Gary Swant’s eagle eye

Chances are pretty good that Gary Swant won’t show up on a Wheaties box or be featured in a Nike campaign any time soon. But among the tight knit community of Montana birdwatchers, Swant ranks as an epic champion, a virtual Michael Phelps with binoculars.

In 2007, the retired Deer Lodge schoolteacher set out to best the state’s American Birders Association record of seeing 293 different species in a year—and he crushed it. By July, he’d broken the record. By December, he’d tallied 328, or just 93 species shy of every bird ever documented in the state.

“It’s like a game, although I think it’s more of a disease than a game,” says Swant, 63, who will speak at the University of Montana Monday, Oct. 13, about his achievement. “I think the difference for me was that I had a plan.”

And how. Swant crafted a brutally efficient method to accomplish his goal, beginning with a three-tiered system for targeting birds. He figured there were 173 species he could find “by just falling off a log,” 86 that he’d have to work for but could probably locate and 47 long-shots. Monitoring local birding websites for tips, he scored all but one of the first two groups and then found 70 long-shots, including, for instance, 14 of the state’s 15 species of owls.

“I made a promise that if I heard about a bird, I’d chase it,” he says.

In all, Swant logged 24,003 miles in his Ford Explorer, or 73 miles per species, over 141 days of birding. He often slept in his car and kept expenses low.

“I joke with people that as long as fuel prices stay high, I’ll probably keep the record,” he says. 

Since Swant doesn’t receive any trophy or certificate for his record—and Wheaties and Nike have yet to call—he recognizes that some people may wonder what motivated him to try such a stunt. “That’s what my wife wanted to know,” he says.

But Swant says he was just feeding his passion. 

“Maybe it’s a little bit of competition,” he says. “But mostly it’s just because I had the time and money to do it.”

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