Big Year 2011 – Final Chapter

The Big Year is finished. Soon I’ll slip back into relative anonymity. But while I still have your attention, I would like to reflect on this very special year.  It’s been one huge wild, crazy ride.  Day one provided a hint of how special this year would be when at 4:15 PM, a Black-headed Gull graced us with a defining look as it descended onto Carter Reservoir.  Of course I’ve enjoyed the satisfaction of successfully planning and strategizing the year and Its been lots of fun to execute the plan, but that all pales in comparison with the adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met along this year-long journey.

So many images are now vividly etched in my mind.

Ÿ Watching and listening in utter amazement as Davis and my two brothers stood outside the car on a lonely, snowy road in Northern Minnesota howling at the top of their lungs in an effort to call in wolves.

Ÿ The sense of accomplishment I felt when after three hours of searching I re-found the Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Ft. Lauderdale and then called in local birders so they could also see this rarity.

Ÿ The personal triumph I felt after the twelve-mile climb to the top of Boot Canyon then photographing the Colima Warbler.

Ÿ The mixture of excitement and apprehension while driving the road to French Joe Canyon where no Subaru dares go -by myself, not a soul within miles and finding two Black-chinned Sparrows.

Ÿ Having Linda by my side when the mystical John Drury pointed up to announce the arrival of the Red-billed Tropicbird at Seal Island in Maine.

Ÿ Alaska provided a rollercoaster of emotions.  The thrill of racing over the stones of Gambell at 40 MPH to overtake a fleeing Ivory Gull, all the time screaming “Let’s get him, Baby!”.  Five days later I was utterly frustrated by the cold Northeast winds from the Bering Sea.  On St. Paul I sensed that we would soon be part of something special during the fallout.  The humble feeling of privilege while watching two hundred Ross’s Gulls feed in the surf at the top of the world.  The sense of despair of being stuck on Adak, which was lifted when the morning sunlight filtered over the snow packed mountains providing a picture reminiscent of the photographer John Fielder

My senses came alive in 2011. Truthfully every new year-bird I saw brought excitement throughout the Big Year.  When was the last time I’d been stoked by finding a Steller’s Jay?  On Jan. 26th in Hurafano County, CO I clutched my fists in triumph and said to myself “Yes…got you.”  The gnawing feeling in my stomach when I’d missed the Curlew Sandpiper by minutes, then the joy of a phone call from Barbara Carlson two hours later letting me know it had returned.  There are 100’s of examples like this.

I’ve met so many interesting people along the way, some, that will hopefully remain friends for a lifetime.

Ÿ Meeting  “the Musketeers “ on Brian Patteson’s boat, which culminated in the all night run to Cony Island.  The visually intoxicating blend of New York City -Puerto Rican woman, shirtless old guys, Nathan’s Famous Hotdog Stand and the Gray-hooded Gull- will remain with me forever.  Only in the Big Apple.

Ÿ Laughing while listening to Todd McGrath recount his strategy for quieting poor Curtis Marantz on pelagic trips..

Ÿ I’ve enjoyed talking with and listening to the stories of the “Heavy Hitters”.

Ÿ    Birding with Rock Dove Tours….”Half the price…..but half the birds”

Ÿ  I’ve had the privilege of birding with some of the best in the world.  How often does one have Guy McCaskie present his telescope for me to look at my life Curlew Sandpiper?

Ÿ All four of my brothers participated in one adventure or another.  It was a treat to actually tick a Big-Year bird with both my Uncle Bob and my son Scott.

The blog has been an unexpected bonus. I’m truly humbled by the relationship that developed with all of you blog readers.  As the year progressed, I slowly  came to realize that this was no longer just about me. It had metamorphosed into a group thing. You blog readers lifted my spirits when I was down and inspired me to fight through my disappointments and failures.  I wish to say one last time thank you for tuning in.

Thank You and Acknowledgments

(I’m sure I’ll forget some of you that deserve thanks but here’s a big thank you)

Ÿ First and most of all, thank you Linda for allowing me to live my dream for an entire year.  I owe you for this one.

Thanks to Scott for believing in me and keeping his mom calm!

Ÿ Thanks to Bill Vanderpoel who was a companion on almost twenty of my trips.  (Plus he found the Eurasian Bullfinch on St. Paul). Bill ended up with a year-list of 588 species himself.

Ÿ Thanks to my brothers Tom, Jim and Mark for sharing some of my adventures with me.

Ÿ Thanks to Jon Dunn for his wise consul (except in the matters of politics) and for keeping my list “squeaky clean”.

Ÿ Thanks to Paul Lehman for sharing his knowledge of distribution and vagrancy patterns with me.  It was of great value in the decisions I made.

Ÿ Thanks to Mary Gustafson for continually updating me on Texas rarities, for showing me the Hook-billed Kite and suggesting the June strategy.

Ÿ Thanks to Larry Manfredi for all the help in Florida.  It was a pleasure birding with you and discussing strategies via the phone.

Ÿ Thanks to Susan Billetdeaux of NARBA.  You were always so helpful and quick to respond.

Ÿ Thanks to Doug Goshfeld, Stuart Healy and Derrick Lovitch.

Ÿ Thanks to Bill Kaempfer and Peter Gent for sharing their ideas with me along the way and for joinging me on trips.

Ÿ Thanks to Gary Matthews for joining me on the Northern California trip and the quest for the Himalaya Snowcock in Nevada. Ÿ

Thanks to Todd Deininger for the frequent updates on rarities.

Thanks to Charles Melton for helping me see the Plain-capped Starthroat

Ÿ Thanks to Doug Koch, Ken Petersen, Liz Southworth and Chris Hitt  for joining me on multiple adventures and chase trips. It was a whole lot of fun.

Ÿ Thanks to Don Desjardin for all his help in Southern California.  Don we still need to try for that Giant Kangaroo Rat.

Ÿ Thanks to John Puschock for the timely updates on rarities.

Ÿ Thanks to Rick Dorazil, Gene Wilson. Tom Wilberding and all the rest of you that made a contribution to Citizens For Conservation on my behalf.


Ÿ Thanks to Colleen and Stephen Hook of McAllen, TX for opening your home to me.

Ÿ Thanks to Carolyn Ohl for opening her wildlife preserve for me in the Christmas Mountains.

Ÿ Thanks to Susan Foster for arranging to take me into Lala Ranch.


Ÿ Thanks to Judith and Whitekeys, Aleta Pillick and Isaac & Crystal Helmericks for your kind hospitality and helpfulness. Isaac congratulations on your first North American Record –Asian Rosy-Finch.  Why couldn’t you have found the darn bird while I was there?


Ÿ Thanks to the Canadian contingency – Dave Brown, Ann Nightingale, Rick Schortinghuis, David Currie, Leah den Besten & Ron Pittaway and Jean Iron .  It was delightful to share all your company.

North Dakota

Thanks to Ron Martin for the hospitality and birding support.



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38 Responses to Big Year 2011 – Final Chapter

  1. Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished! I’ve certainly enjoyed following along with your adventures over the past year.

  2. Linda Vanderpoel says:

    First of all this past year has been a wild and crazy ride. I do want you to know, John, how very proud I am of you. I know you put intense blood, sweat and tears into this entire Big Year and as a result had a once in a life time experience with many wonderful memories. I need to take a moment and acknowledge some thanks of my own to all of my friends who were there for ME. . . (Happy S. and all of the momentous happy hours, until you abandoned me for California!). Since it’s too late for me to post Day 365 of being a Bird Widow (since I have not been able to get onto a computer until now). . . . I’ll close by saying it is Day 1 of “LJV Big Year 2012″. It’s payback time baby. . . . . .

    That said, you are my hero John! Congratulations on a really Big Year!! Well done. . . .

  3. Mary Gustafson says:

    Thanks John! Congratulations on your Big Year! What a ride!

  4. Mary Mapel says:

    Hi John…. first let me introduce myself as Gabriel’s mama. I want to thank you so much for the inspiration you have gifted to my son as he journeyed his own Junior Big Year this past year. Your triumphant celebration of hard to find birds, your gracious acceptance of fate and your example of needing balance when at Christmas you choose to spend time with family rather than pushing the river, have been such a great role model for a young birder.

    One of the biggest lessons Gabriel has learned is that if something is meant to be, it will be so. The faith to allow life to lead rather forcing that which doesn’t seem to be flowing in the desired direction has become our own balancing point. When Alaska wasn’t turning out exactly as hoped you modelled acceptance beautifully. When the wind changed once again and birds began to appear after the holiday your renewed enthusiasm and “fight to the finish” was admirable in the eyes of a 12 year old, as well as my own. I couldn’t have asked for a finer role model. Thank you for that gift that you gave not only my son, but as a result our whole family. It has been quite the year!!

  5. Robb Welch says:

    What a great story. I sure hope there’s a book in the making. I checked my fieldbook. I was at 7th Street in San Diego and got the Curlew Sandpiper on the same day as you. I remember seeing Guy and would like to think you were there then as well. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. Chris Hiatt says:

    Congrats John! That is an amazing number. My wife specifically wanted to ask you what your estimate on your cost of this adventure was?

  7. Tom says:

    I found your blog halfway through the year. I quickly found myself looking forward to the latest accounts of your triumphs and travails. Now that 2012 is here, what will I do without it?

    The comments to your posts were always focused on your tying or breaking Komito’s record. But, what of his *other* record? By which I mean, the record that he is the only person to have done two big years. Surely, that is a record that you can match (or break).

    Yes, yes, another big year would exact a terrible toll on you and your family. But, you must now also think of Your Public, which clamors for a sequel. And with the experience of 2011, you will be even more expert in planning and executing a big year. 745? 748? Bah! Next time, I predict you will handily break 760, or with some lucky weather, maybe 765, 770, . . . who knows! Your legacy beckons.

    Thanks for a great blog. You’ve inspired me to go out more often and find some birds.

  8. Kenneth Petersen says:

    Masterfully done John. It was a Hell of a lot of fun sharing a bit of the adventure with you this year. Thank You. We still have to find you a big pink bill dragging an albatross around behind it.

  9. Virginia L. Vandermeer says:

    Hi, John Since sharing the Palla’s Bunting and the Stonechat with you in Gambell, we have been reading your blog daily. We enjoyed meeting you, birding with you, and watching your numbers grow since then. If we could have willed it you would have gotten at least two more!! You have a record to be proud of.
    Gary Grenfell & Virginia Vandermeer

  10. Liz Southworth says:

    Congratulations John on a wildly successful Big Year! You’ve succeeded like no one else in uniting birders of all ages, abilities, and political persuasions. What great fun it’s been to have shared some of your adventures!

    “Bland” Liz

  11. Bev Brock says:

    Thanks, John, for taking us along on your fabulous ride! It’s been so exciting following your triumphs and disappointments over the year. You did yourself proud.

  12. Gil Schrank says:

    Congratulations! I met you on the San Diego pelagic in October and very much enjoyed our chat. I was one of the two birders from New York on the boat (and we shared the fact that we both knew Doug Gochfeld and Abie Borker). Since then your daily blog has been a part of my daily routine. I found myself rooting for you more fervently than I ever could for any sports team. I am sorry that the story is over. But I wish to echo the sentiments of an earlier commenter. I hope that you are thinking about a book. And, finally, kudos for your superb family, especially Linda, who is owed bigtime.
    Best, Gil Schrank

  13. Carolyn Ohl says:

    I really enjoyed following and being a teensy part of your big year. How coincidental is the Nutting’s Flycatcher. On Dec 31st one was seen in Big Bend National Park. I haven’t gone to see it yet. Had company and all. Congratulations on a super Big Year!

  14. Filip Collet says:

    I spent all night last night reading your blog, starting from day one and I feel nothing but awe and reverence for what you accomplished. The impression it conveyed to me was it being a roller coaster ride. Forget the ones at theme parks: this one lasted an entire year! You showed tenacity when things didn’t work out as planned and the right amount of gratitude when Lady Luck pressed you against her (rather well-formed) bosom. I wish you nothing but many more great birding moments and a well-deserved recovery period with your wife (she definitely deserves it).

    Two final questions for you: what is the total amount of money you raised for Citizens for Conservation? How many lifers did you rack up during this epic adventure?

    All the best to you,

    Filip Collet (Belgium)

  15. Bill Kaempfer says:


    I know you’re tired! I’m tired—I couldn’t even go back for my second Snowy Owl of the year today. Take it easy for a while, but I look forward to being out in the field with you in CO again, real soon. And Gabriel Mapel, come out here and bird Colorado with us soon with a rock dove tours discount.

    John, you get a life-time discount from Rock Dove tours, too: 20 percent off for 1/3 the birds! Congratulations on the new, modern-era North American record!

  16. Hans says:

    Hi John,

    Congrats on such a successful big year! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks so much for sharing your stories and photos.

  17. Lynn Hemink says:

    What a wonderful adventure and how great it was to share a room with you in Gambell to hear of your thoughts and hopes even in September! You have developed a huge following and I just hope that….there is a book in the offing!

    A wonderful feat and here’s to a new friendship.

    Lynn Hemink
    Clovis, Ca.

  18. John says:

    John, I’m scanning the listservs, checking out reports on Facebook, but now I have no one to call about rarities. What am I supposed to do? – John P.

  19. Dave Quady says:

    John, congratulations on your accomplishment. I echo the compliments of everyone who commented earlier today. And even though your birding this year may descend into unremitting tedium, I hope 2012 presents at least a few highlights. Maybe there’ll be a lifer that you and I and Jon can chase. I don’t think it’ll be to Adak, though.

    Oh, and if, later on this week, you want to discuss the results of the Iowa caucuses, give me a call.


  20. Dave Brown says:

    Hey John,

    Amazing year. This will surely go down as one of, if not the greatest achievement in bird listing history in the ABA area. Without access to Attu, it was thought to be impossible to even approach 740 species in a year. While you may not be credited with the official ABA record in some ways this is an even more impressive accomplishment. You should be proud of everything you achieved. I’m just sorry I couldn’t come through with a few species at the end of the year to put you over the top. So what are you doing for an encore?

  21. Rosanne says:

    Congratulations John, I’m just one of so many who followed your thrilling blog enjoying every word. Job well done!!! thanks so much for sharing

  22. Debbie Kohl says:

    Just a note to wish you and Linda a wonderful New Year and express how much fun we had down here in Florida with you all! We have enjoyed following your Big Year adventure, John and hope to see you and your bride soon! All the best, Ron and Debbie

  23. Stan Gray says:

    John, glad to read that you actually were able to “see” the Nutting’s vs only hearing the bugger!
    I have enjoyed reading your posts almost daily and have finally got around to adding my two cents for the Piute Little Stint and birding at Butterbredt. If I’d have known that you were also interested in Lizards I’d have shown you a couple Leopards that I found the day of the stint at EAFB, but by that time the Curlew Sp buzz was already in the air…Thanks goodness it wasn’t a state bird since I had to be back up at Edwards the next morning. Take Care. Stan Gray

  24. Douglas Koch says:

    OK, now that that’s over…….where are we going next!

  25. Deanna Campbell says:

    Already miss your updates. Agree this should become a book. It’s a really good read, John. You did an excellent job all around. What an accomplishment; what an inspiration. Way to live your dream! So happy to have met you on this adventure. Hope to bird again with you another day. Cheers! Deanna

  26. Rob says:

    Congrats on an amazing and inspiring year! It has been great to follow along online.

  27. Jeff Smith says:

    Thanks John for bringing everyone one along on your adventure. I got a late start and have begun reading your blog from the beginning. Will be taking notes for places I hope to someday visit. I’m sure you have a large honey-do list to get through. When you finish and want to hit the road again, I’d love to have you speak at one of our club’s meetings.

    Jeff Smith
    Woodridge, IL

  28. Pat Rice says:

    Congratulations John. I have really enjoyed following your journey. What a venture for you and all of us. I met you on Larry Manfretti’s trip to the Dry Tortugas last April. It was a fun trip and I really had fun on the boat with you, good birds and good food.

    Have a good 2012,
    Pat Rice
    Bemidji, MN

  29. Cyndi Routledge says:

    Thanks for a great adventure…I enjoyed following it all! Congratulations on a job well done.

  30. Fr. Tom Pincelli says:


  31. Fr. Tom Pincelli says:

    Thanks for the vicarious ride! Awesome job.

  32. Rita Goranson says:

    It was good to see that you finished the year safely and with an astounding list of birds. Congratulations, John! I was happy I could help with the Gray Partridge on your list.

  33. Will Burt says:

    Congratulations on your wonderful year! Thank you for allowing many of us to feel like we were there with you. Please keep on blogging!

  34. John Arnett says:

    Congratulations John! Great job, and thanks for the interesting reports. As was noted above, I enjoyed vicariously birding along with you.

    It was great to (actually) see you in Texas…and Arizona…and again in California.

    Take care,
    John A.

  35. Morgan Churchill says:

    Hi Jon,

    Congratulations on the great job. You shattered I every expectation I think the birding community had, that a big year without Attu would never challenge Sandy Komito’s record. I enjoyed following your blog and your adventure, often the only “birding” I could do while working on my PhD.

    I wonder though, have you given thought to doing some follow up posts? I would love to get a retrospective on the last year, your regrets, strategies that really worked, and what you would do differently if you had to do it again. I think it would be informative not to mention useful for future big year birders.

  36. Ann Nightingale says:

    Hey, John,

    Your big year may be over, but you are not forgotten! It was fantastic to be a tiny part of your year. What an accomplishment! It must seem strange to be in one place for so long this year. Thanks for giving us all a chance to do a big year vicariously through you.

  37. Greg Baker says:


    I am about to meet Jon Dunn…Regarding “matters of politics” which one of you is the conservative and who is the liberal?

    Greg Baker, Portland, Oregon

  38. Just back from your presentation at the Bounder County Audubon Society event. Wonderful images — and wonderful light-hearted presentation about such an intense experience. Thanks for sharing it.

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