THOUGHTS ON PLANNING A BIG YEAR
by Lynn Barber
As mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been thinking about doing a South Dakota mini-big-year (or a “moderate year” as a new birding friend from Massachusetts calls it). Once again, I’m in planning mode, as I was in late 2004 for my Texas big year and in late 2007 for my ABA big year. There are many ways that one can plan a big year, ranging from just saying “I’m going to do a big year” and then doing it, to planning every day, trip-by-trip and bird-by-bird. The way that I plan is somewhere between these extremes.
The actual advanced planning of birding routes – where to go and when to go there, has to be both well-thought out and spontaneous. If one ignores the money considerations, which of course is difficult to do, the most difficult thing to do in a big year is to balance detailed planning of birding trips based on what is known about birds’ likely habits and habitats - with enough flexibility to drop these plans and adapt to birds’ tendencies to be unpredictable. I think, however, that the more one knows, even if one is often forced to ignore that knowledge to go with the bird reality, the better the big year can go. So my first advice for a person attempting to do their first big year, is know the territory and its birds. It is best if this knowledge can be gained over many seasons of birding there, so that you can see not only the usual patterns of bird movement but also how much variation there is from year to year. If, however, as in my case this coming year, you have chosen to do a big year before you have had a chance to actually get out and bird very much of the territory, you have to gain most of your knowledge through reading and through talking to birders who are more knowledgeable about the territory in which you are planning to do your big year.
However you learn about the chosen territory and its birds, you somehow need to organize this information so that it will be useful. Unless you’ve birded the chosen territory for many years, you are unlikely to have all this information committed to easily-retrievable memory. My way of handling this is to look over bird books that cover the region, preferably books with seasonal territory maps for each species and combine it with personal knowledge of the area and its birds. Using the likelihood of seeing birds in each part of the territory during each part of the year, I use post-it notes to mark when to go where and place them on the calendar, juggling things so there are both plans to go everywhere I need to go to get all the birds that I have some hope of pinning down, and some flexibility so that I can go somewhere else if a desired bird doesn’t fit into my plans.
Personally, and unrelated to the birds sought, there are a few very important things to do before a big year. One of the most important things to do prior to a big year is to sleep. I never cease to be amazed at how the unrelenting pace of a big year just never stops! The birds that are left to be added to the list get fewer, while the hours needed to find each of the remaining birds keeps increasing. The excitement of doing the big year cuts into sleep at the beginning of the year, and the exhaustion and worry about the year’s coming to a close before one is done keep one from getting to sleep and sleeping long enough.
It is also very important to save money before the big year. Unless you are independently wealthy, a serious big year is likely to be a big financial drain. Few of us find ways to earn enough during a big year to do the big year without getting considerably in debt. Just read The Big Year if you have not already done so to learn a bit more about that. Credit cards are very useful to allow a big year to proceed, so I recommend gathering a few more of them than you can imagine actually needing, just in case.
And then, you must prepare your loved ones. Try to get them to understand how important this is to you, and what you are planning to do. If you are really trying to see as many birds as you can, your life will be interrupted by unexpected chases, and you will often not be at home. Be sure they know who you are and how you look – it may be awhile before they see very much of you again. Of course, I can’t even imagine what it would be like if a loved one is going to be doing a big year with you. In that case, you need to be sure that your goals for the year are similar/compatible, and that you can really stand each other during moments of high stress and despair, or if one sees a bird that the other does not see.
So my planning advice is very unspecific. How YOU plan your birding year does depend on what your goals are, and how “nutty” you are about this whole thing. In any case, the most important advice I can give is that you need to know that it is nearly impossible to plan a big year in as much detail as you would like. You just have to get out there and do it – and HAVE FUN AT IT!
So, in 10 days, a new year will begin for all of us. I don’t know what you will be doing, but I will be out there somewhere in South Dakota, seeing what I can see, and, I hope, learning a lot in the process. By the end of the year, when my mostly likely not-very-big year is over, I expect I will be finally ready to do a big year – a bit late, and a lot wiser. I plan to post on this blog every two weeks or so on my progress during my big year, and what I am learning about South Dakota and about doing a big year by doing yet another one.
P.S. For those of you who would never ever consider doing a big year, I am sure that if you can manage to read these upcoming posts, you will be strengthened in that resolve and gain additional arguments on why this is so a dumb idea. For the few of you who dream of doing some kind of big year, I hope that these posts will be both a reality check, and a way to get inside (yet another) big year and see just how it proceeds, and what a joy it can be. After all, I’ll be doing a lot of birding – whatever the numerical results, how can it not be wonderful to do?
P.P.S. Yes, I have been reading the blog posts on how you count your big year birds. It would be good if all of us can remember that however you count your big year birds, or re-count them after your big year, it is still your big year and no one else's. If you want to count chickens or released birds, you can. If you tell others about your big year though, just tell them what you did and what you counted. Even more important than whether you count a split bird after all is said and done is the critical importance of being sure that you are correctly identifying the birds DURING YOUR BIG YEAR, and are honest in what you tell others about you actually saw during the year. No matter how much we try to compare one birder's big year with another, it is impossible. Each big year result is not only affected by what we do, but by where we were able to bird, how much money and time we could afford to spend, and what birds actually appeared during that year. To compare final big year results solely by the number of birds seen is to ignore the wonderful fact that birding is never just a numbers game - it is primarily an adventure determined in great part by what the birds do, not by what we do! While our efforts can increase our numbers, we always are limited by the birds themselves, and until we do the big year, we cannot have any idea of what the final results will be.