More Thoughts on Planning a Big Year
by Lynn Barber
Before I started my South Dakota big year in January, a number of people requested that I explain, as this big year went along, how I decided where to bird. This post discusses one aspect of that.
Although I usually think of my “plans” for a big year as just consisting of time periods of going birding somewhere a new bird might be, spontaneously alternating with time periods of chasing a bird that someone else has reported, I realized this week that when I do a big year I usually do spend a lot of time doing things that actually look like making real plans, or at least that lead to plans. My plans, however, might better be described as an ongoing series of learning efforts about the possible birds in the area that I am birding, so that I can figure out where would be a good place to go next.
I think I can make that clearer by giving examples. Last week, I did a little of this planning by going through a previous list I had prepared of all possible South Dakota birds and comparing it with the birds that I have seen so far this year in South Dakota. Then I tried to figure out which birds might be here during winter that I have not yet seen this year. That led me to a trip to the far north-eastern portion of the state and the addition of Pileated Woodpeckers and a Red-bellied Woodpecker to my year list.
Yesterday I sat down with Birds of South Dakota by Tallmann et al. (2002) and went through it bird by bird. I looked at the earliest migration dates into South Dakota of each species not yet seen this year. I made a 7-page list of the species that I have not yet seen this year and which do not normally spend the winter here. I then added to the list the birds’ earliest spring migration dates as reported in the book, their usual spring migration time periods, the location in South Dakota where each species might be expected to arrive or pass through, and whether each species was likely to stay and breed or move on. Much of that information I had looked at, and listed, when I did an initial listing from the same book last December to try to see what birds were possible in South Dakota. My new list instead of being a general hope list, is a spring-migration-tailored list. I can study my new list, pick out birds that might arrive in the various state locations during particular time-periods and go there and see if they (or maybe a rarity) have arrived there.
Much of this type of planning would probably be unnecessary for someone who is more familiar with the state than I am, but even for that experienced person, such a list could help them avoid the large number of misses that might occur if they just knowledgeably went birding around the good birding areas and looked for birds when spring arrives. Of course, for most birders, and certainly for me, there will be some of that possibly aimless wandering too, because birds aren’t necessarily going to follow their previous patterns.
I must remind myself that all this planning, whether based on experience or intensive reading or both, can only be based on the past and at best on intuition about the future. Every year is different from the previous ones, and some years, such as this year, are even more different than usual, if that makes any sense. In fact, this year is weird as exemplified by the influx of huge numbers of Snowy Owls, not only in South Dakota but across much of the country, and the near lack of Gyrfalcons and Snow Buntings in South Dakota this winter. That is one part of a big year over which we have no control and for which we cannot plan.
What will spring bring? My plans will get me started but no matter what my plans are, there will of necessity days of birding, and possibly weeks, that are not planned in advance. That is one of the things that for me makes doing a big year so much fun. A big year is a mixture of expected birds and unexpected surprise sightings, kept from being boring by the uncertainty and by the possibilities.