The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was only Bird No. 474 of the year. But Vanderpoel had more than eight months left in the calendar year to increase this figure. A lifelong birder and the founder of a video production company (which created The Advanced Birding Video Series), Vanderpoel, 62, has committed 2011 to the completion of a "Big Year," an informal competition in which birdwatchers attempt to see or hear as many species as possible between January 1 and December 31. Vanderpoel, who had dreamt of doing a Big Year since the mid-1990s, has been named as a potential candidate to break the current North American record, and he has already climbed to third place. His quest has stirred excited discussion within the competitive birding community, and his personal blog -- which documents the sleepless nights, the primal thrill of discovery, the frantic chases (and, in the comments section, his wife's feelings about being a "bird widow") -- gets about 1,000 hits a day.
The Big Year competition is informal in the sense that there is no trophy, no grand celebration for the winner. It is simply a natural extension of the listing impulse so deeply ingrained in the birding community. Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, demurs at the word "administer" as a description of the ABA's role in the Big Year: at most, the organization has provided a framework for making such competitions possible. As the first issue of Birding, the ABA magazine, declared in 1969, "Life listing and annual listing, to say nothing of Christmas bird counts, big days, and the like, have become a matter of national competition and herein lies another important area for Birding to fulfill a leading role." Every year, the ABA publishes a special report showcasing members' list totals in different categories, including year lists. The organization crafted its own "recording rules" to define a legitimate sighting: for example, the bird must be "alive, wild, and unrestrained" at the moment of encounter, and the sighting must take place within the prescribed ABA area (including the 49 continental American states, Canada, and the French islands of St.-Pierre and Miquelon). Aside from this, what is most striking about competitive birding is its distinctly unregulated nature: Given the assurance of an honor code, nobody verifies lists.
Every year, the ABA receives around 50 entries in the year-list category, though the threshold of 700 sightings is rarely broken, according to publications director Bryan Patrick. The current North American record is held by Sandy Komito, a "legendary human bird-dog" as one newspaper called him, who traveled 270,000 miles and spent about $10,000 a month in 1998 to attain his 745 species. As of October 23, Vanderpoel has 728 species under his belt -- putting him only 18 species away from toppling Komito from his throne. To put things in better perspective, Virginia birder Bob Ake, who is second to Komito on the all-time year-list, reached the 728-mark in early December of his 2010 Big Year, which means that Vanderpoel is about seven weeks ahead of Ake's pace. While it seems likely that Vanderpoel will beat Ake's 731, he believes he has a "very, very slim" chance at surpassing Komito to grab the gold. "I'm thinking it would be very difficult," Vanderpoel says, "but not impossible."