What is a “Big Year”? It’s an attempt by one person to see or hear as many bird species as they can in a calendar year. It could be in a particular county, state or in my case the ABA (American Birding Association) area, which includes the lower 48 states, all of Canada, and Alaska. What’s my goal? Well throughout the course of last year, I figured 650 species in a year was a worthy goal….but…..goals change…..When I told Uncle Bob that I’m attempting a “Big Year”, he replied “John, if you’re going to go for it, you’ve got to go for 700!”  Oh my! 700 is a remarkable number of birds to see in one year even by today’s standard. I’ve only seen 708 species in my life (710 now with Bean Goose and Black-vented Oriole)! But then nine rarities are already in the bag.

Jerry Oldenettel mentioned that one of the early “Big Year” celebrities, Benton Basham was now living in Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, TX.  In 1983 Benton Basham became the first person to break the 700 species barrier in a calendar year. He totaled 711 species in his “Big Year” attempt which he dubbed “703 in 1983”. In 1983 there was no Internet, no birding list serves and not even a North American Rare Bird Alert. In fact Benton helped set up NARBA (North American Rare Bird Alert). He also achieved those 711 species without the benefit of all these recent splits-Winter Wren, Whip-Poor-Will, Blue Grouse, Sage Grouse, the examples go on and on. His list would have topped in the mid 720’s in today’s world. I needed as much advice as possible to reach 700…..so I arranged a meeting. The fact that he lives 30’ from where the White-throated Thrush was being seen made the decision easy.

Benton also developed the code system that prioritized all North American Birds, in fact the same system that I’ve adapted for the probability codes on my list (you can see my current, updated list by clicking on “Bird List” in the column header).
We had an enjoyable time chatting and reminiscing about birds and birders. He had some great stories and left me with two bits of advice.
1. Get all 19 species of owls by June 30. That surprised me, but made sense after I thought about it a while. Owls are easier to find when they’re vocalizing. They vocalize during the breeding season which is always early in the year.
2. Strategy, Strategy, Strategy. Now, my trip plan is pretty strong with flexibility for chase trips as well, and it doesn’t hurt to have Jon Dunn in your corner either. Jon knows bird distributions better than almost anyone in the country. Still it’s advice well taken, particularly with the South Texas Sebastian Mud experience still fresh in my mind.
So 700 is my goal! I’m at 305 right now and itching to get out there and bird.

Benton Basham with John Vanderpoel (photo by Bill Vanderpoel)

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5 Responses to 700?

  1. von Bergen says:

    Benton a great person as well as a birder…He was on my pelagic trip i owned and ran out of San diego in the late 70’s..He got me to quit smoking…lol..it worked..I move to n/e tn (Mountain City)he goes to tx lol figures….Id love to chat with him as they don’t come any better than him.

  2. John Vanderpoel says:

    Hello von,

    Yes I seems like a real gentlemen. Sharp as a tack.

  3. I was lucky enough to get to be out with Benton Basham the night he got his Boreal Owl on the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota during his Big Year. Kim Eckert was bringing him there, and they let me tag along. In addition to a very vocal Boreal Owl, a displaying woodcock kept landing on the road between doing his skydance, so we got to watch him peent, and the northern lights that night were spectacular.

    I just discovered your blog today, thanks to that excellent Atlantic article. This is a fabulous blog, and I’m rooting for you to break the all-time record.

  4. John Vanderpoel says:

    Thanks, Laura. If a Smew or Whooper Swan show up this winter please call me ASAP!


  5. Pingback: New Big Year record for North America? - ChatterBirds Birdwatching Blog » ChatterBirds Birdwatching Blog

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