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Big Year Counting in a County


Surprise, surprise! Doing a county big year is a different thing than doing a state big year, and of course very different than an ABA big year. That is of course particularly true of a big year done in a county that is way up north, Pennington County in South Dakota. I’m not sure what the number of birds possible for a year is, because I do not have data on anyone else having done a big year in this county. I know, however, that the number of birds possible in one county, even a large county, in western South Dakota is much less than in all of the state, or in Texas, or in the ABA area.

On January 1st this year, two of us doing a fairly intense big day in Pennington County found considerably more than half of the likely winter birds in the county. Most of the birds that may be somewhere in the county right now that I have not already seen this year are probably here year round. In other words, there seems to be very little need to go birding right now to try to find the birds that are around but that I have not yet seen.

The lure right now after finding most of the likely regular winter county birds is the hypothetical wandering bird. That’s what gets me out into the snow and wind, sometimes. The problem is that South Dakota is not likely to get many wandering birds in the winter. The wandering Pacific birds (Brambling for example) or wandering Atlantic birds (Northern Lapwing) or wandering Mexican birds (like Brown Jays or Crimson-collared Grosbeaks) are not likely going to wander as far as South Dakota. What I can hope for as winter hangs around for a few more months are winter birds that are sometimes found in nearby counties but not in this one. Examples include Gray-crowned Rosy-finches that are found in most winters one county to the west (on a mountain top) or Common Ravens that are rarely found in the state but one was found last year to the north and west of Pennington County, or Pinyon Jays that in theory could wander to this county from other Black Hills counties.

Or maybe I could do the unexpected and relax about birding. I find that staring out my home office window at our bird feeding areas, watching the over two dozen wintering American Tree Sparrows, and photographing them, including short videos, is very satisfying. Sometimes I even forget for days on end that I am doing a big year. In fact I’m beginning to suspect that there will be very little that will be big about this year. Oddly enough, that does not particularly bother me. Of course when spring migration approaches, all that may change. I just cannot imagine being non-frenetic during warbler time.

In the meantime, I’m heading for Honduras in a couple of weeks. This will be my first international birding trip since I got hooked on doing these big years. It’s not only that the big years drained all our funds away. They also did not allow me to look outside the U.S. Doing a county big year has given me freedom to expand my birding to non-big-year birding, and I can hardly wait!

American tree sparrow
One of the American Tree Sparrows in our yard


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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. 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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  • Gail @godgirlgail

    “Or maybe I could do the unexpected and relax about birding.” Bah-ha-ha…you’re joking, right???

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