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Q&A with Big Year Record Holder John Weigel

In 2016, Devil Ark board member and GWC collaborator John Weigel twitched and ticked through North America trying to break the record for most birds seen in a year. He was Birding for Devils, raising awareness and funds for Devil Ark. Not only did he shatter the former record by 34 birds, but he beat out all of the competition and is now the record holder at 783 birds. In this Q&A, we talked to John about what the frenetic year was like–the ups and the downs.

Q. What was your winning strategy?
A. I spent much of the later half of 2015 planning my assault on the ABA birding record. My initial well-thought-out and tightly scheduled itinerary of birding for 2016 might as well have been tossed out of the window of my rental car during my first week of January. The name of the game, as had become apparent so early on–and throughout the first five months of my Big Year, was to find out early about rarities turning up anywhere within the defined ABA area (all states except Hawaii, plus Canada) and get there within hours. In effect, my year of ‘seeing the United States’ turned largely into a year of airports, flights, rental cars and motels. I learned about the need to find these birds swiftly and to be off for the next rarity as quickly as humanly, and flight schedule-wise, possible. There would be time later in the year, when the seemingly never-ending stream of vagrant birds from all directions of the ABA boundary slowed down, to chase the resident birds–especially the 672 so-called ‘common’ species. The rest was pretty straightforward: put the foot on the accelerator, and never let up; chase regions rather than species at strategically determined times, and don’t miss anything; enlist the help of others whenever possible.

Yellow-headed Blackbird (Photo by John Weigel)

Q. What was the most rewarding part of the year?
Although by the end of the year I was feeling like ‘damaged goods’, those final days on Adak with Robyn, who came out to more or less prop me up on no fewer than six occasions during the year, with the perfect conclusion of a trio of Whooper Swans (the only record for ABA area I believe, for several years), was the most unforgettable of my positive experiences. Also my two weeks on the glorious Hawaiian islands – tempered by knowledge of the unfolding reality that so many of the native bird species are now gone, with others that I did manage to see, likely to disappear within the next five to ten years.

John at a Black Swift nesting site, and the bird that got John the new ABA record of 750. (Photo courtesy of John Weigel)

Q. What was the hardest part of the year?
I found it very difficult to get through my extended periods on the remote Alaskan Islands during the Spring and Summer migration seasons. The causes of these difficulties were varied, and extended well beyond the ‘roughing it’ nature of those remote places. Still, those are spectacular places with potential for great adventure, and I do hope to return to the islands under different circumstances one day.

Q. Which species was ‘the one that got away?’
Too many, and too painful to recount. Can’t go there without crying!

Iceland Gulls on a Hatteras Pelagic trip in February. (Photo by John Weigel)

Q. What tips would you give someone else contemplating a Big Year?
Quick answer:  don’t! It was tough enough setting a new record, I don’t want somebody to break it so soon.

(Top photo: Great Egret by John Weigel)

Read John’s blog post about his last few days

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About the Author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the associate director of communications for Global Wildlife Conservation and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.