With the end of another year comes the results of the latest American Birding Association Big Year competition – and I’m sure you’ve been holding breath waiting to hear the winner. They haven’t announced the official results yet, so you’ll just have to wait. But one of the top competitors chose Cape Cod to make his last stand in his quest to see more US and Canadian birds in one year than any birder in history.
Christian Hagenlocher is not what you would expect from a competitive birder these days. He’s not an independently wealthy retiree who can fly off to chase the latest rarity whenever he wants. Rather, he’s a young, unemployed, high school teacher who spent the year eating a lot of ramen noodles and sleeping in his car. Despite that, he was one of four birders who broke the previous Big Year record of 749 species set by Cambridge resident Neil Hayward in 2013.
If you’re not familiar with what’s involved in a birding Big Year, you can check out the book and/or movie both simply called The Big Year. The movie stars Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as the three real-life birders in an epic and cutthroat battle for Big Year bragging rights in 1998. Or better yet, check out Massachusetts’ own Neil Hayward’s entertaining book “Lost Among the Birds”, about his record breaking 2013 effort.
To be clear, these are not “normal” birders, and they shouldn’t color your perception of what it means to be a birdwatcher. These people are outliers in the truest sense – few birders have the time, resources, dedication, or frankly the interest it takes to devote an entire year to intense, competitive birding. One usually has to make multiple trips back and forth across the continent to chase the latest rarity, which often turn up on remote Alaskan Islands one day and the Florida Keys the next. Records usually stand for years, and most efforts end with nothing to show but a gigantic stockpile of frequent flier miles.
The Cape figured prominently in Christian’s end of year strategy – he added Little Gull and Northern Saw Whet Owl during his time here last month. But he missed his primary target bird, which was Dovekie. Dovekies are tiny puffin relatives, and it hasn’t been a big flight year for them. Even in a good year, seeing a Dovekie can take many cold hours peering at the ocean through a spotting scope. Alas, Christian was unsuccessful, as he conservatively dismissed the uncertain looks he had at a bird that was almost certainly a Dovekie in Wellfleet on December 31. Many people ask how they determine if people really saw the birds they say they did, and the answer is the honor system. Christian’s restraint with his Dovekie sighting is a perfect example of the honor system at work, and at just how frustrating birding can be. Every good birder needs a nemesis bird.
Christian spent some time at local birder haunts like the Bird Watcher’s General Store in Orleans and at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, where he was looking to find a Northern Saw-whet Owl that I had heard the night before. He later brought us an unusual brown-morph specimen of Eastern Screech-Owl that he had found road-killed in Truro – the first one I had ever seen. You can see photos of this specimen on his blog, which is at his website entitled The Birding Project. Throughout the year, he focused on connecting with the birders he encountered, and you can see interviews and photographs of many of them on his site.
Though he broke the most recent record, amazingly it looks like Christian will have to settle for 4th place this year behind John Wiegel whose finally tally is likely to be a mind-boggling 783 species, and two other birders who saw well over 750 species. They include a man named Olaf Danielson who saw 775. It’s worth noting that Olaf is a nudist who set the record for most birds seen while naked and wrote a book about it, whose title will likely be edited out of the final cut, even though it’s only referring to types of birds – it’s called “Boobies, Peckers, and Tits: One Man’s Naked Perspective”. Fortunately for the rest of us, Olaf is more than an outlier, he’s one of a kind.
As we start a New Year, I can’t help but wonder who will be out there gunning for a new Big Year record. Will it be you? Whoever it is, let’s just hope they are wearing clothes.