My Brief Reign and Embarrassing Fall as a Fantasy Birder

Here's where I failed and the best players cleaned up during 2019's inaugural fantasy birding season.

I was the king of the fantasy birding world on January 1, 2019. The first day of the inaugural Fantasy Birding Big Year competition had ended and I, your humble internet bird correspondent, was perched alone atop the leaderboard. 

Unfortunately, my lead would not last long. Eventually, hundreds of other players joined the game, and they were smarter, more organized, and more dedicated than me. I was quickly dethroned, and spent the rest of the year cursing and clawing my way across the continent in search of new birds. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I will also never fantasy bird again.

Some background. Fantasy birding is the creation of Matt Smith, who self-describes as a “birder and aimless internet hobbyist.” The game works like this: Players pick a spot anywhere in the American Birding Association area (North America north of Mexico, basically) and score points for each bird species reported to eBird within 5km of a player's chosen location. The more new species added to your fantasy list from within the radius of your chosen area, the higher your score. Players can choose a new spot for each calendar day, and the person who tallies the most species at the end of the year is the winner. 

For example, I chose the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary for January 1, 2020, and actual birders who birded anywhere within 5km of the sanctuary on that date reported 102 species to eBird, giving me a score of 102. I remained at San Joaquin on January 2, and more than a hundred species were once again reported within 5 km of the sanctuary. But only two of those species hadn’t been seen on January 1, upping my score to 104 (102 + 2). 

The strategy, then, centers on when and where a player chooses their locations each day. While keeping in mind common birds, fantasy birders must also research when and where real-life birders will be seeing rare birds to give themself an edge. 

This planning and strategizing is where I, a disorganized and absentminded buffoon, failed miserably. I would forget to pick a new location before the 6 a.m. daily deadline, wasting four days at Big Pine Key in Florida, for instance, after already getting the White-crowned Pigeon I needed. But planning is where others, including third-place finisher Liz Pusch and winner Andrew Bankert, thrived. 

“I learned way more about birding tours in the U.S. than I ever thought possible—big tours and small, state-focused ones,” says Pusch, a laboratory specialist at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, who scanned tour itineraries to determine when specific birds might be seen. “I stalked Audubon sites for their little field trips for specific birds. Once, when I needed a Spruce Grouse, I dove deep into the internet and found out about a graduate student working in Maine who I knew would report them, and did.”

Bankert, a field ornithologist currently working for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, drew upon his understanding of weather patterns and birds in the Bering Sea to decide when to select certain remote locations for Eurasian vagrants. “I knew that sustained north winds would mean no rarities for Gambell [on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska], but that southwest winds were good. For St. Paul Island, though, a storm passing to the north would mean birds would be pushed south to the island.”

The competition among these top fantasy birders was intense. Pusch kept a spreadsheet with the bird lists of the other leaders, so she knew exactly what birds the competition had and which ones she still needed. To win, birders had to not only anticipate short-staying rarities, but they also had to account for breeding birds, including infrequently reported and hard-to-predict species like Boreal Owl, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Bachman’s Sparrow. (When I asked Pusch about the “easiest” bird she missed during her Big Year, she cited the sparrow immediately. I, on the other hand, didn’t get any of the three.)

Despite the competition, a genuine spirit of camaraderie and helpfulness emerged among the most dedicated fantasy birders. A Slack channel and a Facebook group were created, and players shared strategy and sightings. They even announced to each other when they were going to see birds in real life, so fantasy players could follow them and count their reported species. Working in the grasslands of eastern Colorado, Bankert helped many players pick up specialties like Baird’s Sparrow, Prairie Falcon, and McCown’s Longspur.

I don’t know how to use Slack, and I never bothered joining the Facebook group. Stuck on my own, I lurched haphazardly across the map, hoping to stumble into some new birds. I was plummeting down the leaderboard, reacting to my failure with invented justifications, clear-eyed but unforgiving self-assessments, public begging, and, finally, despair. I fell from first place into the hundreds before rallying a bit at the end of the year, eventually limping across the finish line on December 31 in 70th place, with 791 species. 

For Bankert, Pusch, and the other elite players, however, the battle raged until the last second. Throughout December, birders scrambled to pick up rarities like a Common Pochard in Alaska, as well as clean up any outstanding breeding birds. Bankert didn’t have much mopping up to do and could afford to seek ultra rarities, including a Lesser Frigatebird he scored on Midway Atoll on December 2nd. His final bird of the year was a White-cheeked Pintail in Florida on December 31, which clinched his first-place finish with 862 species. Smith, fantasy birding's creator, finished a close second with 861 species, and Pusch came in 3rd, with 857. For reference, the current real-world ABA Big Year record is 839 species, also set in 2019, by John Weigel.

Bankert and Pusch and hundreds of others are back playing in 2020. In the middle of last year, Matt Smith added other fantasy birding games, including a Global Big Year, Big Days, and competitions built around budgets. In 2020, he’s added state-based Big Years and additional competitions, giving something for every fantasy birder. 

Except me. I know when I’ve been beat and chose to spend this year on the sidelines. My decision was affirmed after my already-bruised ego suffered a fatal blow during my research for this article—when both Bankert and Pusch mentioned that they didn’t sign up for fantasy birding until a few days into the new year. An uncomfortable feeling rising inside me, I emailed Smith to ask him how many other contestants were competing on January 1, the day I finished in first place. “Are you sure you want to know?” he responded. (Uh-oh.) “I just checked, and only seven users had actually started playing by 1/1/19 . . . and six of them were me and my test accounts.” 

I beat one dude and six dummy profiles for one day only. I think I am going to stick to the real thing for awhile.