He broke the provincial record while perched on the frigid shore of James Bay in late October, but recent Guelph grad Josh Vandermeulen had to wait several days before he could share his news with the world.
When Vandermeulen began his “big year” in January, he meant something besides completing his ecology degree this past spring at U of G. The term is “birder-speak” for an attempt to spot a record number of feathered species in a calendar year. In the 2001 movie The Big Year, three characters tackle life crises by spending a year crisscrossing North America in a bird-watching contest.
Vandermeulen was too young for a mid-life crisis. Having honed his bird’s eye in numerous field outings during his undergrad at Guelph, he just wanted to meet a new challenge.
Allowing that he’s competitive by nature, he says the goal was less about notching species and “more about getting out and enjoying nature and learning about organisms out there.” Plus, he wanted to see more of his home province, including relatively untracked northern regions.
That he did.
In numerous journeys across Ontario this year, he has missed only the Kenora region. “Snowshoeing in Marathon in January was a highlight.” He also liked seeing the prairie-like ecosystem – and its attendant bird specimens – around Rainy River.
Most of his trips were planned four- or five-day outings to avian hot spots, including Point Pelee and Hamilton Harbour.
He says spring migration makes the former “one of the best places in North America to look for birds. I lived out of my car for six weeks.”
While helping with a bird survey there, he spotted a few rare specimens for his growing list, including a Kentucky warbler and a Bell’s vireo.
For most birders, the southern Great Lakes are an obvious venue for spotting many of Ontario’s 300-odd species. If you’re going for an annual record, you have to go where the wind takes you. That’s only half rhetorical.
It’s the unexpected sightings – driven mostly by unusual weather conditions – that can make or break a big year. That describes much of 2012, says Vandermeulen: “It’s been a crazy year for birding in Ontario.”
A mild winter saw many migratory species stick around instead of flying south. That’s why a spotted towhee appeared east of Thunder Bay, Vandermeulen’s furthest single foray this year.
Birders also benefit from abnormal winds and storms blowing their prey off course. It was in southern Ontario this summer that he spotted a magnificent frigatebird, normally seen only over the tropical Atlantic.
Likely he would have seen a few oddballs fairly close to home in Cambridge, Ont., during this fall’s “super-storm” Sandy. But by then, he and buddy Alan Wormington had migrated north on a planned two-week push. He was still four species short of the provincial record of 338 species, set in 1996 by Glenn Coady of Whitby, Ont.
They drove to Cochrane, hopped a train to Moosonee and then flew by helicopter to the southern coast of James Bay. There they had obtained First Nations’ permission to live in a hunting cabin.
Luck came with strong north winds that brought several Atlantic and Arctic species to the area in late October.
Most days, the pair huddled on the shore in a driftwood windbreak, bundled in winter wear against gusts of up to 80 kilometres per hour. They used binoculars and spotting scopes to scan the horizon.
Several days into the trip, Vandermeulen had tied the record with several new sightings, including a common eider, a gyrfalcon and a northern gannet.
It was Oct. 29 when the winner swooped into view over the water.
Many non-birders might have dismissed it as a gull, but the newcomer had slate-grey wings rather than a gull’s black wingtips, and a thick stocky head and neck. Most telling was its efficient wave-shearing glide, with barely a wing flap.
Vandermeulen told his companion, “I think I’ve got a fulmar over here.”
For the next 10 minutes, they watched the northern fulmar – also called an arctic fulmar – glide 200 to 300 metres offshore. “We got a pretty good look at it.”
He had his camera with him but was unable to snap a clear shot. No organization monitors bird recordings in the province. “It’s the honour system,” says Vandermeulen. “If you start making things up, people know.”
Back at the lodge, the duo celebrated alone with a beer. Lacking a satellite phone or other connections, including Facebook, they had no way to share the news. “The record’s been broken, and no one will know for a week.”
Weather delayed the helicopter for another two days. Five days passed before Vandermeulen got to a computer screen, where he could post his sighting on the “Ontbirds” listserve.
By then, he’d added a black-legged kittiwake, a great cormorant (the first ever recorded in Northern Ontario) and a western kingbird, far from its Pacific coast home.
As of mid-November, he had hit 344 species. He might yet add to that list, although he figures his big year is practically done. “It ended up being a crazy year.”
Although he planned most of his trips, sometimes he had to pile into his 2004 Nissan Sentra at shorter notice. Once, a birder friend called him to report a thick-billed kingbird in Presqu’ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Ont. “I drove down that night with friends.” It turned out to be the first Ontario sighting for the species and only the second for Canada.
The furthest he drove in a single day was to Ottawa in March to see a varied thrush.
Vandermeulen figures he’s spent about $20,000 on his hobby this year, logging about 40,000 kilometres on that Sentra, including breaking down on a deserted road north of Cochrane on the way back from James Bay.
In 2010, he hit 304 species. Now that he’s snagged the record, he says he’ll take a break. “It’s fun to do once, but I certainly don’t want to do it again.”
As a youngster, he had spent more time hunting down reptiles and amphibians. Birds widened the scope. Not only are there more feathered creatures to look for, but he could do bird-watching year-round.
At Guelph, he enjoyed studying animal behaviour and conservation biology. He belonged to the campus wildlife club, which this year has visited the Bruce Peninsula, Algonquin Park and Niagara Falls.
Having carried out birding surveys for environmental consulting companies, Vandermeulen thinks he might end up working full-time in the field. “It’s a tangible way you can actually make an impact on the natural world,” he says, pointing to the need to balance environment and development.
Says Chris Earley, interpretive biologist and education co-ordinator at the U of G Arboretum, “There has been an increase in impressive young birders in the last decade. Hopefully, his big year will inspire other young people to take up birding and get connected to nature.”
Read more on Vandermeulen’s blog at http://joshvandermeulen.blogspot.ca/.