Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Hypothetical 2013 big year

The other day I was going through the Ebird Top 100 and noticed that 352 species had been reported in Ontario in 2013, compared to 363 the previous year. It got me thinking - what would be the upper limit if someone had attempted a serious big year attempt last year? Would the record of 344 species from 2012 stand?

In 2012 when I attempted my big year, quite a few things lined up nicely and with a lot of luck I was able to rack up 344 species. Was I just incredibly lucky in picking the right year, or is the total number of species seen annually in the province increasing enough that a total like that could be reached nearly every year?

I'm not sure. I suspect the latter, though it would be quite time consuming to provide strong evidence in support of that point. Instead, I'm going to see what the upper limit would be if someone had attempted a big year in 2013!

To investigate this, I will break down the candidate species by their abundance, starting with the common birds and finishing with the rarities.

Code 1 - the guaranteed birds
There are 214 species that I considered Code 1 species, ranging from abundant (European Starling, Mallard) to common in a relatively small area in the province (Forster's Tern, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, ) to moderately common (Black-backed Woodpecker, Sanderling, Wilson's Warbler). Every one of these birds would be guaranteed if someone attempted a serious Ontario big year in 2013.
Running total = 214

Barn Swallow - a code 1

Code 2 - the uncommon or local species
These 62 species would be all but guaranteed on a serious big year attempt. They include species that are somewhat common but range-restricted in Ontario (Yellow-headed Blackbird, Hooded Warbler), common but very difficult to detect (Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker), species that only sporadically show up during certain times of the year (Hoary Redpoll, King Eider), and rare but regular migrants/breeding species (Golden Eagle, Acadian Flycatcher, Prairie Warbler). This also includes fairly common birds that are seen infrequently enough by most birders to not make the Code 1 category (Mourning Warbler, Thayer's Gull, etc).
Running Total = 276

Hudsonian Godwit - a code 2

Code 3 - the tough ones
This is where things start to get interesting. These 41 species include regular spring overshoots (Worm-eating Warbler, Summer Tanager), rare breeding birds (King Rail, Henslow's Sparrow), some difficult to detect owls (Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk Owl), rare migrants (Black-legged Kittiwake, Pomarine Jaeger) and species that are common some years but absent in others (Cave Swallow, Dickcissel). In 2012, I was able to see 40 out of the 41 Code 3 birds, only missing Glossy Ibis. Last year, the following Code 3 species would have been very tough to get:

King Rail
Black Guillemot
Cave Swallow

King Rails went unreported by birders in 2013; however, very small numbers do breed in the province and a big year birder who devoted quite a bit of time to searching for this species might have been lucky. No Black Guillemots were reported that I am aware of. They are supposedly rare but regular in southern James Bay during the autumn, but neither Netitishi Point expedition during late autumn recorded them. Cave Swallows were nearly unreported in 2013 - the only sighting was a one-day wonder at Long Point. A big year birder would almost certainly miss this species.

Cave Swallow - a tough code 3 in 2013

The remaining 38 Code 3 species would have been possible for someone attempting a big year. For each one of those species there was at least one sighting of a very chaseable bird; however, there is a good chance they would have missed one or two.

Let's say that a big year birder would have seen 38 out of the 41 Code 3 species.
Running total = 314

Dickcissel - an easy code 3 in 2013

Codes 4 through 6 - the rarities
None of these species can be expected during a given year. Code 4 species usually have 2-5 annual records, Code 5 species usually have less than 20 records all time for Ontario, and Code 6 species are the mega rarities with three or fewer Ontario records. In 2012, I observed 28 species that were either Codes 4, 5, or 6. In 2013, the following rarities were observed by someone at some point in Ontario. First, the "chaseable" ones:

Brown Booby - insane rarity! spent a few weeks entertaining birders in Fort Erie (and briefly Long Point and points in between)
Brown Pelican - sat on the Wheatley harbour breakwall for four days in August, also found during the OFO conference in September

Brown Pelican - a code 5
Western Grebe - easy bird for several weeks on Toronto waterfront in winter/spring, one early summer bird from Rondeau that hung around for multiple days
Black Vulture - fairly regular now along Niagara River, several other scattered records
Common Eider - breeding on Ontario's Hudson Bay coast, several records in the south including a long-staying Hamilton bird

Common Eider - a code 4

Black-necked Stilt - two birds spent the better part of a week at Hillman Marsh in May
Black-headed Gull - several reports
Elegant Tern - cosmic rarity! spent 5 days in Fort Erie area
Thick-billed Murre - mega rare! Seen on two consecutive days in a harbour in Kingston in early Dec
White-winged Dove - one sat at the Rondeau Visitor Center's feeders for almost two weeks in Jan/Feb
Chuck-wills-widow - several records at Pelee/Rondeau/Long Point/Prince Edward Point in spring
Rufous Hummingbird - coming to a feeder in Timiskaming District for a few days in early Nov
Fish Crow - chaseable pair in Bronte during the spring, continuing birds in Fort Erie
Townsend's Solitaire - long-staying winter bird in Durham Region
Kirtland's Warbler - two chaseable KIWAs at Point Pelee in May
Blue Grosbeak - several birds in the spring that hung around for several days
Painted Bunting - coming to a feeder for two days near Point Pelee in spring

Painted Bunting - a code 5

A big year birder should have been able to nab at least 15 of the 17 species mentioned above.
Running total = 329

Northern Gannet - one was seen sporadically on Lake Ontario in autumn - was briefly chaseable in Toronto
Swainson's Hawk - several reported at autumn hawkwatches, though none stuck around
Northern Bobwhite - apparently some are still hanging on at Walpole Island
Snowy Plover - one day wonder at Pelee in November, however several birders successfully chased it
Barn Owl - a lot of effort/knowing the right people might have helped locate one of the few remaining breeding birds in Ontario
Say's Phoebe - one day wonder at Toronto Islands. Briefly chaseable. I missed it by 20 minutes.
Violet-green Swallow - very tough bird in Ottawa in April, however some southwestern Ontario birders successfully nabbed it
Swallow-tailed Kite - exceptionally well reported bird that was followed from Port Alma all the way to the Point Pelee Visitor's Center! Occurred during May, so was seen by about 75 birders, but not seen on following days
Western Tanager - one was seen twice (separated by about a week) on Manitoulin Island in August

Western Tanager (from 2012)

Neotropic Cormorant - an awesome record from a condo in Hamilton. Was seen several times flying past in the morning during August, and in theory could have been chased.
White-faced Ibis - in spring one was seen for a few days way up in Oxdrift, Kenora District during late April. In theory it could have been chased by someone crazy enough.
Eurasian Collared-Dove - several sporadic sightings in the Pelee area spring through fall
Slaty-backed Gull - continuing bird(s) seen occasionally along the Niagara River in winter. Also, one at the TBay landfill in late fall.
Anna's Hummingbird - crazy crazy bird! At least one southern Ontario birder successfully chased it, but some of us weren't so lucky...
Smith's Longspur - they breed on Hudson's Bay. Just a question of getting up there.
Willow Ptarmigan - they breed on Hudson's Bay. Just a question of getting up there.

Most of the above species would have been very tough. They require dropping everything! As you can see, all 16 species would need to have been seen by the big year birder to break the record. To me, it looks like the upper limit of these birds is maybe 10-12.
Running total = 339

Not chaseable:

The following species were not chaseable because they were either one-day (or even one-minute) wonders that weren't seen by additional birders, or they were found in inaccessible places for short periods of time. Damn you, tip of Long Point!

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Brown-chested Martin
Prairie Falcon
Western Wood-pewee
Mississippi Kite

Lets say our big year birder gets incredibly lucky/is in the right place at the right time, and sees one of these species.
Running total = 340

So there you have it! It doesn't matter how skilled, determined, and with unlimited finances a big year birder could have been - it probably would not have been possible to break the record last year. Not all years are created equal!

EDIT - Paul Hunter, an excellent birder from England who visits Point Pelee with his wife Liz every spring (and who many of you who frequent Pelee would recognize) pointed out one thing I neglected. His message went:

"It seems to me, however, that you have made the assumption that our imaginary lister would not have been able to locate any species for himself. He or she would only have had to find five species of their own to eclipse your very impressive total. Given 365 days hard birding and unlimited funds, that doesn't sound impossible."

That is a very valid point and not something I considered. Who knows, maybe the record would have been reachable in 2013? At any rate, it would take an extreme amount of skill, time, dedication - and dare I say it - luck, to have reached 344 last year. Much more so than what was required in 2012 in what was clearly a superior year for attempting a big year.


  1. Sweet post JV! I would have to say the condo NECO would have been nearly impossible. Had it on the 19th (and everyone thought I was nuts) - the "confirmed" on the 20th - and then I didn't see it again. The weather changed that night and their behaviour changed the next morning.


    As a side - it's amazing you did so well in 2012 without any really insane trips to NW Ontario for a single bird (such as this year, with SBGU, ANHU, WFIB, etc)!