Return of the Mad Counter

Cedar Waxwing
Richard Stelzer

In 2002 Kelly McKay set a record by participating in 20 Christmas Bird Counts in 23 days. Though this was certainly an amazing feat, Kelly wouldn't be satisfied until he achieved his goal of a true CBC marathon; 23 bird counts in 23 days. During the 104th CBC he did just that. Check out an excerpt from his story, originally printed in 104th American Birds Annual Report.


"After having done 20 counts last year, it seemed that 23 counts would not be overly difficult to accomplish. Sleep deprivation could become a factor in my observation skills. Not wanting to negatively impact the counts, I asked all my field parties to let me know if I seemed to be making mistakes or missing birds. If so, I would start sleeping more to avoid risking the integrity of the counts (or my own safety). After weeks of preparation the eve of the CBC count period arrived. The first day of the count, 14 December, would be easy enough; it was one of my counts, the Davenport, Iowa, count, and little travel was required, since my home is within the territory."

Challenges Arise

"My attempt at completing a full marathon was in serious jeopardy only three days into the count period, when my scheduled count in Bridgeport, Wisconsin, was postponed because of a winter storm. I frantically jumped on the Internet and searched throughout the Midwest region for a replacement count, and finally found one in Jamaica--in central Iowa, that is.

As the days passed, I was not able to schedule any sleep. By 21 December, in Lake Red Rock, Iowa, I was beginning to wonder if I would be able to successfully accomplish this challenge. But outstanding counts on the next few days bolstered my spirits.

On 29 December, with sickness overtaking me and at the urging of several friends, I decided to end my sleepless streak after 398 consecutive hours. At this point, my marathon attempt was two-thirds complete. I slept for the first time in 16 days. After seven wonderful hours of rest, on 31 December I experienced my best count ever, in terms of diversity. My group on the Mermet Lake, Illinois, count had an extraordinary day, recording 90 species!"

The Final Count

Finally, the last day of my epic journey arrived--5 January. I closed as I opened, with one of my own counts, Andalusia, Illinois. Bird activity was high and my group had a great day to finish this 23-day endeavor--56 species. As I was driving home at day's end I began thinking about next year and how I could top this season's effort. In the end, all tallies from last year's attempt were surpassed. During the course of completing this full CBC marathon, my field parties identified a total of 132 species (115 last year) and recorded 241,223 individual birds (101,066). I traveled 7100.25 miles (6322) over 360 hours (322), this included travel time, as well as daily compilation time. Consequently, my total effort per count averaged 309 miles and 15.7 hours. By comparison, I spent 92.75 hours traveling to and from counts (85.5), 267.25 hours actually counting birds (236.5), and only 32 hours sleeping (107.25).

Read Kelly's full story here: