December 31, 2015: Tinsukia, India — After a long day of birding, I went looking for owls this evening with Ramit, Binanda, Bidyut, and Pritam at a forest called Soraipong. We were hoping for a Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl but knew the chances were slim. Suddenly, at our second stop, an owl called from the darkness—and it wasn’t an eagle-owl.
“Oriental Bay-Owl!” whispered Binanda. The bird called again, a series of loud whistles, and it sounded close.
Back on November 15 I encountered my first Oriental Bay-Owl in Borneo, but this species is much scarcer in India. Ramit has probably seen more of them in this country than anyone else, and this was only his fourth sighting. We tiptoed closer. Pritam turned on his flashlight just as the owl landed on a vertical trunk in front of us, its black eyes focused in our direction.
I snapped a couple of photos. The owl lingered for a few moments then flew off. “Congratulations,” said Ramit. “That’s incredible! As far as I know, this is the first time a wild Oriental Bay-Owl has ever been photographed in India.”
And that was it: The Oriental Bay-Owl, a new photographic record for India, was my very last bird of 2015. What a sweet way to finish the year. From the Cape Petrel just after midnight last New Year's Day to the bay-owl this evening, 2015 has been a wild ride.
Yes, it’s come to this: My last daily post on this blog. How did that happen so fast?
Officially, my last new bird of 2015 was a group of Silver-breasted Broadbills just before sunset today (I’d already seen the bay-owl in Borneo). The broadbills were No. 6042, which is where the year list will rest.
Six thousand plus the meaning of life, the universe, and everything—not bad! Of course, it’s not just about numbers. For me, this bird list represents a goal exceeded, an adventure shared, and a manifesto of sorts.
Before saying so long (and thanks for all the birds), a few lingering details remain. I am writing this in the wee hours of January 1 in northeast India with fireworks going off outside, and it’s been an intense day (year…), so will keep this relatively short.
To recap: British birders Ruth Miller and Alan Davies held the previous Big Year world record with 4,341 bird species seen in 2008. My goal this year was to reach 5,000, so hitting 6K (and surpassing the existing record by 1,700 species) was a big bonus!
I had just three zero days this year: In January (in Antarctica), June (in New York airports), and October (transiting from India to Myanmar). Otherwise, I added at least one new bird every day.
For those who care about such things, I recorded 224 of the 234 bird families recognized by the Clements checklist in 2015. Today, I have posted a separate page with the entire bird list in taxonomic order. I will calculate the total according to IOC standards (for comparison purposes) and tally up the “heard-only” subtotal, and add those details to the taxonomic page in the next week or two.
eBird has been an incredible tool for me on this adventure. I’ve used it to connect with other birders, find out what to expect in certain places, and keep my own checklists. I entered more than 36,000 observations into eBird in 2015, mostly in under-represented parts of the world. From my travels, I’ve seen how eBird is revolutionizing birding in unexpected ways, and it’s inspiring to see it spread across borders.
I once worried that I’d get burned out on birds this year, but the opposite has happened—it’s easy to imagine what it would be like to just keep going forever! I’ve learned what it feels like to live fast. This trip has been a nonstop line of waiting cars, late nights, and short stays, and it’s an intoxicating rush. If birding is an addiction, then feeding it definitely doesn't kick the habit.
But, at the same time, this journey has taught me extreme levels of patience. For the most part, birding is a game of effort. The more time you spend looking, the more you’ll see. And you won’t see anything if you don’t take a look. It seems obvious, but sometimes we need to be reminded of these things.
With 2015 as a blueprint, I could certainly fine-tune the itinerary to squeeze out a few more birds. I’ve learned a lot about big year strategy in the past 365 days, and this isn’t an unbreakable record. Records are made to be surpassed in any case, and that will be an assignment for the next birder to come along.
In fact, it’s already happening. The instant my big year finished today, it was already under attack. Using a remarkably similar itinerary and approach, a young Dutch man named Arjan Dwarshuis has set out to one-up my total in 2016. I wish him all the best on his quest for the record and will be interested to see how he does.
As for me, I celebrate my 30th birthday next month. I’ll spend the next year on phase two of this project, a book to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (probably in 2017). The book will be quite different than this blog: Rather than journal-like entries, it will focus on interesting stories and a larger narrative. The biggest challenge will be distilling all the material—these blog entries alone have added up to 135,000 words, more than twice the length of Jules Verne’s “Around The World in 80 Days”!
If you’re feeling withdrawal, you can always pick up a copy of my most recent book, “The Thing With Feathers,” and I’ll have an article in the March 2015 issue of Audubon magazine. I will also be giving a few talks in the next couple of years, and hope to see you there!
This trip would not have been possible without the vision of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt editor Lisa White, and I’m indebted to the Audubon web team for hosting and maintaining this blog all year. I must thank Leica for providing the world’s best optics, which have stood up to a very hardcore field test. A travel agency called AirTreks has kindly booked most of my plane tickets, which saved a lot of hassle and expense in 2015, and if you ever need help with a difficult visa, check with VisaHQ.
My biggest thank-you goes to the hundreds of birders who have helped in the field and to the thousands who have followed along and left comments. I am blown away by how this trip caught the interest of so many people. Near the end, this blog has been averaging 10,000 visits a day! That so many people care about birds says something about their future, I think. I hope this journey has entertained and inspired you.
This is the last Birding Without Borders entry, but of course life’s journey continues. Tomorrow is a new year! I am in India and, having flown halfway across the world to get here, am in no rush to leave. I’ll spend the next couple of days with some new bird-crazy friends here before heading home.
That’s right: After 365 straight days of nothing but looking at birds, tomorrow I’m getting up and… going birding. The alarm is set for 5 a.m.
To everyone, best wishes for a wonderful, birdy, and Happy New Year!
New birds today: 11
Final year list: 6042