CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — "It's ridiculous and it was totally expensive and a total waste of time but it was also the best year of my life," Ethan Whitaker explained of his "Big Year" in 2021. Whitaker spent last year chasing birds across the state of Maine, setting a new, little-known birding record.
There is no prize, no official award, and the whole record is based on the honor system. Still, a Big Year is a big deal among birders. It's an unofficial contest among birders trying to see, or at least hear, as many species of birds in a state, the U.S., or Canada in a calendar year. You don't have to document the birds, but Whitaker tracked all but six in his book, "One Man's Journey to See Every Bird in Maine."
A relatively new birder in 2021, Whitaker, of Wiscasset, broke the record of 317 birds set by Josh Fecteau in 2017 when Whitaker saw 324.
The total is impressive for a man who only became interested in birds when he started dating the woman he has since married, Ingrid Whitaker.
"She was a birder and she had been a birder for years," Whitaker explained. On their second date, Whitaker wanted to impress his future wife so he took her to Morse Mountain where months earlier he had spotted pillowing Snowy Egrets.
"Of course, the birds had migrated south but I had no idea and I looked pretty stupid. But she continued to date me and taught me a lot about birding, bought me good pair of binoculars, and basically created a fanatic," Whitaker said with a smile.
And the things this self-proclaimed fanatic has done to see a bird ...
After deciding to go for a Big Year in 2018, Whitaker started to prepare. He retired as a software developer, had his knees replaced, and even wrote a software program that would help him map out the most efficient way to see different birds.
In 2021, Whitaker logged thousands of hours in his car, waiting in cold fields and hiking mountains to find birds. He drove more than 60,000 miles in his black Subaru as he followed bird leads from Caribou to Kittery.
On November 7, at a cemetery in Biddeford Pool, Whitaker captured a rare Ash-throated flycatcher perched on a gravestone. It was was bird number 318.
"When I broke the record it was amazing how many people reached out. It was actually very touching, all kinds of text messages and phone calls and emails and it was really, really sweet." Whitaker remembered.
The thing about birding in general, but especially going for a Big Year, is that you do not do it alone. Whitaker said it was a community effort of new friends and acquaintances alerting him when rare species were in Maine and where to find them.
The Cornell website Ebird.org allows birders to keep track of the birds they see in a year and allows other birders to keep tabs on the community. Whitaker said that by the end of January 2021, the birding community in Maine knew what he was attempting to do and many of them offered their support.
Of all the birds Whitaker saw in 2021, the last bird was his favorite. By the beginning of December, Whitaker did not think he would add another species to his Big Year list until he heard of the Steller's sea eagle, native to Russia, that had toured the U.S. for more than a year and a half.
"You just can't tell how incredible this bird was," Whitaker said.
When the rare bird was spotted in the midcoast at the end of 2021, Whitaker and his wife were there. On December 30, he photographed his 324th species, setting a new state record for the most birds seen in a calendar year.
Whitaker learned a lot about birds last year, but it turns out he learned even more about himself.
"This was a new chapter in my life. It was crazy. I had a good career writing software. I could have done it for a while longer, had a good income, and I just bagged it to do this," Whitaker reflected. "I think it's important to have a passion in life."