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Cambridge man sets bird-watching record

Neil Hayward said his big year has been an “epic personal journey.”John Blanding/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

As a year’s final hours slip away, many measure its success in paychecks, vacations, or the simple pleasures of everyday life. But for Neil Hayward of Cambridge, 2013 ticked down to a single bird.

He was among the select bird-watchers who had attempted what’s known as a “big year” — seeing as many different kinds of birds as possible, traversing the continent to do so. With just days left in 2013, he was tied with the longstanding record of 748 sightings. He kept going.

And then it happened. Last Saturday, from a boat along the North Carolina coast, he spotted a Great Skua, the winter light catching the gold specks on its back. That made bird 749 — and made Hayward the North American bird spotting champion.


“Compared to your average bird walk in a local park, this is like climbing Everest,” said Jeffrey Gordon of Colorado Springs, Colo., president of the American Birding Association.

Having a “big year” is not as simple as some might imagine. And it is certainly not just a matter of luck.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, gosh, if you’ve got the money and the time, you just do it,’ ” said Greg Neise of Chicago, listing moderator for the American Birding Association. “Being able to figure out the logistics is a huge part of it. It’s a lot of flying, it’s a lot of driving, it’s a lot of days away from home. It’s a lot of figuring out your next step, but also being able, at a drop of a hat, to change everything and go someplace else.”

On his “Accidental Big Year 2013” blog, Hayward kept updating statistics that would give an ardent traveler pause. He spent 195 nights away from Cambridge, drove 51,758 miles, was at sea for 147 hours over 15 days, and flew 193,758 miles on 177 flights through 56 airports.


A biotech consultant who could leave home and fly cross-country at a moment’s notice, Hayward intentionally avoided keeping tabs on the cost.

“I didn’t want to know myself, and I didn’t want other people to know, but it’s not cheap,” said Hayward, who conserved funds by dozing in airports and figuring out which rental cars were the best for sleeping.

At home in Cambridge on Wednesday, a few hours after going with his girlfriend, Gerri Buck, on the year’s inaugural birding expedition to see a snowy owl in Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, Hayward discussed the challenges a big year imposes on life’s small details.

“We could be sitting in a coffee shop and I’d get an e-mail about a sighting and I’m off to the airport,” he said. “It’s been impossible to plan really much of anything but the same day.”

Still, he didn’t begin 2013 thinking it would be his big year. But by the end of March, after logging some 375 species during trips to Arizona, Canada, and Washington state, Hayward decided to get serious.

He said he came up with the name for his blog “because it was an accidental big year. I never set out to do this. I certainly never set out to set a record. This wasn’t something that was planned. It was something that fell together and felt right.”

Hayward added that “it’s really been an epic personal journey as well as a geographic journey. It would have been a success no matter what number I got.”


His total, meanwhile, remains slightly in flux. Though his blog brought readers up to his Dec. 28 sighting of a Great Skua from a boat off the coast of North Carolina, he said Wednesday that after lengthy consideration, he’ll probably add one more species he saw in Texas earlier in the year to make the total 750.

Three names on his list are what birders consider species provisional to the areas where they were spotted, so they’ll be reviewed by state and national birding panels. But Sandy Komito, who set the 1998 record of 748, also had three provisional species, which means Hayward’s record should stand in birdwatching’s time-tested honor system.

“Birders are like golfers,” Gordon said. “You could shave strokes off your score, but few do.”

Hayward, who is 40, was born in Oxford, England, and did doctoral work in Cambridge, England, before moving nine years ago to Cambridge, Mass., where he was managing director of the life sciences company Abcam. He left that job last year to become a consultant.

Like many, he began watching birds in his yard, keeping track of visitors to his family’s feeders when he was a boy.

While pursuing his big year, Hayward made use of the Internet, his blog, and sites such as www.ebird.org, where birders post sightings and tips for seeing rare species.

In a post on the American Birding Association website, Neise examined the logistical approaches Hayward and Komito took during their record big years.


The Internet and cellphones brought about the biggest changes between 1998 and 2013. Birders who formerly brought sacks of quarters along for payphones in distant locations can now book flights from cellphones and check websites for the next rare bird sighting, rather than relying on word-of-mouth reports.

Neise noted that in Komito’s book about his big year, “I Came, I Saw, I Counted,” the former recordholder wrote: “ ‘Will someone armed with a laptop computer, cellphone, and the necessary contacts, time, resources and desire, shatter this record too?’ The only way he could have been closer to the mark, was if he had prognosticated Facebook.”

Given that Hayward didn’t start seriously pursuing a big year until April, Neise added, a North American total as high as 770 could be possible through diligent use of website tips.

On his own website, which logged about 1,000 hits a day near the end of the year, Hayward chronicled his travels to Alaska, Newfoundland, and the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys.

“But you can derive pleasure from watching the blue jays or the sparrows or the cardinals outside,” he said. “You can spend a lot of money on a plane ticket flying someplace, or you can spend nothing. Birding can be free.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.