Monday, January 05, 2015

How Big?

I've mentioned it before, but this is the last time. Probably. 2014 was my Big Year. For North American birders my use of this phrase will be a debasement. For birders in that part of the world a Big Year is a real competition - if only with yourself. It has fixed geographical limits and a limited but clear set of rules. For those of us elsewhere, influenced by Mark Obmascik's book and the subsequent film, a Big Year has become any year in which we see more birds than we could reasonably have hoped to see in 365 days in any geographical area, up to and including the entire globe. Or perhaps to be more accurate it's the year in which we see more birds than we can reasonably expect to see in a given area for the rest of our lives.

So having a Big Year is still a Big Deal, even if it's not the ABA-approved version. Declaring yourself to have had one is, in a way, an admission that you've hit the peak and that it's essentially all downhill from here. There will still be new birds, and glorious surprises, and reprises of old friends you haven't seen for years. But they'll be scattered over time, not concentrated in a single year. You've had your winning streak and it's time to cash-in. So, then, you've won, and the the next question is - How Big?

The answer, in my case, is 580 species, including a staggering 164 lifers, according to the Birdlife Taxonomic list. This will probably seem rather paltry in comparison to some of the lists you see around. One of the bloggers on 10,000 Birds had a list of over 1100 species in 2013. That's more than my life list. But that's the point. Everything's relative. My year list this year represents more than half the species I've seen in my 42 years on the planet. That's not small news, at least for me. So what explains it?

In three words, "Africa" and "voluntary unemployment". The first is obvious enough. I started the year living in Kenya, which, from a lifestyle and birding point of view, was incredible. I had Amethyst Sunbirds (Nectarinia amethystina) in my garden. I had Nairobi National Park on my doorstep, which apart from providing the odd sensation of seeing wild Lions (Panthera leo) only a few kilometres from my home, is also an extraordinary birding location. I've racked up 110 species there in a single day, and the legendary Brian Finch, who compiled the bird check-list for the park, has managed up to 200.

Amethyst Sunbird (Nectarinia amethystina) - one of three regular species of sunbird in our Nairobi garden. They were all stunning.
But the problem we had in Kenya is that I had an utterly dreadful job - the worst, by far, of my career. Something had to give, and in the end it was me. I resigned in February, and thanks to the absurd amount of leave I was entitled to had two months with my feet up before we had to depart the country. I used it to the full, taking time to visit the coast and, more extraordinarily, doing a five-day walk from the Laikipia Plateau to the edge of the Samburu reserve with two friends, five camels and five guides. Some of the best nights of my life, these were, sleeping under the stars and watching Liechtenstein's Sandgrouse
(Pterocles lichtensteinii) flying in to water themselves on the edge of the Uaso Nyiro River after dusk, while Elephant (Loxodonta africana) trumpeted in the distance.

My bed next to the Uaso Nyiro river on the walk from Laikipia to Samburu. Bliss.
We left Africa in May, with great regret, and had two months in the Balkans (my old stamping ground and my wife's homeland) before moving to Belgium in July. So I mixed things up a bit, birding-wise, and was surprisingly lucky with my sightings in Europe. And with the new job I started in the summer I still got to travel to Africa - and so added further to my already extensive list. Is there any kind of lesson here, aside from bloody-mindedness and dumb luck on my part? Well, for a start birding requires leisure, and a bit of time off, apart from being good for the soul and giving you a bit of self-belief, does wonders for your year list. But though I'm not superstitious I find it hard to avoid seeing something karmic in this year's experience. My awful job takes the appearance of a test, and my decision to face up to that test by resigning from the post - with all the risks this entailed for my future career and the present well-being of my family - was rewarded not only with a fantastic new job after a decent pause, but also with a plethora of birds. In short, the gods of birding smiled on me, and I took advantage.

I'm attempting to add my year list for 2014 (and this year) to the side bar, and when I've worked out how to do that I'll add my life list for good measure. So I'm not going to go through this incredible twelve months blow-by-blow. But I would like to highlight some of the really outstanding birds of the year for me.

Amongst the top five have to be two species I saw with the help of local birding guide Jonathan Baya in the strange Arabuko-Sokoke forest near Watamu on the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya. I plan to write more about the extraordinary three days' birding he laid on for me, but for now let me mention the strange Sokoke Scops-owl (Otus ireneae) that he managed to track down for me with the help of a friend, and the even stranger Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis) - a bird masquerading as a mouse in its behaviour and about as easy to see. Neither of these birds is really stunning to look at, but they're both staggeringly rare on a global scale, so it's a real privilege to see them. And they're also - particularly the Pipit - pretty odd to boot.

Jonathan Baya demonstrating both the tight habitat of - and the required stance when tracking - the Sokoke Scops-owl (Otus ireneae). There was a pair about 5 metres from our position.
Is it a bird? Is it a mouse? It's a Sokoke Pipit (Anthus sokokensis)
From my walk in the north of Kenya the bird I was happiest about at the time was probably a stunning Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) which dashed past one of our camps below the level of the river bank and only a few metres away. But on reflection I think the best bird of that trip was probably the Golden-breasted Starling (Cosmopsarus regius), a species which was much more common than I'd expected but just as beautiful.

Golden-breasted Starling (Cosmopsarus regius) - not shy, and why would it be?
The last African bird of my top five is probably the Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) I saw on the wires of Mogadishu Airport in Somalia. The situation in Mogadishu is such that birds aren't exactly a priority, even for me, but this one was hard to miss nevertheless. A real stunner.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater (Merops nubicus) with an Acacia twig doing a good impression of the barbed wire I saw it on
Returning to Europe I'm surprised by the level of choice I have for bird of the year. The Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) I saw at Het Zwin would probably make top spot if it weren't for another bird I'd seen only a few weeks earlier. I've never had much of a chance to do pelagic birding. We used regularly to take ferries to Ireland and France when I was a kid but, although Dad is a birder as well, we never seemed to see much from them. I began to get more luck when we last lived in Brussels - seeing Manx Shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) and Great Skuas (Catharacta skua) on the boat from Dunkirk to Dover. But I wasn't prepared for the bonanza I got from that same ferry this year in September when, approaching Dunkirk, I was greeted not only by sizeable number of Manx's but also by at least ten Balearic Shearwaters (Puffinus mauretanicus). The listing of this bird as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List has been controversial and is likely to be downgraded. But still, they're not common and I hadn't expected to see one, let alone in the English Channel not far from the French coast. So for sheer unexpectedness this species wins the prize for bird of the year 2014.

Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus) - not a stunner, but a big surprise and my bird of the year 2014.
But returning to the philosophy, if this was my Big Year, what does the future hold? Well, more surprises, as I've said. And even though I'm pretty convinced that this was the year, and it won't be bettered, I can never say never. There are whole swathes of the world I've never visited or worked on. Who knows what the future holds? I've only seen about a tenth of all the species of bird in the world, and even if I have no ambition to be a prolific life lister, I know that there's plenty more for me discover out there. And that's why I love that I've started this year with two birds I didn't see last year. It proves that there's something different around every corner, even the turn of a year.

No comments:

Post a Comment