Chesterton Tribune

Photo: To see every bird in the state: The Big Year of 2008

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Bohemian Waxwing: This photograph of a Bohemian Waxwing, shot in January 2008, remains John Kendall’s favorite of all the photographs shot during his Big Year, not only because of the extreme rarity of this species in Indiana--until Kendall located the bird, it had not been seen in the state for 15 years--but also because it was the first really significant species caught by his new digital camera. “The initial success and excitement with photographing this bird prompted me to bird more often, find more new rare birds in the winter, and eventually became a springboard for positioning myself towards a Big Year,” he said. As Kendall noted earlier this month at a presentation on his Big Year at the Nature Center at Indiana Dunes State Park, photographing unusual birds is an essential part of documenting them for the Rare Birds Committee of the Indiana Audubon Society.                  (Photo provided by John Kendall)


For most people, even confirmed lovers of birds, it’s enough to be able to recognize a cardinal’s song of a morning or the dove’s lament, to know that the little brown job at the feeder is some kind of sparrow, to celebrate the first robin of the spring or the first junco of the fall.

Then there are the hard-core birders, who can distinguish a Parasitic Jaeger from a Pomarine Jaeger at half a mile and the Chipping Sparrow’s insectoid buzz from a Worm-eating Warbler’s (something even the Chipping Sparrow can’t do). Not to put too fine a point on it, these folks are obsessive, and not only in the hours they’ll spend in the field--however foul the weather--or the hundreds of miles they’ll drive, just for a glimpse of this or that rara avis. They’re also compulsive listers, who tick off like so many notches on their binoculars, in meticulously maintained spreadsheets, the number of species they’ve observed over the course of their lives, in North America, in Indiana, in Porter County, in their own backyards.

And then, finally, there’s Valparaiso birder John Kendall. In 2008 Kendall set himself the task of identifying as many species as he could in the state in a single calendar year. Birders call this particular form of madness a Big Year, and madness it is, since a Big Year birder must be willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice after learning of a sighting, drive possibly the length of the state, wade through swamp or trudge through thicket, in pouring rain or blistering heat, and then at last hope that the bird hasn’t yet flown the coop.

Kendall’s target: 308, the record set in 2002 by Jeff McCoy--“Magic” McCoy to his colleagues, for his truly spooky gift of finding, year after year, the rarest of the rare.

Kendall’s remarkable achievement: 312, a new record and one likely to stand for some time, not only because a challenger would be forced to duplicate Kendall’s own Odyssean toils but because so much depends on the vagaries of the birds themselves.

As Kendall noted earlier this month, when he told the story of his Big Year at a well-attended program at the Nature Center at Indiana Dunes State Park (IDSP), the new record depended partially on the cooperation of birds almost never, or never at all, seen in the State of Indiana--like Western Tanager, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Red Phalarope, Spotted Towhee, and Varied Thrush--as well as on timely irruptions of species like Snowy Owl and White-winged Crossbill.

Yet 12 months ago, in March 2008, Kendall’s Big Year was still more a thought-experiment than it was a deliberate decision. In fact he had tried one once before, in 2006, and actually hit the “magic number in Indiana of 300, the litmus test,” but the Rare Bird Committee of the Indiana Audubon Society in the end chopped it to 299 after disallowing his California Gull.

So Kendall, knowing the work involved in a Big Year and not willing publicly to commit himself to one until he had reason to think it might prove successful, backed himself into the project gradually. “People look at you and ask, ‘Are you doing a Big Year?’ And you say, ‘No, not really.’ But you’re putting yourself in position for a Big Year the whole time. You do everything you can before you declare your candidacy.”

What Kendall did do is have a spectacular winter, beginning with the Bohemian Waxwing which he located in January at the former site of the Green Tower at IDSP, not only the first bird of this species observed in Indiana in 15 years but the first ever personally observed by Kendall in the state. He followed it with a string of other great birds: a Brant in Rockport, a convenient Barn Owl in LaGrange County, a Ross’ Goose in Benton County.

The turning point, though, was May, Kendall said, when he had a colossal run of eight tough birds in a single day, starting with a White-rumped Sandpiper at the increasingly legendary McCool Basin at the intersection of U.S. Highway 6 and McCool Road in Portage, and ending many hours and 250 miles later with a White-faced Ibis and a Glossy Ibis at Cane Ridge and a Fish Crow at Twin Swamps.

After that day the gloves were off and everyone in the birding community soon learned that Kendall was pursuing a Big Year and could use a hand. “I’d get a call on the cell but my wife’s got dinner on the table,” he remembered. “And then I’m out the door and she’s wondering ‘Where did he go?’”

Where did he go this time, that is. For the more birds Kendall identified--his list totaled fully 275 by the end of June--the fewer birds he would be able to identify in the closing months of the year. Birds, moreover, are season specific. If you miss a Red Knot in the early fall or a Black-legged Kittiwake in the late fall, it’s a bird gone forever, at least forever for that year. Kendall calls it the 90/10 rule of thumb: you spend 10 percent of your effort to see 90 percent of the birds, and 90 percent of your effort to see just 10 percent of the birds.

But Kendall had a lot of help. Over the course of the year he got tips from McCoy, the current record holder; Ken Brock, the dean of Northwest Indiana birders; Brad Bumgardner, the interpretive naturalist at IDSP; Brendan Grube, an expert on Lake Michigan birding; even a Chesterton Tribune reporter, who happened to stumble on a Snowy Owl one afternoon at the U.S. Steel impoundment at the far west end of Miller Beach in Gary.

And in one extraordinary instance of camaraderie, Lee Sterrenburg not only called Kendall in July to tell him of a White Ibis at Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area in Greene County, he staked out the bird for the five hours it took Kendall to make the drive, keeping him updated on its movements by cell and then by two-way radio. Kendall located and photographed the bird in flight only seconds before it disappeared.

Kendall tied McCoy’s record of 308 on Nov. 17, with the Snowy Owl, after fighting traffic and snow and then running the length of the mile-long beach in under seven minutes, to get a view of it just before all light had faded. Kendall broke the record on Nov. 24, with a White-winged Crossbill in Furnessville. He extended it to 310 on Nov. 28, with a Red Phalarope off the Green Tower site; and extended it again to 311 on Dec. 15, with a Spotted Towhee in Ogden Dunes, appropriately located first by McCoy. And he ended the year at 312 on Dec. 30, with a Varied Thrush in Marshal County.

Not just a Big Year but an enormous one, requiring logistical convolutions, a knife’s point balance of business and pleasure, scads of planning, the modern marvels of wireless communications and Internet postings, and a heck of a lot of luck. Kendall also made 18 separate trips to the Deep South of Indiana for birds impossible to see in the northern tier of the state--on six of which he came up empty--yet he had the advantage too of living in Valparaiso, with its easy access to the lakefront, which tends to funnel birds into the region on their migratory wanderings. “I was a fixture last year on the lake,” he said. “But you have to be.”

Kendall admitted that a birder can get preoccupied with numbers during a Big Year. Yet the series of photographs with which he illustrated his presentation at the Nature Center, taken during the Big Year of 2008, go a long way to proving that Kendall is no less a lover of nature than he is a lister of birds, including a stirring piece of a sunrise at Kankakee Sands in Newton County and a National Geographic-quality shot of a Red Fox holding in its mouth the remains of an American Kestrel holding in its mouth the remains of a vole.

Bumgardner, who introduced Kendall at the Nature Center, recalled someone’s recently asking Brock how many birds were seen in Indiana in 2008. Brock answered that question with a question of his own: “Well, how many birds did John see?”


Posted 3/25/2009