American Birding Podcast



Big Year Roads Taken and Not Taken

A “Big Year” almost by definition means some kind of travel. If you don’t do at least some moving from one spot to another, it is very difficult to influence the number of birds you see and you are stuck with whatever comes to you. Many of the decisions that big year birders must make therefore, involve when to travel and where to travel and by what means to travel to maximize the number of birds. In addition, the big year birder must decide how long to stay at each place.

Those who choose to do green big years of course are a bit more limited in their travel destinations than those who do not limit their means of travel. Of course all big year birders do have a limit on their travel, which is set by the number of days in a year and usually by their budgets.

Within their personal limitations big year birders all must decide how much of their big year is going to be spent in travel. Even the time spent in travel by car or by bicycle takes away from the time one can spend on birding, although over the years I have gotten to see, briefly, some very good birds while zooming by at 70 or more miles per hour.

If the big year travel is by air, these decisions usually must be made far in advance to get a decent price and to get a seat on the plane. Usually there is a penalty for changing flights so you are basically locked in to a particular travel schedule. I remember with great sadness my August trip to North Carolina in 2008. As I sat at DFW at the beginning of my trip to North Carolina, I looked at my emails and found that a Jabiru had just been found in south Texas. I had to go to the NC Outer banks for at least 5 pelagic species that I was missing for the year. Personally, I would rather have seen one Jabiru than all 5 seabirds, but I continued with my planned trip because I had no other place in my schedule to take an east coast pelagic trip that year. I did get the seabirds. By the time I got back to Texas, the Jabiru was long-gone. Not being one to give up, however, I wasted some time by driving down there determined to find it although no one else had seen it for days. The big year bottom line: 5 new species for the year are better than one, even if the one is a Jabiru (which I still have not seen north of the border). Really, once my schedule had been set, I did not have a choice on whether to go for the Jabiru.

One way to reduce travel, but still see a large number of species is to reduce or minimize chasing individual species and just plan very carefully when to spend a chunk of time in each of the “good” places. Thus in the ABA area one could spend a month or more in each of California, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Alaska, etc. The main problem is that in spring, you want to be everywhere as the hordes of migrants come through. Wherever you choose in spring, you are missing something that doesn’t come through there. In fall when migration is more spread out in time, there might not be any place where many new species for your year come through. Maybe late summer or fall would be a good time to catch up on sleep if that was the kind of big year one did – somehow though I never found very much time for sleep in my big year. I forgot to include it in my plans I guess.

No matter what mode(s) of travel the big year birder chooses, there are other limitations placed on traveling during a big year. One very important limitation is weather, which not only can completely stop the big year birder, but also (in spite of the knowledge of meteorologists) is unnervingly unpredictable. The best laid birding plans can be completely messed up by  a few inches of snow far, far away.

A simple story of one of my big year weather problems can illustrate that. In a last-minute desperate attempt to “mop up” a Boreal Owl for my ABA big year (somehow I just never got it together for this nemesis species in 2008), I scheduled a trip to Ontario in December to a place where four Boreal Owls had just been seen. In the couple of days between the trip-scheduling and the actual trip, multiple feet of snow fell in Ontario. The plane scheduled to fly there there was late leaving DFW and then turned around and came back and we had to all get on another plane. When I finally got to Ontario, the road to where the owls had been reported was unplowed and filled with 3-4 foot deep snow drifts for a mile or so. I stoically walked it anyway. An ice-water-filled boot and many moans later, I gave up on finding an owl in the woods and waded through the drifts back to my rental car. I did get great looks at Short-eared and Snowy Owls on the walk back but they were not as appreciated as they should have been. Not the right owl. The flight back to Texas was delayed some 4-5 hours while we sat in the plane in Ontario and then were asked to deplane, rebook a new flight and get on another plane, which also took many hours to finally lift off. All this travel-hassle and no new birds for the year –  and time wasted that could have been used to try for one of the few remaining birds that I still wanted for my year.

12.22 Short-eared Owl, ONb

Much of my travel during my big year was driving highways from one birding spot to another, times when birding was minimal and deadening boredom was a serious threat. Those are the times that I often wrote my complaining poems about my big year, just to keep awake. Long plane trips were much more conducive than road trips to accomplishing my journal-writing about my big year and planning where to go for remaining birds that I needed. That’s where I made list after list and plan after plan, and tried to figure out how to see the most birds with the minimum of travel.

In spite of all my attempts to economize on dollars spent, and on miles and time spent on traveling, my ABA big year (2008), and my previous Texas big years (2003 and 2005) were long on miles and time spent traveling due in part to the impossibility of planning everything completely in advance so that no repeat trips were required to mop up previously missed birds. Of course, a fair amount of my travel was because the needed birds would just not sit still and wait for me to find them. While that is a big pain, it is also one of the things that makes a big year so much fun and such a challenge. After all, who would do a big year if the birds were totally predictable? If that’s what I really wanted, I could do a birds-in-the-zoo big year. Now there’s an idea!