Imperial County, CA
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 800