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Birding Competitions: Big Year and Big Day
23rd November was the date for South Africa’s Birding Big Day, a yearly event to raise money for Birdlife South Africa, to increase information on species distribution and to generally encourage knowledge about the environment and birds in general.
The movie "The Big Year".
A couple of weeks ago I watched the movie “The Big Year” that dramatizes the attempt in 1998 by three American Birders to break the record of 721 birds recorded in a calendar year in the USA. The last two years I have been really keen as a member of the local Bird Club in East London to join in the challenge of trying to record 200 birds in a day. Due to circumstances beyond my control I have missed out on these efforts. Perhaps next year will be my Birding Big Day.
The movie “The Big Year” and the whole concept of birding competitions cry out for some comments and observations. Firstly the movie in my opinion is a MUST SEE for several different reasons. It presents a great view into the psyche of not only birders but also humans in general.
We as humans are competitive by nature and so the concept of wining lies deep in our heart. Challenge someone to do what has not been done before and you have the motivation for Polar and Space Exploration.
The movie also illustrated the code of honor that lies at the heart of human decency. You are the only judge and jury that sit in judgment as to what species you actually saw or heard and so ticked off on your day, year or life list.
The South African Birding Big Day rule states that in teams of three two participants must agree on the call or sighting of a particular species. Because there is no referee or observer to check your result the obvious temptation is there to cheat. In fact the desire to see or hear a rare sighting almost makes that sighting possible only in the mind of the person who so badly wants to see it.
This is somewhat similar to golf where the player calls a penalty on him/herself because they noticed the ball moving slightly in address. Sometimes your mind sees what you want to see rather than what actually happened. Who are you then cheating when you ignore the reality of the situation? The answer is that in golf you are cheating the rest of the field and I guess the same applies to birding. In any group of birders there is always one or two who make claims that others find hard to believe. Here your honor and integrity is something you have to live with.
In the movie the inherent competitiveness of the participants is balanced by the strong desire to be the best, to win but also to be fair and honorable. The writer of the book and producer of the film bring this out really well.
Big Year Statistics.
Some statistics about Birding Big Year in the USA makes interesting reading; in 1939 Guy Emerson recorded 497 species, in 1953 James Fisher traveled 30 000 miles to record 572 different birds and in 1973 James M Vardanan traveled 161 332 miles by plane, motor car, boat, bicycle and foot to record 699 species. By 1998, the year recorded in the film, the record was held by Sandy Konito at 721. This was also the number on the license plate on his motor car! In 2007 a teenager Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents cycled 10 000 miles to record 548 species.
The trouble with any activity is that is can take over your life and become an obsession. Birding has a way of doing that. Simply talk to any avid birders partner. At least the activity takes you into nature and gives you an opportunity to become “a Citizen Scientist” as you collect information that can become valuable for research in many areas.
The movie “The Big Year” is based on the attempt by Sandy Konito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller to better Sandy’s record. The movie is much more than a dry race to birding fame as it weaves into the story the lives of the three participants and their love affairs, not only with birds of the feathered kind.
Birding Big Day 2013-South Africa.
Meanwhile here in the area of East London, South Africa the quest to list over 200 birds in a day will continue. There are about 350 possible birds that are listed in any good field guide of the area. Because of a recent ankle operation my wife Audrey, my daughter Heidi and grandsons Zak and Luc set out on the 23rd November to see what we could do.
This Smulders family team for Birding Big Day; was it going to be the dream team or was it to be a dubious selection? What it lacked in rather obvious depth of birding knowledge it made up in enthusiasm. The car was loaded with picnic baskets and blankets and other paraphernalia that seemed to have no real importance in the effort of achieving our goal of 50 different species in 24 hours that was to be reduced to 4 hours due to a late start and the boys need for a midday sleep.
Things were looking up when as we turned towards the Gonubie River the youngest member of the team identified with great excitement and authority a Haheda Ibis. We were on our way! When Zak found a feather that was loosely identified as an Eagle feather we all realized that this was going to be a great day in the history of Smulders Family birding. To take the day to a new level Gran spotted with her eagle eye a Pygmy Kingfisher right on the road.
But don’t let me bore you with all the details, they will be recounted over and over at family reunions in future years. Heidi saw some “Black Blurr” species that we are still trying to find in the book, our list came to 50 and the picnic lunch was excellent.
All in all it was a day to remember. I doubt that we will win the prize for the most birds listed by family teams but then who really cares. We all had fun, even if Luc slept through some of it.
Birding as a hobby/sport can be enjoyed on many different levels. You choose what you want to do but be careful; it can be addictive! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!