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Homer bird puts record-breaking 'Big Year' over the top

Michael ArmstrongHomer News
A Massachusetts man's Homer sighting of a rustic bunting -- a bird native to Asia and rarely seen in North America -- helped him spot a record number of birds in North America in 2013. Heinrich von Kittlitz illustration / public domain via Wikimedia

A wayward Siberian bird seen last month not only caught the attention of local and Alaska birders, it brought another visitor thousands of miles just to tag it. 

That sighting of a rustic bunting by Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward helped him tie the record of 748 bird species seen in one year set in 1998 by Sandy Komito.

Last Saturday, Hayward broke Komito’s record -- if three provisional species sightings stand -- when he spotted a great skua in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

The rustic bunting came as a 40th birthday present for Hayward, who flew all the way from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to spot the rare bird. With the help of Homer bird guide Aaron Lang of Wilderness Birding, Hayward easily saw the rustic bunting flying with a group of juncos at a bird feeder on Hohe Street.

“That was a nice way to spend my birthday,” Hayward said last week in a phone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass., near Boston. “It was kind of fitting that happened in Alaska. Alaska has been such a big part of my Big Year.”

Non-birders might be familiar with the idea of a Big Year from the book, “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession” by Mark Obmascik, or the movie based on it, “The Big Year,” starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. Wilson played Kenny Bostick, the character based on Sandy Komito. 

In a Big Year, birders attempt to see as many species of birds  as possible in North America in one year. Sometimes birders are in ruthless competition, as shown in the movie, but in 2013, Hayward was way ahead of any other birder. Winners get no certificate or awards.

“There’s nothing apart from the bragging rights and the sense of accomplishment,” Hayward said. “It’s just a year of seeing as many places and as many birds as you can.”

From Oxford, England, in the United Kingdom, Hayward started birding at about age 10. He moved to the United States nine years ago. He recently quit his job running a biotech company, which gave him the time to commit to birding.

Hayward calls his Big Year “accidental” because he didn’t decide on doing a Big Year until about March. He had a good January and February seeing birds and then an awesome trip to Canada when he saw numerous species of owls. His girlfriend Geri -- yes, still his girlfriend, he said -- convinced him to go for a Big Year.

“If I have anyone to blame, I can blame her,” he said.

Alaska rewarded Hayward with more than 50 unique species on eight different trips taken over 54 days, including a spring trip to Homer. There he also saw another unique bird, the Kittlitz’s murrelet, with Karl Stolzfus of Bay Excursions. As with the rustic bunting, normally an Asian bird, Alaska is well positioned to get rare birds not seen elsewhere when they get blown off course.

Hayward has been keeping a blog, “The Accidental Big Year,” that has gained him a following among birders and nonbirders alike. 

“I think it’s attracted a lot of birders who are living vicariously through it as well as nonbirders interested in why birders do this,” Hayward said.

The birders send him tips about rare birds and the nonbirders have been rooting for him to beat the record.

Lang had taken Hayward birding on trips earlier in 2013, to the Pribilof Islands. On Dec. 15, Lang got an email from Tami Reiser of an interesting bird at her Hohe Street feeder. Lang identified it as a rustic bunting.

“I sent Neil a quick note and he responded,” Lang said. “The next day he was booking flights.”

Hayward had been birding in Florida and got on a flight to Alaska the next day. He arrived at 1:30 a.m. in Anchorage and drove straight to Homer -- except for a 15-minute nap in a pullout that turned into a two-hour slumber. He arrived in Homer just before sunrise on Dec. 19 and met Lang at Two Sisters Bakery.

“Homer is a pretty artsy place,” Hayward writes in his blog. “If there are hipsters in Alaska, then they’re here, and if they’re here, then they’re sipping lattes and eating granola at the Two Sisters Bakery.”

Lang took him to Hohe Street where he met what he called “a gaggle of well-wrapped birders” standing on a snow bank. They quickly pointed out the rustic bunting to him.

“It’s a really stunning bird,” Hayward said. “Really bright, a really chunky bird with red streaks. Quite a lot of personality.”

Lang said this is only the second time the rustic bunting has been seen on the Kenai Peninsula, with the first sighting in 1985. It’s also been seen in Kodiak, Fairbanks and Southeast Alaska, and is common in the western Aleutian Islands.

Three of Hayward’s birds are provisionals, meaning they are so rare they have not been seen previously in North America. State committees and then a board of the American Birding Association have to approve the sightings. To break Komito’s record, those species would need to be accepted. 

One, a rufous-necked wood-rail, was seen in New Mexico, while the other two were seen in Alaska, the Eurasian sparrowhawk, on Adak Island, and the common redstart, on St. Paul Island.

It’s not too difficult to see about 675 North American species, what are called code 1 and code 2 birds that breed on the continent, Hayward said.

“Everything else is a rarity. It’s a combination of logistical planning, knowing you’re in the right place and the right time, and being able to react quickly when those birds come in,” he said. “And also have a network of contacts, as well as having good identification skills and being able to find those birds on your own.”

This story originally appeared in the Homer News and is republished here by permission.