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Are You Thinking of Doing a Big Year Next Year?


Now would be a good time to make the decision on whether you are going to do a big year next year. Unless and until you make that decision, it is way too easy to put off what is a very good idea that you start right now. That is, it can be invaluable to do the research for a big year BEFORE the big year. No matter how much pre-big year work and planning you do, it probably will not feel like enough once the big year starts. If you do not do any preliminary study on what birds are likely or at least possible in your chosen area, when it makes sense to look for them and where to look for them, during your big year you will seriously feel the need to have done it earlier. When you are in the throes of doing a big year, it is very hard to take the time to go back to the books and web sites to figure out what you need to do (or should already have done).

I know this from experience. My first Texas big year (2003) was completely unplanned, a sort of scramble from beginning to end. I hadn’t even thought about doing a big year until I was doing it. Two years later, the previous on-the-run research during my first Texas big year, and the poring over books that I did between the two Texas big years made the second one (2005) much more organized and intentional. There was much less playing catch-up looking for birds I should already have looked for and found.

I don’t think a big year done in as large an area as the ABA area (continental US and Canada, as of 2008 when I did mine) can be fully planned in advance. Too many unexpected bird visitors will (hopefully) arrive in the large ABA area, and the big year birder must try to adapt at the last minute. Before my ABA big year, however, I did do a lot of work online, in bird books, and talking to people. I’m sure it helped. If I were independently wealthy, I might try another ABA big year to build on the experience and knowledge gained during the first one. But that is very unlikely (unless $$$ fall from the sky somehow).

So this year I am doing a South Dakota big year. I had lived in SD just over half a year when all of a sudden in late December last year I decided to do a big year. I did hardly any advance planning, ignoring all the wisdom gained from my previous big years. There are at least three other people doing a big year in SD this year, all of whom have much more experience in this state than I do, and I am sure they also did more planning for this year than I gave myself time to do. Although I spent much time DURING this year consulting previous records for species not yet seen, mostly I have been, and am, scrambling, once again. Actually right now I’m doing very little because almost all the passerines and shorebirds that I do not yet have on this year’s list have migrated south and are probably gone until next year, and the ducks and gulls that I still need won’t likely arrive for a month or more (if they deign to arrive in South Dakota at all this year).

So, if you are considering doing a big year next year, I recommend doing the following at least (soon) assuming that you are not the absolute expert already about each of these things:

1-Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn where and when to find the regular birds in your chosen geographic area for the big year.

2-Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn what birds are rare but regular in your chosen area, and plan to be there then for those birds.

3- Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn about what birds are potentially possible but very rare in your chosen area, and pinpoint just where you might go to look for them, and then do that when the most likely time arrives.

4-Using the information gleaned from #1-#3 above, plot out in pencil or with movable Post-It notes on a calendar for the upcoming year where you expect/hope to be birding through the year, with special emphasis to make sure that you schedule looking for birds that are the most limited in time and place.

5-If you are doing a big year in an area large enough to require air travel, schedule at least some of your trips in advance to minimize cost, all the while being aware that it is dangerous to over-schedule in advance because then you won’t be free to do many or any last-minute bird chases somewhere else.

6-Clear your calendar of nonessentials for the coming year.

7-As I always mention when I give talks on my big year, be sure your credit card situation (or bank account or whatever you can put your hands on) will allow you to do all this (air fare, rental cars, gas, food, room rental, etc.).

8-Get ready to bid a temporary (hopefully) adieu to your friends and loved ones.

Have fun in the planning and the doing of your big year. I have and am! Also, remember that no matter how much (or little) planning that you do, there will be missed birds and there will be big surprises and unplanned adventures. As you may have guessed I love doing big years!

In spite of lots of planning and lots of attempts I almost missed these in 2008:

Spotted owls



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Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber started birding at the age of 7. In 2005, she broke the Texas big year record with 522 species, and in 2008, she tallied 723 bird species in the ABA Area. An account of her ABA Big Year, entitled Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year, was published in the spring of 2011. Her second book, Birds in Trouble was published in 2016. While living in North Carolina, Lynn was active in Wake County Audubon and on the board of the Carolina Bird Club. Moving to Texas in 2000, she was active in the Fort Worth Audubon Society, serving as its president for 3 years. She is a life member of the Texas Ornithological Society, and became its president in April 2009. She now lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lynn Barber

Latest posts by Lynn Barber (see all)

  • South Dakota Big Year- cool!

    I have been doing a sort of casual Big Year in Costa Rica since 2010. While being a step up from keeping a year list, it falls far short of the planning, chasing, and anxiety associated with typical Big Years. Work and family keep it at that level and hitting 600 species still requires strategy when birding is more or less restricted to weekends (I am 5 short of that mark as I write).

    That said, I hope I get the chance to do a true Big Year in Costa Rica in 2013. The small size of the country makes it feasible to reach every corner with a quickness but there is also less gen on migrants, many resident rainforest species are rare and difficult to detect, and most vagrants probably go undetected. I will also be handicapped when it comes to pelagics because as much as I yearn to lay eyes on petrels and the like, boats and I just dont get along. This means that I may have to do a bit of cyclone chasing and aim my scope into the eye of the storm but if that yields a Galapagos Shearwater for the year, it will be worth it!

  • Sam Manning

    I am doing a Nebraska Big Year this year with a goal of 250 species, but I only decided to do one at the end of May due to the number of birds I have been seeing. I am pretty familiar with the birds of NE so planning was very much of an issue for me, but once I got in it, I planned alot for the species that I needed.

  • Big years especially state ones sound awesome to me. I don’t think I’m ready for one yet though so I’m thinking of doing a big month in Pennsylvania. I was just wondering how to find out Big Year or Big month records for a state.

  • I think the best way to find out about state records (if there are any) is to contact the state bird group (e.g., state ornithologist organization). Some states keep such records while others apparently do not. Inquiring of the more active birders in the state may lead you to someone who knows such things as well. There may not be big month records kept by anyone, and in many states it is possible that no one has done such a month and let others know the results. Good luck.

  • Gayle Ann Bachert

    Wow didn’t know you could do a State big year….cool…we are in Michigan.

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