American Birding Podcast



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?