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The End of My Big Year of Birding (for Devils)

Well, it’s over. Seemingly five busy years somehow compressed into 366 tumultuous days. My one and only tilt at an ABA Big Year ‘belt’ is over, a fact that is only beginning to sink in, though I’ve been home for two weeks while the 2016 road dust has slowly settled.

It was a year that rarely provided enough time for proper reflection and appreciation of the places I experienced and the birds I followed. It was equally true that having grossly underestimated what it would take to win the thing, I was not able to work as closely with the Global Wildlife Conservation team in the promotion of our collaborative work at Devil Ark to avert the extinction of the Tasmanian Devil. As they (possibly) say, somewhere in the blur of rural American regions I tore through like a binocular-clad comet: “I wish but that it were different, but it weren’t!” Fortunately, my Devil Ark co-managers continued to work closely with the GWC team, with considerable support generated for the project through my birding, anyway.

Adak, Alaska, last day of 2016. (Photo by John Weigel)

In a way it was a good thing I didn’t let up on the bird-chasing accelerator pedal throughout 2016–it wasn’t until just before sunset on New Year’s eve on remote Adak Island 750 miles off the Alaskan coastline that I saw a final species for the year–a wayward trio of Whooper Swans that had made a left turn when they should have made a right, heading south from Russia a month or two before. I’d received word of the swans after they had been seen by one of the 50 residents of the island very early in December, and along with my wife Robyn (who visited me on the road no fewer than six times during the course of the year), had taken a big gamble that the birds would stick around until the very close of the year. Heading out to Adak on the three-hour twice-a-week flight out of Anchorage two days earlier was risky business–not just because of the notoriously finicky Aleutian weather that sees a high proportion of flights cancelled, but also, that conditions on the island roads would allow me to traverse the hilly terrain to search the many mountain-fed lakes for the swans.

It was risky to assume the birds would still be on the island by the time I arrived, and risky that by committing to the absence from the mainland, that no super-rarities would show up while I was away. Unfortunately, one such bird was in fact reported on the morning of the 31st–in Florida: a Bananaquit. This, I knew, is a small yet spectacularly colourful bird normally confined to the Caribbean as well as Central and South America, that shows up in Florida maybe once every five years. Although the timing would have been tight from almost anywhere in the lower 48, I believe I could have made it to the Broward County Florida neighbourhood long before sundown New Year’s eve for the Bananaquit. But not from Adak–no way.

Adak, Alaska, last day of 2016, and the way I felt. (Photo by John Weigel)

But any disappointment and frustration surrounding the Bananaquit was forgotten during the final hour of 2016 daylight, when searching the last of perhaps 20 ponds and lakes on the twice-daily four-hour driving circuit Robyn and I had been undertaking with increasing tension. A horizontal scan of the two-mile wide Andrew Lake with my trusty tripod-mounted birding telescope stopped when the trio of Whooper Swans (two adults and one young) appeared in my view about a half-mile out–but this vision from heaven took a while to register in my brain. I was more than a little bit overcome by the moment and couldn’t really stop the gushing overflow of bottled-up and angst and other emotions that had consumed far too much of my year away from home.

The moment represented the close of a roller-coaster of a year, which had me jetting, driving and walking back and forth across not just continental North America north of the Rio Grande, scouring the vagrant-likely Alaskan islands for more than nine weeks during the Spring and Autumn Russian bird migration seasons, and spending well over a month at sea in all manner of vessels, from three-man punts to massive cruise-liners, on the way to setting a new American Birding Association (ABA) Big Year record. In all, I recorded 783 species within the defined ABA North American birding region, eclipsing the old record, which many thought unbreakable, by 34. Within the political boundaries of the 50 United States (yeah, I went to Hawaii for a two week ‘intensive’ mission!), I saw 834 species, annihilating the ‘USA’ birding record by more than 80 species.

Distant Whooper Swans Adak, Alaska, last day of 2016. (Photo by John Weigel)

What’s next? As I communicated to my friends at GWC: “I’m glad to be home, as Devil Ark has reached a milestone in terms of establishing effectiveness and applicability, and the need to grow. Devil Ark’s partnership with Global Wildlife has been the single most critical factor in the success and increasing applicability of the mission, and I look forward to working with the GWC team in the coming months. I cannot wait!”

(Top photo: John birding in Hawaii, which this year didn’t count as part of the Big Year. Photo by John Weigel)

Read a Q&A with John about his Big Year

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About the Author

John Weigel

John Weigel

John Weigel is founder and managing director of Devil Ark and director of Australian Reptile Park. John was a leader in the early approaches of the Australasian zoos association to the Tasmanian Government with the offer of help in averting the extinction of the Tasmanian Devil. By 2006 he had hatched the idea of a large-scale mainland conservation breeding facility for the species. Two years later he successfully ‘sold’ the Devil Ark concept to the diverse stakeholders of a three-day IUCN-initiated workshop in Hobart. Construction of the facility at Barrington Tops commenced 18 months later.