Legally Blind Birding

Testing the Patience of Birding Guides Around the World

The recent accomplishments of Noah Stryker and Arjan Dwarshuis are impressive. Anyone that has traveled internationally for birding understands how grueling even a week or two can be. Uncomfortable overnight flights, jet-lag, immigration and visa paperwork, often barely adequate rooms (some with six- or eight-legged visitors), extreme heat, humidity or cold, and the joy of traveler’s diarrhea…would you endure any of this without the reward of seeing some spectacular birds? An entire year would be punishing indeed.

In spite of this, twelve months in worldwide pursuit of birds is a prospect that many of us would jump at. Not necessarily for the purpose of breaking what will be an increasingly formidable record – as gratifying as that would be. If that is one’s goal, the sooner done the better… as the record is broken again over time, it will reach a natural asymptotic limit, becoming more and more difficult to exceed. (Predicting this number is an interesting statistical question, which I plan to address later.)

The prospect of simply having an unencumbered year in which to bird is very seductive. For many of us, the necessity of attending to our day jobs renders such a extended project impossible. So what would be some next-best scenarios for attempting a ‘record’?

All birding contests, or anything that can be quantified with a record, must feature some kind of constraint. Even for a global big year, we have the arbitrary conditions of starting and stopping at a January 1st boundary. Big Year competitions based in North America feature geographical limitations based on arbitrary boundaries. A more recent, novel constraint is the ‘Green’ Big Year, which involves avoiding the use of fossil-fuels during travel.

A benefit to restricting a tally to a region such as North America is that it renders it possible to bird competitively through the year without having to abandon work – given the smaller area to cover and a total count expected to stay under 800 or so birds. What about a different tack? Let’s propose a contest that recognizes the biggest limitation that most of us have – the lack of free time. Let’s have a global big year for working stiffs category: a Global Big Working Year (GBWY), or a better name, if you’ve got one.

The rules might run as follows:

You have 365 days to tally your count, starting on Jan 1st. During that time, you must be working, or pretending to work, or otherwise not birding, for a minimum of 40 hours per week. You are free to bird on working days; before work, after work, over lunch or from your office window, but no more. Weekends and vacation days, of course, can feature as much birding as you can fit in, with no restrictions on geographical location.

Vacation time – how much time should be allowed? We can attempt a reasonable answer by looking at typical leave time around the world.

Based on this accounting, the median number of days off is 28. Combined with weekends, we come to 132 days that could be used fully for birding, and 233 days in which birding can only occur in concert with a normal, eight hour-per-day work schedule. If you have to burn a vacation day as part of your travel, then that counts against your allotment of 132 days, unless your travel is part of your work. (I checked with your bosses, and that’s what they said.)

Not everyone gets the same number of vacation days, so an adjusted total could be determined at the conclusion. The adjustment would increase your ‘score’ if you had less than 132 days free for birding. For example, if you had only 120 days of full birding due to work demands, and you recorded a total of 1,200 species, your adjusted score would be 1,320, which simply extrapolates your 10 bird/day average out to 132 days. (We need to put some lower limit on this, otherwise we could theoretically bird just one day, record 100 species, and then achieve a score of 13,200! A natural choice would involve the case of the poor sod that gets no vacation, leaving just 104 weekend days.)

So, if you used V vacation days and counted a total of N species, the adjusted score would be:

N * 132 / (104 + V)

How many birds could one expect to see under these conditions, assuming you could accumulate species at a comparable rate as the world record holders? In one year, Noah Stryker recorded 6,042 species based on Clements taxonomy (10,550 total), while Arjan Dwarshuis recorded 6,852 species using the IOC taxonomy (total of 10,672). Normalizing the Dwarshuis number for the Clements taxonomy, the value is 6,774, and that works out to between 18 and 19 species a day… 132 days of birding at this rate nets some 2,443 species. Adding the part-time birding that one can do during work days, a goal of 2,500 species, roughly one quarter of the birds on the planet, does not appear unattainable.

It is possible that this number has already been reached, but lacking a formal category for recognizing it, it won’t be widely known. If you’ve done such a GBWY, please leave a comment or a note. Such a category would appeal to many birders, and if we can have such as thing as a naked birding life list, then why not this?

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