Paul Dunbar’s Big Year in Nebraska

Paul Dunbar is becoming legendary.  Among those in a certain group, his name evokes that other Paul, the Minnesota lumberjack. Paul Dunbar saw 347 different bird species in 2013 – without leaving Nebraska.

Nobody else in Nebraska has come close to his list. You can see it at   [http://www.omaha.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140208/OUTDOORS/1unbar40208687].

Three wild turkeys display on the picnic table.

No problem identifying these new neighbors. Dunbar also saw turkeys in January.

What kind of a guy is Paul Dunbar? As are all those who get into birding Big Year lists, or birding-as-competitive-sport, he’s got to be a bit of a nut-case.  Nevertheless, it’s not likely that people will doubt his claims. He is a Methodist pastor. His wife and his congregation supported his 2013 Big Year, according to the article.

Reverend Dunbar recorded the first time he saw each species, from a junco on January 1,  to a long-eared owl on December 31. What does he know that most of us don’t? Let’s look more closely at his list.

Early January lists began with predictable birds. Dunbar is lucky to live almost exactly on the 100th meridian, where the East traditionally meets the West in the U.S. He could expect to see the cardinal-robin-dove group and winter woodpeckers, and to add in the junco-tree sparrow winter birds including last year’s erupters such as redpoll. Near his central Nebraska home, he was also familiar with grassland birds such as Harris sparrow, horned lark and prairie falcon, and he found some January open water holding goldeneyes and widgeons.

After New Year’s week, he usually listed birds only once or twice a week. As spring approached he added migrants. By July he added only a single bird many weeks. He said his method was to go to the edges of the state on his days off.

Dunbar also tuned in to the state’s rare-bird network, and must have often dropped everything and driven hours to view something such as a marbled godwit someone reported. He even came here in February to see the evening grosbeak a friend told me about on a feeder up on the hill. Someone similar must have led him to a calliope hummingbird on July 29.

Big Paul must have had witnesses for unusual listings. Looking at the 21 warblers he found south of here on May 10, I would bet he was walking a conservation area with a naturalist I know who is a warbler guru. Suppose he knew such individuals throughout the state – some at lakes, some on western prairie buttes, some in southeastern forests. That could account for the exaggerated number of gulls, sandpipers, and flycatchers.

Peterson Guide page 19, showing cackling goose

Page 19 of the Peterson guide, 2010

So I got out my Peterson Guide and looked up unfamiliar birds from the list. Here’s where the legend grows. Big Paul knew enough to look for the small cackling goose mixed in with Canadas, identical except for size. I had never noticed it on the goose page, but the cackling goose is well within our range.

He went west where horned grebes, golden eagles and rosy-finches are less than exotic, but he also knew where to look. And to listen. Surely he found whippoorwills and short-eared owls by their calls, even if he didn’t see them.

In April, even secretive birds like Henslow’s sparrow and Say’s phoebe would have been singing. In May he must have known the difference between calls of a Swainson’s thrush and the gray-cheeked thrush he saw a week later. I’ve heard that some birders work more than 80% by ear, and Big Paul might be among them.

On the other hand, hawks can only be known from distant wing patterns or flight habits. Dunbar listed almost every hawk in the book, the western ferruginous hawk we might never see as well as the Mississippi kite that supposedly migrates through here if you know enough to look for it.

Following Dunbar’s list, I found a whole page of flycatchers in our range that I had never noticed in my well-worn bird guide. Townsend’s solitaire. Pipits and waterthrushes. Longspurs. Dunbar knew to look for them where most of us would assume a bird is the usual robin, sandpiper or horned lark.

I do have to wonder about a few claims on even Big Paul’s list. A mew gull is so rare no range is listed, though it might wander through most any location. You wouldn’t think Nebraska would be big gull country, but surprisingly a lot of gulls migrate through here. On the other hand, distinguishing marks for gulls are minute. Where I see a flock of gulls, Big Paul can find every gull on the page. At least with flycatchers or even warblers and sparrows, their calls separate them.

I have to hand it to you, Reverend D. You found a Lapland longspur and a white-winged dove. You knew enough to spot a black duck and a ruddy turnstone. How can I doubt your plumbeous vireo or your glaucous-winged gull?

The only one I doubt is surely a typographical error: a ruby-throated warbler. Among your four other hummingbirds, all rare for Nebraska, you couldn’t have missed the more common ruby-throated.

Now you approach spring of the year-after-the-Big-Year. Yep, there you are, out there listening and listing all over again. Raising the bar for the rest of us.

 

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