Seeing over 700 species of birds in North America in one year is no small feat. In fact, only 13 people have ever seen more than 700 species in the ABA region in a single calendar year. Now one of those birders is Neil Hayward.
Neil had quit his job in 2012, and spent the beginning of 2013 traveling and birding. He started blogging about his sightings on January 18, 2013 at Accidental Big Year.
By the end of December, Neil made headlines when he broke the standing ABA Big Year record of 748 species set by Sandy Komito in 1998. A sighting of a Great Skua on December 28th put Neil’s final total at 747 species +3 provisionals, the three provisionals being a Rufous-necked Wood-rail, Common Redstart, and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, since these have never been seen in the United States before and have to be accepted by the ABA. The acceptance of one species would tie the record and the acceptance of two would beat it.
Through 2013, Neil birded through 28 states and seven provinces, flew 193,758 miles, drove 51,758 miles, spent 147 hours at sea, and lived195 nights away from home.
In the last few weeks while reading Neil’s blog and also reading articles about his Big Year in The Boston Globe, USA Today, and The Homer (AK) News, I thought it would be fun to interview him here to learn more about his year.
Even though Neil has a lot on his plate, he took time out of his very busy schedule to be interviewed for this blog. I’m very excited to have the chance to interview Neil and learn a little more about his year. here’s part one of the interview, with some of Neil’s photographs (part two will be up tomorrow).
PB: First, please tell us a little about yourself.
Neil: I grew up in the UK. I was born in Oxford, which is pretty much in the middle of the country and about as far from the sea as you can get on what is a relatively small island. I studied Biochemistry at Oxford University and then did a PhD in fruitfly genetics at Cambridge University. I took a year out after my PhD to travel through Russia and Central Asia (I was interested in the Silk Road and had learned some Russian before going). When I returned in 2001, I joined a start-up biotech company, called Abcam, which became very successful. I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to head up the US office for the company. I grew the company here, setting up offices in San Francisco as well as an Asian office in Tokyo. After 11 years in the company, I decided to leave in 2012 to become a consultant.
PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?
Neil: When I was a kid, probably seven years old. I was fascinated by the birds coming into our yard feeders — Greenfinches, Great and Blue Tits, Dunnocks, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, etc. I really remember being impressed with the Green Woodpecker. I wondered what they did when they weren’t coming to the feeders — where they lived, what their social structures were, what they thought about. My parents had field guides at home as well as binoculars which helped me learn about birds. And when I started high school (11 years old) I made friends with a couple of other birders, and we started exploring local habitats — by far the best of which was the reservoir (Farmoor Reservoir) which saw a good number of migrant species, and birds very different from those I saw in the yard at home.
PB: How long have you been birding in North America? Are there any differences between birding in North America and in the UK or Europe?
Neil: I actually birded in the US before I moved here. I had a summer job as an undergrad in a microbiology lab at Texas A&M University. When I wasn’t in the lab I was out birding. Texas was a great place to start here — I saw so many new species that year. Also, on business trips here, I’d take some time out and try to squeeze some birding in too. But it wasn’t until I moved here in 2005 that I really started birding here more regularly. Although I’d birded in many states, most of my birding time has been spent in my home state of Massachusetts.
Yes — there are differences between the UK and here. Birding is more popular over there (as a percentage of the population engaged in it). It’s also a lot more competitive! It’s not uncommon for birders to suppress sightings so that they can get ahead of others. I’ve not seen that behavior here. I also think it’s more male-dominated (which might account for the competitiveness!). Since it’s possible to drive the whole country in a day or so, it’s common for most birders to have a UK list as well as their county list. Birding the whole country is a lot easier (and cheaper) over there than it is here. So you could say that most of the year listers there are also doing a country-wide Big Year.
Another difference is the type of birds seen. I’d say that, although the number of species on the UK list may be less (currently just less than 600), there’s a lot more variety and potential for rarities. The UK is at the crossroads of a whole bunch of migratory pathways — with birds frequently overshooting from Asia and Africa as well as American birds in the fall. (The direction of the gulf stream and winds means the UK gets a lot of American vagrants, but we [in the US] don’t get the reverse.) That means you’re probably exposed to a wider geographical range of birds.
PB: Why did you start your Big Year?
Neil: I’d had a great start to the year — birding in Arizona, Florida, Texas, Washington State, as well as Canada. I’d seen a number of really good rarities, and, after looking at the eBird Top 100 list realized I was doing quite well (at least, compared to other birders). Since I’d quit my job last year  I had more free time this year , and given the great start figured that if there were a year to do a Big Year, this would be it.
PB: At what point in your year did you think you might possibly beat the standing record of 748 species?
Neil: Way later than everyone else! There was a lot of excitement towards the end of my Big Year, and a lot of people starting telling me that I could break the record. But I had a list of all the probable birds I could still get, and it never looked enough. In the last two months, I knew I’d have to push really hard if I were to have a chance. I went to the Canadian Maritimes which I really hadn’t planned on doing (to Nova Scotia for Tundra-Bean Goose and for Pink-footed Goose, which I’d missed in the spring), and then to Newfoundland for Yellow-legged Gull. It was my first time there, and, being based in Boston, it really wasn’t as far/difficult as I’d imagined. And then I surprised myself and went to Adak, Alaska. I’d long said I wouldn’t do that — it was way too far, I wouldn’t be able to chase anything else while I was there, there were only two flights a week, and at the end of the year there was a good chance of being stranded (I was — albeit for one day). I was well aware of John Vanderpoel’s trip there, which was a bust [link here]. I lucked out with Whooper Swan there and getting the Whiskered Auklet. And who knows — maybe the Sparrowhawk if it’s accepted.
But returning from a very successful trip to Adak, I still needed a lot of luck. And I got it — in one week Little Bunting, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, and Rustic Bunting all turned up, and I got to each in time to see them. There’s only so much you can do — if there birds don’t pop up, you can only wait. I was incredibly lucky with those last few weeks. And even on board Brian’s boat, several hours into the trip, I wasn’t feeling confident about the Skua.
PB: In his recent ABA blog article, Greg Neise wrote, “While the logistics and expense of getting around the ABA area have certainly become more difficult and costly, one thing has certainly changed the way we bird, and has had a huge positive impact on Neil’s effort is he Internet and cell phones. Okay, two things.” How did you use the internet and your cell phone to keep up with rarities and plan your travels? Did you rely on various state listservs, or did you have a network of contact people texting you, or was it something else?
Neil: My cell phone was probably my most important tool. It was invaluable for receiving info about birds. I was getting hourly alerts from eBird for rarities and birds that I needed. And by the end of the year the folks at North American Rare Bird Alert [NARBA] were very helpfully texting me with updates. I was also signed up to all the listervs that I thought might be productive for rarities (Texas, Florida, Arizona, Massachusetts, Washington State and all the California counties). That meant sifting through hundreds of emails every day! I was also receiving texts from other birders who knew which species I still needed.
In terms of logistics, it’s hard to imagine booking flights, accommodation, rental cars, and getting around with GPS without my phone. Having mobile internet access was certainly a huge help in trying to co-ordinate all the planning and logistical aspects of a Big Year.
PB: Advances in technology — smartphones, listservs, Facebook, etc. — have made chasing rarities much easier than in Sandy Komito’s time. But how much does a Big Year birder still depend on the kindness and generosity of others in person, including birders and non-birders?
Neil: That’s a great question! I was incredibly indebted to others — for posting sightings, allowing me access to private properties, giving me rides, and making helpful suggestions. While I spent a lot of my Big Year alone, there were a lot of people involved. I certainly could not have done it alone.
PB: Of all the locations where you birded in 2013, which would you like to return for a more in-depth visit, and more birding?
Neil: Alaska. I loved the rugged scenery and wilderness. This year was my first time to the state, and after eight trips, and almost two months there, I really felt like it was becoming familiar. I felt very comfortable in Anchorage, getting to know the city, coffee shops and restaurants. (And one of the best used bookstores — Title Wave Books — in the US!)
As for the birding locations in Alaska — the potential for rarities is high, which always adds to the anticipation. And although I liked chasing birds, they were always other people’s birds. In Alaska, there was a much better chance of finding your own birds. (And in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, there’s no-one else out there birding, so you’re always part of a group that finds birds.)
Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow!