A former Summit County birder is scrambling to make his very Big Year even bigger.
John W. Vanderpoel, who now lives in Colorado, has spotted 736 species of birds in 2011.
That means he has the second-biggest Big Year ever. He trails only Sandy Komito of New Jersey, who logged 748 species in 1998.
The 62-year-old Vanderpoel passed Virginia birder Bob Ake, who had 731 species in 2010, for second place.
He is only the 15th birder in the United States to log 700 species on a Big Year.
Topping 700 made him “happy and humble,” he wrote on his Big Year blog.
Vanderpoel, who lived in Green from 1988 to 1995, is still in what he calls “full-chase mode,” pursuing isolated bird species until Dec. 31, when his Big Year ends.
“Right now, it just depends on what shows up,” he said.
Recently, he spotted the Eurasian tree sparrow in Iowa, the barnacle goose in Massachusetts, the rose-throated becard in Texas and the pink-footed goose in Nova Scotia.
He suffered a setback last month when he failed to see a great skua off Cape Cod and a graylag goose near Montreal. He also missed out recently on a streak-backed oriole in Colorado.
The next day, he was off to Alaska on his fifth trip in an effort to see a redwing near Seward. That four-day effort, too, failed. He called that “terribly disappointing.” It was “a long, expensive trip that also sucked four precious days out of the remainder of my Big Year,” he said. He likened the feeling to a boxer taking too many punches to the gut.
Beating Komito’s record was never going to be easy, Vanderpoel said in a telephone interview.
He said he gave himself a 50-50 chance until he struck out on the two birds in the East. Now it is more like a 30 percent or lower chance of setting the record, he said.
“It’s still possible, and I’m still optimistic,” he said. “I still have a few surprises up my sleeve.”
He added the golden-crowned warbler and the Aplomado falcon in south Texas last week. He is still in Texas seeking the Bahama mockingbird.
He has logged 179 birds, including nine rarities, this year in Texas. There is the possibility of another ocean bird-watching cruise off northern California in the coming weeks.
“Though it’s getting late, this dog still hunts,” he wrote.
But not breaking Komito’s record won’t be a crushing disappointment, he said.
He has met other birders, seen unusual birds and had so many adventures. “I’ve had a helluva time,” he said. “This has been an incredibly exciting thing to do. The adventures will stay with me a lifetime.”
Vanderpoel, a professional bird videographer, is chronicling his Big Year on a blog: www.bigyear2011.com. It gets more than 1,000 hits a day as it records his successes and failures.
He said his goal was to get to 700 species, not to set the record. In fact, he was the quickest Big Year birder to reach 700 species.
He has also seen 911 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians in his travels. His goal: 1,000.
Doing a Big Year is also something of an obsession, the 6-foot, 5-inch Vanderpoel admitted.
In an early November post after a few days at home, he wrote: “My thoughts are dominated by an incessant desire to chase. And it’s getting stronger every day.”
Doing a Big Year is something he has wanted to do for more than 20 years, Vanderpoel said.
He is, by all accounts, a meticulous planner and a die-hard birder. He studied migratory patterns and analyzed changing seasons and decreasing daylight.
He kept a close eye all year on weather on the edges of the United States that could produce foreign visitors.
A major part of Vanderpoel’s success was five trips to Alaska, where he got nearly 70 species. Three of those trips went to isolated Gambell Island in the Bering Straits.
Going back to Gambell Island after northeast winds kept away Asian birds on his first visit was the “best decision” he made because of the Asian birds he later spotted, according to Vanderpoel.
He also birded extensively in Texas, Florida, Arizona and California.
He has had less-than-stellar results on ocean-going cruises to search for offshore birds. In fact, he half-jokingly calls himself a jinx.
He got one rare bird in Ohio in 2011. He traveled last May to see a garganey, a European duck, that had turned up in southwestern Ohio.
Vanderpoel’s Big Year began Jan. 1 with the house sparrow being bird species No. 1. He got 56 other birds that day near his Colorado home.
Much of the year has been “a mad dash” as Vanderpoel chases birds across the United States and Canada.
His travels have taken him to 20 states and three Canadian provinces.
A son, Scott, works for United/Continental Airline and that has enabled the senior Vanderpoel to fly for free for a time, he said.
He was often out from dawn to dusk in all types of weather.
He said he has been on the road birdwatching two out of three days all year. “I’ve held up pretty well under the stress and the travel,” he said.
He was the subject of an October profile by the Atlantic Monthly.
He said he has not kept track of how much he has spent on his Big Year, but it will be less than others, he said.
Vanderpoel, who had 708 bird species on his life list (species seen in one’s lifetime) before beginning his Big Year, got into birding in 1966 with the spring migration of warblers near Chicago. He later lived in Mexico and became enthralled with hummingbirds.
Vanderpoel used to go bird watching with noted Northeast Ohio birders Larry Rosche, Jeff Wert and James McCarty.
At that time, Vanderpoel worked for the Ball Corp.
Vanderpoel’s wife, Linda, joined him on three of his bird-chasing trips. She has been a good sport being “a birding widow” this year, he said.
He runs his own company, Peregrine Video Production of Niwot, Colo., which has produced birding videos.
He is collecting pledges on his Big Year that will benefit a grass-roots group, Citizens for Conservation.
Looking back on his Big Year, Vanderpoel said, “I’m amazed. I ask myself how have I done that? It just doesn’t seem possible. … A Big Year is more than a little mind-boggling.”
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.