How Neil Hayward broke the world record for spotting the most species of birds in a single year.

Birding

By Hannah Hiles (Lady Margaret Hall, 1997)

For many years, Neil Hayward (New College, 1992) kept his favourite hobby a secret from all but those closest to him. But in 2013 he took centre-stage, in the North American bird-watching world at least, by spotting a record number of species within a year.

“I’m embarrassed to admit that I was secretary of the Oxford Ornithological Society,” says Neil, who studied biochemistry. “Actually, I was perennially embarrassed, but now I’m at that age where I don’t care what people think. It’s cool to be nerdy now, especially in America, but for a long time it was my secret.” 

The 40-year-old, who started bird-watching as a child, racked up some impressive statistics as he travelled across the United States during what dedicated birders call a “big year”. Starting with a Canada goose in January and ending with a great skua in December, Neil logged 747 species and submitted three further “provisional” species to be reviewed by the American Birding Association, which keeps track of birds and catalogues species. But as Sandy Komito’s 1998 record of 748 included three provisional species – those not normally seen in a particular area – Neil’s record should stand.

Birding

Neil never set out to break records, but having spotted 375 species by the end of March he decided to go for his “accidental big year”. Thanks to a network of contacts and websites like eBird.org – not to mention his understanding girlfriend, Gerri, and the flexibility of being his own boss – the biotechnology consultant was able to spring into action the moment word of a new sighting came in. 

In one of his lowest points, he flew across the country to see a rare blue-footed booby in New Mexico, only to learn on arrival at the airport at midnight that the bird had been taken away for medical help. He simply turned around and caught the 4am flight back. He eventually spotted one from his kayak in Arizona – his 700th bird.

In total during 2013, he clocked up 195 nights away from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, drove 51,758 miles, was at sea for 147 hours over 15 days, and flew 193,758 miles on 177 flights through 56 airports.

But despite tracking all these stats, he decided not to keep tabs on the cost. “It was partly that I didn’t want to know,” he says, “and partly that I didn’t want anyone else to. When I finally had a go at totting it up it was less than I expected, but still a lot.” He kept costs down as much as he could by sleeping in cars, on planes and at airports. “The longer I went on, the less time I spent sleeping in beds,” he adds.

Neil documented his travels on his blog, which soon became a hit with fellow birders and curious readers alike, getting around 1,000 hits a day towards the end of the year.  “I was really surprised how the blog took off,” he says. “It became a very important part of the year, as rewarding as the bird-watching.”

Birding

He’s now working the blog up into a book proposal, and enjoying reliving the highs and lows of his travels from the comfort of his armchair with a cup of coffee beside him. “Every day there was something new,” he says. “There were never enough hours in the day and I was always planning what was coming next. After I finished I thought, ‘what do I do now?’. The adrenaline rush was over, but I was so exhausted I was just happy to have time off.”

Highlights included spotting a rare red-billed tropicbird in Maine, the extreme landscapes of Alaska and making friends with fellow birders, including those aiming to take the top spot with their own big year. Despite the competition, birding is an honourable game and there’s no question of making up a sighting just to get ahead. “For provisionals you have to take photographs and submit detailed reports,” says Neil, “but for everything else they just trust your word. If you cheated, you would only be cheating yourself. My record is a personal achievement but it did get a lot of press over here. It got people excited and talking about birds.”

Neil grew up in Oxford and returns regularly to visit his parents. “It’s not just a university town to me,” he says. “But as a student I met so many people doing so many different things. The cultural experience, seeing things differently, was inspiring.” He moved to America in 2005 but admit he does still miss the UK, “especially the beer and Radio 4. I can listen online but it’s not the same. I don’t miss the weather though.” He might also find, of course, that’s it a little tricky to spot 747 species from these shores alone.

Top image by Iain Wanless under Creative Commons license. All other images by Neil Hayward.