Weather and Doing a Big Year
by Lynn Barber
It might seem to be an exaggeration that weather can make or break a big year, but sometimes that is very close to the truth. There are of course many birding trips during big years when the weather is pleasant, or at least not miserable, and the birds are found. When we look back at those trips, we usually do not even remember the weather; it is the birds that we remember.
At other times, weather, usually termed "bad" weather, adversely affects whether we are able to travel to bird, whether the birds that we seek are findable or even around at all, and whether the weather, such as fog or precipitation or wind, even allows us to see any bird that might be there.
As I write this, I am sitting at home wanting to go out looking tomorrow for new year-birds, but facing a forecast of snow here and blizzards to the east where I had hoped to go birding. My car is not an all wheel drive vehicle and my new snow tires can only do so much in a huge snowfall or on icy roads.
In 2008, weather sometimes played a major role in where I birded, how the birding went and what I saw. In January, I missed a pelagic trip in New Jersey due to snow, and sat in a motel room as my little rental car disappeared beneath the fluffy stuff.
My long-planned April trip to Colorado was nearly a disaster due to 3-foot high snow banks following an unseasonably late blizzard, unplowed roads and birds that did not come out to display because their display grounds were too deep in snow. The same kind of thing happened on my failed Ontario trip in December when I was unable to drive down the unplowed road to a Boreal Owl location and failed to find the owls after a miserable long walk through thigh-high snow drifts. It did not cheer me up that the plane back to Texas was delayed for many hours due apparently to the onset of another snowstorm.
It was fog that was the problem for one of my big year trips to St. Paul Island and that made me fear that I would never be able to leave there. The birding had not been particularly good, probably because the weather had been quite nice and calm (see next paragraph). Just as the time finally arrived to fly somewhere else, the fog rolled in. The planes were grounded and no planes were flying for many days. I, and everyone else, just waited. We could see very little outside as we sat hoping for news that a plane might be coming in for us, except thick white fog banks. Finally in order to get us out of there the one plane that was able to land was converted from a cargo plane to a makeshift passenger plane by somehow fastening down some sad-looking seats and we were able to get off the island.
Bad weather can be good weather. Those who have hoped for Asian vagrants to Alaska or other coastal areas during a big year (or otherwise) know only too well that if the hoped for westerly winds and storms do not come, the birds are also unlikely to come. When howling gales and drenching rains come though, the birders rejoice in spite of feeling miserable, because it is very likely that rarities are about to arrive. It is the calm days that can then be deadly.
Much of my birding big years have involved trying to make flexible plans that would allow me both to take advantage of the weather and to avoid problematic weather. Sometimes it works and other times the weather is in control. However it happens, weather is best not ignored even though sometimes we can try to use it to help with the birding.
PS. Those of you who know that my husband is a meteorologist may have guessed that he gave me the idea for this post.