by Lynn Barber
It doesn't matter where you do your big year. Spring is always a nonstop proposition - if you can handle it.
I thought that doing a county big year would be so much more simple than a state big year, and really tons more simple than an ABA big year. It is true that there is a much smaller area and fewer possible birds in Pennington County than in South Dakota, Texas or the ABA area. But when spring arrives, no matter where you are, there is pandemonium if you are doing a big year. Birds are coming, some to stay and some to pass on through. It's the passing through migrants that are the main challenge. When will they get here? Where will they stop on their way through? How am I going to be where each species is when it is there? What will I do when/if the rains come and turn the gravel roads to slime?
All I know is to keep on going, check the likely warbler spots, which are few and far between in western South Dakota in a drought, check the few large puddles for shorebirds, explore unknown areas to see what might be there and repeat until there are no new birds to be found.
Right now we are in the midst of a few rainy days. After a weekend out of Pennington County at a SDOU meeting (where there were lots of migrants, which of course were not countable for my big year), I came home desperate to get some more warblers for my big year effort. Last year there very few warblers found west-river, especially compared to the numbers seen to the east of here. Things have been better so far this year than last, but it seemed that more birds should be there somewhere.
One of the best places for warblers in Pennington County seems to be Jackson Park in Rapid City. I've been trying to go there nearly every day for the last couple of weeks, and it has been worth it. Recently, Jackson Park has allowed me to add Northern Waterthrush (infrequent here), Palm Warbler (very uncommon here), Ovenbird, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, and Tennessee Warbler as well as Western Tanager to my county year list.
But the very best bird at Jackson Park was a Prothonotary Warbler today (May 20). Last year when doing my South Dakota big year, I learned that I was VERY unlikely to find a Prothonotary Warbler in the state, and I did not find one, nor do I think anyone else did. Today when an orangey-yellow bird with a dark, white-spotted tail dashed across the path though the rain ahead of me I could not believe it. I forced my way through brush and waded out on to the mud at the edge of the tiny trickling creek and there it was, a golden bit of bird working the downed branches in the stream.
In too short a time, all the migrants will have moved on. The breeding birds that haven't already been ticked off for the big year will need to be located before all the birds leave again. Some time before fall migration I'm sure that one could rest, and maybe even sleep. I'm hoping that is more possible in a county big year than in a big year in a bigger area. We shall see.
P.S. The Prothonotary Warbler was bird species #191 for this year in Pennington County.