American Birding Podcast



Thoughts on Planning a Big Year at the Beginning of the Year

I am very big on planning things, including big years. Before a big year starts, as I’ve mentioned in this ABA blog before, I pore over my National Geographic bird book, as well as Internet accounts, listserv posts, and anything I can get my hands on, and think through where I should go during the year for each possible or likely bird species, and when I should go there. My calendar for the coming year is full of post-it notes (at least mental ones) and actual trip plans, which I think is necessary to get a good start on a big year.


In planning a big year, it is important to remember, and go to, the different geographic areas where you are doing a big year and also to remember that most of the birds are seasonally fluctuating, not staying put in one area. It is easy to concentrate your birding efforts close to home and ignore the more remote areas. I am in far western South Dakota and it's tempting to just bird here and a bit farther east, but I need to go all the way east before the year is much further along. This geographic balancing is a very complicated process for an ABA big year where you also need to remember all those pelagic birds (both eastern and western), as well as the Alaskan and Asian migrant and vagrant possibilities, possible Mexican migrants and vagrants, within-ABA area wandering…everywhere. Not too many pelagic worries in South Dakota though.

I have also learned in my previous big year efforts that one needs to pay particular attention to normally hard-to-get birds in your chosen big year area. In the ABA area in my big year, that turned out to mean the grouse formerly known as "blue" (Sooty and Dusky), and the small owls (Boreal and Northern Saw-whet for me). Where you live has a big effect on which birds are likely to present problems or not. In western South Dakota it is difficult to find Northern Cardinals, while in Texas they are year-round, with up to 6 pairs in my yard in the winter. In addition, what is a difficult bird in one year can be an easy bird in another year, and vice versa. You also learn that a bird that you thought was going to be easy because you’d seen it many times in the past can suddenly become difficult to find when you are feeling a big-year pressure to find it.

If birds were completely predictable, that would be the end of it. As we all know of course, they are not, so while I strongly recommend having a plan, I also recommend being prepared to revise and possibly entirely ditch the plan.

Once you have your plan, then what do you do next? First, stay awake during the year and pay attention both to where the birds actually are during the particular year that you choose to do a big year, and to which birds are not appearing and therefore need to be sought out. Adapt to reality and be flexible.

As the year goes along, keep studying the possibilities and listen to people who are more experienced with the species you want and with the area you are birding. This is especially relevant advice  to me this year, where I am attempting a big year in an area where I have only been birding ½ year. I haven’t experienced spring here at all, and know it will be a mad rush, once winter is finally over, to find those migrants, most of which will be coming through at the far eastern end of the state. I only hope I can figure out where to jump and when. I envision sleepless nights and many miles in the car, but instead of sounding tiring, it sounds exciting. While I may not really be ready for it when it comes, I will certainly be raring to go!

I think it is important to be serious about doing a big year if you really do mean to do one, because you just can't turn back time. Even though South Dakota has lots of winter, next winter may not produce the winter birds I don't get now before spring gets here. Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today, which of course is true in lots of things, not just big years.

For example, the three other people whom I know are doing a South Dakota big year have just seen White-winged Crossbills in the Black Hills. I really need to chase those birds – they may not be back again this year. You definitely never know.

This year just before the year began, I made a list of “birds I’m hoping for in the first week” of the big year, the birds that seemed were going to be important to find in the winter, or at least soon so they would not haunt me for the rest of the year and turn into nemesis birds. Now, two weeks into the year, I am missing about five of those, but have seen the other 40 or so. My plan was initially to start the year by going after the rarities and seasonal vagrants that had been found in South Dakota in December, such as those reported on the SD listserv by people participating in Christmas Bird Counts. This included Snowy Owls, which though seemingly everywhere across the northern U.S. this winter, probably won’t be easily found in South Dakota come next winter, and included the Harlequin Duck now wintering in Rapid City (only a handful of SD records). It included birds that regularly are found here in winter, but only in localized areas, such as the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches that find a winter home on Bear Butte and hardly anywhere else in most winters.

Meanwhile, I monitor the SD listserv, whenever I am not birding, and periodically check recent ebird sightings for SD, ND and MN. Mostly though, I just go birding as many places as I can, and repeat. It’s not only the rarities that make up a big year list – there are many common species that need to be tallied – each species, rare or not, counts for “1”.

In my view this planning is not really very complicated, and is totally adjustable to each individual big year birder, depending on what the birds do and what the birder has time and money and energy to do. Time to go look for crossbills…but maybe I'll wait a bit until the temperature gets above zero degrees (F).