An Interview with Kristen Marini on her new Birding Game

Kirsten Marini, in her second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., has developed a game to help train birders doing “point count” surveys on birds, and is looking for volunteers to test the training program.

The game consists of an initial challenge, then a set of smaller challenges of increasing difficulty, and a final challenge to see how much the birder has improved by the end. The birding game involves listening to a variety of bird songs during a five minute period, so you’ll need a media player such as a smartphone, laptop, or tablet.

If you want to play the game, email Kristen at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca and she’ll send you the full instructions on October 30th. The game officially starts on November 2nd and runs until mid-December.

I’m happy to have been able to interview Kristen for this post, and I hope you enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the game. Hopefully readers will be interested in helping Kristen by taking part in her study!

Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please, including your studies.

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With my dads’ tame pigeon, this one is a couple years old but is a favourite of mine.

Kristen: I’m in my second year of the Master of Environmental Science program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops, B.C., studying how urbanization affects the reproductive success and song of Mountain Chickadees. For that, I spend the spring and early summer monitoring breeding chickadees in both urban and rural habitats, and measuring how well their offspring grow and survive. I also record males while they are singing during the dawn chorus to see how song changes in urban environments. I’ve only just started the analysis of my data, so I don’t quite know yet if chickadees are affected by urbanization.

At the same time I am working in partnership with Golder Associates to develop a distance estimation training program that they can use to improve both the species identification accuracy and distance estimation abilities of their employees who are doing bird point count surveys. This is what the bird game is ultimately for!

When I’m not at school working on one of these projects, I like going out hiking with my dachshunds, kayaking, and trying to learn how to rock climb!

These are some 6 day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every 3 days until they are 12 days old.

“These are some six-day old mountain chickadee nestlings. We band them with a unique CWS band, then weigh and measure them every three days until they are 12 days old.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

A 9 day old mountain chickadee nestling. By 9 days they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.

“A nine-day old Mountain Chickadee nestling. By nine days, they are starting to look more like birds, their flight feathers are starting to erupt, and most of their body feathers are filling in. This little guy has a silver CWS band on his right leg so that we can re-identify him, and a PIT tag on his left leg so that we can track his movements.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Kristen: I’ve always been interested in nature and animals, doing lots of camping and hiking when I was growing up, but I only really became seriously interested in birding about four or five years ago. I started a research project with a really amazing professor at TRU, Dr. Matt Reudink, looking at how habitat influences colour in American Redstart feathers. Matt loves birds, and is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them, it really got me interested in learning more about birds. The first time I held a bird, probably a little Mountain Chickadee, I was hooked and I knew I wanted to keep studying birds.

PB: For your current M.Sc. research project, you’ve developed a birding game to help birders sharpen their identification skills. How did you come up with this idea? How does the game fit into your research project?

Kristen: I created this birding game as part of a project I am working on for Golder Associates [a civil/geotechnical and environmental consulting corporation]. They were looking for ways to improve the distance estimation accuracy and species identification skills of their employees, so that when they are out doing point count surveys, they can be as accurate as possible. Initially, I came up with a training program consisting of two tests set up to simulate what a real point count would be like, and a training tape for volunteers to listen to. The results show that people did improve and become more accurate after training, but many volunteers had a hard time completing the training because it wasn’t very interactive or engaging.

So we came up with a game! There are still two tests, an initial test (to assess the baseline volunteers’ skills) and a final test at the end (to see how much they’ve improved by), but the training now consists of a set of small, themed challenges, that start off easy and become increasingly more difficult. As volunteers complete these challenges they will get personalized feedback, and maybe a few cheesy bird puns.

I’m hoping that by creating more game-like training, volunteers will be more engaged and motivated to compete against themselves and finish the game.

Kristen and a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.

“With a Cedar Waxwing that the volunteers at the Iona Beach [BC] banding station let me hold a couple weeks ago.” (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: Can anyone participate in the game, and how long should it take to play? Are there levels available for beginning birders, intermediate birders, and advanced birders?

Kristen: Anyone who is interested is welcome to participate! It is a bit of a challenge, I initially geared the overall difficulty level toward people who are fairly experienced birders doing point count surveys as part of their job, but I have had fairly inexperienced birders successfully complete the training. Because each birder is competing against themselves, there is no minimum experience requirement, I just ask that volunteers self-assess their skills before beginning and rank themselves as either a beginner, intermediate, or expert birder. The total time required to complete the game will vary with each birder, as each volunteer is instructed to train until they feel ready to move on. It could be from as little as 1.5 hours for someone who is already very comfortable with identifying birds by song, up to around six or eight hours for someone who is less experienced.

PB: You’re targeting boreal forest species, and Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher, in the game. Can you tell us why you’re focusing on these species?

Kristen: Many of the point counts are being conducted by Golder are in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, so these species were chosen to be representative of what their employees would encounter while out conducting a point count survey.

A mountain chickadee that we just finished banding.

A Mountain Chickadee that we just finished banding. (Photo courtesy Kristen Marini)

PB: How will you analyze the results at the end of the study period?

Kristen: At the end of the study, I will basically be looking at two main things: how did species identification accuracy change and how did distance estimation accuracy change? By comparing each volunteer’s score before and after training, I will be able to assess how the skills of each volunteer changed, as well as how each skill class (beginner, intermediate, or expert) changed overall.

Based on the results from the first time I tried this, what I’m expecting to see is that after training birders will be able to correctly identify more species as well as estimate the distances to these species more accurately.

PB: Do you think you might turn the game into an app or computer program?

Kristen: This is something that we talked about doing, but with the time line and budget for my project, turning it into an app or online game just wasn’t feasible.

Thank you, Kristen, for telling us more about your project. As a reminder, for anyone interested in helping Kristen test the program, please contact her by Friday, October 30th at kristen-marini AT mytru DOT ca

Interview with Mya-Rose Craig

I’m pleased to present this interview with Mya-Rose Craig, a young British birder. I emailed May-Rose my questions, and she graciously sent her replies, which I hope you enjoy reading.

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Prairie Birder: Tell me a little bit about yourself, please.

all photographs copyright Oliver Edwards mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards
mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

Mya-Rose: My name is Mya-Rose Craig, I am 13 years old and live in Somerset, UK. I love birding and banding and feel strongly about conservation and environmental issues. I go birding locally around my local patch, Chew Valley Lake, where I also go banding. I have been banding for 4 years. I also love world birding and love getting to know the birds in a new country. I write a blog called birdgirl, write articles (I have a column in my local paper), give talks about my birding and conservation, and most of all want to be an activist.

PB: How and when did you first become interested in birding?

Mya-Rose: I have been birding all my life. My parents are birders and by the time I was born, my older sister Ayesha was 12 years old and was a birder too. I just got taken along everywhere they went and as I got a bit older, I loved doing everything that my cool teenage sister liked. Then when I was old enough to decide for myself, at about four or five years old, I decided that nature and birding were what I wanted to do too.

PB: You often go twitching with your family. What is twitching for anyone not familiar with it? And what was your first twitch?

Mya-Rose: I think people sometimes make the difference between twitching and birding into a really big one. At times, one merges into another. Birding is when you go out a place just to see what you see there, which might include knowing that it is good for a certain type of bird at that time of year, which you might see.

Twitching is when you travel (sometimes a very long way) to see a specific bird that is lost and out of its range. So for example, in the UK that might be a bird from America or from Russia. Three American birds that I have seen this spring, that were new on my British list, were Great Blue Heron, Hudsonian Godwit, and Hudsonian Whimbrel. Twitching is very exciting as you do not know if the bird will still be there when you got there. I am very lucky because my parents will take me to see a bird that is new for me even if they have already seen one in Britain. My British list is now 499! Because of the size of my British list, we only go twitching about once a month.

My first twitch was to the Isles of Scilly (islands off the southwest tip of England) for a Lesser Kestrel when I was only nine days old. That was when I was introduced to all of Britain’s top twitchers, as they like to remind me whenever they see me. Obviously, I can’t count that. Mum had a Caesarean and had only been out of hospital three days when we did the trip. She couldn’t even walk and had to get a cab to the bird.

Then when I was just over one [year old], we went to see a Black Lark in North Wales. It was the first time one had been seen in the UK but when we got there the bird was quite tame. This is usually because the bird is from somewhere so remote it doesn’t know to be scared of humans. As the bird came close to my pram, I pointed at it and shouted, a little bit too loudly, “Birdie!” That was my fourth ever word.

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

All photographs copyright Oliver Edwards
mail@oliveredwardsphotography.com

PB: What have some of your birding highlights been?

Mya-Rose: In 2009, when I was only six years old, I decided to join my mum and dad in doing a Big Year in the UK. I had a brilliant year, seeing 324 bird species and most of all, my birding skills really improved just from being out in the field every weekend.

The most amazing birding event of that year and probably of my life was when in the summer we decided to go to a coastal headland to look for seabirds flying past. We were hoping for a Cory’s Shearwater (which I still need). It was pouring with rain and was a miserable morning. Then suddenly, someone called “Albatross”. He said it so calmly, he could have been calling “gull”. I don’t know about in Canada and North America, but here Albatrosses are incredibly rare and seeing one fly past is a one in a million event. After a few seconds, we realised that it wasn’t a joke and we all tried to find the bird. Luckily, it did a circle giving me great views through my telescope. There were only 14 of us who saw the bird then and it is a day I will never forget, even though I was only seven years old.

I had my year list on a website called Surfbirds but someone had it taken down as they didn’t believe that a seven-year-old could have seen an albatross. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you are a young birder in Britain.

Then the BBC wanted to include me in a programme, so they followed us about for 10 days and made Twitchers: A Very British Obsession. I really enjoyed being filmed for the programme but was a little silly sometimes, as you can’t be good all the time when you are seven years old.

PB: Have you found some advantages and disadvantages to being a young birder?

Mya-Rose: The downside first, I have been subject to cyberbullying from British birders (adults and people in their late teens/early twenties). This is really upsetting and has had an impact on me.

After I was in the 2010 BBC documentary, a large number of birders made judgments about me based on adult behaviour rather than that of a seven-year-old child. There were lots of comments posted on a website called “Birdforum”. People think it’s ok to be mean about you on the internet and don’t see you as a real person.

One big female Norfolk UK blogger thought it was ok for her to be mean and take the p*** out of a seven-year-old which had nothing to do with Norfolk birding. I found the comments last year, but when Mum told her how upset I was, and asked her to post that she was wrong about me not being interested in birds (because I was still birding five years later), she refused.

The advantages of being a young birder is that you have time to do lots of birding and get lots of experience before other people have even started. Also, your eyesight and hearing are much better than an adult’s. I pick birds up really quickly. I think that as you get older, you have more and more facts jammed into your head. Without that, there is lots of space for birding information. There are always some birders who are interested in you and want a chat.

PB: Out of all the species on your very impressive Life List, do you have a favourite?

Mya-Rose: My favourite bird in the world is the Southern Cassowary, which you get in Queensland, Australia and which I saw in 2013. It grows to about six feet tall and is closely related to a dinosaur. The male looks after the chicks. One kick from one and you are dead.

PB: You’ve traveled to many different countries for birding; where is one place you’d like to visit that you haven’t been to already? And to where would you like to return to spend more time?

Mya-Rose: I would really like to go birding in Brazil, where I haven’t been at all. We were meant to be going next summer but with the Olympics, we might have to wait a year or two. I’d love to go to the Pantanal and see Jaguar, go to the Amazon from Manaus and bird in the Atlantic rainforest.

I would really like to go back to Australia. We spent a summer camper-vanning around Queensland but I would like to go back and go to Top End (Darwin) and the rest of Australia, but I think it would take ages. It would be amazing to drive inland too. I have lots of species still to see in Australia.

PB: Do you have a “nemesis bird” that you are hoping to see this year?

Mya-Rose: Here, that’s called a bogey bird. My most common British bird that I still haven’t seen is Little Auk, which is a sea bird. The problem is that you can only see them in certain wind conditions during November on the east coast of Britain and I live on the west side of the country. I really hope to pin one down this autumn.

Mya baby photos birding

PB: Do you have any ideas for getting other young birders and naturalists interested in birding and nature conservation programs?

Mya-Rose: Yes, this is actually something that I have been working really hard on. I have written articles on tips for getting children into nature and birds, including this one.

I think that it is important for children to be taught about nature and conservation in school in Science and Geography lessons and in practical sessions outside school at Guides and Scouts.

I have done workshops in Scouts and Guides and taken Scouts out birding to see Nightjar. Young people have been really engaged in these sessions.

I think it is essential that young people learn about these issues and so I have contacted teaching unions, to see if I can speak at their Annual Conferences as well at the Annual Conferences for the main [political] parties.

In June I also organised a camp for young birders and tried to get non-birding ethnic minority teenagers to attend as well. This went really well, with six out of 14 teenagers being from an ethnic minority. I am also carrying out research into diversity in nature.

PB: Who are some of the people you look up to in the birding community?

Mya-Rose: The top birder I look up to is Phoebe Snetsinger. She raised the bar in world birding and also kept really amazing records.

Other people who inspire me are Sir Peter Scott, and David Attenborough and Steve Backshall, who both appear on nature television.

PB: Are you looking to building a career around birds in your future?

Mya-Rose: I would like to be a wildlife TV presenter. I plan to get a degree in Zoology, then go on expeditions to remote places, trying to find new species or find out more about rare species and be filmed along the way.

My Interview with Birds and Words

While I was in Europe, I received an email from Julia Zarankin asking if she could interview me for her blog, Birds and Words which is part of the Coyot.es Network. Here’s Julia’s blog post with my interview if you’d like to read it.

I had lots of fun working on the answers for Julia’s questions. Thank you for the opportunity, Julia, and for all of your very kind and generous words!

A Great Crested Grebe in France,

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An Interview with ABA Big Year Birder Neil Hayward: Part 2

(Here is Part 1 of my interview with Big Year birder Neil Hayward).

PB: What sort of preparations did you do to make the most of your time?

Neil: I spent a lot of time on eBird earlier in the year trying to optimize which sites to visit to pick up the most species. It’s important to know which species to ignore, knowing you can find them later, as it is knowing which ones to focus on. I had a rough schedule of what I’d be doing in each month, and which birds I’d be getting when and where. As I got closer to each month I’d refine my strategy. The first part of the year — getting all the regular birds — requires a lot of planning and strategizing so that by the second half of the year you have enough time to suddenly abandon trips and chase rarities. You’re always thinking in terms of time — getting a bird early can save you time later in the year (time not spent at home, but out chasing something else!).

PB: Which field guide(s) did you use? Printed books or field guide apps?

Neil: I always had the National Geographic [Field Guide to the Birds of North America] with me. I love the 6th Edition (link here). I’ve never really used the Nat Geo before — mainly as I haven’t liked the illustrations. The 6th edition has much better images, the subspecies range maps are fantastic, and the text is very educational (at least for me — I always learn something new whenever I leaf through it).

I usually have a Sibley with me. I think the illustrations are better, but there are many species (the rarer ones, as well as some of the recent splits, like Cackling Goose) that aren’t in Sibley. In order to keep it concise and clear, there’s also no real discussion (or naming) of subspecies, which I think is a shame.

As for apps, I really prefer having a book (even though that takes up packing space), although I do have and use the iBird app [link here]. I find the calls on there very helpful.

A Red-necked Stint, Massachusetts (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Red-necked Stint, Massachusetts (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: What did you pack, and what gear do you recommend? Is there anything you packed in 2013 that you would not bring along on another Big Year? Is there anything you did not pack that you wish you had?

Neil: I never checked luggage. I couldn’t afford the extra time waiting to collect it, or the possibility of it being delayed or lost. (And — these days you often have to pay for checked luggage.) I had a large enough sports bag that I could pack my tripod, scope, camera together with a minimum of clothes (including full thermal underwear). I took my scope with me everywhere — since almost all my photos were digiscoped, it doubled as my main camera too. My other bag had bins, laptop and books (bird and fiction). I got pretty good at packing the bare essentials. By the middle of the year, I was toting a neck pillow, which was wonderful on flights as well as doubling as a pillow when sleeping in rental cars! If I could pack anything else, it would have been some books on tape or more NPR podcasts. Somehow I never seemed to have enough time to plan that!

PB: Were your non-birding family and friends understanding about the demands on your time?

Neil: Yes! My girlfriend especially so. She was very supportive and understood that we often couldn’t make plans for even the following day, as I could be on a plane chasing something. It would be hard to imagine doing the year without having her support and help.

PB: What were some of the bird highlights of your year?

Neil: All of them were special! But seeing Red-necked Stint in my home state was pretty special (I’d chased this bird several times, here and in the UK, and it was turning into a bit of a nemesis bird!). Also — Mountain Quail, which seemed to take forever before I eventually tracked them down.

Adak was [such] a big risk in terms of time (being away from the rest of the US with the possibility of being stranded there) that coming over a rise on the second day, and seeing those three Whooper Swans made it all worthwhile. That was a great moment.

I spent almost eight hours sitting in front of Kubo Lodge in Madera Canyon, AZ waiting for Berylline Hummingbird. Despite (or because of) the wait, it was a wonderful day — watching the other hummers come in to feed while chatting with visiting birders. And when the Berylline finally appeared around 6 pm, it was one of the most stunning birds I’d seen all year.

Also — all the wonderful breeding bird colors in Nome. The Red-throated Loons were spectacular, as were the Steller’s Eider, Bluethroats, and Long-tailed Jaegers.

One of my favorite birds was Emperor Goose. They’re so delicately patterned with such an interesting reversal of light and dark on their necks, and such silly bright legs. I had some great views of them on Adak. We always stopped the vehicle for Emperor Geese!

A Kirtland's Warbler, Michigan  (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Kirtland’s Warbler, Michigan (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: What were some of the highlights of your year, in terms of experiences rather than birds?

Neil: One of the real highlights was making lots of new friends. One of my favorite trips was in Nome in June where I met Hans de Grys [link here]. We were similar in age and birding experience. He was ending his (mid-year to mid-year big year) as I was less than half way through mine. We got on immediately, and had a lot of fun.

I also became good friends with Jay Lehman — the other calendar year Big Year birder in 2013 [link here]. We ended up meeting in lots of places, chasing the same birds and sharing lots of information. It was a real joy spending time with Jay. While some may think that Big Years are competitive, they’re anything but. Only those doing a Big Year are aware of the exhaustion and stress involved, and as such, we spent a lot of time trying to make it easier for each other. I’m still in touch with Hans and Jay, as I am with many other birders I met during the year.

PB: Aside from busy times chasing after birds, a Big Year means lots of down time while traveling and waiting around for that rarity. What did you think about besides the next bird(s), and what did you learn about yourself from doing a Big Year?

Neil: I spent a lot of time thinking about the next birds! There wasn’t as much down time as you might imagine. Often, I’d be driving all day, and in the only time I had free I had to eat, plan the next day or two, and then think about pelagics and Alaska trips later in the year. Oh — and download and edit photos and write an interesting blog post. But… when I wasn’t doing any of that, I read a lot of fiction.

The long road distances did mean I had plenty of time to think though. When I wasn’t listening to the radio (mostly NPR), I’d think a lot about what the whole Big Year thing meant. It’s not something to enter into lightly. It’s a huge time and money commitment. I often asked myself why I was doing it. What I wanted to achieve.

A Red-throated Loon, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Red-throated Loon, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

PB: I know you have only just finished your Big Year, but do you think you might write a book about your year, as Sandy Komito did?

Neil: One of the things I enjoyed most about my Big Year was keeping a blog. At first, I thought it would be a hassle, having to document everything, and something essentially I’d be doing for other people. But as the year progressed, I looked forward to each post. How would I tell the same story differently? What angle should I take? How do I make it interesting and engaging for a non-birder? Writing forces you to do some research and understand your subject better. I learned a lot more about birds, geography, and culture by writing about it. Without my blog, I’d have missed a lot of the other things that were going on in the year. While I was always thinking about the reader, it became something I wrote primarily for myself.

A lot of people have asked about a book. Of course, I’d love to be a published author and have a book. Who wouldn’t?! Unfortunately, that means writing it! It’s a completely different format from a blog, and requires a different way of structuring the material and presenting it. I’m guessing it would also take another year. In terms of getting a publisher interested, I’d have to demonstrate that there’s a market for this type of book. I’m writing a couple of articles for publication now, which should tell me whether I like sitting at home all day and writing!

An Interview with ABA Big Year Birder Neil Hayward: Part 1

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.

Sandy Komito and Neil Hayward, Halfmoon Bay CA. Photo taken by Debi Shearwater and supplied by Neil Hayward

Neil Hayward (at right) with Sandy Komito, Half Moon Bay, California; photo by Debi Shearwater and graciously provided by 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.

A Bluethroat, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Bluethroat, Alaska (photo by Neil Hayward)

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 [2012] I had more free time this year [2013], 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.

A Great Skua, North Carolina (photo by Neil Hayward)

A Great Skua, North Carolina (photo by Neil Hayward)

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!

I’m at Backyard Chirper’s Into the Air Blog for an interview

Tim at Backyard Chirper’s Into the Air blog just interviewed me. Here’s the blog post if you would like to read the interview. I had lots of fun doing it. Thank you very much for asking me, Tim, and for all of your very kind and generous words!

And here’s a Northern Waterthrush I saw yesterday,