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BRAD DOKKEN: Boston birder visits Grand Forks on 'Big Year' quest

Brad Dokken portrait1 / 2
Neil Hayward watches sharp-tailed grouse through a spotting scope Nov. 6 west of Grand Forks while birding with local bird expert Dave Lambeth. Hayward, who lives in the Boston area, is on a mission to break the 748-species record for bird observations in a year, similar to the plot of the 2011 comedy, "The Big Year." Hayward flew from Boston to Minneapolis on Nov. 5, drove up to Grand Forks that afternoon and was on the road back to Minneapolis by noon Nov. 6, with 729 bird species under his hat.2 / 2

A Massachusetts birding enthusiast made a spur-of-the-moment trip to Grand Forks last week to see a species many people in this part of the world take for granted -- the sharp-tailed grouse.

Grand Forks birding expert Dave Lambeth hosted Neil Hayward of Boston on the birder's mission to see sharptails. According to Lambeth, Hayward is one of two people on a quest to break the record of 748 bird species recorded in a year, a mission that became popularized in the movie "The Big Year."

The 2011 comedy starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson centers on three birdwatchers competing to see as many North American bird species as possible in a single year.

In an email Friday morning from Nova Scotia, where he was on yet another birding excursion, Hayward said he resigned last year as U.S. managing director of a U.K biotech firm in Cambridge, Mass., after being there 11 years.

Hayward, who has a doctorate in genetics, grew up in the United Kingdom and is now a U.S. citizen. He works as a consultant but concedes he's "pretty much full time birding."

Hayward flew into Minneapolis on Nov. 5, drove up to Grand Forks that night and was on his way back to Minneapolis by the next afternoon after seeing the sharptails he'd come so far to check off his list.

That brought Hayward's tally on the year to 729, Lambeth said.

According to Hayward's blog, "Accidental Big Year 2013," the birder this year has spent 163 nights away from home, flown more than 152,000 miles on 142 flights through 52 airports, driven 45,023 miles and spent 137½ hours at sea.

His trip to Grand Forks, Hayward wrote, was a mission to observe a bird that had eluded him on other excursions.

"I missed them in Colorado, couldn't find them in Wyoming and I'm sure they were hiding behind trees and laughing at me in Minnesota," he wrote.

Hayward received several suggestions on places to check the sharptail off his list, but Grand Forks won out, he said, because it was "only" a five-hour drive from Minneapolis and because Lambeth had all but guaranteed he'd see them.

Lambeth's confidence in finding sharptails wasn't unfounded, and they saw more than 50 of the prairie grouse during Hayward's short visit to the prairie, most of them west of Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge. They also encountered Franklin's gulls and snow buntings during a short stop by the sewage lagoons northwest of Grand Forks.

"It worked out real well," Lambeth said. "I had no doubt we would get them. Any time you go on the grasslands for a few miles and certain grasslands west of Grand Forks, you're going to find sharptails."

The flat, open terrain left a mark on Hayward, judging by his blog post about the visit.

"This special habitat of grassland plains, which the grouse like so much, has been partly saved from agricultural development by its high moisture content, which in many areas is too wet to cultivate," he wrote. "Unfortunately, that's starting to change now as 'field tiling' is being used to dry out the land, making it suitable for crops. (In tiling, porous tubes are dug into the ground which collect and drain away the water.) It's a threat not only to the grouse, but to everything else that lives in this unique and beautiful habitat."

Lambeth said he was impressed the Massachusetts birder spent additional time watching the sharptails, rather than just checking the bird off his list and hitting the road.

"He was interested in watching these birds for awhile," Lambeth said. "They were doing some displaying, heads down and wings out and tails up. He spent a number of minutes and paid attention to the plumage, and we talked about how you could be sure they were sharp-tailed grouse and not prairie chickens."

With the clock ticking down on 2013 and 20 species to go, Lambeth said it will be difficult for Hayward to break the 748-bird record.

"He'll get close, but given how much he has birded all over, it's amazing to me he still needed sharp-tailed grouse," Lambeth said.

"It's just another example of the crazy things people will do."

n On the Web:

accidentalbigyear2013.blogspot.com.

bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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