My Big Year in 2014 – a blog by John Kinghorn
What is a Big Year? Is it a year which just so happens to take forever to end? Is it a year in which we (for once in our lives) actually manage to stick to our new year’s resolutions and achieve the goals we set out to achieve on January 1st, or is it a year in which we earn copious amounts of money and live the ‘high life’? These are interpretations many a non-birder will come up with, but to us birders the term ‘a Big Year’ means something completely different, and much more exciting than earning copious amounts of money.
The Book which started it all, www.amazon.com
The late 19th century in the United States saw Americans celebrate Christmas Day by throwing competitions to see who could shoot and kill the largest number of birds during the day’s festivities. However, in 1900 Audubon Society ornithologist Frank Chapman suggested that people count the birds rather than kill them. This had a great impact on the way people observed birds, and a new-found respect was born. Some would say that this was indeed the start of the ‘Big Year’, but in 1953 the renowned American naturalist, author, and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson and his British friend James Fisher decided to embark on a 30,000-mile road trip around North America in a quest to visit the countries’ various “wild places” and document their travels in both a film and book entitled Wild America. It was in a footnote at the bottom of one of the book’s pages that Peterson wrote “My year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species”. And this was in fact the beginning of the ‘Big Year’, as the following years saw fellow American birders attempt to break Peterson’s record.
However the question “what is a ‘Big Year’?” has yet to be answered. On January 1st of a new year a birder will start a year list (a list of birds seen during a calendar year), beginning at zero and birding his/her heart out till December 31st, trying their luck at seeing how many different bird species they can record throughout the duration of that calendar year. Originating in North America, the Big Year has spread worldwide, with birders in England, Australia, and South Africa joining in this craze.
The Southern African Big Year is a more recent chain of events, with the first individual to attempt such a year being the master of African birding himself, Ian Sinclair. Achieving 800 on one’s life list in the Southern African sub-region is a massive feat indeed, and is achieved by either full-time guides, extremely dedicated birders, or birders who had practically been birding in diapers. Thus it was thought that recording 800 species of birds in the sub-region in one calendar year would be even more of a challenge, which lay the basis for the formation of the Southern African Big Year.
After Ian Sinclair’s Big Year, Trevor Hardaker decided to tackle one, becoming the second person to have a go at such a year. Trevor, at the age of 24, broke the 800 species mark on his year list, following in Ian’s footsteps, who had achieved 802 during his year, and setting the record for the youngest person to record the magical 800 species in the Southern African sub-region in a single calendar year. A fairly large break was then had in Big Year terms, and only in 2011 did the next South African birder attempt a Big Year. During that year Niall Perrins set the new national record of 826 species recorded during one calendar year in the Southern African sub-region. Another year went by with no birders attempting a Big Year. However, 2013 saw Mark and Alisha Kirk attempt a ‘couples Big Year’, meaning both of them had to see a bird before it could count on their list. Mark and Alisha cumulatively saw 825 species during their Big Year.
Pels Fishing Owl, Niall Perrins’ 800th species (Copyright N.Perrins)
With all these people attempting Big Years and doing fantastic jobs at it, all I could do was sit back and watch as pictures, posts, stories, and updates were all posted on Facebook and came through on my News Feed on a daily basis. With the end of my high school carrier looming, I thus made the rash, out-of-the-blue, spontaneous decision to attempt a Big Year the year after I matriculated. I would thus attempt to break Trevor’s record for the youngest person to see 800 species in the Southern African sub-region in a calendar year. I set out on January 1st 2014 on a journey which took me across five different countries (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe), thousands of kilometers, and a lot of blood and tears shed, but all worth it. The scenery, cultures, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, people, and the wonderful birds that I got to see all form part of the memories, which will last me a lifetime.
My first quarter (January through March) saw me reach the 600 milestone at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve with an Eastern Long-billed Lark. My next big milestone was 700, which was reached during my third quarter, in July to be precise, when a report came through of a Franklin’s Gull at Strandfontein sewage works in Cape Town, which saw me on the a flight down the next day, making Franklin’s Gull number 699, followed by a trip to Rooi Els for Cape Rockjumper, which took the milestone position of 700. My entire third and fourth quarters were spent pushing for the magical 800 mark, the main goal I had set out to reach, with trips to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Zululand in KwaZulu Natal, as well as two pelagic trips, one off Cape Town and one off Durban.
The Southern African sub-region www.niall.co.za Google Maps
On December 15th I then departed on a trip to the lowveld region of South Africa. At that point my list was tantalizingly close to 800, in fact a mere three off. The first stop was Kaapsehoop, with my main targets here being Striped Flufftail, Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, and Forest Canary. Well, the Forest Canary was the only species to stick to the program; the rest I sadly had to leave behind in a cloud of dust as I pulled off the dirt roads surrounding Kaapsehoop and headed northward in search of a mere two species to take me up to my target. On December 18th I managed to add number 799, which took the form of a lone Taita Falcon.
Thanks to the help from some of the local farm owners I then was able to get into contact with a gentleman who had a resident pair of African Finfoot, which called his part of the Blyde River home and which he saw on a daily basis. It was with no hesitation that the morning of December 19th saw me and a close friend sitting on the banks of the Blyde River, staking out African Finfoot and hoping that the pair would oblige and put in a good show (or any show, for that matter!). The time was 10:04 a.m. when I caught movement in my peripheral vision and turned to see what it was that had caught my attention. I was greeted by two gorgeous African Finfoot, which were skulking along the reeds and foraging for food ever so quietly. Quick yet shaky movements allowed me to fire off a few shots of the birds, my camera settings completely wrong, making the pictures blurred, but to me the pictures were as clear as daylight, highlighting the fact that I had just seen my 800th Southern African species in the space of a calendar year, becoming the youngest person to do so.
Since that moment people often have asked me what I felt when I laid my eyes on the two finfoot, what emotions did I feel and how did I react. Well, to be honest, after I snapped my proof shots and the two birds had disappeared I just sat there, dumbfounded, overwhelmed, and in a state of shock. My friend next to me was jumping with joy and congratulating me, but all I could do was muster up a smile and sit there, my limbs too weak to attempt any sort of movement. A part of me wanted to shed some tears; an entire year devoted to birding, an entire year devoted to breaking the one record that I could break within reason, an entire year devoted to bettering myself as a person and as a birder, an entire year working toward this very moment… And here I sat, living that moment!
The following final days of the year saw me travel down to the Durban area in search of Dusky Indigobird, Terek Sandpiper, and Red-headed Quelea. I managed to get two of the three, with the Quelea giving me the dip. As I sat on my flight back to Johannesburg on New Year’s Eve I toasted to the chair in front of me, to a year of “madness”, intense biding, outstanding landscapes, incredible friendships made, and magnificent birds ticked, and to the creation of memories which will last me a lifetime… Here’s wishing the next birder to attempt this most incredible year the best of luck!
John is a birding guide who also does some office work for the company. He leads bird safaris to several African countries and he also helps with our China bird tours.