Doing a big year (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before) is a rather serious endeavor, if you are serious about it really being a BIG year. Birding in a serious big year can become almost like a job, and sometimes can be like the worst parts of having a job that you MUST go to nearly every day, and where you feel guilty when you don’t go there. The bottom line in a big year can become and probably usually does become what is important, rather than what you are actually seeing at any one moment. Looking back on a big year one can remember the highlights, but they often get blurred with the chase, the planning, the doing, the listing.
I remember taking a break in Fort Worth during my big year, and just going birding, and how refreshing it was to go out to see what I could see, without being in the overpowering “must be counting” mode. Even though I’ll probably always be a lister and a bit of a chaser, now that my big year is done, every day that I take the time to look at birds can be unadulterated “fun”. I never realized that I was probably consciously avoiding oohing and ahhing at birds, because it takes time from chasing to stand and marvel at the birds. It takes time to actually see what the birds are doing, and to wait to see what they are going to do next. It takes time to let the birds come to you, to be still, to watch the birds, not just see them and move on.
I’m guessing that even those of you who have never attempted a big year have also found that plain old listing can get in the way of enjoying birding and enjoying the birds. Maybe putting any type of goal on birding activities can do the same thing. When I moved to Texas in 2000, I had no idea that I might ever do a big year, but I was almost as fanatic about driving all over the state to see how many counties I could find birds in the first couple of years that I was a Texan as if I had been doing a big year. I wasn’t trying for numbers in the counties but just any bird in each county. How much fun is it to drive 70 (or more) mph and tick off yet another county with its Turkey Vulture or Mourning Dove or Starling, and be off to another county to do the same? Yes, it’s something to note down, tally up, and feel accomplished about, but how much did I learn about the birds in those 254 counties? I learned how to navigate the backroads of Texas and plan for where to find gas stations and I learned that there really were Turkey Vultures in nearly every county, but looking back on that effort, there wasn’t much more. It definitely was not fun or enjoyable in any lasting sense much of the time.
I did have much fun and enjoyment in my big year of course. It’s just that if I were cynical I might think that I almost had fun in spite of doing the big year. Probably because I love birding so much, it would be fun no matter how I did it. But the joy can be increased, in my opinion, by slowing down and paying better attention to the wonders of nature, rather than by ticking off its components.
That being said, I am now a new resident of South Dakota, and surprise, surprise, I’m starting my South Dakota state list and my county lists. Some things are probably incurable. But I think I’m happier and wiser now. I vow to take more time to enjoy the birds, as I’m doing every day in my back yard. I think bird photography sometimes helps me enjoy them, because in order to get better pictures one must usually wait and watch to try to capture the bird’s essence. I will, however, also be out there exploring too, but this time I’ll be making a bigger effort to balance my love of the chase with my love of the birds themselves.