Last August word spread that a Blue-footed Booby had been spotted paddling around a lake in southern Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. A species more at home in the Galápagos Islands, it was a rarity, and birders flocked to see it. But perhaps no one went to the lengths Neil Hayward did. When he saw the news on eBird, the popular online database, he was 2,400 miles away, in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He immediately hired a taxi to take him to the nearest airport, two hours distant in Norfolk, Virginia. After a three-leg flight to Phoenix, he rented a car for the 180-mile drive to Patagonia Lake State Park. Then he got in a kayak.
In the middle of a lake in the desert, trying not to capsize from excitement, Hayward snapped a few photos of the seabird before it flew off. He called the sighting his “Booby Prize.” It marked the 700th bird species he’d seen since the beginning of his Big Year, a marathon attempt to see as many birds as possible in the continental United States and Canada. For Hayward, this began a frenzied final dash to surpass the all-time record of 748, with each additional bird sending him caroming around the map of North America.
Today the photo of the Blue-footed Booby is strung on the wall of Hayward’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along-side dozens of other snapshots from his Big Year. Hayward’s girlfriend, Gerri Buck, hung the photos in celebration of the 40-year-old Englishman’s year of relentless peregrination: 193,758 miles flown, 51,758 miles driven, 147 hours at sea. He spent 195 nights away from home, traversing 28 states and 7 Canadian provinces. All in the pursuit of a goal that often threatened to flit just out of reach. But by December 31, Hayward had recorded 750 bird species across North America, an epic feat of birding that no one had ever achieved before. He’d beaten Sandy Komito, who had held the record since 1998, by two species.
For many serious birders, a Big Year is a silly extravagance; for others, it’s a once-in-a-life- time effort, often planned out years in advance. They work from the American Birding Association (ABA) checklist, some 981 species. Species are ranked by rarity between 1 (for the most common species) and 6 (species considered either extinct or extirpated from the region). Only 14 birders have ever seen more than 700 ABA species in a year. At 40, Hayward is by far the youngest member of that elite “700 Club.”
A shock of salt-and-pepper hair pokes out from the lucky, beat-up Red Sox hat Hayward always wears in the field, and his trim build seems to convey potential energy, like a compressed spring. He speaks with a quick, precise British accent frequently offset by an excited laugh. He grew up in a small village outside Oxford, England, and earned a Ph.D. in genetics. A decade ago he moved to Cambridge to found and run a biotech startup, which he cashed out of in 2011 to do consulting full time. That freed up his schedule to follow his overriding passion: birding. It had been a big part of his life since he was young, though one he mainly kept to himself growing up.
“When I was a kid, birding was a really nerdy thing, and I was embarrassed to tell people,” he says. “Now, as an adult, I idon’t really care what other people think. But I also feel really proud to tell people I spent a year watching birds.”
In fact, Hayward had begun the year with no such plans. But he did well during spring migration, and by late March he had logged more than 300 species. When asked online if he was doing a Big Year, he’d replied, “No. Because that would be insane.” Then, in late April, a Bahama Woodstar was spotted in Denver, Pennsylvania, the first seen in the United States in more than three decades. Hayward rushed to the site, just missing the bird. The deep disappointment he felt made something click within him, and he decided to go all-in, encouraged by his incredibly supportive girlfriend. (“The Dismal Swamp is a vacation destination?” she asked dubiously of a mid-June getaway; he bagged a Swainson’s Warbler.) He calls 2013 his “Accidental Big Year.”
After he’d passed 700 species, and knew the record was a possibility, Hayward pushed himself to the brink of exhaustion, traveling almost constantly. He slept in rental cars and on airport couches, trying to strategize every move, maximize every waking moment. “I was so tired, for much of the year I could hardly keep my eyes open,” he says.
Hayward made eight separate trips just to Alaska, where more than 50 of the species on his list were found. (He became an expert on Alaskan Airlines’ frequent-flier program.) He scanned for Ross’s Gulls while looking out for polar bears on the beach in Barrow. On the remote and windswept Pribilof Islands he spotted a Common Redstart, a species that ranges from England to central Asia and had never before been documented in North America. Under ABA rules, such first sightings are classified as “provisional,” and must be documented and approved before being added to a list—something that could take years. Of Hayward’s 750 species, three were provisionals, and his record must wait until they are accepted to be official.
“I’m not going to wait two years for a committee to weigh in,” says Komito, the former record holder, who met Hayward last summer on a pelagic tour off the California coast. “Neil is honorable, hard-working, and knowledgeable. As soon as I heard that he broke my record, I emailed him and said, ‘If I had a crown, I would be delighted to pass it along to you as the new champion.’ ”
The appearance of a rare specimen could lead to preposterously tangled travel itineraries. A sighting would appear on eBird, and Hayward’s carefully orchestrated plans would be upended. He points to a photo of a Little Bunting he saw in the last week of the year. “I flew from Cambridge to California to get that bird,” he says. “And then suddenly there was a La Sagra’s Flycatcher in Florida, and I flew there. And that’s when I heard about the Rustic Bunting in Alaska. So I was in all four corners of the U.S. in one week.”
Such a strategy might sound lunatic—not to mention that taking 177 flights in a year leaves a carbon footprint the size of a small nation—but Hayward sees it as the only choice. “If you wanted to maximize your chances of breaking a record during a year,” he says, “you would just leave and chase that bird.”
Even if cost were not an issue, Hayward doesn’t think it would be possible to go much above 760 in any single year, given the rarity of many species. But cost is an issue: For all the meticulous tallies of his travels and sightings Hayward posted for fans on his blog, the one number he refused to compute was his Big Year’s price tag. Hayward contends that he never added it up for two reasons: because he was worried it would discourage him from finishing his year, and because he would be embarrassed for other people to know how much he’d spent chasing birds. “It was a lot,” he says sheepishly.
The birds didn’t always cooperate, of course. There were misses, slumps, profound frustrations. Hayward’s “nemesis bird” was a Mountain Quail, which he hunted through the dense thickets of the California mountains for six days before spotting a bevy crossing the road. Given the mysteriousness of birds’ habits, I ask him whether his experience had made him superstitious at all. “I certainly felt there was luck,” he replies. “But I also felt like you could make your own luck.” In Arizona he’d arrived at 9:30 a.m. at a feeder where a rare Berylline Hummingbird had been seen. He sat there all day, in the rain, and just before dark the hummer flitted to the feeder, hovering for a few seconds before dart- ing away. That was a good-luck day.
In true Victorian fashion, sightings and totals for birding operate on an honor system, and I ask Hayward whether there’s any temptation to fudge the numbers. “It’s so much effort to do this, it would just be crazy to want to cheat,” he says, shaking his head. “Because you’re sort of cheating yourself, really.” Besides, it isn’t as if there’s a cash prize for breaking the record.
Hayward’s record was huge news in the birding world, naturally, and by year’s end his blog was getting thousands of hits a day as people around the world followed his adventures and cheered him on. For many fans it was a vicarious thrill. “I, like many other followers of your Big Year, have never met you and probably never will, but reading and following your blog made me feel like I was along for the ride,” wrote one anonymous commenter.
While the record was always on his mind—Komito himself ribbed Hayward good-humoredly in the field—he feels strongly that helping one another out is the real spirit of birding. He became good friends with Jay Lehman, a birder from Cincinnati who was also doing a Big Year. Lehman had heard about Hayward’s attempt and read his blog. The two met on the same boat trip where Hayward met Komito, becoming fast friends despite a 30-year age difference. “Neil encouraged me and sent text messages and emails about birds that I still needed,” says Lehman. They joined forces in the field several times during the last five months of the year, from Barrow, Alaska, to Cape Hatteras. Lehman finished his year at 735, and drove to Boston for Hayward’s year-end surprise party. This spring the two will meet up with several other members of the 700 Club for a trip off the Outer Banks.
Hayward loves that he can be casual now about a day in the field, and actually take his time to enjoy the birds. On a blue-sky February morning, the sun dazzling on a recent snowfall that clings to the scrub oak, we hop into Hayward’s car and drive an hour north of Boston, to the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island. It is one of Hayward’s favorite spots near home, and even in the frigid depths of a New England winter he feels confident about spotting something interesting.
As if on cue, a gang of Wild Turkeys saunters across the refuge road; an enormous tom peers menacingly into our open window, looking ready to demand our wallets. Farther on, Hayward spots a flutter in the underbrush and fixes his binoculars on a Cedar Waxwing, its red-dipped wingtip like a tiny beacon in the stark midwinter landscape.
Plum Island is desolate today, and it’s a bit spooky when two rough-looking men in a beat-up pickup truck motion for us to stop. Hayward does so, and rolls down his window. The driver, sporting a lumberjack beard and sunglasses, leans out and says, “We’re looking for a Fox Sparrow.” Although Hayward is a rock star among birders these days, he doesn’t reveal himself—and if these guys recognize his trademark Sox hat, they don’t let on. They exchange friendly advice and go on their way.
As he gained an online following, Hayward became shy about identifying himself in public, worried that people would think he was “commoditizing” birding. “I wasn’t birding because I wanted to break a record or see a certain number of species,” he insists, a bit improbably. “I was birding because it was really fun.” And in the end, he says, his Big Year wasn’t about numbers at all but the time he got to spend in hundreds of wild places like this, looking quietly at the landscape, hop- ing for something remarkable to appear.
Hayward parks his car near a large field blanketed with snow. He opens his trunk and takes out his enormous Swarovski spotting scope, mounted on a tripod. We look out over the landscape. To my untrained eye, nothing seems to move in the expanse of whiteness, but with a quick and fluid motion, Hayward locks the scope in place and beckons me to look through the eyepiece. A hundred yards distant, the bright-yellow eyes of a Snowy Owl blink slowly as it peers above a drift, head swiveling like a radar dish. Without the scope, I can’t see a thing. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” Hayward says, grinning.
I ask him if part of the allure of the Big Year is its finite nature, knowing that whatever you put yourself through, it will come to an end.
“I could never imagine doing that again,” he says. “Then again, if someone beat my record, I might be tempted.”