Intrepid birder and Devil Ark founder John Weigel is on the adventure of a lifetime, as he races across North America to beat the American Birding Association’s Big Year record for most bird species found in a single year. He’s up against time, the elements, delayed flights, confused Customs officials and a small group of individuals also out to set a new Big Year record.
Along the way, John is raising awareness and funds for Devil Ark, the largest breeding program for the Tasmanian Devil on mainland Australia, and one of GWC’s priority projects. You can follow John at his blog Birding for Devils and on GWC’s interactive Birding for Devils storymap. Support these efforts and the Tasmanian Devil today by making a donation.
We caught up with John by phone in Minnesota just minutes before he was setting out to try to find yellow rail. Here’s what he had to say so far about his Big Year.
Q. Why are you committed to the Big Year?
A. It started as the pure ambition to spend a year re-connecting with my mother country and exploring all of the natural places of the United States. That’s what I did in Australia for two big years and it was wonderful. The motivation behind it wasn’t to set the American Big Year record, that’s just what has shaped up. The old record is 749 birds.
The circumstance this year for Big Year birding is uniquely influenced by the occurrence of an El Niño climatic conditions. These unusual weather patterns have resulted in a great influx of rare birds entering the North American ABA region (the lower 48, Alaska and Canada, that’s the area, it doesn’t include Puerto Rico) from both the South and from Asia. They come from the Bahamas and Mexico, up into Texas and Florida. But other species have also been bombing the United States in crazy places all over, in New York and Ohio. On the one hand, it’s allowed me to become a serious contender for the setting of a new record, but to date it has required an enormous amount of travel and spontaneous decisions to jump from one part of the country to the other and then back, north and south.
I didn’t know it would be the ride of my life. We’ve gone through the crazy periods where I had to chase down every single rarity and I was literally on a flight everyday and the four hours sleep and the whole thing. Now I’m chasing down common birds that I hadn’t been.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish through Birding for Devils?
A. This “Big Year” of birding idea is a big deal to the American birding community and was the subject of a movie flop that has become a cult film with the birding community in America, called “The Big Year.”
I love looking for birds, searching for birds, I love finding birds. I was fortunate enough over the last period of time to have been able to execute two big years in Australia where I basically just loaded up the car with camping gear and disappeared for a year with periodic visits from my wife. That was an incredible adventure on both occasions. Now that I’m at the halfway point of this American Big Year, I can say that it has been wonderful to use the excuse of birding to explore unimaginably beautiful areas in a wide range of states, from California to Maine in search of rare birds.
The underlying goal, however is to work with GWC to raise awareness and funds for Devil Ark, the most important project to me, ever. I’m very pleased about the support from GWC, in particular the continued support has been the primary reason that Devil Ark is an ongoing success. Together it is my hope that we can play a role in averting the extinction of the iconic Tasmanian Devil.
Q. How did you get into birding?
A. Tim Faulkner, general manager of Devil Ark and Australian Reptile Park, is infectious and played a huge role. We were building Devil Ark at the time and we were driving back and forth, it’s a four-hour drive from the Reptile Park, and he purported to be counting bird species. He’d say 13 and then say 14 and I’d say “c’mon mate, you haven’t seen 14 species of birds.” And he’d say “yeah, yeah, look at that one there.” So he handed me his binoculars and we looked at this bird and to this day I say it was a flame robin, but he says it was a scarlett robin and wow, that little brown bird was electric with colors and behavior and that was it, I was hooked. I had a pair of binoculars two days later, I was on a one-week trip a week after that and I was on a two-week trip a couple of weeks after that.
Q. What are some of the obstacles to breaking the record?
A. I have about 60 common birds to chase down. I chose to go to Attu Island and the remote areas of Alaska for all of May and into June and wiser people said that’s perhaps not a great idea because all of these birds aren’t going to be singing anymore. Like today, I got a Connecticut Warbler and a Morning Warbler and a Black-Billed Cuckoo and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but they were all really hard because they’re not calling that much. They’re all sitting on eggs now. They’re on nests. So an obstacle to me is if I don’t get all 60 of them, if I miss just four or five birds, that could be fatal.
Q. What are some of the rarest birds that you’ve seen?
A. It’s been wonderful to see California Condors flying at the Pinnacles National Monument. What a sight! To see whooping cranes in Texas was just mind-blowing. I’ve seen two species this year that have never been recorded in the North American region, the Cuban Vireo and the Pine Flycatcher. And to be the first one to see a super-rare bird that occurred this year—the Zenaida dove from the Bahamas—that was wild. Those are some of the many memorable birds that I’ve seen.
Q. What is that moment like for you when you realize what bird you’re hearing or seeing?
A. It feels really good. It’s not just high fives and “what’s next.” There is some of that, but as you get to know birds better and better, you realize some of the conservation issues surrounding them. This is particularly true with some of the shorebirds: their days are numbered. That puts another blush on it.
Q. What has been the most hard-to-get place you’ve had to travel to so far?
Alaska’s Attu Island, which is next to Siberia. It’s the end of the Aleutian chain and missions to go there only happen every three years. Our boat was four days late picking us up at Adak Island and it’s an incredibly remote place. By far that was the hardest, but I found a number of extreme rarities there, including the Rustic Bunting, Short-tailed Albatross, Grey-tailed Tattler and Pin-tailed Snipe.
Q. Why are you committed to the Tasmanian Devil?
Anyone who’s had an encounter of any sort with a Tasmanian Devil will attest to the unique characteristics of the largest-living marsupial predator. It is a spectacular creature of much more grace than the Taz character that the American public is more familiar with.
This is the first conservation challenge that I could see from the sidelines that has a resolvable pathway. With devils we just have to maintain genetic variation while the disease burns out or we just preserve genetic variation that’s going to be important to their ongoing conservation. The other thing that appealed to me is that there are a number of vertebrate species in Tasmania that used to be on the mainland and are now extinct on the mainland because of the devil’s absence as a predator. We need to keep it there indefinitely.
I’m optimistic largely because GWC has shown that they too share our vision. Together, we can succeed for the Devil.