American Birding Podcast



Are You Thinking of Doing a Big Year Next Year?

Now would be a good time to make the decision on whether you are going to do a big year next year. Unless and until you make that decision, it is way too easy to put off what is a very good idea that you start right now. That is, it can be invaluable to do the research for a big year BEFORE the big year. No matter how much pre-big year work and planning you do, it probably will not feel like enough once the big year starts. If you do not do any preliminary study on what birds are likely or at least possible in your chosen area, when it makes sense to look for them and where to look for them, during your big year you will seriously feel the need to have done it earlier. When you are in the throes of doing a big year, it is very hard to take the time to go back to the books and web sites to figure out what you need to do (or should already have done).

I know this from experience. My first Texas big year (2003) was completely unplanned, a sort of scramble from beginning to end. I hadn’t even thought about doing a big year until I was doing it. Two years later, the previous on-the-run research during my first Texas big year, and the poring over books that I did between the two Texas big years made the second one (2005) much more organized and intentional. There was much less playing catch-up looking for birds I should already have looked for and found.

I don’t think a big year done in as large an area as the ABA area (continental US and Canada, as of 2008 when I did mine) can be fully planned in advance. Too many unexpected bird visitors will (hopefully) arrive in the large ABA area, and the big year birder must try to adapt at the last minute. Before my ABA big year, however, I did do a lot of work online, in bird books, and talking to people. I’m sure it helped. If I were independently wealthy, I might try another ABA big year to build on the experience and knowledge gained during the first one. But that is very unlikely (unless $$$ fall from the sky somehow).

So this year I am doing a South Dakota big year. I had lived in SD just over half a year when all of a sudden in late December last year I decided to do a big year. I did hardly any advance planning, ignoring all the wisdom gained from my previous big years. There are at least three other people doing a big year in SD this year, all of whom have much more experience in this state than I do, and I am sure they also did more planning for this year than I gave myself time to do. Although I spent much time DURING this year consulting previous records for species not yet seen, mostly I have been, and am, scrambling, once again. Actually right now I’m doing very little because almost all the passerines and shorebirds that I do not yet have on this year’s list have migrated south and are probably gone until next year, and the ducks and gulls that I still need won’t likely arrive for a month or more (if they deign to arrive in South Dakota at all this year).

So, if you are considering doing a big year next year, I recommend doing the following at least (soon) assuming that you are not the absolute expert already about each of these things:

1-Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn where and when to find the regular birds in your chosen geographic area for the big year.

2-Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn what birds are rare but regular in your chosen area, and plan to be there then for those birds.

3- Consult relevant bird books and web sites and knowledgeable people to learn about what birds are potentially possible but very rare in your chosen area, and pinpoint just where you might go to look for them, and then do that when the most likely time arrives.

4-Using the information gleaned from #1-#3 above, plot out in pencil or with movable Post-It notes on a calendar for the upcoming year where you expect/hope to be birding through the year, with special emphasis to make sure that you schedule looking for birds that are the most limited in time and place.

5-If you are doing a big year in an area large enough to require air travel, schedule at least some of your trips in advance to minimize cost, all the while being aware that it is dangerous to over-schedule in advance because then you won’t be free to do many or any last-minute bird chases somewhere else.

6-Clear your calendar of nonessentials for the coming year.

7-As I always mention when I give talks on my big year, be sure your credit card situation (or bank account or whatever you can put your hands on) will allow you to do all this (air fare, rental cars, gas, food, room rental, etc.).

8-Get ready to bid a temporary (hopefully) adieu to your friends and loved ones.

Have fun in the planning and the doing of your big year. I have and am! Also, remember that no matter how much (or little) planning that you do, there will be missed birds and there will be big surprises and unplanned adventures. As you may have guessed I love doing big years!

In spite of lots of planning and lots of attempts I almost missed these in 2008:

Spotted owls