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!

Jere

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. 

26 comments:

  1. Awesome Jeremy! It has been a pleasure getting to know you and Tim in the few times we have encountered each other. I am sure I will cross paths with you many times this year. Good birding!

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    1. I feel the same Quinten - I am glad to have crossed paths with you and a number of young birders quite a few times this last year and plan on continuing to root you guys on and try to inspire and guide you in the right direction! You guys are the future (not that I'm THAT much older, but you know). Good birding, and no doubt I'll be seeing you around my friend!

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  2. An awesome post about an awesome accomplishment! It was amazing to be a part of!

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    1. Thanks Tim! Though we talk every day anyway as we wean ourselves out of the Big Year lifestyle, I still appreciate comments like this

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  3. What a year! What an amazing journey. Thanks for sharing this great post. Questions : How many of the 346 were lifers? How many of the 346 were found in Essex County?

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    1. Thanks Mark! I'm glad you and many could get some thrill out of reading about it, and I plan on writing much more about it. I will do my best to get back to you about that question because now you've got me interested! I can tell you that I am sure my total 2017 Essex County list on ebird should be 15 or 20 higher than it shows!

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  4. Tying the record (343) with a Mountain Bluebird. not bad. Congratulations Jeremy. Bill Read Ontario Eastern
    Bluebird Society

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    1. Thanks Bill! I guess my record tier was right up your alley, and what a coincidence we crossed paths at that bird! Thanks for your interest and positive comments through the year, and I look forward to running into each other again soon, perhaps over a Western Bluebird next time!

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  5. What a great account of your fascinating year! Congratulations again and thanks for posting in your attempt to make the rest of us more respectful of the environment — and more accomplished birders!

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    1. Thank you Rob! I wrote a (probably) nice reply to this the other day but my internet connection has been very poor and apparently it did not save when my connection quit. I look forward to crossing paths with and continuing to teach you and others the finer points of these finer things! You are a great student while being a great older, wiser friend and role model.

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  6. Great account of your Birding Big Year, Jeremy! Congratulations on your achievement. All the best in the New Year. Good birding

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    1. Thanks Jon! You were like a magician for me a few times last year... Basically pulling Year birds out of a hat almost every time I was in Ottawa! Thanks so much for all the help and cheering on. I hope your 'Checklisting Big Year' is a success and I hope to see you in the spring time!

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  7. What a great post! Thanks for sharing it with everyone. Congratulations on a fabulous year.

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    1. Thank you for reading and for the nice words!

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    1. Thanks Ann! It was nice meeting you in person and I look forward to crossing paths again

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  9. Congrats on such an amazing big year Jer! So glad I was able to be even just a tiny part of it. Congratulations on a wonderful achievement and happy normal birding in 2018! I look forward to more stories from the year!

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    1. Thanks Tianna! I am glad that you could be a part of it too (I'm sure I made it apparent at the time but those Barred Owls were my year bird #294. Thanks again for a comfy place to stay, some fun company, some good food, and an indoor washroom! Hahaha, see you around this year, and do let me know if you're in the southwest and have some free time!

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  10. Heartfelt congratulations, Jere. You worked really hard in 2017 to capture the big year record for Ontario. I recall the first time I met you many years ago at northwest beach in Point Pelee. Your outgoing personality struck me right there!

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    1. Blake, it means so much to hear that from you. Thanks for this touching comment, and I want to thank you for being a mentor and generally someone for me to look up to as I delve deeper into my naturalist career. See you sometime soon when the park is open again!

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  11. Truly a special time in your life. Relive the warmth and joy as many times as you can. So special to know how many folks reached out to help you achieve this milestone - and good on you for acknowledging them so fully. Congratulations to you - enjoy 2018!

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    1. Thank you Glenda! I am hopeful that this way of thinking rubs off on those who look to me for inspiration as they find their way in this great world of wildlife appreciation and conservation. I hope you have a great year too!

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  12. This is a great inspiring post! Congratulations on this remarkable accomplishment!

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    1. Thank you Roxane! I do not believe we have met in person but I look forward to it. Sometime when I am passing through Cochrane District with a bit more time on my hands I will have to get in touch :) Have a great winter!

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  13. A fantastic post written from the heart. What a wonderful year you had and a fantastic accomplishment to boot. I'm happy I ran into you and Tim in Ottawa and got to share one tiny piece of your experience. Congratulations! And... keep blogging! :) -Laura

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