A BIG YEAR IS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE
by Lynn Barber
As I drove home yesterday across most of South Dakota after a long weekend of warbler and shorebird hunting, I started thinking about all the different lessons that a big year can teach someone. In addition to the obvious learning about the birds themselves, their distribution, habits and inconsistencies, a big year birder is taught (or is likely to be taught) some more basic life-lessons. Most of these learnings might be found in being a “normal” non-big-year birder, of course, but their impact is likely to be greater on someone who has a year-long, possibly obsessive, birding goal. Some of the possible lessons are mentioned below.
Starting with the most positive, a big year drives home the lesson that each new day gives new chances – a new dawn to find new singing warblers, another set of hours to explore for birds, new hours to fill with birding wonders. That is the ever-renewing part of big years that I love.
Unless one undertakes a big year just to spend more time in birding, a big year undertaken by a goal-oriented person also requires learning better planning and organizational skills. While birds clearly do not always behave in predictable ways, knowledge of their general habitats and habits, distribution patterns, and past arrival times if they are migrants can be used to figure out when to go and where to go for each species in the chosen big year area. For my ABA big year, my biggest lifetime challenge in planning and organization, I used a calendar, bird books with distribution maps for each species, and post-it notes put on the calendar saying that I needed to be in an area on a particular range of dates to maximize my chances of finding each species or groups of species (e.g., certain pelagic birds off of California or migrants coming to the Dry Tortugas). This allowed me to put together a year-long plan before I began the big year. You notice that I used post-it notes to indicate where to go when, and did not even pencil in my possible destinations on the calendar.
That is because a huge lesson a big year birder must learn is plan flexibility, as well as the ability to shift directions at a moment’s notice. Unless I had committed myself by purchasing a ticket or otherwise locking in my activities for a certain date, I learned that I needed to be ready and willing to drop everything to go after rarities or hard-to-find birds if the opportunity presented itself. The White-crested Elaenia that was reported on South Padre Island during my ABA big year, for which I made an overnight 10-hour drive from my home, is a perfect example. If I had not been willing or able to go for it immediately I would not have seen it – it was not seen again after that day.
Of course, whether the birding effort is long-planned or last-minute, a HUGE lesson a big year birder (or really any birder) must learn is the ability to accept disappointment and failure. Our chances of finding all our goal birds are not 100%. I guess if birds were totally predictable many of us would not even go birding or do big years. We like a challenge, to improve the odds, to find birds that are hard to find in our area. Sometimes, we won’t find any birds at all, such as one very recent afternoon during migration when there were no migrants visible or audible at all. Learning to deal with not finding a bird we especially wanted can be very difficult, but is necessary if we are to pull ourselves up and keep on going.
While we need to learn to accept or at least adjust to defeat, we also need to learn to try again and not just give up because we did not find the bird the first time. If there is any chance at all that the desired bird is around somewhere, we need to keep trying, day after day, as long as we can find the time and there is still a chance. Part of this process is trying to learn when it is appropriate to throw in the towel and when it is appropriate to keep on plugging. If we keep on trying and find the bird, we know that we chose the correct path, but unfortunately if we quit, we are unlikely to ever know if we should have kept trying.
Other lessons likely to be taught by doing a big year include humility – we are not in control of everything and often others are better at this kind of thing than we are – and we need to just keep going in spite of that unhappy truth. Sadly, we also might learn envy when doing a big year – of those others who somehow just seem to be better/luckier than we are, as well as envy of people with more money and/or time to do what we are trying to do, or who have chosen a better, birdier year to do their big year.
Doing a big year is also likely to give one lessons in economizing in time and money and sleep, in doing more with less, in birding efficiently with the time available, and functioning on minimal sleep. During a big year, there is definitely also less spare time to waste, to fritter away doing non-birdy things.
A major life-lesson likely to made very clear from doing a big year is the finality of time’s passage. Once spring has passed, spring migration is over for that year and will not return. While there will be future springs and we hopefully will be around for them, for this big year, spring is done. And of course, when December 31 is over, the whole big year will be done. It will have been unique and it will never be possible to repeat it. The birds that made (or did not make) their appearance in the big year, and the year itself with its bird happenings, weather patterns, time constraints, paths chosen and not chosen, will have passed. But there will be a new year, and just like a new day, we can greet it with joy for what it offers (whether it be another big year or not)--hopefully more birds.