In the year 2012 I attempted what is known as a Big Year in Ontario. In the hobby (or obsession) of birding, a Big Year is essentially an attempt to see as many bird species as possible in one given year, starting from January 1 at midnight to December 31 at midnight. My 2012 big year included all of Ontario.
Prior to 2012, the record for a big year in Ontario stood at 338 species, set by Glenn Coady in 1996. Glenn went all out that year, even camping out in the tundra along the Hudson's Bay coastline by himself at one point to pick up arctic species, all the while dodging black and polar bears. He visited all corners of the province in search of birds and was aided by the remnants of Hurricane Fran which brought several rare east coast birds to Ontario. For me to beat the record, I would have had to see every single bird species that is annual (seen at least once a year in Ontario), as well as about 20 rarities on top of that.
Fortunately, I picked the right year to do a big year. Several notable weather events led to an abnormal number of rarities to show up. The mild weather last autumn into January and February led to a number of rarities persisting well into the new year. Several species that I added, such as White-winged Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon, and Spotted Towhee were possibly because of this. Additionally, a pair of rarities (Fish Crow and Black Vulture) expanded their range to include Ontario's Niagara frontier region. The Fish Crows were really exciting since they were not only self-found (with Andrew Keaveney), but they were also species #100 for the year.
|White-winged Dove - North Bay|
The spring migration was off to an early start, and by mid April several large storms brought big numbers of rarities into the province. In mid to late April I was able to add unexpected rarities like Western Tanager, Bell's Vireo, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Western Grebe, though I missed Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Say's Phoebe which also showed up around then. I had already seen 13 code 4 or higher rarities and was on a good pace.
|Western Tanager - Bruce Peninsula|
Unfortunately, May was a bit of a letdown at Pelee. There were few days with "fallouts", and mega rarities just did not materialize anywhere in the province. However, I lived out of my car, or the homes of generous birders in the Pelee area, for 6 weeks. I was able to catch up with all the regular spring rarities such as Blue Grosbeak, Chuck-will's Widow, Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Worm-eating Warbler by the time I left Pelee in late May! A big highlight was seeing the Piping Plovers at Wasaga Beach with Barb Charlton on May 18th, my 300th species for the year.
|Piping Plover - Wasaga Beach|
Late May is what really saved my year and gave me hope that I could reach my goal of 339 species. Being May 19th and June 5, I was able to add several code 4+ rarities, highlighted by Curlew Sandpiper, Kirtland's Warbler (on the breeding grounds, no less), and Northern Bobwhite. Additionally I was lucky enough to cross paths with King Rail, Henslow's Sparrow, Western Sandpiper, Dickcissel, and Cattle Egret! I was at 314 by June 5th, giving me almost 7 months to add the last 25 species.
|Cattle Egret - Keswick|
I was very fortunate this summer to be able to work for just over a month, doing bird surveys in the north. I was sent to Rainy River on two different occasions; trips that were essential to my big year. I added most of the Rainy River specialties, with highlights for me including families of Sharp-tailed Grouse, a Northern Hawk-owl, and thousands of Franklin's Gulls!
|Franklin's Gulls - Rainy River|
I also happened to be home the weekend the Magnificent Frigatebird was found at Rondeau Provincial Park (found by Dave Martin and Linda Wladarski). Driving there with my incredibly supportive girlfriend, this bird was one of the bigger highlights of the year. Not only was it a "mega" rarity (many of Ontario's top listers added it to their Ontario list over the few days it hung around), but it was also great to share the moment with Laura.
|Magificent Frigatebird (top centre) with Laura and I - Rondeau|
Another trip I was excited for was the trek to Ontario's ocean coast of James Bay with the ROM crew in late summer. We were able to gather important data on the shorebirds of that region, and I added 5 birds to my year list, highlighted by a single Arctic Tern. I returned from James Bay in time to be around for Ontario' first ever Thick-billed Kingbird, found by Bill Gilmour. This was undoubtedly the "bird of the year" and it was great sharing in the experience with many of Ontario's birders. It was nice to finally meet Glenn Coady at this location.
|Thick-billed Kingbird - Presqu'ile PP|
The autumn months of September and late October were relatively slow, rarity-wise. A major highlight was finding a Yellow-crowned Night-heron at Pelee, but I was also successful chasing Red Phalarope, Mew Gull, and Townsend's Solitaire, bringing me within 4 birds of the record by late October.
|Townsend's Solitaire - Hamilton|
It was then that I embarked on what was perhaps the best trip of the year - a jaunt to Netitishi Point with Alan Wormington. In the first few days of the trip we lucked out with northern-ish winds and cool weather, and I added Purple Sandpiper, Gyrfalcon, Common Eider, and Northern Gannet (only the second record for northern Ontario) in quick succession, tying the record. However we had to wait for almost a week before the record-breaking bird came into view. It was pretty exciting to spot the Northern Fulmar as it sheared over the waves, and it was great to share the moment with Alan who was extremely helpful in my big year planning and strategy, and who had shared many "year birds" with me in 2012. Netitishi was a complete success and I left its windswept shores with 342 species under my belt.
|Western Kingbird - Netitishi Point|
Little did we know at the time, but the strong winds we saw at Netitishi were a direct result of post-tropical storm Sandy, ripping through Ontario. While we were gone, we missed rarities such as Tufted Duck, Glossy Ibis, Razorbill, 2 types of storm-petrels, and Ross's Gull! It just goes to show that no matter how well you plan a big year, you simply cannot be everywhere all the time and see all the birds.
The year ended with a bit of a whimper. I was only able to add two more birds (Cave Swallow and Pacific Loon) for the rest of the year, and with debt piling up and a car that seemed to break down frequently I did not bird as hard as I had in the beginning of the year. I finished the year with 344 species.
|Cave Swallow - Point Pelee NP|
And for those of you who wonder if I'll attempt another Ontario big year in the future (especially if someone else breaks the record of 344), I can tell you emphatically that I won't! While the year was a complete success and I had a lot of fun throughout the year, it also gave me appreciation of many other things in the natural world. I came to the realization that the final number is not what it is all about - in fact it is the experiences that we gain along the way. Despite what the recent film "The Big Year" proclaims, having the "biggest" year does not make you the best birder in the province. One Big Year was enough for me, and I am looking forward to nature discovery on a much smaller scale in the new year. It was definitely a wild ride and I will have some incredible memories which will stay with me for many years to come. Thanks to all who helped make my Big Year a reality!