American Birding Podcast



The Big Year Bug Bites Again

049Winter is truly here in Anchorage. We’ve now had three snowfalls at our house in Anchorage and there are forecasts for more to come soon. Some neat birds are starting to show up at feeders in the area to at least partly make up for the fact that most every bird that can migrate away from here has done so. Anchorage Audubon’s president, Keys, is currently hosting a possible (probable?) Costa’s Hummingbird. Not only did the first-of-the-season Pine Grosbeaks arrive at my feeders on the last day of October, but my first ever yard Gray Jay was there at the same time.

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As a dyed-in-the wool bird chaser, I should also be out chasing other birds in Alaska. There are lots of birds that are difficult to find in Alaska, or even rare, especially at this time of year, that I could have recently chased or could now be chasing – Swamp Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Band-tailed Pigeon, Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles, Cinnamon Teal, American Coot, Brewer’s Blackbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Western Meadowlark, to name a few. I can’t even begin to list the rarities that turned up this fall on St. Paul and St. Lawrence Islands after I was there.

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Have I chased these reported birds, or spent much time trying to find my own rarities? Am I on the road now to try to chase these birds? Mostly, the answer is “no”. A clue to the answer to “why not?” can be found in the fact that I rarely chase birds immediately following doing a big year or when I am planning a big year. It’s as if I try to save my strength, and my money when I’m not doing a big year.

My most recent big year(s) (a few overlapping Pennington County, South Dakota big years) were a couple of years ago. So it’s not post-big year recovery that’s keeping me from doing much chasing now. The fact is – although I thought I would never do such a thing again, I am planning to do another big year. My Alaskan island visits in September inspired me to consider doing, and then to decide to do – another big year, an Alaskan big year! I thought I had conquered the addiction. But apparently not so. Therefore, rather than spend time and money and effort now in chasing the birds that are being reported elsewhere in Alaska, I’m taking note of what is being seen and where, hoping that some of them will stay around until January.

Right now I’m planning where to go and when to go there in 2016. Similarly to my planning in 2004 for my second Texas big year (2005) and my planning in 2007 for my ABA big year (2008), right now I’m putting post-it notes all over next year’s calendar in an attempt to allocate days to locations. I’m reading books, studying eBird, making lists, checking them twice…. Unlike my Texas and ABA big years, there are not too many places that I can go in Alaska before April/May to add huge numbers of species to my year list. Next year is likely to start with mopping up whatever wintering birds that I can in the Anchorage area plus heading off in directions that might yield a few, or maybe only one new species at a time. Possibly (at least some of the time) I may be hibernating to store up energy for the mad push when the light and birds come back to Alaska.


Many of my trips around Alaska this year that I have discussed in previous posts on this ABA blog site have helped me to learn firsthand what birds can be found and where they might be found, although there are big gaps in my experience, especially in south-east Alaska and in central Alaska. As with any big year, particularly my South Dakota big year in 2012 when I had not even lived in the state a full year, I will be doing a lot of learning as I go. That is actually part of the fun – if birds were totally predictable and knowable in advance, there would be no challenge. But I do need to do a lot more studying, and talking to others who know the state better than I do. It would not be nearly as much fun if I were to be totally clueless about where to go and when to go there. Knowledge is a good thing, as is willingness to learn more.

So, at the beginning of January (or possibly late in December), I will be heading off somewhere so I can begin my Alaska big year on January 1st. If no particularly noteworthy bird seems to be hanging out in southeastern Alaska or somewhere that has air-service or a road upon which I can drive, I will scour the Anchorage area to get as many of the regular winter birds on my year list as I can, and I will keep my ear to the ground and skies (and alert for calls and texts from other birders) and my eyes on the AK Birding listserv and eBird to see where I might plan to go next. In May-September, I’ll need to go as many places as I can in Alaska, and then spend the last few months of the year trying to pull out as many rarities as possible. What fun! What a wonderful excuse to go look for, and hopefully see, the neat birds of Alaska.

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