Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Big Interview" with Ryan Johnston

This site is mostly a simple utilitarian "bird alert" but since it is a blog and I have been pretty busy and unable to keep things properly updated, I thought I'd offer a little extra content. Note that in the post before this that I have written up a summary of the great rarity year that was 2013.

And now for something new. We've never hosted an interview on the BC Bird Alert so what better way to start than with Ryan Johnson of Vancouver, BC, who recently tied Mike Toochin for the #2 spot on the all-time BC Big Year list. That means he scored 363 species in one calendar year--a phenomenal mark, and a venture that many of us around BC followed closely throughout 2013.
A rare photo of the mysterious Ryan Johston. An impressive big year effort in 2013 has thrust this young birder from Vancouver, BC into the limelight of BC bird forums and idle Tim Horton's line-up conversation. If you haven't checked out his blog, you really should. A great way to escape from the bitter cold or dampness (depending on your location) of January in Canada. Big years are getting popular across the country, whether they're in your neighbourhood or across a continent. Ryan chose the entire province of BC as his stomping grounds last year. 
Before we get to the interview, you might want to check out Ryan's blog:

There you'll find plenty of great birding stories from around the province, as well as a final synopsis, bird list, and reflection of how the year went.

Having done a BC big year myself, it was a real treat to watch someone else do one. While I don't miss the long overnight drives while feeling under the weather, it's hard not to envy all the great birding adventures, lifers, new friends, and all the places that I never got to on my own big year (such as the Chilcotin Plateau for one).

Near the beginning of the year, Ryan set out to see 350 species so he beat that soundly. Toward the fall it seemed there might be a shot at the #1 (373) but a slow November/December hurt his chances. Looking at all the species reported this year however, it seems possible that more big year attempts in the future could yield higher and higher records. Just takes someone dedicated, crazy, and having an understanding spouse (or no spouse at all) really helps.

Now let's hear from Ryan...

Why do a big year? Did you start the year off knowing you were going to try it?
Ryan Johnston: I hadn't been a very active birder for about three years, I had started a band and was focusing most of my time writing and recording music and playing shows. Bands and Birding are polar opposites and waking up at sunrise on weekends is pretty hard when you play a show or have band practice til 2 am on a Friday night. Things were sorta cooling off in the winter of 2012 with some members leaving and having to start over with new ones. It got to be pretty frustrating and I started doing more birding again.

Probably chasing the Citrine Wagtail in Comox in November was the main kick starter. I did it on a whim, only deciding to go the morning of. I had never really chased a bird outside of the Lower Mainland before, and it was pretty exhilarating. When I entered the bird into Ebird(something I hadn't done in a few years) I discovered how improved the website had become. It had added a more competitive aspect with the top 100 birders for different areas. Also with the improved map search and hot spots it added new dimensions to listing.

It felt like my lists were all contributing to a greater network of information other than sitting in a big binder on my shelf. Bird Log also made the data entry aspect a lot easier, I could just submit everything in the field in real time. I started thinking about a Big year and doing research and planning but hadn't fully committed. I think I finally committed in the third week of January when I had already added Brambling and Red-flanked Bluetail, and it seemed like this would be the year to do it.

How did your friends/family/girlfriend react when you told them your plan? How did they see your big year as the months ticked by?

RJ: Well I don't think at first they understood what exactly it meant. Some have seen the movie "The Big Year" so they kinda knew. My girlfriend was a good sport, she went on some trips with me and I think she probably understands more than others the kind of effort it actually takes to do one. As the year went on my friends understood more because I was mostly absent from birthday parties and hanging out. I had to answer a lot of funny questions as I'm sure most birders do. "how do you prove you saw the bird?" "Do you have to take a picture?" "No I can't count birds I see in zoo's or on TV". By the end of the year everyone was rooting for me and super stoked about my results. If anything most friends tell me since they've known me they pay more attention to birds, so at least I've played a small part in opening people up to nature. 

Was there any point you felt like you might give up? Many big year birders talk about hitting a mental wall after missing a certain species, or getting fed up with constantly being on the move.

RJ: I had a few moments where I asked myself: "what the hell I had gotten myself into"? I remember driving home from Osoyoos non stop because a Dickcissel had been seen in Ladner and realizing this would be my life for another 8 months. 

Also the time when I had driven to Stone Mountain Park from Fort Nelson and found that the gate to the radio tower had been locked, and realizing I wasted a whole day in the peace for nothing. At that point I was still missing quite a few key species and it wasn't looking good.
 I had lots of big letdowns but I think the closest was November which was really depressing because there was just a terrible lack of rarities. I had expected it to be like 2012 but it definitely wasn't aside from the Great-crested Flycatcher(which I missed). Also my job had changed so I lost a bunch of days off and was working 8-4 Monday to Friday. I definitely thought about just giving up since i had met my original goal of 350, but I'm glad I persisted and kept going after the Sharp-tailed Grouse, it was a special bird for me. 

What were some of the best aspects of doing a big year? Did anything surprise you?

RJ: There were so many good aspects from my big year. One of the best being the birding itself. Since I was a kid I've always had birding in my life, and it was great to just spend so many hours outside in nature. I think I learned so much more about specific birds and their habitats, like spending 2 days waste deep in wetlands searching for Nelson's Sparrow in the Peace. 

I got to meet so many great birders including you (Russ Cannings), and Mark Phinney, Daniele Mitchel, Kevin Neil, Max Gotz. I've always felt like an outsider in the birding community and I think I came out of my shell a little which is always good. Another great aspect was just the fact I feel like I accomplished something, though it may seem trivial to some people, I set a goal and achieved it. There's a feeling of satisfaction that comes with that. 

Mostly I was surprised by just how much time and effort it really takes. If anyone wants to see 350 species in BC in a year, it is going to take up 1/3 of their time no doubt about it. You look in the field guides and see range maps and it doesn't seem all that hard, but man, just cause it shows Cape-May Warblers in north eastern BC doesn't mean you can just show up and see them, there's a lot of birds like that I only saw once, and it was usually in mosquito infested swamps or forests out in the middle of nowhere. 
What sucks about a big year?

Definitely the worst part is that there are no time outs. The only break I had was a week and a half in California, and the whole time I was just itching to get back, especially since it was the end of May and there was a big storm the day I left. I knew crazy stuff was going to get blown in and I was right as that week I was gone a Lark Bunting, Indigo Bunting and Loggerhead Shrike were all seen. 

Another thing that sucks is just the fact that no matter what you see its always about what you need to see next. The satisfaction of nailing almost everything on my Pelagics lasted about 5 minutes because there was a Smith's Longspur in Vancouver and I had to worry about getting back and seeing it. 

Probably the weirdest part of doing a big year is the fact that you are in an alternate reality compared to everyone around you, even the birders. While everyone around me was ecstatic about the Red-necked Stint at Boundary Bay, I was already thinking about where I was going to sleep in Hope before I went hiking in the morning for White-tailed Ptarmigan. Its pretty crazy but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. 
What are your favorite highway rest-stops to sleep at?

My favorite has to be the rest area just north of Clinton. I slept there 3 times this year and its always pretty filled with campers, which I always like because I usually feel vulnerable sleeping in my car if there is nobody else around. Another good trick I learned when I lived in the Yukon is that you can usually sleep in Walmart parking lots. I slept in alot of those this year, they usually welcome RV's and it can be a life saver especially where there are no rest area's. For some reason the WalMart in Kamloops is against this and has big signs stating the fact. But especially up north its definitely a cheap alternative to a hotel. 

Best birding location you had never heard of?

Its definitely got to be the Rainbow Range in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. I went on a hunch I might find Rock Ptarmigan, as from what I read in hiking guides its easy access to the alpine. I never found them but I was rewarded with Willow Ptarmigan, Northern Hawk Owl, Rusty Blackbird and Spruce Grouse. Even singing Blackpoll Warbler in August. The hike itself was fairly easy, I would recommend it to anyone, although its definitely pretty remote. 

Another Place I had never been was the back roads between Clinton and Williams Lake, it passes through the Fraser River and Churn Creek Protected Area. Its a massive grassland, with cliffs. I went because of an Ebird report of Prairie Falcon and was rewarded by a nesting pair on the huge cliffs along the road. There were also Dusky Grouse, Rock Wren, and more Vesper Sparrows than I've seen in my life. The Scenery is also stunning. 
What's next?
Good Question. During my big year things got a lot better with my band and we have been playing lots of shows, probably going on a mini tour to Alberta this year, and I hope to begin recording a full length album soon. On the birding front I decided to do a patch year for I chose Burnaby Lake because its close to my work and home. It's probably not a contender like Iona or Reifel would be but I've spent many hours there and I think I can maybe get 150 species if I work hard and am lucky. I also plan on nailing some of the birds I missed on my big year like Rock Ptarmigan and Hudsonian Godwit. I managed to get to 380 species on my life list, so 400 is within reach, probably not this year but the next couple. Hopefully I can have a few good vacations as well, probably San Jose area as that's where my girlfriend lives and I have over the past couple of years become familiar with the birds there. And possibly I will be driving up to Inuvik in June because I cannot deny my love of the North. Other than that I just want to enjoy the local birds, I always enjoy getting more experience with things like Gull and shorebird flocks.

THANKS RYAN--Good luck in 2014!

2013: A Year in Review

In the 10+ year Derrick Marven of the Cowichan Valley has been keeping track of BC's annual bird species tally, no year was better than 2013. From January 1st to December 31st, birders combined to find 417 species throughout the province, beating the previous record by 6. Was it a bumper year for unusual sightings? It certainly started out like that, with multiple BRAMBLINGS successfully overwintering in Vancouver, Summerland, and even snowy Revelstoke--not the mention the dynamic duo of amazing Canadian firsts with a CITRINE WAGTAIL in Comox and a RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL in New Westminster--both apparently making it all the way through the winter months. Add to that a smattering of other great winter rarities such as Cranbrook's BROWN THRASHER and it was perhaps the greatest winter for "megas" in BC's recorded birding history.
The famous CITRINE WAGTAIL that graced Comox for an entire winter. This was the second record for North America and a Canadian first--Photo: Jukka Jantunen
But the great birds didn't stop there, with notable spring sightings including an unbanded BURROWING OWL (i.e. Probably "countable" as opposed to the introduced birds in Merritt and Kamloops) in Williams Lake on March 31st, a HOODED ORIOLE at a feeder in Powell River on April 13th, a DICKCISSEL in Lander from April 20-26, a male TUFTED DUCK near Cranbrook (April 23-28), a BLACK PHOEBE at Comber's Beach near Tofino (April 24), a WHITE-FACED IBIS at Wasa Lake in the Rocky Mountain Trench on May 10th, at least 3 separate sightings of male LARK BUNTINGS in the Kootenays (all late May), an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER on May 23rd in Agassiz (Fraser Valley), a singing BLACK-THROATED SPARROW in Osoyoos (May 30), and finally... another WHITE-FACED IBIS near Victoria--on Mandarte Island!
The Columbia region in SE BC experienced a mini-invasion of male LARK BUNTINGs in the summer fo 2013, including this bird that Jen Greenwood caught accidentally while mistnetting Savannah Sparrows.
Pheeeeeew. Take a deep breath. That's a good haul, though spring is always good for a few surprises, and this account leaves out may of the lesser rarities or scarce residents such as the WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER seen on Anarchist Mountain in May, or the unprecedented flocks of SABINE'S GULLS that numbered close to 100 birds in Nakusp, Kelowna, and Banff! These reports may indeed constitute the largest flock(s) of Sabine's Gulls in the history of the interior of Norther America (at least in spring)! Please comment if you know of larger numbers on the Great Lakes or even Gulf Coast.

Summer usually sees a cooling off of rarities in BC, but this year we had lots to talk about, especially thanks to Paul Lehman and Co. who were birding from cruise-ships off-shore. Some of their summer highlights in BC waters included: 1 MURPHY'S PETREL and 7 PARAKEET AUKLETS on June 1st, 1 LEAST AUKLET on June 6th--and on the same day they had a THICK-BILLED MURRE and a MANX SHEARWATER. On July 11, during a similar cruise, a HAWAIIAN PETREL was observed, July 31 produced a SCRIPPS'S MURRELET, then the season was capped off with a GREAT SHEARWATER on August 5th!

Back on the mainland, the Okanagan's first photo-documented WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER was discovered in Kelowna on June 8th, a BROWN THRASHER spent mid-June on Calvert Island, yet another LARK BUNTING visited the SE corner of the province (Fernie) on June 21, and a singing NELSON'S SPARROW near Lumby (after some significant flooding in Alberta) was quite a surprise! To cap off the summer, our attention was drawn once again to the water, when a CRESTED AUKLET was photographed near Tofino and hung around for at least 2 days. Oh, and why not a BC-first to add to the seabird list for the year? On August 21st, a DOVEKIE was photographed near Banks Island!

For birders, August is considered full-on "Fall" when wayward juveniles start making their first migrations south, some straying far from their proper paths, at times to the delight of lucky birders. Even adults make a few slip-ups such as the gorgeous adult RED-NECKED STINT that spent at least 2 days on Boundary Bay near Vancouver. A male INDIGO BUNTING was seen at Tunkwa Provincial Park on August 6th; a FERRUGINOUS HAWK was photographed near Golden five days later; then an adult REEVE (female Ruff) was photographed at Pantage Lake NW of Quesnel--observers believed there may have actually been two reeves present! A young male PRAIRIE WARBLER was a big surprise in Revelstoke on August 23rd, but perhaps the best bird of all was a YELLOW-GREEN VIREO (a Canada first) photographed in Stanley Park, Vancouver, on September 18th!!!
Yellow-green Vireo from Stanley Park--Photo: Gary Thoburn
2013 was definitely the "Year of the Booby" with record numbers of both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies along the SW coast of North America, and even way over in Southern Ontario. BC was lucky enough to get in on the action with BROWN BOOBIES sighted off our west coast on Aug 23/24, Sep 4, and Nov 12/13! Even better was Canada's first record of BLUE-FOOTED BOOBY which was photographed near Port McNeill on Vancouver Island on Sep 24th!

The seabird feast continued in September with no less than *3* GREAT SHEARWATERS reported, along with several MANX SHEARWATERS, a LAYSAN ALBATROSS, and yet another CRESTED AUKLET--this one photographed near Victoria on September 8th.

The third annual WildResearchBC pelagic trip was another success with close to 100 birders setting out from Ucluelet on a daylong trip offshore. In addition to the pelagic highlights, the biggest surprise was a hatch-year female CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER that landed on the boat!

Up in Haida Gwaii, Andrew Keaveney from Ontario enjoyed a fun birding trip along with local residents Peter Hamel and Margo Hearne. Highlights from up there included BC's first CURLEW SANDPIPER since 1993 at Sandspit on September 28th, at least 5 RED-THROATED PIPITS (including one photographed on Oct 16), and a very lost BOBOLINK on October 11th.
CURLEW SANDPIPER in Sandspit, Haida Gwaii--Photo: Andrew Keaveney
Back on the "mainland," the fall produced such delights as a juvenile RUFF at Pantage Lake near Quesnel (how amazing is that place?!), a HOODED ORIOLE on Sep 22 in Jordan River (Vancouver Island), 2 separate RED-THROATED PIPITS near Victoria, an ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE near Tofino in late September, a DICKCISSEL near Victoria on Oct 2nd, a spate of TROPICAL KINGBIRD reports from the Island and the Lower Mainland as well as the northern most record ever--from Bella Bella! An ORCHARD ORIOLE made an appearance near Tofino on Oct 12; and on the same day, a YELLOW WAGTAIL species was seen in Royston, BC. Oct 16th produced a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO at the Vaseux lake Bird Observatory, a BROWN THRASHER appeared in Tofino on Oct 17th, a CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR showed for 2 days in Victoria in late October; an adult LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL paid Penticton a visit on Oct 26+27, then BC's 3rd ever GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER capped off the month in Chilliwack. Only days later, Prince George produced a rare flycatcher of its own with an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER showing well on November 1st and 2nd.

Things slowed a bit going into December but a few doozies still came out to play. The first was a female PAINTED BUNTING that graced a feeder in Bowser (Vancouver Island) for a few days to start the month, then a HOODED ORIOLE appeared in Port McNeill on December 5th and was still present as of January 4th. A BLACK PHOEBE was found in Chilliwack on December 14th, then near the end of the year a birder twitching the Port McNeill oriole found a DICKCISSEL in the same neighbourhood!
The last rarity of 2013: This DICKCISSEL was found on December 28th my Alex Grey in Port McNeill, right beside a HOODED ORIOLE and HARRIS'S SPARROW. Not bad.
It's mind-blowing to read this whole list in one go. Was it the best year ever for rarities in BC, or are we finally starting to get some decent coverage? Or are there other factors at play such as climate change? There is no question we had more people reporting from offshore vessels in 2013, and thanks to the growing popularity of eBird birders of all skill levels are connected like never before. Modern digital photography has led to more rarities being identified, and the internet in a general sense, has allowed for forums to improve the identification and communication abilities of the birding community as a whole.

This website is heavily biased toward rarities, but on behalf of everyone on the Bird Alert, I wish everyone a great 2014, with plenty of wonderful birds around your home patch and anywhere else you may travel to.

Russ Cannings
Nanaimo, BC
January 9th, 2014