If the word “birdwatcher” calls to mind frail, gentle folk with binoculars in hand and nerdy hats at the ready, you’re really behind the times. It turns out that extreme birdwatching—birders who will got to any length to spot a species—is very much a thing. And, reports Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post, this could be the sport’s best year ever due in part to the rivalry between two American birdwatchers.
Their names are John Weigel and Olaf Danielson, and Brulliard reports that they’ve been tossing a coveted birdwatching title back and forth all year. They’re vying for the honor of being the person who spotted the most bird species in North America in 2016, and due to weird weather the numbers they’re posting are far higher than any ever achieved by other birders.
Anyone who’s not into birding might not realize that they’re in the midst of a banner year for bird sightings. As Brulliard reports, El Niño—the weather pattern that occurs when ocean waters in the Pacific warm up—has helped bird spottings spike. As Nate Swick explains for the American Birding Association’s BirdBlog, the phenomenon spurs bird migration and often changes food availability, which means that birds that are usually only seen in one area can spread.
According to Andrew Farnsworth, Marshall Iliff and Brian Sullivan of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, scientists even suspect that bird migration patterns could be a kind of early warning signal that El Niño conditions are developing. The lab and the Audubon Society have even developed an app, eBird, to collect data from birders that in turn contributes to scientific research.
Not that birders ever considered their passion to be a mere passing fancy. After all, the sport—which is taken so seriously that it inspires bird-specific weather forecasts, hard-core competitions and has its own membership association in the United States—combines science with the great outdoors in spectacular fashion.
Birders, their American Birding Association species checklist in hand, head outside with the goal of completing a so-called “Big Year” in which they check off as many species as possible. They must adhere to a long list of official rules that dictate how and when they encounter the birds, and agree to an ethical code that protects birds from getting stressed and laws from being broken.
Neither Weigel nor Danielson are strangers to the birding world. Weigel, who has so far spotted 763 birds, has traveled all around the U.S. and Canada in his quest and, as Bird Watching Daily reports, has even logged two never-before-seen species in the process. Danielson, who boasts 759 species so far, is best known for birdwatching in the nude. Both have already surpassed the 749 bird species record and have been helped along by hair-splitting changes in bird taxonomy on the ABA checklist.
If all this makes you want to grab your binoculars and head out on your own Big Year, beware—it’s not for the faint of heart. As Brulliard notes, both men have spent tens of thousands of dollars and logged tens of thousands of excruciating miles (many on foot) to complete their quest. And as Anthony Failoa reported for The Washington Post back in 2013, some British birdwatchers are so obsessed that they’ll go to pretty nasty lengths (think: bribery and brawls) to check a bird off their list. Just take extreme birders in the Philippines. As Harriet Alexander reports for The Telegraph, the birders who call themselves "twitchers," were even caught in a gun battle in a war zone on the search for a rare eagle.
Think you have what it takes? All you need is an adventurous spirit and a love of birds to get started. Just don’t be surprised if you run into a naked birdwatcher or two while you’re searching for that elusive species.