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My Big “Year”

Annie Dillard, in her magisterial Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, conducts a thought experiment:

“I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, ‘it’s cold again; it was cold before,’ but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, ‘it was cold this time last year,’ because the notion of ‘year’ is precisely the one you lack.”

For all of us in the higher latitudes, the four seasons are one of the most obvious and intuitive aspects of life on Earth. Not a one of us can  remember a time when we didn’t know the endless cycling of spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Yet not a one of us figured it out on our own. The four seasons are abstract and, when you think about it, arbitrary. Why not two seasons, or five? The four seasons are received wisdom, a human construct.

So it is with so much of what we know. Think for a moment about such phenomena as gravity, evolution, the round earth, and the heliocentric solar system. None of us discovered any of that. We learned it—from books, teachers, parents, and other sources. And let’s be honest: The vast majority of us never really learned it. We were told it. We believe.


The idea of seasonality depends, as Dillard notes, on another idea: the idea of the year. We all know how long a year is: the amount of time—about 365¼ days—for the Earth to get around the Sun.

That’s easy for us to say.

Fig 1 - Mayan CalendarPretend again that you are Dillard’s first man on Earth. You haven’t yet noticed the seasons. One thing you do start to notice, though, is the position of the sun: It gets  higher in the sky for a while, then lower, then higher again, then lower, and so forth. Finally, after hundreds or thousands of years of accumulated human thought, some brilliant thinker achieves the key breakthrough: Each solar cycle is almost exactly the
same amount of time. Call it a year.

Alright, we’ve finally discovered what a year is, and how long it is. (Do you know, by the way, how long a year is? Did you know that the amount of time from one summer
solstice to the next is not fixed? And I’m not talking about the very slow effect of precession of the equinoxes. I’m talking about non-trivial anomalies from one year, er, “year,” to the next.) Now we need to agree when to start each year.

I know!

January 1st, at the stroke of midnight. With a stroke of inarguable tautology, we declare January 1st to be New Year’s Day, and that, as they say, is that.

Like many birders, I keep a year list. Check that: I keep year lists, plural. I’ve been  doing it since I was thirteen years old. I can’t help myself.

After three-plus decades in the business, I’m an old pro at this. Oh, each year is a variation on a theme, but it’s the overall theme, the overall sameness of it all, that I’m struck by. The following is oversimplified, but I think it’s basically right: For birders in the higher latitudes of North America, there’s a steady build-up in excitement for the first five months of the year, and then a long—and frankly demoralizing—slowdown for the rest of the year. Don’t take my word for it; talk to Big Year guru Lynn Barber about it.

Why? Why does it have to be that way? Why does a Big Year have to start on January 1st? We all know the answer, of course: Because that’s the rule. Fine. But that’s missing my point.

I’ll cut to the chase. I just started a Big Year. Two of ’em, actually: a Colorado Big Year, and a Boulder County Big Year. My two Big Years started simultaneously at 20:23:09 GMT (2:24 p.m. local time) on Saturday, June 8th. I’ll continue for approximately one sidereal year, i.e., until around 8:11 p.m. local time on Sunday, June 8, 2014.

Fig 2 - Red-eyed VireoAlready, the experience is shaping up to be wonderfully different from any other Big Year I’ve ever embarked on. My first year bird was a Red-eyed Vireo, singing its head off. How many of you have started an ABA Area Big Year with a Red-eyed Vireo?
(Left: Photo by © Bill Schmoker.) 

My birding pals in Boulder County, Colorado, are engaged in a friendly competition for the biggest bird list in the Julian year that began at midnight on January 1, 2013. Good for them. I wish them well.

But I’m glad I’m doing it my way. With no effort at all, I’ll be over 150 species by the end of the first month of the “year.” I’ll still be adding stuff at a brisk pace in July and August. Come September and October, I’ll be getting all sorts of “FOY” (first-of-year) birds. November–March will be leisurely—and productive. Then the end of the “year”: more year birds in April, then a bunch more in May, then a final rarity or three, I suspect, in the first week of June. I’ll wrap up my Big Year at the absolute zenith of
avian activity in Colorado.

My objective—and this may sound weird—is not to see as many species as possible. Instead, I’m in it for the experience, for the novelty. I’m going for quality, not quantity. So rest easy, Colorado listers: I pose no threat to you.

Or maybe I do. White-winged Juncos, Yellow-shafted Flickers, and Myrtle Warblers count for me. So do Indian Peafowl, Mandarin Ducks, and Front Range Chukars. And if the Rufous-collared Sparrow comes back to Clear Creek County, I’m definitely counting it. There’s more: All the great birds around Cheyenne, Laramie County, Wyoming, count for my Colorado list. If I see a bird in a mist net, that’s fine by me; if I identify a bird after the fact by sound spectrogram, I’m counting it; and—oh, yes—dead birds count.

O tempora! O mores!

Hang on a second.

Yes, I’m breaking all the rules. Are you sure, though, that you’re as compliant as you think you are? As Ken Hollinga, Michael Retter, the late Craig Roberts, and others have pointed out to me, the “rules” aren’t necessarily what we think they are.

Then again, I’m not really breaking the rules, er, “rules,” so much as I’m cheerfully ignoring them. I’m not in this for the game, or sport, or competition. Um, that’s okay. I’m in this to learn about birds, and the world they—and we—inhabit. The rules don’t serve that purpose, not for me anyhow.

In my world, Boulder County pheasants and Chukars are equally countable. For me, a White-winged Junco is as distinctive—as “countable”—as a Cassin’s Vireo or Thayer’s Gull. As far as I’m concerned, birds in nets and even dead birds are interesting, worthwhile, and properly ticked. And—what the heck—Cheyenne is close enough, and good enough, for me.

Here’s the bottom line: Two days into my two new Big Years, I’m having more fun than ever before. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Subtitle to this post: “Rule-breaker among the Rule-makers”

    Ted, you little non-conformist you. Dude, you crack me up.

  • Hi Ted,
    Your project sounds terrific! I am a high school teacher, and was granted this past academic year off – so I decided to do a Big Year from June 2012 to June 2013. I just finished yesterday (647 species and 1000 awesome experiences). It was a terrific big year, and unconventional in a few other ways. I wrote about it on my blog:
    I hope you will keep us updated on your experiment!


  • Mel Goff

    Ted, you once told me, “Your list is your list”. As a birder who came late to this great party, I am always interested in HOW people bird as much as why and where they bird. I learn every time I pick up my bins, go on a field trip, or look out my kitchen window. I learn from my fellow birders (women and men alike) the lessons they pass along. By the way, I have a separate list for all the birds that “don’t count”.

  • Vjera Thompson

    I spent one winter working on St. John in the Virgin Islands. When I returned to Oregon in May, I started up my year list. It was a great time of year to start a year list. I’ve pondered doing it again. Go Ted!

  • Touche, Robert, but I haveta confess: The idea isn’t original with me. I got it from, ahem, Albert Einstein, whose little “Relativität” is one of the finest specimens of truly interesting and original writing I’ve ever laid eyes on. (I’d give anything for a fresh, modern translation into American English. Where are Rick Wright and Ned Brinkley when you need them?)

    Einstein became fascinated by the, er, “relativity” of the human condition. Each of us has our own here and now; our own past, present, and future; our own place in the universe, distinct from every other observer’s place. That sounds like philosophy, no doubt, but it’s cold, hard physics.

    The following paradox is gratifying to me: The so-called rule-breakers are simply obeying the laws of physics, but the people who follow the supposed rules are living a lie… 🙂

  • Tomorrow (Sat., June 15th, 2013) my project will take a strange and perverted twist. I promise to post about it. Stay tuned.

    Meanwhile, I must go now, to read about your 647 species and 1,000 awesome experiences.

  • “…I am always interested in HOW people bird as much as why and where they bird.”

    I totally agree with you, Mel. And on that note, be sure to see “A Birding Interview,” appearing in the (very imminent) May/June 2013 Birding. It’s as if you and the interviewee were in a Vulcan mind meld. You’ll see.

    Also: “I learn from my fellow birders (women and men alike) the lessons they pass along.”

    The best lessons are the ones that have nothing to do with birding per se. Mel, you’ve importantly influenced the way I give public talks. (Cf. your exposition, equal parts brilliant and subtle, in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain. Remember? Well, I sure do!)

  • I’m saving the best for last. May, as you say–plus the very birdy first week of June, at least here in Colorado.

    Some birds on my Colorado list in this first week of my Big Year: Hepatic Tanager, Gray Vireo, and Scott’s Oriole. But still no Ring-billed Gull, Belted Kingfisher, or White-breasted Nuthatch.

  • Bill Kaempfer

    Ted, I presume that your “strange and perverted twist” on Saturday June 15th does not include participating in the 32nd annual Ward Block of the Indian Peaks Bird Count that I invited you on earlier in the week? Alas, you could have seen 4 or 5 of the Boulder County Julians at work.

  • I love it!! This post got me wondering what it would be like to do overlapping big years – start a big year on January 1, start another on February 1, start another on March 1, etc. and keep them all going. Or start one every other month to keep keeping track more manageable. Every bird found in a month would count on all the currently running big years. Something to think about. I have always thought starting on January 1st was awfully arbitrary. And I also like counting anything you want to count – that sounds very freeing.

  • “This post got me wondering what it would be like to do overlapping big years – start a big year on January 1, start another on February 1, start another on March 1, etc. and keep them all going.”

    Lynn, you are the Garry Kasparov of Big Year birders:


  • The problem, Bill, is two self-imposed restrictions: I have to be able to walk to the place from my house, and I can’t use bins or a scope.

    Good luck to you and the Boulder County Julians. I hope the name sticks. I shall do my darnedest to see to it that it does!

  • I just love doing big years. Oddly enough, the final result, is not the only, or even the main, goal when I do a big year. I just love the doing of big years, the “excuse” to be birding much of the time, the surprises, the things I discover about birds and birding and the birds’ world. And with this current county big year, I love how much it has helped me learn about what the birds do in this part of the country and when they do it. It’s like the county is my chosen birding “patch”.

  • I’m still stymied by how to translate “Jahrbuch der Radioaktivita”t”: “Radioactivity Annual” just doesn’t do it for me.

  • Rob Parsons

    Okay, perhaps I need clarification on “Julian” year. I’d have said Gregorian, since I thought the Julian Calendar didn’t start on January 1st. Or does it? Enlighten me.

  • Hey, Rob. I’m out of my league on this one, so the following may well be messed up, but here goes: I take a Julian year, in the broad sense, to be a time period that is 365 24-hour periods or 366 24-hour periods, in distinction from a sidereal year, which is a time period that is nearly, but not precisely, fixed. A sidereal year is approximately 365.25 “days,” whereas a Julian year is either 365 or 366 “days.”

    The question, in my mind, isn’t the starting date for a Julian or sidereal year. Rather, it’s the length, which is oddly variable for a Julian year, but nearly fixed for a sidereal year.

    Where’s an astro-historian when you need one?… 🙂

  • Ted Floyd

    One of the cool things, I’m finding, about starting a Big Year in June is that you come to appreciate just how much happens in July.

    (See .)

    The FOYs just keep piling on: Migrant Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds stopping at feeders; Baird’s Sandpipers and Long-billed Dowitchers at mudflats; Chipping Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers flying over at night. And that’s just the stuff right around my neighborhood in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado.

    It’s not yet August, yet I feel the way I used to feel at the end of May. For three weeks now, I’ve been seeing and hearing migrants everywhere I go. I’m tired, but it’s a good tired. And just think: We’ve got 4.5+ mos. more of this.

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