Big Year

Perhaps you saw the movie The Big Year earlier this fall.  Starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, this movie is adapted from a book by Mark Obmascik of the same name.  The book describes the efforts of three birders to see as many species as possible in North America in a single calendar year.

The current record for a North American Big Year is a whopping 745 species!  To amass that total requires a birder to find all of the 660 or so species of birds that occur predictably every year in North America.  Then, the birder has to chase as many vagrant species as possible.

A big year on this scale requires the time and the money to embark on sudden trips to south Florida to see the vagrant LaSagra’s Flycatcher or to southeastern Arizona for the rare Aztec Thrush or to south Texas for the unexpected Green-breasted Mango.

The good will and cooperation of other birders is key to a successful Big Year.  Most of the rarities a Big Year birder sees will not found by him or her.

John Vanderpoel of Colorado is in the midst of an amazing Big Year.  He has already seen 729 species as of this writing.  He has a good chance to eclipse the old record of 745 species.

John is maintaining a blog to document his trips and to share photographs of the many birds and other animals he has seen.  He also provides a list of birds he has seen and ones he is hoping for.

In looking over his list, he has a couple of regularly occurring species that should be easy to pick up (Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Gray Partridge).  He has not seen Brown Jays or Tamaulipas Crows in south Texas yet.

He is planning to go on a pelagic bird trip in the Gulf of Maine on November 12, hoping to add a Great Skua to his list. He will no doubt chase a Pink-footed Goose in Nova Scotia that has been present for a couple of weeks.  A Barnacle Goose was present in Aroostook County in late October but has not been relocated since the snow storm.  Perhaps it will reappear, becoming a chase bird for Vanderpoel.

After John’s New England and Nova Scotia trip, he will be standing by to go for rarities wherever they might appear.  South Florida, Texas and Arizona are the most likely places for rare species but with birds, you never know.  One of John’s rarest birds was a Gray-hooded Gull that appeared at Coney Island!

I encourage you to visit John’s blog at and check his progress.  It’s fun to vicariously experience his Big Year.

Boreal  Forests

The huge boreal coniferous forest that covers much of Canada and the northern tier of the United States has great ecological significance.  For birds, this forest provides breeding habitat for millions of migratory birds of several hundred species.   Other birds like Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpeckers, Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays spend their entire lives in the boreal forest.

Alas, the boreal forest is not immune to the depredations of humans.  Industrial development and climate change are obvious threats.  The damming of waterways for hydropower has flooded some habitats.  Strip-mining and the extraction of oil from tar sands have had profound impacts on both land and water quality.  Climate change is leading to melting of the permafrost and the drying up of wetlands.

A joint report, entitled Birds at Risk, has recently been released as a joint effort from Nature Canada, the Boreal Songbird Initiative and the Natural Resources Defense Council.  You can download a copy at

The report documents the threats to the boreal forest and suggests bold policy steps that governments must take to protect the boreal forests.

[First published on November 13, 2011]