Monday 21 November 2011

A numbers game (Big Year)

As I mentioned before, the Ontario Big Year record is 338 species, set by Glenn Coady in 1996. In preparing for my Big Year, I have categorized every Ontario species based on how likely I think I am to see it. 

I arbitrarily ranked the birds as either Code 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, based on what I think my relative chances are of seeing each species. Code 1 birds are guaranteed, and code 6 birds are highly unlikely. This categorization is fairly arbitrary – for instance, California Gull is an OBRC bird – meaning that it is rare enough in the province that documentation needs to be sent in to the Ontario Bird Records Committee if one sees the bird. Ruff, a Eurasian species of shorebird, is not an OBRC bird – meaning that it occurs regularly enough in the province, so there is no need to send in documentation if you see one. However, I have given Ruff “Code 4 status”, and California Gull “Code 3 status”, since California Gull observations have been increasing in frequency every since the first provincial record in the early 1980s. Now there seems to be one (or multiple) birds spending a few months on the Niagara River every winter, plus a few other individuals are seen through fall, winter, and spring migration. Ruff on the other hand is a tough species to nail down and rarely do more than 1 or 2 show up a year. I haven’t even seen one yet in Ontario. I think my chances of seeing California Gull (of which I’ve found 2, and seen ~4 others) are much higher than are my chances of seeing Ruff!
Note: I wrote this post before the last one on my big year (see: ). Since then I’ve tweaked the numbers a little bit (changed Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Townsend’s Solitaire from code 3 to code 4, among other things). The numbers don’t really line up with the other post because of this.

Code 1 birds include everything from exceedingly abundant (like European Starling) to common (like Stilt Sandpiper, Snow Bunting, or Chestnut-sided Warbler). These birds I am absolutely guaranteed to see on my Big Year – I cannot afford to miss a single one! I have 219 species ranked as Code 1 birds.

White-breasted Nuthatch (code 1) - going way back into the archives for this one!

 Code 2 birds are also very common, though they may be a little tough to get. This includes everything from annual winter specialties (like Pine Grosbeak and Snowy Owl) to uncommon breeding birds (like Sedge Wren, Acadian Flycatcher, and Prairie Warbler), to uncommon migrants (Red-necked Phalarope).  I listed 62 birds as Code 2. This makes a total of 281 birds which are Code 1 or 2. I cannot afford to miss a single one of these species.

Red-necked Phalarope (code 2)

 Code 3 is when it starts to get a little tricky. None of these birds are guaranteed on a big year, though if one is persistent enough one should get nearly all of these species. These include regular spring overshoots (Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager), rare breeding birds (King Rail), some of the owls (Boreal Owl), some of the rare gulls (Black-legged Kittiwake, Pomarine Jaeger), etc. Some species on this list, like Cave Swallows, are common some years but absent other years. It will take a lot of luck to get all the species on this list! Out of the 38 species listed, I will only be doing well if I get AT LEAST 33 of them. To break the record I will probably need to get all 38. 

Boreal Owl - perhaps my favorite Code 3 bird

Code 4 birds are generally OBRC birds, usually birds that show up 1-5 times annually (like Western Grebe). Some on this list however (like Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Mountain Bluebird) occur less than annually. Basically, all the Code 4 birds are genuine rarities and I can’t count on any of them to show up.  There are 40 species which I’ve categorized as Code 4. The “easiest” Code 4 species are probably Laughing Gull, Black Vulture,  Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-headed Gull, and Kirtland’s Warbler. 

Black-headed Gull - an "easy" Code 4 (this one's from Nova Scotia though)

As expected, Code 5 and 6 birds are the rarest of the rare. Most Code 5 birds on my list have shown up between 5 and 20 times EVER in Ontario (like Gray Kingbird, or Slaty-backed Gull), while others (like Ivory Gull with 29 accepted records) have shown up more often. I placed Ivory Gull as a Code 5 as opposed to Code 4 because if one shows up, the chances of it hanging around long enough for me to see are very small! I have listed 65 species as Code 5.
Finally, Code 6 birds. These ones have usually been seen less than 10 times in Ontario. Out of the 59 species listed, I’ll be doing really well if I see more than 3 in this category! These include extinct species like Eskimo Curlew, crazy vagrants (Bachman’s Sparrow, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher), and one-hit wonders (Variegated Flycatcher, Black-capped Vireo, Audubon’s Shearwater, etc).  I don’t think I’ll be seeing any Passenger Pigeons or Eskimo Curlews next year.

Neotropic Cormie - one of the few "Code 6" birds I've seen

So, to recap: There are 281 Code 1 and 2 birds which I am sure to get. There are 38 Code 3 birds, and if I get them all, it would bring me to 319 species for the year. To beat the record, I would need an additional 20 genuine rarities on top of that. For every Code 1, 2, or 3 bird I miss, I’ll need to see an extra rarity on top of the 20!

There is also one more thing: these rankings are based on my abilities to travel to all 4 (5?) corners of the province to search for birds. Smith’s Longspur and Willow Ptarmigan are both Code 2 birds, since if I make it up to the coast of Hudson’s Bay during the breeding season I will be (nearly) sure to get them. That is a big IF though, since I haven’t really figured out how I am going to be able to make it up there without having to sell all of my possessions, and possibly one or both kidneys, to afford it! Without that trip, Smith's Longspur drops to Code 4, and Willow Ptarmigan to Code 6. This is true with several other species.

I will have an extremely narrow margin of error next year to say the least! If any of my big trips (Pelee area from late April to late May, Rainy River in late May and early June, Hudson’s Bay in June or July, north shore of Lake Superior for a week or two around Oct. 1, James Bay in the mid/late autumn, etc) fall through, it will be nearly impossible to beat the record. 

Note: I will eventually make a spreadsheet available to download right off of this blog, much the way that John Vanderpoel does on his big year blog. This spreadsheet will contain the big list (chronologically and taxonomically), the status of each species (codes 1-6), remaining target birds, etc.


Michael said...

How about a big year herp list for Ontario...or Canada?

Brandon Holden said...

I am looking forward to seeing how your big year plays out! And also looking forward to seeing your code lists.

Very exciting stuff!

WBU Barrie said...

Best of luck Josh. Can't wait to read about your adventures!


Anonymous said...

Funny you mention that - I did a halfhearted attempt at that a few years ago and ended up with 39 out of the 45 Ontario herp species. Was a lot of fun!

Thanks Brandon and Kristen. Should be an interesting/busy/expensive year.