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Matthew Lowe
Matthew Lowe

The Big Year TOP

The film follows three seasoned birders who each set out to achieve a Big Year. They are Brad Harris, a 36-year-old computer programmer based in Baltimore; Stu Preissler, founder and CEO of a New York company bearing his name; and a roofing contractor named Kenny Bostick, who holds the current Big Year record of 732 birds.

The Big Year


Bostick is obsessively possessive of his record, but his third wife Jessica is concerned; this was supposed to be the year they focused on conceiving a child. She also believes that Bostick's birding obsession is what destroyed his two previous marriages.[7] He is so competitive that the others use his name as a kind of expletive: "Bostick!"

As the year draws to a close, Stu is happily retired and enjoying his newborn grandson; Brad develops a relationship with Ellie; and Bostick is alone, as his wife has left him. Stu and Brad, now close friends, congratulate each other on "a very big year", after each sighting 700+ bird species that year. When the Big Year results are published, Bostick won the competition with 755, a new record; Brad came in second; Stu was fourth. Brad opines that "he (Bostick) got more birds, but we got more everything," as he looks at Ellie, who has come for a weekend visit. Stu smiles, looking at his wife.

A big year is a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound, within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area. Popularized in North America, big years are commonly carried out within a single U.S. state or Canadian province, or within larger areas such as the Lower 48 contiguous states, within the official American Birding Association (ABA) area, or sometimes the entire globe. The ABA big year record of 840 species was set by Andrew Pochonita of Southern California in 2019.[1] The big year world record of 6,852 species was set in 2016 by Arjan Dwarshuis of the Netherlands.[2]

The wide publication in 1934 of the first modern field guide by Roger Tory Peterson truly revolutionized birding. However, in that era, most birders did not travel widely. The earliest known continent-wide Big Year record was compiled by Guy Emerson, a traveling businessman, who timed his business trips to coincide with the best birding seasons for different areas in North America. During his best year, in 1939, he saw 497 species.[3] In 1952, Emerson's record was broken by Bob Smart, who saw 515 species.[4]

In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher took a 30,000 mile road trip visiting the wild places of North America. In 1955, they told the story of their travels in a book and a documentary film, both called Wild America. In a footnote to the book, Peterson claimed "My year's list at the end of 1953 was 572 species." In 1956, a 25-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith, following Peterson and Fisher's route, compiled a list of 594 species, a record that stood for fifteen years.[5]

In 1971, 18-year-old Ted Parker, in his last semester of high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, extensively birded the eastern seaboard of North America. That September, Parker enrolled in the University of Arizona in Tucson and found dozens of Southwestern U.S. and Pacific coast specialties, ending the year with a list of 626 species.

Big year efforts were still few and far between. In 1973 Kenn Kaufman and Floyd Murdoch both pursued Parker's record. As recounted in Kaufman's book Kingbird Highway, both broke the old record by a wide margin. Murdoch finished with 669 in the newly described ABA area to Kaufman's 666. Murdoch's record was broken in 1979 by James M. Vardaman, who saw 699 species that year and travelled 161,332 miles. Benton Basham, in 1983, topped Vardaman's effort with 710 species. 1987 marked the second time that there was a competition during a single year, with Sandy Komito's 722 species topping Steve Perry's 711. In 1992 Bill Rydell made a serious attempt at the record and ended with 714 species for the year.

In 1998, three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller, chased Komito's prior record of 722 birds. In the end Komito kept the record, listing 745 species[6] birds plus 3 submitted in 1998 and later accepted by state committees for a revised total of 748.[7] Mark Obmascik's book about the 1998 big year birders was adapted into the 2011 20th Century Fox film The Big Year.

In 2008, Lynn Barber, at the time the Texas big year record holder, became the first woman to break the 700-species barrier with a total of 723.[8] In 2010, North Carolina birder Chris Hitt became the first birder to see 700+ species in the lower 48 in a single year, finishing with 704.[9] In the same year, Virginia birder Robert Ake ended the year with 731 species, an extraordinary total achieved without the benefit of the relatively unique weather effects of 1998.[10]

In 2011, Colorado birder John Vanderpoel became the fastest birder on record to reach 700 species in a year. Ultimately he managed 743 birds, missing out on the record by five, but completing what was, at the time, the 2nd-biggest ABA year ever.[11] Vanderpoel's effort was the last made without the major contribution of eBird and birding groups on Facebook, which significantly enhanced the quality and quantity of rare bird alerts.

In 2013, Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward reluctantly decided to do an ABA big year. Hayward reached 700 species two weeks ahead of John Vanderpoel's 2011 pace, and ended his year on 747 species plus 3 provisionals.[12] Two provisionals later accepted by the ABA gave Hayward a final total of 749, which set a new ABA Big Year record.

In 2016, an unprecedented four birders attempted simultaneous ABA Area big years. A South Dakotan doctor birding as "Olaf Danielson" launched his "Bad Weather Big Year", reaching 700 species in May.[13] John Weigel, an Australian conservationist and Tasmanian devil activist, also launched his big year, called "Birding for Devils."[14] While not seeking to break the record, American birding activist and blogger Christian Hagenlocher's "The Birding Project" aimed to attract more people to birding through a more social perspective.[15] Hagenlocher, at age 27, also became the youngest person to break the 700-species barrier for an ABA big year. Photographer Laura Keene, conducting a 2016 photographic big year, broke Lynn Barber's Big Year record for women in September.[16] 2016 marked the first time four birders had each seen over 700 species in the ABA Area in a year. On 16 July 2016, Weigel saw his 750th species, a Buller's shearwater, breaking Hayward's previous record.[17] All four birders would eventually surpass Hayward's total.

In October 2016, the ABA voted to add the U.S. state of Hawaii to the countable area for ABA Big Years. All the 2016 big year birders except Hagenlocher birded Hawaii during November and December 2016, even though the "New" ABA checklist was not updated until November 2017. Olaf Danielson, partly due to efforts to promote bird conservation in Hawaii, incorporated Hawaii into his Big Year planning, keeping a list for the "New ABA" along with his Continental ABA list. John Weigel and Laura Keene subsequently birded Hawaii, with Weigel ending up with the highest total for the "New ABA" region (836), the Continental ABA region (784) and the United States (832). Danielson was close behind with 829 for the "New ABA," while setting a new record for the Lower 48 States (723). Weigel was nipping at his heels with 721. Keene shattered the previous record for photographed species with diagnostic photos of 792 species, and audio recordings of 10 others, out of her 815 total for the year.[18]

In 2018, Nicole Koeltzow reached the 700-species milestone on July 1, while in August Gaylee and Richard Dean became the first birders to reach 700 species in consecutive years. On October 30, 2018, in Hawaii, Koeltzow became the 7th birder to reach the 800-species mark, and went on to set new ABA records for women birders.[20] Also noteworthy in 2018 was the fact that Koeltzow and Dan Gesualdo became the 4th and 5th birders to identify 700+ species in the Lower 48 states. Gesualdo did so without a single airplane trip.

On July 4, 2019, John Weigel hit 700 for the second time, and on July 5 Gaylee and Richard Dean once again reached 700 species for the year, making them the first birders ever to top 700 species in the ABA Area three times. On top of that, the three years were done consecutively. At the end of July 2019 Weigel became the first birder to reach 750 species in more than one year. A trip to Alaska at the end of August 2019 allowed David and Tammy McQuade to become the 4th and 5th birders to reach 700 species during 2019. They joined the Deans as the only couples to accomplish the feat. With a trip to Maine in September Amanda Damin became the 6th birder to reach 700 for the year, an unprecedented occurrence in the history of ABA Big Years. In October 2019 Weigel became the first birder to have a second 800+ ABA Big Year, and Richard and Gaylee Dean became the 9th and 10th birders to have a 750+ ABA Big Year. In November 2019 David and Tammy McQuade became the 6th and 7th birders to identify 700+ species in the Lower 48, and in December 2019 Gaylee and Richard Dean became the 8th and 9th birders to accomplish that feat.A new ABA Big Year record was set on December 23, 2019, when John Weigel found a Steller's Eider in Alaska, species #837 for the year. The same species also allowed Weigel to set a new record for a United States Big Year. At the close of the year he was at 836 for this category.

Big Years in 2020 were certainly impacted by the pandemic, as tours to Alaska were cancelled, travel to and from Canada was almost non-existent, and the use of air travel was minimal. At age 21, Ben Sanders was the youngest birder to reach 680 for a Lower 48 (Contiguous) Big Year, and did it without a single airplane trip. David and Tammy McQuade had 735 species, all in the "Lower 49" (the Lower 48 + Hawaii). Their total of 692 for the Lower 48 tied for 13th best all-time. The highlight of the year was in the Contiguous 48 States category, where Jeremy Dominguez broke Danielson's 2016 record; the Bar-tailed Godwit he had in Washington on December 29 was species #724 for the year. 041b061a72


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