Monday, January 20, 2014

Photographic Big Year in Review

The year 2013 was great for birding and conservation. Multiple individuals across the United States dedicated their birding years to raising donations and awareness for the need for increased conservation efforts worldwide. I started a “photographic” big year to benefit the American Bird Conservancy’s work with endangered birds in Hawai’i. I set what I thought was an ambitious goal of photographing 500 birds in the ABA area. I had no idea what type of support I might get for this project.
My year started in Michigan. Winter birding in Michigan can be tough, but I made a trip to the Upper Peninsula where I photographed some great birds including Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Hoary Redpoll. 

At the end of January, I moved south to Florida for my job working with Brown-headed Nuthatches at Tall Timbers Research Station. I left a week early and birded from northern Florida down to the Everglades and up to the Panhandle. This was a tremendously successful week and I picked up some great birds including Western Spindalis, La Sagra’s Flycatcher, many shorebirds, herons, gulls, terns, and wintering passerines. Sticking around Florida until early May meant I hit peak migration in the Panhandle and, before going back to Michigan, I had already photographed 300 species of birds. 

After Florida, I had a few free weeks before I needed to head out west for my summer field job. I couldn’t help myself and I used my frequent flyer miles to catch a flight to Alaska to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. This turned out to be hugely successful and I photographed some tough birds like Yellow-billed Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Tern, Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Pacific Golden-Plover, Eurasian Wigeon and Aleutian Tern, among many others. 

The rest of my summer was spent in the Great Basin of Nevada and California conducting butterfly surveys. My friend and fellow Michigan birder Kevin Welsh and I drove to Nevada, making a small detour to Southeast Arizona. We saw most of the Arizona specialties including Montezuma Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Scott’s Oriole, Elf Owl and many others. 

Of course, while in the Great Basin I paid attention to the birds (not just butterflies) and spent my free days chasing birds all over California.  I even managed to get on two pelagic trips. The highlight of my year came on a pelagic trip out of Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys where we saw a Hawaiian Petrel! This endangered Hawaiian species is extremely rare in the ABA and was a life bird for just about everyone on board. Right before my job ended, I talked myself into making a long drive over to the Ruby Mountains. This was another successful trip as I found two Himalayan Snowcock, many Black Rosy-Finches with young, Dusky Grouse and Ferruginous Hawk.  At this point, I had already passed my goal of 500 birds photographed and still had big plans for the rest of the year.

It was mid-August by the time my job ended and it was time to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Luckily, there were still plenty of common birds for me to photograph during fall migration in Minnesota. I picked up new birds in Duluth, Sax-Zim Bog and Minneapolis including Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Great Gray Owl and Philadelphia Vireo. 

After my first semester of grad school ended I booked a flight to south Texas. What better way to end the year than with a winter trip to the Rio Grande Valley? I spent 4 days birding with my friend Mike Lester and we did really well! I picked up Muscovy Duck and Tropical Parula and many of the South Texas specialties like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, Audubon’s Oriole and many others. 

I was incredibly lucky to visit many of the best birding spots in the ABA area and had some great friends to keep me going throughout the year. I was very impressed with how many individuals and organizations helped spread the word about this big year, and I am extremely grateful to every one of them. I ended the year with 585 bird species photographed and nearly $6000 in donations to the American Bird Conservancy for Hawaiian bird conservation. I can’t thank everyone who supported this project enough and it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful conservation-minded who donated to this cause.

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