Retired Johnsburg District 12 Superintendent Rob Gough had a “big year” as a birder.
A “big year” is when a birder tries to see as many bird species as possible in a calendar year. A birder’s boundaries can be as large as the United States and Canada or as small as one’s yard.
Gough and about 20 other members of the McHenry County Audubon Society competed last year to see how many species they could see in the county during the McHenry County Audubon Society 2012 Big Year competition. The winner of the last county “big year” the society sponsored, which occurred about 20 years ago, saw 204 species.
Gough won the contest and broke the record, with the help of Woodstock couple Doug and Maggie Crane, who came in a close second.
Senior writer Kevin Craver, a birder who hasn’t found much time since he and his wife hatched an egg in November, talked to Gough about what he saw, both wonderful and alarming.
Craver: How many did you see?
Gough: Two hundred and 22 species.
Craver: What’s changed since the last competition?
Gough: This was much more of a social event. It became a team effort by the whole group to identify the species passing through the county.
Any county Audubon Society member who discovered an unusual bird was encouraged to call the Cranes, and they would send out an email.
Doug and Maggie would work the western part of the county, and I would work the eastern part. We’d call one another if we saw something and wait for them.
The use of technology in reporting and discovering birds, and especially the technology to help identify sounds and calls, was tremendously important.
Craver: What’s the rarest bird you saw?
Gough: That would be the Hudsonian godwit.
Craver: The one they saw at the sod farm? I went looking for it.
Gough: Yes. I found it just north of the sod farm.
Craver: I was looking south.
Gough: But really, the bird that was the most special was the snowy owl that spent three months over by Marengo.
Craver: Now I have seen one of those, when I was a kid. Would you believe me if I told you it stopped in our garage?
Craver: Really. Do you have any funny stories from your “big year”?
Gough: I appreciated my wife’s patience. If I didn’t drive her crazy, I certainly drove her all over the county.
We were driving to see a movie in Crystal Lake, and I got a call that there was a barred owl at Marengo Ridge [Conservation Area]. My wife was courteous enough to skip the movie and go looking for it. I didn’t see it, though – I saw it the next day.
Craver: The movie or the owl?
Gough: The owl.
Craver: I heard that the bird populations were way off, with that terrible drought and all.
Gough: Yes. Last year was a terrible year for warblers and songbirds. There were at least a half dozen warblers I always see that I didn’t see.
I may have ended up seeing 22, 24 warbler species, but mainly I only saw one or two individual birds, where in the past I would have seen many.
Definitely we saw birds changing their migration patterns – birds came much earlier and left much earlier.
Craver: When did you start birding?
Gough: I did it somewhat as a young person. Later we would go with our kids to Florida on spring break and to my in-laws in east Texas, both of which are outstanding bird areas.
Craver: What was your spark bird? [A “spark bird” is the species that first gets a person interested in birding.]
Gough: Probably the roseate spoonbill I saw in Florida.
Craver: I saw one in Costa Rica. What should people take away from reading this interview?
Gough: The thing that struck me the most is that finding birds is a great thing, but sharing them makes the experience something special.
The Gough lowdown
Who is he? Rob Gough, winner of the McHenry County Audubon Society 2012 Big Year competition
Family? Wife, Linda; three grown children; five grandchildren
Favorite movie? “Avatar”
Favorite book? Any Lee Child book