Thanks to the movie, most everyone knows what a Big Year is now, but for folks who don't get out much, a Big Year is one in which a birder dedicates his every waking moment between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 to see as many species as possible. At dawn on Jan. 1, 2011, Mitchell Pruitt started his adventure with a northern flicker; he ended it Dec. 30, in the nick of time, with a golden eagle. In between he saw 309 other avian species, for a total of 311, just seven off Dick Baxter's 318 in 2008 ("a hurricane year," Pruitt noted, with five or six species blown up to Arkansas from the Gulf).
Pruitt is a senior at Valley View High School in Jonesboro who started birding seriously about two years ago. At 6'4" he can practically see into the canopy, a huge advantage for birders who must endure "warbler neck" every spring to see the tiny, high moving migrants. He got some of his 311 birds with the help of Arkansas's top birders, who alerted him to rare birds they were finding, and his parents' chauffeuring skills. His patient parents — who Mitchell said were "speechless" when he first told them he'd decided to do a Big Year — drove him all over Arkansas. His mother, Kathleen Pruitt, was en route to Texarkana one morning when Mitchell called from school and persuaded her to check him out and make a detour to Fayetteville to see a Bewick's wren that "Arkansas Birds" author Joe Neal had e-mailed him about. (Pruitt, an Eagle Scout described by his parents as a "good kid," confessed to consulting his e-mail at school to make sure he wasn't missing any rarities.) The Pruitts drove to Fayetteville, Mitchell saw the bird, and then all headed for Texarkana, "a long day," his mother said. Mitchell's father, Ken Pruitt, bootless and unable to accompany his son, waited a couple of hours in a mud-mired truck in Desha County so Mitchell could hike in to Dick Baxter's family's fish farm pond to pick up mottled duck, least bittern and fulvous whistling duck. Loaded down with scope, binoculars, camera and a healthy fear of cottonmouths, Mitchell made his way along the edge of a soybean field to get to an opening in the vegetation. A deer jumped up in front of him, which rattled him a bit, and a rustle of something scaly in the brush (turned out to be an armadillo) sent him running at one point, but he saw two of his target birds and heard the third, the whistle of the whistling duck.
In what is a common birder story, Mitchell braved 100-degree heat in July in Southwest Arkansas, walking three miles along the OK Levee on Millwood Lake with expert birder Charles Mills to see a tricolored heron, which, of course, they didn't see until they returned to their truck, where the bird was hanging out. (Mom and sis waited at a campground during this adventure.) He sank one leg up above the bootline in the muddy bed of Lake Enterprise in Southeast Arkansas trying to get a better look at an eagle. It takes perseverance to see 311 species in 365 days.
For the record, Mitchell's rarest birds: A Eurasian wigeon, which should have been off the coast of Great Britain or somewhere in south Asia, at Benwood Lake southwest of Turrell. A little Sabine's gull at the same lake. Cassin's sparrow near Foreman. A Barrow's goldeneye that was at Lake Dardanelle last January, except the one day Mitchell went there to see it, but which graciously returned Dec. 2. And one of the prettiest: A vermillion flycatcher, which should have been in Arizona but flew in to the Stuttgart Airport instead.
Mitchell plans to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in fall. He'll probably major in biology — maybe to become an ornithologist.
No. 2, 3 and 5 in the top five Arkansas Big Year lists: Kenny Nichols (313), LaDonna Nichols (312) and Dennis Brady (307).