Plight of the Smallest Big Year

Ornithologists, established and amateur alike, host and participate in a gem of an event known as the Big Year. Jack Black fans may recollect the book-turned-movie at the name, but the shenanigans of every Big Year have gone on and on for decades without acknowledgment before Hollywood even found the story, with the “Biggest” Years now owned by new birders pursuing worldwide avifauna rather than solely North American.

What’s beautiful about a Big Year, is that, aside from the most arrogant, there is no real prestige. A birder can enjoy a Big Year knowing that he is not liable to validate anything that happens (additionally, few feel the need to lie, and the few liars that do exist are ran out by the collective knowledge of others), as its purpose is solely to enjoy birds and to unite our strange and rare kinship throughout all the States. On a competitive level, no one seriously gives a flying f*ck that you saw a Magnolia Warbler or Arctic Tern earlier than their routine migration. And a Big Year can be as big or as small as the individual desires; one can roam far searching for those accidentals to increase his tally of sightings, the caracaras in NorCal and perhaps even a lost Sandy in Texas. But ultimately, the birders of a Big Year only care that you are excited and passionate, what it means for the future of a certain species, and that you share your joy.

Ah, the ultimate thing that keeps me going at the darkest of days: the chance to share my joy.

If you know any single thing about me, you know that I adore anything with feathers. Debatably, I relate more to birds than people, and even more shocking is that a crying human baby elicits zero response from me while a distressed bird call immediately catches my ears. I’ve been called out numerous times for my adoration of avian behavior, notably that of dippers at the crashing bellies of waterfalls and the charades of ravens. Rob, my former Alaskan companion, liked to mock me by reminding me how deeply fascinated I was one time by the courtship ritual of an American dipper in Ketchikan, and such is standard practice amongst worldwide comrades nowadays.

It should serve as no surprise that such is true even in the far lands of Ireland. I bought an Irish bird guide, and without even trying, caught the attention of the locals as the “aspiring ornithologist.” I mean, on a social aspect I can’t just blurt out “why do the ravens here look like they have corpse faces?!?!” (Because they aren’t ravens, they’re rooks.) But I also can’t hide it… it took just a few hours for me to eventually cave and for a local to share what little he knew of the Irish birds, most notably, his knowledge of the chough.

Oystercatchers

Chough? No, just the widely distributed Oystercatcher. The crow-sized chough also shares a bright red beak and legs.

The chough is a daring corvid, but unlike its dark cousins, it has shockingly iridescent feathers and flashing bright red beak and legs. It is noted for its aerial displays and vocalizations, and, sadly, it’s plummeting numbers. Roughly 400 chough reside in the United Kingdom, with continuously dropping numbers, and only a single mated pair claims the territory along the entirety of the Causeway Coast. Specifically, as of 2013, the pair resides on Rathlin Island, with no young surviving or successfully following their parents’ ideals to rear their own. What a tragedy to be so close to a dying beauty and yet so far away. I hunt the chough with dedication, knowing I am not likely to see a single bird, but one can dream yeah?

Such is the plight of the birder.

I like to think that, if I don’t see the chough, I can tell stories in my mockingly bitter days of old age to annoying children that Chough always eluded my adoring eyes for he could never explain to me the depth of his shame. How he stole wee children in their sleep, forcing them to pluck worms along cold, coastal cliffs in the early morning hours so Chough would never have to work, and that his beak was stained red because if the quota of worms was not fulfilled, he’d eat his workers instead. But if Chough would only let me see his face, I’ll tell children how pretty he was instead… your call Chough, you’re about to become a scary legend.

Stonechat

CHOUGH?!? Far from it, but chough also prefer a diet consisting mostly of grains and insects. This Stonechat happily gobbles down an unfortunate grub.

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