Marian University's senior Biology Professor David Benson, Ph. D., concluded 2023 with a stellar achievement, securing the 12th global ranking for identifying an impressive 611 bird species across the lower 48 states during the 2023 calendar year. Dr. Benson reflected on this monumental feat: "It was an enormous challenge and a fantastic experience in practical ecology and ornithology."
Made famous in the movie "The Big Year" starring Steve Martin and Jack Black, birders each year compete in a friendly competition to find the most species in a specified area. Despite not initially aiming for a ranking in the top 100, Benson set out with a goal of 500 species, which he quickly surpassed. As the year unfolded, reaching 600 species seemed within grasp and was ultimately bettered.
The quest to identify such a diverse range of species necessitated extensive travels to various regions and habitats. "Staying in Indiana alone will get you a few hundred species, but to hit 600, you need to see more of the country," explained Benson, detailing his birding escapades that spanned from Arizona, Texas, and Florida in the south to Montana, Washington, and California in the west, and North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Maine on the east coast.
Venturing into the offshore realm, one of the habitats included in the lower 48, Dr. Benson embarked on "pelagic" birding trips, describing them as "crazy" experiences aboard small, bouncing ships, watching for birds that rarely, if ever, come into shore. These journeys off North Carolina and California coasts added 25 species to his remarkable total.
Among the 611 species discovered in 2023, 75, known as "lifers" in the birding community, were entirely new to Benson. Asked about his favorite bird of the hundreds seen, Benson says often it's the chase more than the bird itself that endears him to it. For example, the black rosy finch is a beautiful bird. But, the fact that he had to search along the Beartooth Highway, an 11,000 ft. high stretch of road in the spectacular mountains just outside of Yellowstone National Park, made this species his favorite of the year.
"I searched and searched with mind-blowing views in all directions, and when dusk was falling, and I'd almost given up hope, then I heard one calling outside the car window!" he explained. A brief hunt located three individuals among the alpine rocks, species #446 for the year.
Another unique experience unfolded as he joined a group of birders traveling through a door in the border wall in South Texas. Their destination was a spot on the Rio Grande, where the exceedingly rare Bare Throated Tiger Heron had taken residence. Typically found much farther south in Mexico, the Heron was initially observed by his party on the Mexican side of the river. To the group's delight, it then gracefully flew across the United States, offering an unparalleled view of one of the rarest sightings in the U.S., species #600 for Benson's big year. Reflecting on this extraordinary encounter, Dr. Benson shared, "It was an exhilarating experience to be part of a group so genuinely excited to witness such a rare spectacle in nature."
In teaching biology, Benson says birds are frequently used as examples in ecology and behavior. "Seeing birds all over the country, fitting perfectly into their different habitats and performing their extraordinary behaviors allowed me to understand at a more visceral level the basic concepts I've been teaching for years."
During his Fall 2023 sabbatical, Dr. Benson seized the opportunity to delve into new environments and locations, enriching his practical ecological knowledge. Reflecting on this experience, he notes, "This goal forced me to see and really dive deep into habitats, national parks, and ecosystems that I talk about in my classes, but have never before had the opportunity to experience," he explained. "Students will definitely benefit thanks to my newfound firsthand knowledge, and that's really what it's all about." Professor David Benson's remarkable journey not only places him among the world's top birders for 2023, but also promises to enhance the educational experience for future Marian University biologists for years to come.