Thursday, December 30, 2010
Is a Florida Year List of 400 Species Possible?
I met Chris Haney in Athens, Georgia, in May, 1984. At the time he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia and I had just transferred there from a wildlife research center in North Dakota. As we stumbled along the banks of the Ocoee River finding my life Swainson’s Warbler, Chris told me that besides getting his PhD his goal in life was to see 300 species in Georgia in one year.
Having grown up in northern Wisconsin I was more than pleased to get 230 species in the Badger state in a year. One year in the early 1970s Daryl Tessen found an incredible 264 species in the state. It was then a milestone. Certainly 300 species in Georgia was never going to be attained. However in 1984 Chris Haney beat my prognostication and came in with a list of 308 for the year.
His success with a robust year list in 1984 and all the traveling he did to achieve that goal lay dormant in my mind until a couple years ago when I retired and moved from Washington DC to Naples and then a year later to Sarasota. Living on the west coast half way up the peninsula I thought that I was ideally located for making strategic chases in the hopes of finding as many birds as possible within the borders in a calendar year. I was only four hours from Miami, seven from Key West, five from Jacksonville, and three from Titusville. If I really wanted to be a masochist, it was an “easy” nine hour drive to Pensacola when needed.
Several factors conspired to make it impossible to attempt a big year in Florida in 2009 so I settled on trying in 2010. Information I gleaned somewhere said that the Big Year record for Florida before 2010 was 374 species. It was a number I thought I would never reach so I set my goal at 325 species. Of course long ago I thought that nobody would ever surpass Lou Gehrig’s record of playing in 2,130 consecutive baseball games either. Yet when Gehrig’s record was beaten it wasn’t beaten it was smashed.
Scouring the list serves and other data sources in late December 2009, it was apparent that to get the year off to a positive start I had to be in the western Panhandle in early January and on January 6 I set off for Pensacola. It turned out to be the first of 14 round trips I made to the Panhandle in 2010 but the effort to get there was always fruitful. Before making that first long trek (its 519 miles one-way from Sarasota to Pensacola) I began the year birding Sarasota and Manatee counties. My first bird of the year, seen from my lanai on January 1, was a Wood Stork. It turned to be a positive omen for the year.
Making four chases to the Panhandle coupled with local birding provided a list of 203 species for the year by January 31, 2010. I was only 122 species short of my year goal and I’d only been birding 31 days. Highlights for the month included Greater White-fronted Goose in Duval County, Brant in Nassau County (Fort Clinch), Cackling Goose in Wakulla County, Tundra Swan in St. John’s County, Common Eider in Flagler, Harlequin Duck in Brevard, Masked Duck in Brevard, Red-footed Booby in Dade, Buff-bellied and Calliope Hummingbirds in the Panhandle, Black-throated Gray Warbler in Palm Beach, Western Tanager in Dade and Green-tailed Towhee in Escambia County.
The distribution of Florida's 67 counties is shown here
When he made his attempt at finding 800 species in the ABA area in 1979, Jim Vardamann did considerable research and chose a pattern of being in locale X on a certain date, and locale Y on a different date. Jim ended the year with 799 species. A few years later when Benton Basham actually broke the record (with 814 species I think it was) he chose a different strategy. Benton focused on chasing rarities assuming they would only be in locale X a short while. When successful in seeing the rarity, Benton would then look for the more common local species adding them to his list. The strategy worked for Benton and I decided to employ it for myself in 2010. Other than birding locally I simply watched the list serves for news of a rare bird and chased them.
By February 28, my year list had swollen to 266 species including Vermilion Flycatcher in Okaloosa County.
March brought the first wave of migrant warblers and with them my year list increased by 51 new species to 317. At the end of March I was only eight species short of my year’s goal and my thinking began changing. If 317 species are this “easy” maybe I could see 350 for the year. It would certainly be in the realm of possibility. March highlights included Neotropic Cormorant in Wakulla County, Bar-tailed Godwit at Everglades National Park (of all places!), Surfbird in Levy County, Ash-throated Flycatcher in Alachua County, Loggerhead Kingbird and Thick-billed Vireo n Key West, and Townsend’s Warbler in Dade County.
April saw the beginning of Minor League baseball in Bradenton which caused me to change focus from birds to baseballs. Surprisingly the only Yellow Warbler I saw anywhere in the state during spring migration was singing from the roof over the bleachers at McKechnie Field in Bradenton during a Bradenton Marauders game! By the end of April my year list was at 360 species, surpassing the goal of 350 I had made just a month before and putting me within striking range of the state record of 374 set a few years earlier. Highlights for April included a Golden Eagle in Okeechobee County, Brown-crested Flycatcher in Pinellas County, and a Black-headed Grosbeak in Dade County.
The summer doldrums set in during May and bird activity declined markedly. I added only five new species in May bringing the year list to 365. The highlight of the month was the totally out of place Bahama Mockingbird in Pinellas County. I was able to get to DeSoto Park, tick the bird, and be back in Bradenton in time for the first pitch of a Bradenton Marauders game.
During June I added three species including the incredible Red-legged Thrush, a one-day wonder in Brevard County on June 1. I also added two “common” species I’d missed earlier in the year on yet another trip to the Panhandle. July saw more baseball than birds and in August I added two more including a Willow Flycatcher heard and then seen while bicycling one evening in a Sarasota golf development community. By Labor Day weekend my year list was at 370 species and holding.
September ended with 380 species. An American Golden-Plover in Volusia County tied the previous record of 374 species, and Ruff in Volusia on September 15 was 375. Other highlights for September included Sabine’s Gull in Volusia County, and Cuban Pewee and Western Spindalis in Dade County.
With three months remaining and all of them good month’s for migrants, I began thinking that maybe if everything fell in place it was possible to see 400 species in Florida in a calendar year.
Six species were added in October before I took off for a few days of chasing life birds in the Andes of Colombia. Back home in Florida the highlights were Groove-billed Ani in Franklin County, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in Escambia County, Bell’s Vireo in Franklin County and Yellow-headed Blackbird in Franklin County. My year list was at 386 at the end of October.
The Yellow-legged Gull at Ponce Inlet on November 27 was the only addition to the list in November.
“The” loon (Yellow-billed Loon) in Brevard County on December 21 was second only to the Red-legged Thrush as the most spectacular bird of the year. Other choice additions for December included Ross’s Goose in Brevard County, Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County and Snow Bunting in Flagler County.
My last tick of the year was the Lapland Longspur in Okaloosa County on December 28. It brought my 2010 Big Year total to 391 species. Foolishly I left the Panhandle and drove back to Sarasota after seeing the Longspur that morning. On my return home in the evening I received an email informing me that an Allen’s Hummingbird was seen that day not very far from where I had been looking at the Longspur that morning. Faced with another 475 mile one way drive for a year bird I contemplated the run but my enthusiasm was telling me it had had enough for one year. I decided to stay home. If something good was to show up it had to be somewhere close to home. I was done with long distance chasing for the year.
I ended 2010 with a year list of 391 species in Florida far surpassing my early goal of 325 species and surpassing the state record by 17 species.
Seeing that many birds required 14 round trips to the Panhandle, four trips to Key West, seven to Miami and the Everglades, eleven trips to Brevard County, ten to Volusia County, and five to Duval and Nassau Counties. I put more than 28,000 miles on my car or more regularly on rental cars. I visited each of Florida’s 67 counties a minimum of five times during the year, slept in my car or in a hotel 69 nights and spent a little over $12,000 on gas, hotels, food and rental cars. During the year I added 36 species to my Florida list and added more county birds to more county lists than I care to enumerate. I also started county lists in places like Union and Washington and Liberty counties and other smaller, less birded locales. However I still came up short of the magic 400 species for a year.
Is it possible to see 400 or more species in Florida in a year? My experience this year told me it most certainly is. Because of several conflicting factors, I was not able to get on any pelagic trips this year out of the Ponce Inlet, Miami, or the Keys. And despite being in Key West four times I was never able to make a trip to the Dry Tortugas. Had I been able to get on at least one of those trips I think 400 would have been obtainable.
Based on what was posted on various bird list serves during the year, I missed seeing 18 species in Florida that were seen by someone somewhere in the state in 2010. Those included: Cinnamon Teal, Black-capped Petrel, Greater Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, Masked Booby, Red Phalarope, Brown Noddy, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern, Arctic Tern, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Western Meadowlark
My experience in 2010 shows that if a lot of factors fall into place 400 species is certainly attainable and can be surpassed. Reliance on the five (or more?) bird list serves that blanket Florida is essential. All but one of the rarities I observed during the year, along with many of the highlighted species mentioned above, were found, documented and/or photographed by others and reported on the list serves. The one exception was a juvenal Golden Eagle sitting on a fence post along the road to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. In most cases I was able to find the rarities the day after the initial sighting was posted by someone else. When the Red-legged Thrush showed up in June, I received an email about it at 2:00 in the afternoon and by 5:30 that afternoon I was on the east coast looking at the bird. It was not seen again after that one day. The same held for the Surfbird near Cedar Key in March. Less than eighteen hours after its appearance on the list serve, I was paddling a kayak out to the island where it was still present.
Certainly 400 species and more can be found in Florida in a calendar year, however it will not be done by me. A Big Year chase like this is a once-in-a-lifetime project, and I’m too tired to think of trying again. I’ll just focus my attention on county listing and attend a lot more baseball games that I did in 2010.
My 2010 Florida Big Year list is reproduced below.
DUCKS, GEESE, AND WATERFOWL
Greater White-fronted Goose
American Black Duck
NEW WORLD QUAIL
PHEASANTS, GROUSE, AND ALLIES
SHEARWATERS AND PETRELS
BOOBIES AND GANNETS
American White Pelican
CORMORANTS AND SHAGS
HERONS, EGRETS, AND BITTERNS
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
IBISES AND SPOONBILLS
NEW WORLD VULTURES
HAWKS, EAGLES, AND KITES
FALCONS AND CARACARAS
RAILS, GALLINULES, AND COOTS
PLOVERS AND LAPWINGS
STILTS AND AVOCETS
SANDPIPERS AND ALLIES
GULLS, TERNS, AND SKIMMERS
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
SKUAS AND JAEGERS
PIGEONS AND DOVES
Great Horned Owl
NIGHTJARS AND ALLIES
Great Crested Flycatcher
La Sagra’s Flycatcher
CROWS, JAYS, AND MAGPIES
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
CHICKADEES AND TITS
THRUSHES AND ALLIES
MOCKINGBIRDS AND THRASHERS
WAGTAILS AND PIPITS
NEW WORLD WARBLERS
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Gray Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
TANAGERS AND ALLIES
BUNTINGS, SPARROWS AND ALLIES
American Tree Sparrow
Le Conte’s Sparrow
CARDINALS AND ALLIES
TROUPIALS AND ALLIES
SISKINS, CROSSBILLS,AND ALLIES
OLD WORLD SPARROWS
--------- STATISTICS ---------
Species seen - 391
Families w/seen species – 63