Same Old, Same Old?
by Lynn Barber
Many of my ABA blog posts about big years are filled with general statements about big years, about the types of general planning that I do for big years, the general fact that there are doldrum times (my last post), and other generalities. When I look back on my previous big years and write about them, I almost always look at the big picture, remembering the overall picture of what a big year is like, what the good days are like, and what the days are like when the sought after bird is not found. I try to help those of you who have not done a big year get a general feeling for what doing one is like.
Now, in the throes of doing yet another big year, I realized today how the flavor of the days in a big year just cannot be tasted except by actually doing a big year. Short of actually doing a big year, a specific tale or two might be helpful. One such specific tale of this specific big year in South Dakota follows.
First I need to tell you that Sandhill Cranes are way up at the top of my favorite birds list. I have been wearing my Sandhill Crane earrings for days, hoping that they will bring me a sighting. Yesterday in the late afternoon, in my continued yearning quest to see Sandhill Cranes for this year, I traveled once again to two local farm ponds/lakes that are now ice-free and have been hosting migrating ducks for the past couple of weeks. I have driven the dirt roads to those lakes, as well as the neighboring roads, many, many times this year, usually without seeing anything new for the year.
Every time as I approach these lakes I anticipate that this time there will be something new. I look at every bird, count the number of birds of each species on the lakes and write all the information down dutifully in my 4x6 inch notebook. Of course I am happy to see Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, Redheads, Mallards, Gadwalls, American Wigeons and Canada Geese, which have been around in Fort Worth during the winter, and I am pleased that the numbers of Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintails that are springtime arrivals are increasing. But something has been lacking for a couple of weeks at these lakes until last night. That something was a new bird.
While a big year is always an ongoing, repetitive exercise in searching for and finding bird species that haven’t yet been seen during that year, it is much more than that. It is a search for, and a hope for, surprises. No matter how well you are prepared and knowledgeable about the birds that are sought, unless you tie the birds down, you just never know what you will find, and whether a particular sought-after bird will be there. Even if you were to do a big year, every year, in the same area, no two years would ever be the same, and there would be surprises. And when you are doing a big year in an area in the springtime where you have never witnessed spring migration, the surprises are even more numerous.
Last night, I drove to the first lake on my chosen route, did a U-turn, pulled off the road, and began to count ducks, geese and killdeer. Numbers were down from the last time I had been there, but all species were the same old, same old. I was just about done with my counting, when I began to hear distant squawky, squeaky croaks, unmistakable sounds, the wonderful sounds of a large flock of Sandhill Cranes coming toward me, crossing the hills beyond the lake, and passing quite low overhead. There were about 200 cranes! I was delighted, and could have just gone home and joyfully relaxed. But I did have more time before dark and I needed to do some more birding. It is a big year after all and there were still birds that might be coming through that are not yet on my year list.
Since it was still quite light out, I went a few miles to the second lake. I had just pulled over to scan the lake when I heard faint Sandhill Crane calls again. Then to my wonder and amazement, some 1000 Sandhill Cranes, in skeins stretching out across the whole sky flew northward overhead. After they were gone, I just sat there, knowing that no matter how many same old, same old moments there are in a big year, it is the joyful moments of seeing favorite birds or unexpected birds that makes big years BIG. The same moments can of course happen in non-big years, but the more you are out there looking, the more such moments can, and do, come your way.
But I can only tell you what a big year is like for me – you’ll need to do your own and see it for yourself!
PS. I'm posting this earlier than my normal morning time, because I've just heard about a Whooping Crane in South Dakota!! It will be a very early morning tomorrow.