Saturday 2 January 2021

Something to Crow About or How not to take oneself seriously.

Something to Crow About 

The Crow is purely a fun endeavour, a challenge open to birders who have the time and inclination to tick at least two-hundred and fifty different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one year. There is no winner per se and the trophy is shared equally among all those who crack the two-fifty mark. There is of course one person who will see more birds than any other and to them goes the highest perch. 
More info than you will ever need about the Crow can be found at the end of this blog. A big thanks goes to Carlo Giovanella who came up with the novel idea few years ago. Many of us have enjoyed the chase and made 2020 that more sufferable.

California Scrub Jay/Delta

I had had two unsuccessful flaps at the Crow in 2018 (243) and 2019 (244) and for whatever reasons those last few birds always proved elusive having flown the coop before I arrived. I really wanted to try one last time. One last flutter I suppose, even if I would have to wing it.

 My other 2020 resolution was to create one or more eBird lists every day of 2020. That would prove to be an interesting but much easier endeavour. 

Red-eye Vireo/Campbell Valley Park

When I embarked on the quest in the previous years I had always made it little more challenging by periodically taking off for the UK or Mexico. When 2020 began, little did we know how the rest of the year would turn out. No international travel, birding with masks, social distancing, who could have predicted that.

As mentioned the history of The Crow is to try and tick 250 or more different species of birds in the Lower Mainland in any one calendar year. I say try because it can take a certain amount of dedication, determination and a fair amount of luck. Add to that the cost of gas, the outrageous carbon footprint and  the most important part of the equation, blessings from spouses. The latter being the most delicate to negotiate but that subject deserves a whole column on its own.

Black-billed Magpie/Iona Regional Park

Each and every birder who embarks on this somewhat madcap adventure faces different challenges. An unattached individual who can bird any time may possibly have an edge. A student may have classes, homework or have to rely on an understanding parent or public transport. The retiree may have all the time in the world, each and every birder is different. Sadly, I've even met a couple of female birders who were afraid to bird on their own, something us of the male persuasion never really take into consideration.

House Wren/Aldergrove

These days finding birds has never been easier. Digital networks including eBird, the BC Rare Bird (RBA) alert and regular texts from fellow birders all helped us all find birds. These and other great resources have helped everyone involved. 

That said, a few have tossed around the idea that the benchmark for the Crow should now be 260 which is fine except that wasn't the original intent. Perhaps 260 is the new 250, only another year will tell. This year a dozen birders have reached the 250 mark, more I think than ever before, a number have even surpassed 260. 

Bush Tit/Boundary Bay

Could it be that the every birder was grounded due to Covid-19 or was it just a great year for birds? One experienced birder  thought that some of the birds normally seen only in the Spring returned again in the Fall too, especially fortuitous for those who missed them first time round. That doesn't always happen. 
My Big Year (261) brought me a number of new Metro Vancouver birds which was an added bonus. 

New Year's Day

Bird #1

I began the year on New Year's Day with a 10 min drive to a small pond in the Cloverdale Fairgrounds where a female Redhead (below) had taken up residence. By the end of the day and without too much effort I had ticked forty-eight species. Amazingly one year later the Redhead is back at the same location, perhaps the same bird.

At the end of January I had a tally of one hundred and twenty-one species. 
Great fun ticking new birds everyday. Taking part in a couple of Christmas bird counts helped as they were hardcore eight-hour birding days with expert birders.

Brewers Sparrow/Iona

As the weather warmed and the first seriousness of Covid-19 began to sink in, waves of new species were arriving. Some like the Yellow-rumped Warbler already had young. I saw one adult carry food to the nest. I heard a Cassin's Vireo singing on Burnaby Mountain. I was kind of chuffed to find a bird by its song, I then tracked it to a branch and photographed it.

Cassin's Vireo/Burnaby Mountain

 I managed to get a number of friends on the bird before it moved on. I had John Neville's CD of BC bird songs to thank for that, The CD was a constant companion in my cars sound system.

Townsend's Warbler/Joe Brown Park Surrey

In May I had a Western Tanager in my garden which was species #200 for the year and a new yard bird. I downed a Corona beer to celebrate.

A Western Tanager hawks an insect in my backyard.

See how the bird tucks its wings in as it snatches the insect. Avian aerodynamics in action.

As summer set in there were fewer and fewer new ticks. One August day I had a Franklin's Gull and Wilson's Phalarope, both in the pouring rain. In late August I dipped on a Chestnut-side Warbler at Colony Farm, twice I dipped on a Stilt Sandpiper at Reifel and then a Northern Waterthrush in Stanley Park. Very little to show for all the driving. Between Aug 10 and Aug 16 I found one of my six target birds. The following week I dipped again on everything. Things started to look up in September and by the end of the month I was at 247 species and everyone was egging me on. Even my old photographer friends who thought I had gone completely mad wanted to know how the list was going.

American Redstart/Catbird Slough

The next bird was to be the most unusual and controversial as it was a first for Vancouver or least as recent records go. Had I been on my own that day I wouldn't have have been able to count it. Raymond Ng and I were chatting at the first bench at Brunswick Point. He was going out to photograph the Ash-throated Flycatcher (246) and I was biking back to my car. Neither of us were birding, just chatting and catching up. Raymond suddenly pointed out a large bird flying close-by, almost over my shoulders. Long-tailed Jaeger (247) Raymond shouted. My camera was in my backpack, the bird too close for Raymond's 800mm. We were stunned, rooted to the spot, the moment was over in seconds. Both of us pride ourselves at being sometime photographers but neither of us could react in time except to see the bird fly off toward the ocean. Really too bad we didn't get pictures but we were able to describe the bird well. Below is what I wrote on eBird.  

Large streamlined white pelagic type bird with black cap and white/cream coloured breast. Solid black underneath the wings, no white whatsoever ruling out PAJA. Trailing long feathers, not sure of exact length. Witnessed by myself and Raymond Ng. Fly-over from 20 metres directly above us. Heading toward the ocean from the farmers fields. Great views, could even see the catchlight in the eye but neither of us could get our cameras on the bird.

Ash-throated Flycatcher/Brunswick Point

My sole contribution to the Metro Vancouver Big Year pool was the Curlew Sandpiper I found on a visit to  Reifel Aug 8 2020. I was a great birthday present, a new Canada bird and another Metro Vancouver tick.                                                    

                                                           See Finding a good bird

Curlew Sandpiper/Reifel

It wasn't until middle of Oct that I ticked a Palm Warbler found by Rob Lyske at Maplewood Flats (248) and the same day a Northern Mockingbird (NOMO) at Iona (249) The secretive NOMO counted, even if it was just a glimpse. A view is all most listers need although a good long look is the preferred outcome. As it turned out there was never any need to rush, the NOMO is still there weeks later, even being trapped in the banding mist nets. One thing I did learn about the listing game was to strike when the iron was hot, as soon as a new bird turned up it was in the car and off on another twitch. Unfortunately no car pooling this year. It became second nature to drop all plans at moment's notice. 

Once my wife was onboard, my disappearing acts became much more accepted, even applauded. The only condition was to bring home a Wendy's Frosty and only if I found a new year bird, that started around the Pectoral Sandpiper bird (214) so you can see, quite a few frozen treats were consumed.

Cassin's Auklet/Stanley Park

After the NOMO it left just one bird to go. I was more than happy that when after three years of trying I eventually saw my #250 bird when I photographed a Clarke's Grebe at the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal on Oct 14. Like most birders I found the bird from an online source. On reflection and back in September when I was racking up the kilometres and when I still needed ten more birds and I really thought my Big Year might never happen. 

Pine Grosbeak/Maplewood


There wasn't even time for a little celebration when young birder Sage found a Cassin's Auklet in Stanley Park's Cold Harbour. What an amazing find, a pelagic so close to the city. All the regular listers were there, even for many of them it was a first for Vancouver. That was #251 for me. I also had also made sure I had covered two potentially difficult birds to identify in getting a second Sharp-shinned Hawk at Reifel and a second Eared Grebe at Iona. 

 I couldn't have done the big Year it on my own.  A special thanks go out to Mel of the BC Rare Bird Alert for being so diligent in getting out the word out and to all the other birders who have shared their sightings with the rest of us in the birding community.

"It's never too late to attempt a Big Year"
John Gordon
B.C. Canada


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you very much. When I was in India I didn't really bird at all but really enjoyed the experience.

  2. Congratulations John, third time’s the charm! Really enjoyed the blog, especially how your wife got on board. My experience was similar, by the end of the year, if I was home, my wife was asking me why I wasn’t out chasing birds!

    1. Hi Quentin, I was a fun experience, taxing at times and having the women folk on board made it all possible. your help with the American Redstart was all part of that.

  3. Congratulations on the big year achievement, John. You surpassed your hefty goal by a very comfortable margin. This was an entertaining read complete with many beautiful pictures. Cheers, Ilya.

    1. Thanks Ilya. glad you enjoyed the read. Trying to articulate what it's like to be birding is a challenge, harder than the actual birding itself.

  4. Congratulations John on your persistance and "hard work"!!! Marilyn and always enjoy your company when we meet up chasing the same bird. My husband asks me very morning where the birds are today but he hasn't asked me to bring him a treat- haha!
    Birding certainly helped keep our sanity in 2020. Looking forward to more adventures this year.
    Cheers The Marilyns

  5. Congratulations John on your persistance and "hard work"!!! Marilyn and always enjoy your company when we meet up chasing the same bird. My husband asks me very morning where the birds are today but he hasn't asked me to bring him a treat- haha!
    Birding certainly helped keep our sanity in 2020. Looking forward to more adventures this year.
    Cheers The Marilyns

  6. Hi Marilyns, Thank you for your kind words. I'm birding the Fraser Valley this year but if a good bird turns up I might see you there.

  7. Fantastic and congrats on getting over 250 this year in Metro Van. So many nice pics to boot as well!

  8. Hi John,

    Glad to see your blogs, and where you’ve been. Congrats on 2020 Big Year. Would you let me know what your camera gear is now? When we were on BCFO potholes in Alta, I was discouraged by the size of your camera gear. Hope you have a great fall and winter.

    Kathy E