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Taking a Break from Big Year Birding

As nearly every birder knows, people who do big years are typically driven to bird as many hours a day and as many days a week as is humanly possible during their big years. This is especially the case at the beginning of their big year when energy is high, and enthusiasm is also high for nonstop looking for, and finding, as many birds as possible.

Somewhere during the year of course, the body and brain slow down and the spirit calms down a bit. Reality and other obligations become increasingly difficult to ignore. New birds become more difficult to find. Depending on the birder’s motivation and circumstances, this initial slowdown may occur only a few weeks into the big year or may be held off for months. Unless the big year birder is non-human, however, there will a first slowdown, and then another and then another, occurring throughout the year.

As the year progresses, slowdowns often can turn into deliberate breaks from birding. These breaks can occur because of lack of finances, lack of time, lack of birds to chase, lack of knowledge on where to go to find new birds, lack of energy and/or conflicting schedule problems. If many or all of these occur at the same time, the break may turn into a complete cessation of the big year effort.

For my South Dakota big year this year, birding slowed considerably in late August but was revived by the appearance of a couple of needed warblers (Canada and Blackburnian) and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in eastern South Dakota. Excitement over a couple of wrens (Carolina and Pacific) in late August (as discussed in my last blog post) and a few other fall migrants in very early September (Red-shouldered Hawk, Magnolia Warbler, Sanderling and Green-tailed Towhee) kept me going, though slowly.

And then it happened – the conjunction of a bunch of big-year-stopping happenings. The birds I still needed were nowhere to be found where I looked, I could not figure out where else to look for birds that I thought might be present, and I was tired. To top it off, we had a long-scheduled week-long trip to North Carolina in mid-September. While one of the birds I still need for my year, Sabine’s Gulls (2), made a one-day appearance the day before we left for NC, I could not chase them then and they were long-gone by the time we got back to South Dakota.

I entertained serious thoughts of turning my break from big-year birding into a full stop. To do no birding is to stop doing a big year. But then this last weekend was the meeting of the South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union in Pierre which I needed to attend. Three of us were scheduled to give a talk Saturday afternoon on the Harlequin Duck that came to Rapid City last winter and I was the banquet speaker (about my ABA big year) Saturday night. There were also two field trips – a sparrow trip and a gull trip. Gulls have mostly not yet drifted south yet through SD, but sparrows were hopping at the “Sparrow Fields” east of Pierre. On Saturday, I was overjoyed to finally see a Le Conte’s Sparrow to add to my year list.

What I don’t yet know is whether my return to SD birding and this recent addition to my year-list (after a gap of more than a month since my last new year bird) will mean that I am back doing a big year or whether it is a blip in my slide toward inactivity. I do hope to go to eastern South Dakota shortly to see if I can find anything else (Hermit Thrush comes to mind). Stay tuned to see if my break from big year birding is broken or will continue. Less than three months left…

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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

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