Jeremy Bensette has tracked rare birds to the far ends of Ontario, putting enough kilometres on his navy SUV to cross Canada 11 and-a-half times without leaving the province. 

The 27-year-old is doing an Ontario Big Year, setting out on January 1st to spot as many species of birds in the province as possible before the end of 2017. 

​"My goal was always to do the best that I could do," said Bensette, who does field work with Bird Studies Canada between adventures. 

It turns out Bensette's best is better than any other bird spotter who has attempted an Ontario Big Year before. 

Bird Watching

Bensette scans a field near Cornwall for birds he hasn't documented in Ontario. (Tim Arthur)

What is a Big Year?

First - it's not just for the birds. 

A Big Year, according to Bensette, is when someone searches for species of an animal in a specific geographic region over a predetermined period of time.

That could be moths, rabbits, insects — anything.

You have to document the species that you find, but photos are not required.

On Monday he spotted a Northern Gannet in Hamilton, which marked bird species number 344, breaking the record held by one of his best friends, Josh Vandermeulen.

"I'm feeling pretty good about it at this point," he said, standing in Point Pelee National Park, just minutes from his hometown of Leamington, Ont.

"But we definitely don't want to count our eggs before they hatch."

The Chase

Bensette has spotted rare birds all over Ontario, often driving through the night to Northern Ontario after being tipped off that a species he hasn't seen is in the area. 

It doesn't alway work out.

In Search of Birds0:56

"There's times where a rarity is found so far away, but it's such a good bird that you know you're not going to end up seeing it down here," said Bensette. "The stakes are so high."

It was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow that sent him on a 17-hour quest to Northern Ontario — only to hear about another rare species making an appearance 15 minutes from his home town.

"He is a great friend of mine and it's been fun to follow along vicariously as he guns for the record!" -  Josh Vandermeulen, 2012 Big Year record holder

"We made it back and we looked for a good portion of the afternoon until I was falling asleep standing up," said Bensette. "We didn't see it," he chuckled.

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

Jeremy Bensette 1

Jeremy Bensette, 27, is trying to break the Ontario record for the number of bird species counted in the province over a year. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

The Competition

While Bensette usually sticks to the road for his travels, there was one time he took a flight to document a bird sighting.

It was for a Violet-green Swallow in Thunder Bay.

The price of that plane ticket was covered by Vandermeulen, the very man whose record he beat.

Violet-green Swallow

Bensette was able to document this bird thanks to a flight paid for with the previous record holder's Aeroplan points. (Jeremy Bensette)

"He's been absolutely great," said Bensette, who calls the entire experience humbling. 

Vandermeulen was with Bensette when he broke the record Monday.

"I'm proud of Jeremy and his accomplishments this year," Vanderumeulen said. "He is a great friend of mine and it's been fun to follow along vicariously as he guns for the record!"

Bensette said he often wakes up to texts from people across the province letting him know about rare species he might be missing.

"I'd say at least hundreds of people if not thousands of people have contributed, whether it's in a tiny way or huge way."

He's spent most of his 90,000-kilometre chase travelling with his close friend Tim Arthur, who Bensette predicts will have the third highest number of bird species spotted in 2017.

The Inspiration

The head of Ontario Field Ornithologists, a group dedicated to the study of bird life in Ontario, has been eagerly following Bensette's updates from the road.

"He's really special," said Lynee Freeman, who called him an "elite birder."

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose." - Jeremy Bensette, describing the missed sightings

"Most importantly he had a mentor," said Lynne Freeman.

Alan Wormington was a fellow birder from Leamington who died last year.

"Alan was really a top notch, well known birder and took Jeremy under his wing —so to speak— and Jeremy had the best teacher from a very young age."

Bensette thanked Wormington on the eBird Canada alert system in an e-mail he sent after spotting the bird that tied the record (a Mountain Bluebird spotted in Waterloo on Sunday).

Mountain Blue Bird

This was the bird that tied the provincial record for most species recorded - a Mountain Bluebird in Waterloo. (Jeremy Bensette)

"I would not be half the birder I am today if not for Alan being such a big part of my life," wrote Bensette.

He added he has no plans to stop searching for new species until the year ends on December 31.