Thursday 8 February 2018

Big Year 2017 - Owls, Geese, and Blackbirds! January part 2

After my first awesome week-long Big Year trip, I returned home to relax for just over a week. I caught up with some local winter specialties, as well as some common species that I had not seen yet. I found some great photo ops and avoided going out of my way for the most common species, knowing that I would come across them many times through the year. To chase the very expected common species would just drain my time, energy, and gasoline.
This photo effectively represents what we are up against when we are lucky enough to find a massive flock of blackbirds at the grain storage compounds. Note the pile of corn in the left corner of the frame, and more importantly the black cloud flying between the two mostly black-covered roofs… Those are all blackbirds!
This trip's highlight bird was somewhat expected, but still a bit of a surprising "self-found" rarity that I got to share with a local friend. I had posted a message to (Windsor-Essex-Pelee Birds is our local bird alert service run by Kory Renaud, Jeremy Hatt, and me) on January 7 2017, asking if any locals knew if there was a certain massive blackbird flock still present near Kingsville. I received a bunch of friendly replies, unfortunately suggesting that the flock has likely moved on... Naturally, I did what any over-ambitious competitive birder would do: called a friend and headed out anyway to a location that I had a good feeling about!
This is a Merlin, a tiny falcon that we enjoyed watching as it hunted blackbirds, sparrows, and pigeons. We did not enjoy when it put the whole flock back up in the air though!
Kit McCann and I headed to an Agris Co Op grain storage compound without getting our hopes up too high, and we were not disappointed! We found an outdoor corn pile that could have filled a swimming pool, feeding about 7000 Brown-headed Cowbirds, 1000 European Starlings, some Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and one Yellow-headed Blackbird!! I was proud of Kit to have spotted it before I did, seeing as he was pretty new at birding at the time. It was also nice refinding it again a few days later with Chris Gaffan, one of my closest friends since we were kids, who had never seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird until that day.
Immature male Yellow-headed Blackbird in Comber, Essex County. This was exactly what Kit McCann and I were hoping to find here!
This photo makes the Yellow-headed Blackbird seem easy enough to spot, but imagine zooming out to the whole group shown in the first photo of this blog post!
The following few days were nice and somewhat relaxing. I focused on local sites like Point Pelee, my yard's bird feeders, and Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary in Kingsville where I saw my first-of-year Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese. I also spent some time enjoying overwintering Short-eared Owls at an undisclosed location in Essex County.
Greater White-fronted Geese among Canada Geese at Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary near Kingsville, Essex County. Sightings of this almost-rare goose species seem to be rising dramatically in recent years in Southern Ontario, but I was glad to get them out of the way early!

Cackling Goose among Canada Geese at Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary. Yeah, the Cackling Goose is the cute tiny one pointing to the left near the centre of the photo that otherwise looks much like its larger relatives!
In mid January I visited a private suburban residence that had been astonishingly graced by a Barn Owl about a month before that! A blurry but readily identifiable photo was posted to Facebook in December 2016, and when I caught wind of it I did what I needed to do to get in touch with that property's owners, consequently leading to a visit to their house. They showed me the pellets still sitting under its favourite perch, which still too had the mystical owl's poop dried down its sides! This was almost too much stimulation for one hardcore birder to cope with, but knowing that they had not seen it in weeks I rightfully did not expect to refind it.
Barn Owl pellets (the grey blobs in the left half of the image) and Barn Owl poop (on the tree bark on the right half of the image). What more do I need to say under this one? It was painful but it was equally very exciting to stand in a place where a Barn Owl recently called home.
I followed my week at home with a trip to Frontenac County, hoping to refind Southern Ontario's first Great Gray Owl sighting of the year. I stopped at a private residence in Oxford County, aiming to see a Western Meadowlark that had been hanging around, which I did not see. On my way east I also stopped at a secret location that Dan MacNeal had contacted me about earlier in the day. Luck was on my side with timing once again! I happily saw the Long-eared Owl and headed on my way to Frontenac County, where I did not see any Great Gray Owls!
Long-eared Owl in Guelph area. This would end up being the only Long-eared Owl I saw throughout my 2017 Big Year. Thanks a bunch to Dan MacNeal for leading me to this sighting!
**Please do not bother anyone mentioned in my blogs about finding owls. Most of these owl situations were one-time instances for a very special purpose or these visits would not have happened at all. Owls are sacred to conservationists and are worth keeping private. If you are a deserving conservationist and are eager to see owls, I promise your time will come if you are patient.**

By January 18th I had tallied 90 species toward my Big Year. More importantly, five of these were notable rarities and about ten of these were notably uncommon or tricky species, which was a great pace to have started with. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for a story about a rather unconventional birding outing during an Ontario Big Year!

All the best,

Friday 26 January 2018

Big Year 2017 - January part 1: Hot Out of the Starting Gate!

My first month or two of 2017 was already somewhat documented in blog posts from last year, but since I aim to blog about the whole year, I am re-blogging these first few weeks with some photos and an actual computer in front of me rather than my phone this time…
Sandhill Cranes hanging out near Long Point for the winter. A certain rarity (seen below) was tricky to see so we enjoyed hundreds of cranes while we waited.
‘Day one’ of 2017 went as well as I had hoped it would! I knew the select birds and locations I needed to visit on January 1st, and left home for Norfolk County before sunrise to successfully see a long staying mega-rare Smith’s Longspur that had been found near Long Point by a few friends in December. This species does breed in Ontario but only at its extreme northern edge, so this was a very lucky start to the year! I headed to Toronto from there with my mind on a stakeout Lark Sparrow.
Smith’s Longspur, a very welcome and relatively unexpected bird on my 2017 list! This species breeds in limited numbers on Ontario’s Hudson Bay coast, but a trip to see them would have likely cost me well over $2000.
I met up with my good friends Josh Vandermeulen and Henrique Pacheco in Toronto, where we promptly refound and enjoyed the Lark Sparrow in great light. We stopped in Burlington to see a female (Queen?) King Eider on our way to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we hoped to spot the long-staying Black-headed Gull among Bonaparte’s Gulls flying along the river to go roost for the night - unsuccessful! At this point it was dark out so we headed to Josh’s house for the night. My Big Year tally at the end of January 1 was 36 species - right around what I expected!
Lark Sparrow in Toronto. This species is not quite classified a provincial level rarity but it is still pretty rare... and pretty too!
The next morning, January 2nd, we started at the Whirlpool at Niagara Falls, where our friends Richard Poort, Mourad Jabra, and Josh Nieuwenhuis had just refound the previously mentioned Black-headed Gull! After a bit of trouble due to a lack of stationary landmarks in the turbulent water, Henrique and I got on it, unfortunately after Josh V. had to leave. The other three had already left to go scan gulls above the falls, and just before we arrived they spotted what they believed to likely be the Slaty-backed Gull that had been found in the same location on the US side of the river by Willie D’Anna the day before. We studied it and photographed it distantly before it took off, flying over the Canadian control gates and out of sight! Upon review of our distant photos both before and after it entered Ontario’s airspace, and double-checking with gull guru Amar Ayyash, we were certain that this was in fact that same Slaty-backed Gull! This species was new to my world life list, and I was pleased to hear that many other Ontario birders including Josh were able to catch up with this bird on days that followed. I ended my second day at 59 species!
Black-headed Gull flying over the Whirlpool at Niagara Falls. I went on to see another one or two through the year, but this was still a pretty rare one to get out of the way early!
January 3rd was a bit dull as far as Big Year birding goes, but some days will be slower and that is okay! I added a handful of species to my year list, dropped off Henrique at his house in Toronto, and headed east for a cozy sleep in my truck before birding in Ottawa.

January 4th was an incredibly exciting day in my Big Year! It started with a mindless and unsuccessful search in rural roads outside of Ottawa for Gray Partridge, though tundra species like Snowy Owls and Snow Buntings kept me entertained. In the afternoon I called my friend Jon Ruddy, one of Ottawa’s top young birders, to see if he had any specific directions for finding Gray Partridges, and to my surprise he said he was just thinking of calling me to see where in the province I was! Jon had just been notified of a Boreal Owl sighting the previous evening at a pretty secret location due to conservation concerns. He was willing to trust me with that info, and I met up with Ottawa birder Chris Traynor to search. I spotted a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the process, and we refound the Boreal Owl just before dark!! This was another new addition to my world life list, and needless to say, I was very happy that I had a hard time finding the partridges on this day haha.
Boreal Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl, not 100m apart, in Eastern Ontario. Many thanks to Jon Ruddy for his magic powers of finding or hearing about great birds at least a few of the times I was already in Eastern Ontario! Special thanks to Chris Traynor too for giving me a hand tracking down the meaner looking one!
**Please do not bother these guys about finding owls. This was a one-time thing from a whole year ago and we were very lucky to have received news of a same-day sighting from an anonymous birder or this would not have happened. Owls are sacred to conservationists and are worth keeping private. If you are a deserving conservationist and are eager to see owls, I promise your time will come if you are patient.**
Chris Traynor and I later on in the year at Britannia Park Pier, a very popular birding spot in Ottawa. Chris is one of many great people I had a chance to make friends with across Ontario during my Big Year!
The fifth day of January consisted of another unsuccessful search for Gray Partridge, but also included successfully chasing a Harlequin Duck and a Barrow’s Goldeneye duck in Ottawa. I called my good friend Bruce Di Labio, who gave me very specific and current directions for the partridges, and also made a very heart-felt and personal commitment to be there to help me with anything I may need help with through the year-long journey I was beginning. My friends Victor Dillabaugh and his wife Dawn very generously invited me to stay at their place right near the spot I would be birding in the morning.
Harlequin Duck and Barrow’s Goldeneye, two fairly rare duck species in our province. Both were seen in the same afternoon on rivers within our nation’s capital of Ottawa.
January 6th was a great day too, as Bruce’s instructions got my eyes on Gray Partridges within about five minutes of searching! I got out of that area in a hurry after enjoying the partridges as this is a spot where goofy ‘owl baiters’ were actively luring a Snowy Owl with live pet store mice for photos - I will not get too into why that act is embarrassingly petty but I'm sure you can do the math. I took the scenic route home, driving through Renfrew County and Algonquin Provincial Park before heading home. I crossed paths with a few boreal specialty birds in that area and a few pretty cool people. By the first hours of January 7th I was back home to rest with 73 bird species out of the way toward my Big Year.
A few of the small covey of Gray Partridges that were seriously within metres of where Bruce Di Labio, the master of Ottawa area birding, described. Speaking of birding magicians, this guy might as well have pulled bird-rabbits out of hats when I needed a rare bird to go see!
The first week of the year was overall a great and lucky start, and a great time with excellent company! I was already glad that I was following through with my Big Year plans.

Thanks for reading, and all the best to you!

Thursday 25 January 2018

Big Year 2017 - Preparation for Days (and days, and days, and days, and days)

So here it begins... I hope that I can keep up with my blog writing about my 2017 Big Year a bit more effectively now that I am not travelling and birding at quite such an insane degree. 
A photo of me a few years younger, looking like I knew what I was doing while out birding! Oh, and that little friend who climbed up onto my shoulder is a Downy Woodpecker. Photo captured by Nathan Nash in the Point Pelee birding area in July 2013.
As I have briefly mentioned before, I spent much of 2016 preparing for the competitive birding adventure I was about to embark on. In fact, much of the birding style I have practised in the last few years was in part preparation for a Big Year! Learning where, when, and how to most effectively track down many of the annual rarities in my home region of Southwestern Ontario was no easy feat! I credit much of this knowledge and experience to my first local birding mentors, like Paul Pratt and my friends at Ojibway Park, Jim McCoy, Sarah Rupert, Jeremy Hatt, Kory Renaud, Steve Pike, Tom Hurst, Mike Malone and my friends at Pelee Wings, Alan Wormington, and Josh Vandermeulen, who really showed me the ropes early on and always had insightful answers to my sometimes difficult questions. These are by no means my only close mentors from the not-so-long-ago ‘early years’ who I am thankful to, but they are individuals who really stand out in my memory. 
A very special two-week memory of one of my first crazy birding adventures. This photo was captured on day one of a trip to the coast of James Bay, immediately after a two hour helicopter ride over Ontario’s boreal forest! From left to right: me (Jeremy Bensette), Josh Vandermeulen, Kory Renaud, and Alan Wormington.
I told anyone I knew that I would be doing a Big Year in 2017, in part to set my plans in stone, knowing I could not cancel after telling so many people about it. I also got as large a dose as possible of my other passions like insects, plants, family, and local friends, knowing I had to focus on birds for a whole year.
The Goatweed Leafwing butterfly I found at Point Pelee National Park in October 2016 as I prepared to give up insects for a year. This very special first known occurrence ever for Canada is evidence that I really do love other wildlife besides birds!
I had a strategy to get psychologically focused on Big Year stuff long before 2017 began, and that ended up being one of my most effective tools through the year! I spent many months practising not being excitable or high strung about birds, a very easy thing to otherwise lose control over. I knew I had many rare bird chases ahead of me and worked very hard to stay very calm about rare birds found by others that I would need to go try to see!
Gray Kingbird, a great provincial level rarity I found with my cousin David Ehrenreich and my past girlfriend Emma Buck in the Point Pelee birding area in May 2015!
After dealing with my then girlfriend Emma's surprise choice to apply for work in Alberta for the 2016 summer season, combined with a difference of opinion between her and my tentative plans for our futures - which I do not hold against anyone - I decided to carry on with what I was doing and let bygones be bygones. I have always maintained that past relationships were shared with great people, and I have no regrets about past decisions and experiences with ‘failure’ or ‘success’ in this subject. Alan Wormington, who was probably my closest friend through the year, lost his battle with bone cancer and sadly left this world in early fall of 2016. I spent a portion of nearly every day with Alan in the weeks and months before his passing, so this was a rough situation, but I was proud to have given him company and comfort during his hardest times. Around the time that Alan left this world, Emma had found another far away work contract, and we decided to try to make a run at having a long distance relationship. Needless to say, it was a pretty psychologically difficult and lonely fall season as time dwindled before the start of my now thoroughly planned 2017 Big Year…
Emma and I shortly before she left for Alberta. Sometimes when situations change drastically against our wishes we have no choice but to move on and look forward to the next chapter, but it does not mean we cannot still value the good memories of good people who played a positive role in our past!
I knew that I owed it to Alan, the birding community who have given me so much, and myself to follow through with this mission I had been planning, so I picked myself up with what little motivation I could conjure and focused on being ready to hit the ground running on the first day of January 2017!
The majority of our group at a private memorial get-together for Alan Wormington that we put together at Point Pelee National Park in October 2016. This was basically Alan’s funeral, and I think he would be humbled at how many special people showed up from near and far to celebrate his special life. Thanks Kit McCann for this photo.
The weeks leading up to 2017 had some pretty interesting bird activity in our magical province of Ontario, including the following rarities at various dates in December 2016:

   Crested Caracara in Algoma region
   Western Sandpiper in Chatham-Kent region
   Smith’s Longspur in Norfolk region
   Black-headed Gull in Niagara region
   Lark Sparrow in Toronto region
   Brambling in Frontenac region
   Western Grebe in Simcoe and Toronto regions

The famous Crested Caracara that I chased to Wawa, Algoma District, with Josh Vandermeulen, Henrique Pacheco, Steve Charbonneau, Barb Charlton, David Pryor, and Tyler Hoar in fall 2016!
Clearly things were shaping up for an expected good start to my Big Year! There was a week or so in late December 2016 when it seemed like all the province’s known rarities went missing, but at least a few of these resurfaced just before New Year’s. I knew that my 2017 year needed to start with attempts at seeing the province’s top rarities in the first few days of the year, and I also knew that I needed to visit Emma at her place of work in Germany, so I put on my positivity hat and planned accordingly, right up until an early night in on New Year’s Eve!
This is my favourite photo of Alan Wormington and I, in Texas in February 2015, acting as goofy and fun as ever. I promise he was wearing his hat like that first!
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!


Friday 5 January 2018

My 2017 Ontario Big Year - Summary and Thank You

Well, where do I begin? I am borderline speechless this week (New Years 2017-2018) but I will see if I can come up with a piece to share here. It turns out I have a lot to talk about! Consider dividing and reading this in two parts if time is limited.

It has been a blast, this whole year, and I cannot find enough chances to thank the countless uplifting, generous, and supportive friends and loved ones who have helped me along through this great journey all over our beautiful province of Ontario. If you are reading this post, then you in some way or another are part of that group of people, so thank you for being there too!

My noble pony and I at Lynde Shores, Whitby, after seeing a Neotropic Cormorant. This folding bike that I often kept in my truck saved me a long walk at least a few times!
I tentatively decided three or four years ago that I would do a big year in Ontario, approximately in 2017. My goal was to do the best I possibly could with what resources, time, and mental and physical stamina that I could muster. I always entertained the thought that perhaps I could end up somewhere near Ontario's Big Year record of 343 species, ambitiously set in 2012 by Josh Vandermeulen, one of the best friends a guy like me could ever ask for. Josh always knew that I had it in me, and so did Alan Wormington, a very special friend and mentor to both Josh and I, who sadly left this world just months before 2017 began. I did not take either of them very seriously until I realized the pace I was on part way through this year.

My first visit to Moosonee with Josh Vandermeulen and Alan Wormington in 2013, the year after Josh's record Big Year. This is us on the ferry between Moosonee and Moose Factory, moments before I set foot on Moose Factory for my first time, and I can't help but reminisce about these fond memories as I go through the timeline of my Big Year.
My preparation for such a goal might surprise you! I spent months of 2016 preparing myself by researching and setting a timeline of when I would need to catch up with certain species, designing a personalized seasonal 'rarity ranking system' for each of Ontario's near 500 species ever, and spent the last few years carefully learning how to go about finding (and re-finding) all tricky annual species found in Ontario. I spent the second half of 2016 focusing on not being excitable or high strung over birding matters, which turned out to be one of my most effective psychological tools throughout my Big Year. I fought against my strong urge to take on much guiding work in recent years, to avoid having to leave clients hanging for a year, and I kept my other field work commitments to a minimum going into 2017. I had a nice contract job with Bird Studies Canada for nearly half of the year, and because my scheduling is flexible, I opted to concentrate as much work time into single chunks and trips as possible rather than spreading it out in a slightly healthier way like I normally do. I pushed my good friend Tim Arthur to apply for a job to work with me, a job he ended up getting to do, leading to much company and friendship for some crazy road trips. It turned out that my good friend Tim was a *great* friend, as he ended up travelling with me for far more than field work for the rest of the year! If it was not for Tim's presence I am sure I would have quit my Big Year during some pretty difficult social situations unrelated to birding. Also, I very graciously accepted an offer for sponsorship with the Vortex Canada Field Team, a relationship that has since expanded that I look forward to continuing in the future. I did my best to prepare my friends and family for my sporadic absence throughout the year, which they all dealt with very positively. One very special friend and mentor of mine committed to be there to help me with any and all tough birding or social decisions I may run into through the year: Bruce DiLabio. That promise held true, along with offers for support from countless others! You will hear more about many of these great friends and arrangements in the future.

What would I have done without Bruce DiLabio this year? I joke that Bruce is my 'Ottawa dad' because of how much he has been there for me whenever I need to talk or am in need of a year bird. This photo was captured by Tim right after Bruce found me my first ever Razorbill at Constance Bay!
Now I owe you some information about the final product of this crazy journey! A combination of approximately 100,000 km driven, a couple flights, tram rides, bicycles, ferries, kayak, skis, snowshoes, a swim, and a wade through icy water have taken me to some pretty crazy places and crazy birds throughout this amazing Big Year across Ontario. My official final total at this point is 346 bird species, which breaks Josh's 2012 record of 343 by three. It is still hard for me to fathom that I managed this feat, but I maintain that I could not have done it on my own, nor would I have wanted to. My list on ebird will read 345 rather than 346, because Thayer's Gull lost its battle with species status this year and is now a subspecies of Iceland Gull. Thayer’s Gull is still officially listable in 2017 but no later according to the ABA Listing and Ethics Committee guidelines, since it was considered a species for a portion of 2017.

This photo with three of my closest friends (Josh Vandermeulen, Sarah Lamond, and Tim Arthur) represents many months of blood, sweat, and tears, and then some. This, perhaps the most special photo I own, was captured by my friend Bonnie as we celebrated seeing a Northern Gannet, the sighting that tipped my 2017 Big Year over Josh's 2012 record!
I would like to take a moment to admit that this 100,000 km 'vacation' was not the most environmentally friendly way for a conservationist to spend a year, and it is not something I plan on repeating. My number one goal for my career as a naturalist is to expose and promote as many members of the general public as possible to delve into the 'finer things' like conservation, wildlife, and natural history, in hope that they too will want to get involved. The only way to effectively do that, in my opinion, is to inspire and impress those not currently interested, and try to steer them in the direction of good. It still shocks me that this story gained so much traction in media outlets across Canada, but I think that the popularity of this story is a huge step in the right direction for the conservation goal I just described. The main work I do supports a purely conservation-minded project, building up data regarding the health of the Great Lakes, and I spend much personal time, thought, and energy on voluntary conservation efforts.

I was surprised to be contacted about a live interview across Canada with Lindsey Deluce on CTV's Your Morning! I hope I didn't embarrass myself TOO much! I also hope this story motivates others to pursue their dreams, and get into wildlife and conservation too.
Highlights? Yeah, there were a few! The first species I listed in 2017 was House Sparrow at sunrise on January 1 on my way to Long Point, and my last species was a male Tufted Duck found by Luc Fazio on December 16 in Toronto. The greatest milestone was of course the record-breaking Northern Gannet in Hamilton on November 20, particularly because I was fortunate enough to share this moment with three of my closest friends, who collectively were much of the foundation of my positivity and energy this year. My most exciting bird sighting was a Wood Stork found by Mark Nenadov in August at Point Pelee, Canada's number one birding hotspot and my home park, and I think my saucy email to the Ontbirds bird alert made that excitement evident! The most special bird I listed this year without a doubt was a Barn Owl that I was blessed with the chance to see in Southwestern Ontario! My knees literally buckled when I saw it, and I am so honoured to have been given that opportunity. Please do not ask about location details regarding this sighting **no matter what** because frankly, conservation issues combined with very firm wishes by the land owner to not have any strangers show up are more than enough reason for me to not share this location with any person. It appears to only have been present at this spot for about a week anyway and it has not been seen in quite some time.

The famous, ugly, sexy Wood Stork at Point Pelee. I sure hauled it home from Algonquin to miss it by minutes... Fuddle duddle... Until I refound it with my good friend Rick Mayos at around 10am the next day!
My year list had a few surprisingly missed species this year, but I must say for the most part I was incredibly lucky with catching up with rarities! There were give or take around 367 species identified in Ontario total this year, but quite a few of these were just not possible for various logistical reasons. Some of my closest and most surprising misses, some expected and some very rare, include Laughing Gull, Ivory Gull, Purple Sandpiper, Yellow Rail, Willow Ptarmigan, Swainson's Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Gyrfalcon, Tropical Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Yellow-throated Warbler, Lark Bunting, and Cassin's Sparrow. Of these, I considered seven to be 'almost guaranteed' but still tough, and in hindsight in my opinion, decisions could have been made differently to realistically catch up with six or seven of the above list. This is of course much easier said than done, when considering that I made the right decisions in combination with luck to catch up with 346 others. I think the absolute ideal I could have realistically managed this year is maybe 351 species, so I could not be happier with the outcome. One birder cannot be everywhere at one time, not even if they drive instead of sleep most of the time like I did haha. Would dishing out many thousands of dollars for many flights have changed my final tally? Yes, I think I would have had a lower final number had I tried to pay my way through a Big Year! The comfort of my own vehicle and my ability to stay wide awake no matter what (with some breaks, courtesy of Tim!) were two of the best things going for me this year!

My noble steed, telescope, and I on a fancy rock boat launch in Marathon, Thunder Bay District. Thanks for capturing this photo, Owen!
The last few days of the year came with a stroke of magic, but then again so did the rest of the year! On December 28 my awesome Thunder Bay friend Glenn Stronks was visiting Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto and crossed paths with Brian Bailey who had just found a Purple Sandpiper of all things! Glenn called me immediately, and by first light the next morning, I was out there searching with Tim and a handful of very ambitious up-and-coming young birders. The very next evening Owen Strickland reported a distantly photographed probable Gyrfalcon from Tommy Thompson Park just minutes further down the coast from the Purple Sandpiper spot! It does not need to be stated where Tim and I were for the last day of the year haha. We searched for Purple Sandpiper as well that day, and though we did not turn up either bird, it felt like a million bucks to be out searching for year birds right until sunset on the last day of the year. The year began great with maximum energy and chaos,but it ended with the same energy and clarity! On this final day of all days I knew that I had done well, and I knew more than ever before that this world, this life, this community, this is for me.

The last bird photos of the year were certainly photos to write home about! This gorgeous Snowy Owl was a welcome sight at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto after a cross-country ski in extremely cold air.
I sent a text message to one of my closest friends on my way to the final search, and I think it really sums things up... “One last bird chase. One more late night, one more near meltdown, one more dice roll. One more two-hour radio concert with Tim. Tomorrow is the last day of the best year of my life and the last day of the worst year of my life, but I won't remember that side of it, before the first day of the rest of my life begins. One more day in this prison of ideal freedom. I did not expect to feel this much sentiment on this day, and maybe I will forget it when I wake up early and hit the cold air for one more search. I did not expect to have a bird to chase on this last day.”

Tim Arthur and I in my 'mobile home' SUV campsite! Tim discovered that he was much better than he thought at car camping this year, and I discovered just how great my car is for camping! I believe this photo was captured during an early October morning in a highway service station.
This year may be over, but it has been hands down the single greatest thing I have ever set out to do, and perhaps will remain the most special set of memories I ever collect. The things I have gained from this year are unmeasurable, and are by no means limited to birding accomplishments. I have learned so much about me by breaking the limits of what I thought I was capable of in so many ways, persevered through all kinds of social and psychological hurdles, made and strengthened countless bonds and friendships with loved ones, put a few unhealthy situations behind me, and got so physically healthy that I could see my ab muscles for the first time in my life haha. I am eternally grateful for the support offered and given by so many amazing people and I plan on paying it forward for the rest of my life. Doing something like this really opens one's eyes to see just how unconditionally positive this world around us can be if we just let it, and I hope that this inspires others to pursue their dreams, no matter how big a challenge it may be.

The second last bird chase drummed up interest from a concentration of young, hardy birders! Amanda Guercio, Tim Arthur, Quinten Wiegersma, me (Jeremy Bensette), Dennis Dirigal, Jack Farley, and Felix Eckley at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto on December 29, 2017. Thanks for getting this photo, Rick!
I want to dedicate this Big Year accomplishment to far more people than I could ever list in this already lengthy piece, so I will touch on a few of the closest parties and people involved, but please do know that if you have done anything to help or root me on, even just reading this, I am personally very grateful to you and I hope that shows. This, above all, is for Alan Wormington (I know Alan would be so proud to see what we have done), Josh Vandermeulen, Tim Arthur, Sarah Lamond, and Bruce DiLabio, who really were the cornerstones and the main enablers of my positivity this year. I also want to dedicate this beautiful journey to my parents, brother, grandparents, family, and great friends from home for being there for many years and for moulding me into someone who could even try to do something this hardcore! I want to dedicate it to so many amazing friends and mentors, both near and far, both past and present, who have been around for so much of my growing naturalist and birding career, most of whom have been there for much support through this year. This includes all members of Ontario's very strong birding and naturalist communities the Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Bird Records Committee, my local clubs like Essex County Field Naturalists' Club and Holiday Beach Migration Observatory, the American Birding Association, Bird Studies Canada with emphasis on my boss and great mentor Doug Tozer, Ebird and its wonderful community, Friends of Point Pelee, Vortex Canada (Paul, Val, and Ken especially), and my local LLBs and affiliates! Again, I apologize if I have forgotten anyone in this paragraph, but do know that I am grateful to anyone who has ever played any positive role in my life. I look forward to doing whatever I can with this social traction to pay it back by bringing together the birding and naturalist community, both for the community and for the sake of conservation.

These guys were planting our roots long before I was born, and our great birding community owes them and other 'pioneers' of birding tons of credit. Dan Salisbury and Luc Fazio, two of my mentors' mentors, at Van Wagner's Beach in Hamilton in early fall.
Thanks so much for reading probably one of the longest blogs I will ever write, and for finding interest in this mission I set out on over the last year. It has been a blast and really means the world to me, and I hope I can entertain you with my Big Year stories from 2017!


Sunset on December 31, 2017 at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Toronto, the last light in a perfect year.
Goodbye 2017! You may be finished but your story has yet to be told, and you will not soon be forgotten.