Open Mic: Reflections on a Big Year
by Nate Swick
At the Mic: Robert Ake
Ake, of Norfolk, Virginia, saw 731 species of birds in the ABA-Area in 2010. He wrote about his Big Year at his blog, Bob's Birds and Things.
There’s no doubt that listing is or can become an obsessive behavior. Getting new birds for a trip, day, year, or life is exciting; it makes the juices flow. Doing a big year is perhaps the most obsessive of all, particularly if it’s for a large area such as the ABA region. It comes at a cost both in money and in time. If you choose to go all out and chase every rarity, it can consume all of your time and a large chunk of your money. I think most people understand these consequences.
Of course some birders feel anyone with enough resources can amass a big list and that no skill is really involved. At the end of each talk I’ve given about my big year, there’s always an audible gasp when I relate the financial cost. I’m sure those in the audience are thinking of better ways that they could have spent that money. But then we all don’t choose to spend our money and time the same way.
On the matter of skill, very few of us are birding gurus, able to differentiate two similar species at the drop of a feather. During a big year most of the rarities are found by others, then chased and added to the year’s list if the chase is successful. Few birders actually find ultra-rarities during their pursuit. And when it happens, as it did with me at Gambell when I found a Blyth’s Reed Warbler which would have been a first North American record had the Alaska committee accepted it, a group effort was involved in taking photos, haggling over details, and writing the manuscript.
All of this listing and chasing is just plain fun. As I said many times during my big year, “If I’m not having fun, I shouldn’t be doing it.” I certainly do encourage taking good notes and photographs, working on bird identification skills, and teaching others good field techniques. But in the end birding is such a broadly based activity that there’s plenty of room in it for everyone. It’s really not necessary to force every birder into the same mold. So let’s each of us enjoy our own compulsive behavior and allow other birders the same opportunity.