The Listing Game: birding on the fringe


March 22, 2016 by Rokman61

Author’s note: This blog instalment is entirely concerned  with a certain aspect of the activity of bird-watching; no photos of real birds or other natural features are presented.

An update to this blog was added in 2018 – see here.

Bird watchers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and plumage, and their objectives are every bit as variable.  Some simply enjoy observing the avifauna in their yard; others take interest in birds through their camera and are less focused on any bird that they can’t shoot; many bird-lovers keep lists of the birds they have encountered.  The more serious bird-watchers refer to themselves as ‘Birders’, and what they do is called ‘Birding’.  Those who keep records and count the species they see are ‘Listers’.  Most birders keep a ‘Lifelist’, albeit many of them are ‘closet’ listers.  At the extreme end are the more obsessive types who seem to always be ‘working’ on a list.  A Lifelist usually refers to a specific area, which can encompass the whole World, or a restricted area such as a Country, Province, Region, local Park, or wherever.  Once the list-lusting Birder has been at it for a while, finding new ‘Lifers’ happens ever less frequently, so chasing a list over a specific period of time becomes a seductive pursuit.  Hence we have the ‘Yearlist’, ‘Monthlist’, Winterlist, Daylist’ etc., and Birders speak of a ‘Big Year’ (as in the movie of that name) or ‘Big Day’ listing.  Considering a combination of the elements of area and time, there are no limits as to what might constitute a ‘List’.

This rambling introduction sets the scene for the specific subject of this blog, which is essentially an acknowledgement and celebration of some remarkable recent achievements in Yearlist birding in the Vancouver area.

Part One: The Listing game and addressing a lack of recognition

Several years ago a few of us were musing about how many bird species one could find in the official Vancouver Checklist area in a single calendar year.  One long-time birder suggested that “about 250” was their normal score.  That figure seemed overly optimistic, as the most I had ever tallied was 243 in 1992.  After taking retirement I made an all-out run at it in 2004 and ended up with 248.  An attempt by another birder missed 250 by one tick.  It seemed that the magic number for a Vancouver Yearlist was 250:  to achieve that would require an enormous amount of time, effort, and dedication – and also fair bit of luck.

So, when Rob Lyske reached the 250 milestone in 2013 I was truly impressed!  Surely this warranted some kind of acknowledgement – but what?   One day, whilst on a routine walk, I came upon a dumpster containing some waste scraps from a rock-processing business.  I noticed therein several discarded cores of solid granite, something that just had to have a use.

granite cores 2014.06.09

Of course!  Inspiration struck – a little trophy for Rob.

Lyske with award 2014.10.12 GFC

Norma found a charming little statuette, and we fitted it with the wee binoculars.

Lyske's award 2013.8954

Then, in 2015, the floodgates opened, and a wave of BigYear listers went after the elusive 250 target.  My good friend Ilya lead the charge, setting himself the lofty goal of 260.  He not only openly declared his intent, but even started a blog to document his progress.  He was goaded on by ample competition, although the challengers were mostly reticent to admit their intent.

It is of interest to compare the birding scene of yesteryears with that of the present.  A few decades ago there were significantly more birds but fewer birders.  Over the years we have been gradually losing habitat, including some prime birding sites, both through development and restriction of access.  Nowadays there are far more birders about, including an army of camera-toters who are currently swelling the ranks.  Meanwhile, there have been major advances in the information available to birders (via improved field guide books, the internet, and phone apps).  The average birder is now considerably more skilled and knowledgeable than most of us were back when.  But the biggest difference between then and now is the stunning evolution of electronic communication.  Back in the day we mainly relied on day-old (or longer) reports of uncommon birds.  A few of the ‘insiders’ had a telephone network, but that broke down almost as often as it worked effectively.  Through the nearly ubiquitous present use of ‘smart’ mobile phones, alerts get out instantly, both through texting and posting to local web forums, literally on-the-spot.  One still needs to make a conserted effort to follow up on incoming leads, but the game has changed.

Enter now a young lady named Mel, aka ‘Birdergirl’, who has managed to establish connections with virtually the entire birding community, and was getting instant alerts of every interesting bird sighting in the area.  She promptly passed on information to all the BigYear chasers, and this practice became a major factor in the pursuit.  As it happened, 2015 turned out to be (arguably) better-than-average for rarities, especially in the late-year stretch drive, and this may also have helped to raise scores.  Net result: by year’s end an unprecedented FIVE birders managed to break the 250 ‘barrier’!

Now, if one happens to be a golfer or tennis player (or virtually any other such pursuit), and one happens to have a modicum of success at their game, one gets bestowed with gleaming trophies – typically for a tournament of only a few days’ work.  In the story unfolding here, the dedicated birder gets nothing more than bragging rights for an entire year’s worth of effort.  Surely an egregious injustice that warranted correction.  To this end, Ilya casually opined that maybe there should be some sort of trophy for recognizing those who made the ‘250 Club’.  I sensed a responsibility that I felt I could not ignore.  (Besides, the only way I would get my name on such a trophy was to be the builder).

Subsequent brain-storming resulted in an appropriate theme and name for the trophy: the eBird MetroVan YearList 250 Crowing Award.  A somewhat cumbersome handle, so perhaps a bit of explanation is of interest here.

* eBird is a widely used web-based database that keeps track of bird sighting records; anyone can submit their records to this site, and then extract any desired list from the data.  It is therefore an obvious vehicle for keeping score, so we have decided to tie our Award to it.

* eBird recognizes ‘regions’ in the database, and their official name for our local region is ‘Metro Vancouver‘.  It is essentially the same area as covered by the older ‘Vancouver Checklist Area’, compiled by Nature Vancouver, with one salient exception: Point Roberts in Washington is included in the Vancouver checklist, but excluded in the MetroVan version.

* Yearlist 250 of course reflects the objective discussed above, namely 250 species in one calendar year.

* Use of the crow as a mascot should not require explanation.

The first step was to locate a suitable artifact to grace the summit of the trophy.  I had in mind a statue or steel silhouette of a crow, but despite an intense internet search could not find anything suitable.  Eventually I resigned  to using a simple printed silhouette in a glass-front frame, and so proceeded with construction of the trophy.  This is what I came up with for the top.

Framed Crow 2016.93.29 i

But wait!  On the very day that I assembled what I assumed would be the ‘final’ version, Norma came through again, this time locating a resin-cast crow, exactly what we had been looking for.   Back to the shop.

Quite a funky and handsome individual at that.

Crow closeup 2016.03.15 x0409

Here he/she perches atop the completed trophy:

Crow trophy 2016.03.15 x0403

The wood is from a slab of locally-grown Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), which had been milled with a chainsaw by myself and Tom Brown some time in the 1980’s.  Tom was my good friend, colleague, fellow birder and woodworker.  Sadly, Tom passed on some years ago, otherwise he would certainly have been involved in some way with this project.  Meg Brown supplied the maple slab.

Closer view of the engraved plates (nicely done by Dogwood).  The number after each birder’s name is their total for the year, and the (+x) denotes extra species from Point Roberts.

Crow award engraving 2016.03.16 x0425

Because our Crow is apt be inclined to wandering around on occasion, I figured a protective ‘roosting’ case would be useful.

Crow roost box 2016.03.15 x0415

Crow trophy roosting 2016.03.15 x0393

The ‘Rules’ for the Award are mounted on the inside of the cover of the roost box.

Crow Award rules 2016.03.15 x0382

As an extra bonus, framed certificates were provided for each recipient so they could have a lasting reminder of their remarkable achievement.

Crow awards individuals 2016.03.16 x0419

Part Two:  The Listers gather

The construction phase of the trophy dragged on for weeks, and the MetroVan BigYear was slipping into past history, mostly forgotten.  But then Ilya arranged for a gathering at which the principals could remember, savour, and bask in the glory of their triumph.  This historic event took place on March 19, 2016 at Boundary Bay Airport.  First on the agenda was a round of fine dining in the Skyhawk Restaurant.

Group at table 2016.03.19 N0328

Next we retreated to a quiet corner for the business meeting at which several various BigYear performances were acknowledged.

CGio business meet 2016.03.19 N0339

As part of the business conducted, ‘the eBird Metrovan Yearlist 250’ trophy was formally presented for the first time (photo left).  Having ticked the most species for 2015, Ilya was proclaimed ‘Custodian of the Crow’ (photo right).

CGio+Ilya with trophy 2016.03.19 N0340

As Custodian, Ilya gets to keep the trophy until such time as the next qualifier makes the grade.  He can allow other 250-clubbers to have a session with the trophy, perhaps to feature it at a block party or gala barbecue so that family, friends, and neighbours can all share in the spectacle.

Four of the Crowing Award recipients were able to attend, a fifth regrettably happened to be on another continent.

Crow trophy winners 2016.03.19 N0348

One of the award-winners consented to a short interview, which went something like this.

“Talk to us about how you felt on receiving this award”.  “Well, it was HUGE!  But there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and I could not have done it without all the help I got.  At times it seemed there was no hope, but we hung in, stuck to the game plan, kept our feet moving, and eventually found a way to win!”  “Congratulations, good luck next year, and thanks for doing this”.  “Thanks for having me.”

Also included in the program, additional ‘Big Year’ awards were provided and presented by Melissa to acknowledge three outstanding Listing feats.  Ann set what is likely an all-time Vancouver Island Big Year record, Peter compiled a remarkable BC Big Year total, and Tom came up with a near-record BC Winter List.

A last group shot with the honoured attendees proudly clutching their loot.

Crow awards group shot 2016.03 N0351

Congratulations to all!  Fame is now yours, but you might want to hold off on spending any anticipated fortune.

A fun event, with some suggestions that it should be an annual happening.  Perhaps the publicity will entice more birders to attempt a MetroVan BigYear.  One attendee was heard to mutter “I wanna to see my name on that trophy – I’m going for it”.  Maybe there will even be a flock of wannabes taking a shot at 250 in 2016,  But I for one won’t be among them.


One thought on “The Listing Game: birding on the fringe

  1. […] Note:  This is not a ‘new’ blog – it is an excerpted section from a previous post in which I described the ‘Crowing Award’ and some events that lead up to it.  For the full story, see post entitled “The Listing Game: birding on the fringe” (March 2016), click here to view. […]

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