American Birding Podcast



A Bird in the Bush

I034aAA have been writing for a long time about big years, so it is likely that I have covered this topic before, possibly more than once. Because I am in the throes of planning another big year, however, this topic has again risen to the surface. How do I decide where to go look for birds? Do I go after the tried and true “bird in the hand” or do you risk trying to find a “bird in the bush”? Of course, I hope to figure out a way to do both, but sometimes that is just not possible. I cannot go more than one place at a time. One major problem is that in the world of birding, it often seems like a rare bird, a bird in the bush, is way more valuable than a more common bird in the hand (or on the feeder). Not that any bird is really likely to be “in the hand”.

Planning and carrying out a big year involve a lot of weighing of options. Of course, that is true of deciding when and where to go birding in non-big years, in everyday birding. If you are doing a big year, it seems like so much more is riding on your decision. Do you spend more time during the year seeking out the more common birds, or do you take time, sometimes a lot of time, to try to find the rarities? One of the hardest lessons to remember when you are doing a big year is that each species only counts for one species. In the lower 48, that means that a common House Sparrow is the same as a Green Jay. In Alaska, a rare House Sparrow is still the same as a common Black-billed Magpie. Even though we all do know this fact, the lure of the chase can be very hard to resist, especially to the hard-core and/or big-year birder. While it is usually much more satisfying to add a rare bird to your list, if it causes you to miss one (or even more) more common birds, your year-list total suffers. That is of course even more problematic if the chase for the rarer bird is not successful and you miss the rare bird and the more common bird(s).

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When I did my 2008 ABA big year, I decided to “go for” the Gray-headed Chickadee, which as far as I knew (and as far as I still know) in North America is only found in the middle of nowhere in northern Alaska and some local spot somewhere in the Yukon. Although I had seen one of these chickadees in Finland many years earlier, I wanted to have it on my US list during my ABA big year. I had learned years earlier that a backpacking trip into a particular Alaska spot had given a good chance for finding this species, but that spot had seemed to dry up. Now it required a 6 or 7 day rafting trip on the North Slope. Okay, so that was what it took, so I signed up, even though I do not swim, was scared of being on rapid water and had never rafted. I did go and I did add the bird to my big year list, but my choice of this bird way out in the bush meant that I could not go to look for the much less rare Connecticut Warbler until much later and then I did not find it. I chose the chickadee, but lost the warbler.

gray-headed chickadee

So, to be specific about my upcoming Alaska big year – I will have much time in January – March to look for the resident birds around Anchorage, such as the Bald Eagles, Black-billed Magpies, Steller’s Jays, Common Ravens, Black-capped Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers, and to travel to nearby areas for such birds as the locally common Northwestern Crows and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. I will hope to have time to zip down to the southeast –Juneau (where I’ve only been once), Ketchikan (where I’ve never been), and possibly elsewhere for wintering rarities in the state. Currently (or at least recently), such rarities include a Hooded Merganser, an American Coot, a Ruddy Duck, a Pied-billed Grebe, an American Bittern, a Northern Pygmy-Owl and a Rustic Bunting – all down in southeastern Alaska. Maybe some will stay into January, and maybe I’ll get there in time to see them. How much time (and how much money) should I allocate to travels that might only yield a single species if I’m lucky? Decisions, decisions.

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Things will escalate as birds arrive in Alaska in spring, many of which pass through but do not stay in Anchorage. I will be tempted to try to cover the whole state, but no matter the direction in which I head, my choice will necessarily increase the risk of missing something in another part of the state. Migration is a hurried affair. By the time the birds reach Alaska most birds do not linger for long on their way to the vast northern areas of the state, areas that are often impossible to reach and over which the birds are often thinly spread.

As spring turns to summer I expect to keep busy just going everywhere that I can to find the expected breeding birds – the cliff-nesters on St. Paul Island, the eiders, loons, shorebirds and jaegers in Barrow, the woodland flycatchers, warblers and thrushes, as well as to Kenai, Homer, Nome, Hyder, Juneau…. Fall migration will undoubtedly have me scrambling for shorebirds and other migrants that I missed in the spring as well as for rarities on St. Lawrence and St. Paul Islands. As the year winds to a close, assuming I have energy and money (or credit) remaining, the decision-making is likely to be more straight-forward with choices being much more limited. I hope to be chasing the few birds that I have missed but are still somewhere in the state.

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During this whole process, I can’t just have a strict plan of allowing a fixed number of hours or days for each species. Some will take more time than others, and the balancing of effort required and number of species possible will continue to be critical for the whole year. Although I sometimes just will want to abandon the whole big-year thing and just go targetless birding (or even more temptingly, just go birding elsewhere where there are more birds, like Texas), I know from my previous experience that doing, and completing, a big year can be an astounding, rewarding adventure. I hope to be able to still be able to say that in early 2017.

PS. I probably won’t try to include the Gray-headed Chickadee in my Alaska big year.