1996 Alabama Big Year


A Clay-colored Sparrow, like this bird that I photographed in Minnesota, was Adam Byrne's record-setting 306th species for the year in Alabama in 1996.

Below is an account of a 1996 Alabama Big Year that I did with my master's student at the time Adam Byrne. Adam ended that year with 311 species and I recorded 307, both of which broke the previous record of 305. In 2019, I'm doing my first Alabama big year since that 1996 effort. I've added photos from my collection--NONE of the photos attached to this essay were taken in 1996.

It was a big year that wasn’t supposed to be. Adam Byrne came to Alabama from his home state of Michigan to get a master’s degree at Auburn University with the ultimate goal of a career as a research ornithologist. The demands on a graduate student are many -- courses, teaching, and the execution of an independent research project. I know of very few professional ornithologists who are also avid birders -- there simply isn’t time. Early on, we talked about balancing birding with school and Adam assured me that he was committed to the graduate program.

When Adam arrived in Auburn, I had been on the Auburn University faculty for three years. What little birding I had done was mostly around Lee County and Eufaula NWR. For the most part, however, I had spent my time establishing my research lab and teaching program at Auburn. When Adam moved to town my state list was a very modest 225.

Having an avid birder around who was anxious to go on trips rekindled my birding interest and we started working on our state lists. Adam was determined to be “listable” (an ABA term meaning that you have observed 80% of the birds on the state’s list so you can have your state list published in the ABA record book). It didn’t take long. Adam arrived in the state in October and by the New Year he was up to 180 species. Along the way, he was helping make my list respectable by finding birds like Black-legged Kittiwake, Franklin’s Gull, and Ross’ Goose. I had joked with Adam about making a run at the Alabama big year record since he first arrived in Auburn, because he had just set the big year record for Michigan., It was completely in jest. Adam had way too many commitments for a big year. I remember Adam saying emphatically: “That [Michigan Big Year] was my one crazy year. I’ll never do that again.”

Adam went home to Michigan over Christmas but was back by January 2. On January 4, we took our first trip of 1996 outside of Auburn. Bob and Martha Sargent had banded a Calliope Hummingbird in Wetumpka in late December and the Magnificent Hummingbird was back to the same yard in Monroeville where it had been a headliner in 1995 and we made a trip to see both. Hummingbirds were a key to Adam’s 1996 Big Year. The Alabama birders who had been chasing since the start of the Bob and Martha Sargent hummingbird bonanza had seen over a few year’s time Rufous, Broad-tailed, Calliope, Black-chinned, Allan’s, and Magnificent. Once on a birder’s state list, however, the bird was not chased if it turned up for the second or third time. Because they were all new to us, Adam and I saw all of these species plus Buff-bellied Hummingbird and, of course, Ruby-throated in 1996. Outside of Bob and Martha Sargent, Adam and I are the only Alabama birders who have seen seven species of hummers in Alabama in one year. It should have been eight species, but we saw the Allen’s that was in Birmingham during the winter of 95/96 in December and then never went back to see it in 1996. It was one of several key misses for us in the winter of 1996.

Rufous Hummingbird was one of an amazing seven species of hummingbird that Adam Byrne and I recorded in Alabama in 1996.

Adam was my ornithology teaching assistant during the winter of 1996 and we ended up finding several key year birds on class field trips -- brown creeper, red-throated loon, Sandhill crane, and white-fronted goose. Spring was busy as we prepared for a field study of Blue Grosbeaks near Auburn. Adam had to supervise a field crew of four assistants. In addition to overseeing the Blue Grosbeak project and my on-going House Finch project, I was scheduled to conduct migrant censuses in the Bankhead National Forest in April and May. As a result, we were both in the field a lot but we did virtually no chasing or birding in migrant traps during the entire spring. Adam had a wedding to attend in Michigan during the spring AOS weekend so we went to the coast on the third rather than the second weekend in April. As luck would have it, the third weekend in April was devoid of migrants and we missed Black-whiskered Vireo and Black-throated Blue Warblers for the year; both would have been sure sightings the weekend before. It was looking like a very ordinary birding year.

The real turning point of the year came with a June 15 pelagic trip from Bon Secour. Greg Jackson had arranged to have a sports fishing boat take a group of birders far into the Gulf in search of seabirds. Greg invited Adam and me to be part of the trip. We were going as far as 90 miles off shore and there was virtually no precedence for this sort of trip in Alabama. As it turned out it was a birding bonanza. We got exceptional looks at Bridled Tern, Sooty Tern, Pomarine Jeager, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Leach’s Storm-petrel, Band-rumped Storm-petrel, and Cory’s Shearwater -- the greatest seabird trip in the history of Alabama birding. [in 2019, this trip remains one of the best pelagic trips ever in Alabama].

A light-morph Pomarine Jeager, like this bird I photographed in Alaska, was one of the many fantastic pelagic species we recorded on a trip out of Gulf Shores in 1996.

Both Adam and I reached June 16 with 262 species on our year lists, a daunting 43 species short the record. During his Michigan big year Adam had broken the record by August 1. As far as I knew, when I left for a week-long vacation with my family on June 17, Adam had no thoughts making a run at the Alabama big year record. When I got back from vacation Adam took me by surprise when he told me that he and his wife Jan had decided to move back to Michigan. Jan had been offered a graduate research assistantship at Michigan State University and Adam had found graduate school and an intensive study of a single population of birds too constraining. He was going to pursue a different career that would leave him more time to chase birds. Jan would not be able to finish up her research at Auburn until the end of November, however, and in the meantime Adam intended to devote full time to breaking the Alabama big year record. As a matter of fact, he had just made a swing north to pick up Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Blue-winged Warbler, and Cerulean Warbler. To my amazement, he had also gotten a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the Blue Grosbeak study site in Lee County. On July 1 we both had 269 birds on our year lists.

July was a relatively slow month for new birds although both Adam and I picked up various breeding birds that we had missed including Warbling Vireo in extreme northwest Alabama. We also got Roseate Spoonbill on that swing north. August began with us still tied at 280 species apiece, 25 short of the record.

The Grosbeak research project ended in early August and since he had quit the graduate program at Auburn, Adam was free to bird full time. His only constraints were that he was broke and his old Geo Prism that had gotten him the Michigan big year record was just about worn out. In contrast, I was scheduled to go to national bird meetings in Idaho and then begin a busy fall quarter at Auburn. I could afford two trips to the coast in the fall: one in September and one in October. The year birds started coming fast and furious in September. Adam made four trips to the coast in both September and October, but with Adam’s help and some unbelievable luck, I was able to re-locate most the birds that he found. Our trip to the coast on September 17 and 18 was one of the best birding weekends I’ve every experienced. On Dauphin Island on September 17 in a couple-hour period we recorded Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, “Trail’s” Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Canada Warbler, Nashville warbler (the only one of the year for either Adam or me), and Fulvous Whistling Duck. We picked up American Avocet at Blakely Island and that afternoon while scanning from the pavilion at Gulf Shores State Park, a Parasitic Jeager flew past. The next morning at Fort Morgan we found Olive-sided Flycatcher, Wilson’s Warbler, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Going into October Adam’s year list had shot up to 300. Mine was a very respectable 295. On October 10, Adam did a big day with Giff Beaton. They birded from the Battleship south to Dauphin Island and in the process they got several key year birds for Adam: Lincoln’s Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, and amazingly, a first state record (pending acceptance by the Alabama Bird Records Committee) Townsend’s Solitaire at Fort Morgan.

When we drove to Dauphin Island on Friday, October 17 for the AOS weekend Adam’s year list stood at 303, two shy of the record. We drove to Fort Gaines at dawn and found one of our main target birds: Marbled Godwit flying in from the Gulf to the rocky breakwaters. I also picked up Red Knot for the year but Adam had seen these the previous week. As we were about to leave Adam took one last scan of the many Laughing Gulls on the breakwater 70 yards away, and as he had done so many times that year, he pulled out a bird that I would have never spotted. Nestled in with the Laughing Gulls was a gull with a smaller bill and a darker nape: a Franklin’s Gull. Once Adam had me on the bird, it was clear what it was, but it was a great find. That tied Adam with Greg Jackson for the Alabama big year record.

At mid-morning we then took the ferry across to Fort Morgan and began to bird the area. We stopped in to see Bob and Martha Sergant at the banding station. Warbler migration was slow, we heard, so we worked our way down the air strip toward the fort. About half way down the airstrip, we ran into none other than Greg Jackson and his wife, Debbie. A few minutes before Greg had flushed a suspicious-looking sparrow and we set out to see if we could find it. We didn’t relocate that bird but in the brushy field near the museum we flushed a small bird that flew to the top of a bush close to Greg. “Clay-colored Sparrow,” Greg announced. Adam and I carefully approached the bird. We both got a clear look it but it was still far away and we both wanted to see it better. Greg helped us chase it around until we got it to sit up right in front of us. Adam and I smiled at each other. We knew that the long-time big year record holder had just shown Adam the record-setting bird.

Greg knew that Adam was making a run at his big year and that his list was getting big, but he did not know exactly what Adam’s total was.

“You must be up around 300 by now” he commented as we left the Clay-colored Sparrow and approached the fort.

“As a matter of fact,” Adam said with a smirk, “that was 306”.

“Greg stopped walking, paused for a second at the realization that his ten-year-old record was broken, and extended his hand to Adam. “Congratulations.”

Greg then added, “Now I’ll have to take a year and reclaim the record”.

Debbie pitched in, half in jest, “ It’s a good thing that you didn’t mention that you were one away from the record before you saw the bird. I would have had to kill you.”

A Tundra Swan was my 307th and final bird species for Alabama in 1996.

Adam and his wife moved back to Michigan on November 17, 1996. Adam took with him the biggest year list ever amassed for the state of Alabama: 311 species. On the day Adam left, I had 301 species on my year list. If I had had total freedom to bird the coast and the Tennessee River Valley it’s conceivable that I could have passed Adam (at least a dozen year birds for me were reported between November 17 and the new year). But even if it had been feasible, I wouldn’t have passed Adam. The only reason I had anywhere near 301 birds for the year was because of Adam’s skill, luck, and persistence in calling people to find birds. Of my 301 birds, fully 30 species would have been missed without Adam showing me the bird. It was his record; I was just enjoying riding his coattails.

I knew that I would never have a bigger big year, though, and I really wanted to pass Greg Jackson’s old mark. I managed two trips to the coast in late November/early December but I missed every target bird. I did find an unexpected Pacific Loon at Perdido Pass on December 13 plus a solitary Vireo in Lee County, however, to put me at 303 by Christmas. I have little kids and even though I was off work for a week around Christmas, I could afford to be away from home for only one more long trip before the end of the year. On December 26 I headed north for my last chance for year birds. I did better than I could have hoped. At the causeway at Guntersville Reservoir, four Oldsquaw flew in right in front of me. I then drove over to Town Creek on the Tennessee River and found, among the thousands of scaup, a male Common Merganser, number 305. From Town Creek I zipped over to Limestone Bay at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge to look for the Tundra Swan that had been seen on the Christmas count five days before. The Swan was not there. It was 2:30, about two hours before dark and I had to make a decision: stay and bird the refuge or make a run for Birmingham and a Tundra Swan that had been reported from East Lake. I decided to go for the swan in Birmingham. Holiday traffic was heavy and I made it to Birmingham around 4:15. I then proceeded to get terribly lost. I knew the bird was near the airport, but I ended up driving along the airport perimeter near Tallapoosa Street with the my chances for number 306 fading with the daylight. Just as I was getting very angry and frustrated a large hawk appeared in front of me hovering over the airport grounds. It’s behavior was very un-red-tail like. It was making short flights and then stopping to hover. “It can’t be”, I thought. I pulled into an empty parking lot and leaped out of the car. Large black wrist patches, a thick black belly band, a light base to a dark tail. It was a Rough-legged Hawk. The last thing I expected from getting lost in Birmingham was a new state bird. It was year bird number 306. Seeing the hawk settled me down, and I finally managed to find East Lake about 4:45, just as it was getting dark. I ran from my car, jogged around the lake, and in with the Canvasback, scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks was an immature Tundra Swan. Number 307. I found out later that week that I had driven right past a Prairie Falcon and Rough-legged Hawk at Guntersville Dam. That’s the way birding and big years go.

As interest in birding in Alabama increases there are sure to be more attempts on the big year record. Adam’s mark of 311 species is still low for this state. Consider that Adam blew off virtually the entire spring. He missed easy birds like Black-whiskered Vireo and Black-throated Blue Warbler and chances at rarities like California Gull and Cave Swallow. If Adam had birded the coast as intensively in late March and April as he did in September and October he probably would have added six to ten birds to his year list. He also did not chase several chaseable birds early in the year: Western Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Oldsquaw, and Black-bellied Whistling Duck. By leaving in November Adam gave up at least seven birds on his list: Oldsquaw, Pacific Loon, Western Grebe, Common Merganser, Tundra Swan, Rough-legged Hawk, and Prairie Falcon. In all, there were at least 324 species seen in Alabama in 1996. I expect the big year record to plateau around 320 over the next few years as birders pursue the record more intensively. [The Alabama Big Year Record did plateau around 320 and as of fall 2019 is 323 recorded by Howard Horne in 2012].

Adam missed a lot of birds that he might have had on his year list but he also had a spectacular birding year. His big year included three first state records: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Band-rumped Storm Petrel, and Townsend’s Solitaire; Four second state records: Thayer’s Gull, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird, and Leach’s Storm Petrel. He blew off a chance to go to a fellow grad student’s study site to see Henslow’s Sparrows and then found his own Blakely Island in April. He missed his chance to see Red-breasted Nuthatch at feeders in January and February and then he found one at Fort Morgan in March. He got American Bittern and Black-billed Cuckoo flying over I-65 on the way to a coastal birding trips. He missed a known Lincoln’s Sparrow in January and found his own on a record-early date in October.

It was a fun year and it really re-kindled my interest in birding.