Birder records 'Big Year' with help of technology, social media
A Magnificent Frigatebird, rarely seen in Ontario, spotted by Josh Vandermeulen as part of his BIg Year. (Photo courtesy of http://joshvandermeulen.blogspot.ca/)
Andy Johnson, CTVNews.ca
Published Sunday, November 11, 2012 7:00AM EST
Last Updated Monday, November 12, 2012 1:33PM EST
Much like the elusive bird species he chases all over Ontario, Josh Vandermeulen is usually glimpsed from afar, typically in a rush as he hurries into the forest or down a path, single-minded in his task.
And the 22-year-old bird enthusiast, who just set a new record for the most species spotted in one year in Ontario, is likely glued to his cell phone as he vanishes into the forest, tracking the most up-to-the-minute messages from other birders sharing the latest sightings.
Vandermeulen is nearing the end of a "Big Year" -- birding terminology for a self-imposed Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 challenge to spot and record as many species as possible in a given area.
For Vandermeulen, that area covers all of Ontario, and technology has been essential to helping him achieve his goal of breaking the longstanding record of 338 sightings, set back in 1996.
In order to achieve that goal, he had to record a sighting of every single bird seen annually in Ontario, as well as about 20 rare species – a hit-and-miss endeavour dependent on weather, timing, and luck.
He's currently sitting at 342 -- it was the sighting of a Northern Fulmar on Oct. 29 that broke the previous record of 338 -- and hopes to top out around 345 by year's end.
"There's a stigma about a birder as an old person in a Tilly hat, when really that's not the case," he told CTVNews.ca from his home in Guelph, Ont.
"A lot of us are young people who are into it because we're interested in nature, in being outside.
"There are a lot of young people who are using technology, and for me in my Big Years it's been really helpful. I can be out in the field somewhere and I get a text, or I check my email on my phone and I hear about a sighting, and I can race off and see that bird."
Between Facebook, email, text messages, his blog and the massive North American eBird database -- a citizen science initiative that thousands of birders use to record their sightings -- Vandermeulen is about as plugged in as you can get in the birding world. Although, he admits there's irony in the fact he isn't yet on Twitter.
But it takes more than technology to set a record such as the one Vandermeulen currently holds. Mostly, it takes commitment.
The recent graduate from Guelph University essentially dedicated his entire year to the project -- living off his savings, working "as little as possible" and using the year as an opportunity to pursue his passion, travel to far flung corners of the province, meet similar-minded people and having a great adventure along the way before entering the work world in 2013.
It helped that his family and friends were supportive -- and, he admits sheepishly, that his girlfriend is currently studying abroad -- freeing him up to focus most of his time, money and energy on his other love: birds.
"I thought, I don't want to go into the workforce right away, why not do a big year? I'm a birder, I like travelling, I like meeting interesting people and this is just a great excuse to do that," he said.
Vandermeulen has had a lot of adventures along the way. His car broke down on a lonely road between Cochrane, Ont. and Thunder Bay, a helicopter was delayed for three days at the end of a three-week sojourn to James Bay -- fortunately allowing Vandermeulen to spot two more species he hadn't expected to see -- and he ended up under the same tree, searching for the same bird as the previous Big Year record-holder he was trying to surpass, Glen Coady.
But it takes more than just commitment to break a record that has stood for more than 15 years. It also takes luck, and Vandermeulen is the first to admit that he had plenty.
Coady set his record in what birders would consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hurricane Fran had blasted through the province in 1996, bringing with it many non-native bird species that simply don't come to Ontario unless by misadventure in a storm. As a result, he said, "a lot of people thought the number 338 was impossible to beat."
But Vandermeulen timed his year well too -- something he admits came entirely down to chance. The mild 2011/2012 winter meant that rare birds that sometimes show up briefly in the fall, then depart, actually stayed until January, giving him the opportunity to start his year with some unexpected and unusual sightings.
Then in the spring, powerful weather systems blowing up from the south brought a number of tropical migratory birds further north than they normally would travel, including a Western Tananger and Bell's Vireo -- birds that are seldom seen in Ontario.
And in the early summer, a tropical storm in the Atlantic delivered a gift to Vandermeulen more valuable than anything money could buy -- a sighting of a Magnificent Frigatebird
"That was quite the surprise because they're a tropical species, you see them in southern Florida, they're these massive black birds with angular wings that look kind of sinister when they're flying. But to get one in Ontario was incredible, I think that was the seventh ever in Ontario," he said.
Another highlight -- perhaps the prize of the year -- was the first-ever sighting of a Thick-Billed Kingbird in Ontario. Another birder spotted the bird in Presqu'ile Park on Lake Ontario near Belleville, and the buzz within the birding community was near-instantaneous.
After getting word of the sighting, Vandermeulen and friends immediately packed up their car in Cambridge, Ont. and hit the road at 9:30 p.m., making plans to stay with a friend in Belleville before a pre-dawn start to get to the spot before sunrise.
He describes the excitement of the moment on his blog, Ontario Birds and Herps.
"At 6:25 a.m. we heard the loud emphatic call of the kingbird as it flew east and perched in an open tree - needless to say there were a lot of exclamatory remarks and high-fives as everyone ran over to see the bird perching in the open!" he writes.
Moments like that occurred all year as Vandermeulen got calls and emails alerting him to rare bird sightings, allowing him to record more sightings than anyone in the province ever has.
"For a lot of different goals people set in life, for instance running a marathon, it's something they control, more or less. If they do the training, they stick to their plan and their regiment, they can achieve their goal. But with a Big Year, no matter how hard you try, if the weather doesn't co-operate and if the birds don't co-operate, you're not going to break the record," he said.
There are a certain number of core birds that a serious birder will get every year, Vandermeulen said. Bluejays, American crows, even species such as owls or sparrows are pretty much guaranteed. But after that "everything else is left up to chance.
"They're rare birds that aren't supposed to be here that somehow find their way here due to the weather or some other reason. So doing a Big Year like this is less so about skill and more so about picking the right year."