American Birding Podcast



Stranger in the Strange Land

I know it’s a trite saying, but most of my big years have been done as a stranger in a strange land. The only exceptions were my second Texas big year and my South Dakota Pennington County big years.scaled quail

My first Texas big year, which was my first big year ever, did not start out like a big year at all (similar to Neil Hayward’s ABA big year but on a smaller scale). In November of 2002 I was staring out over a north Texas lake and chatting with another birder as we surveyed the lake for loons. He commented that he really needed to head down to the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley because he was a bit behind that year on reaching his annual goal of 400 bird species/year. I was impressed – 400 birds per year in Texas?! What a concept. Although I learned later that he meant a goal of seeing 400 bird species in the whole US each year, by that time I was in the middle of working to get 400 species in Texas for 2003. I had no idea what was possible, but making the attempt seemed like a good way to learn about Texas birds and birding sites. I did not consider that I was doing a “big year” and in fact was not familiar with the concept. I had only been in Texas for a couple of years, and although I had been making forays to get county birds in many of the 254 Texas counties, I did not know very much about where to go to find particular species. As 2003 progressed, I met Eric Carpenter who was in the middle of his record-breaking Texas big year, and I soon became obsessed with changing my goal of 400 birds to a big year goal. The year ended with me at 485 species (Eric had 505), and I was hooked.

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I waited a year, during which Howard Laidlaw broke the Texas record again with 511 species, and then I did my second Texas big year in 2005. That was a wonderful year, both in the number of species possible and actually found, and in the fact that I actually had a pretty good idea of where to go and when to go there. I was tuned in to a network of fellow birders who were very helpful in informing me of bird sightings. There were five of us doing Texas big years and the three of us who kept it up the whole year all were at or above the previous records. I managed to get 522 species and thought I was done with big years.

crimson-collared grosbeak

Not so. A friend (to remain nameless) gave me a copy of the book THE BIG YEAR and when I finally had enough courage to read it, I knew I had to do a big year in the ABA area (continental US and Canada and defined waters around them). I had not birded in much of the ABA area and I was definitely a stranger in much of what was a strange land to me. I loved it! The experience of being in new places and seeing new birds all year long was to me a previously unimaginable high! I knew I was making mistakes and not always going where it made the most sense to go, but I was free to choose. I spent a whole week going after one species, the Gray-headed Chickadee, which some might think a monumental waste of time (and money), but I loved the trip and would not change it. You can read more about my adventures that year in Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year.

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In mid-2011, I moved to South Dakota, with absolutely no thoughts of ever doing another big year. By the end of that year, however, having met a few new birding friends and becoming entranced by the wide variety of habitats across the state, I decided to do a South Dakota big year in 2012. I had not even been in the state a full year and had rarely been “east-river” (the eastern half of the state, the only place to have a good chance at many different warbler species and other migrants). This time, even though nearly all of it was strange to me, exploring a new land as part of a big year was much easier. I could drive everywhere and usually be home at bedtime. Fewer motels and no flights. All four of us who did a SD big year that year broke the previous record, undoubtedly due mostly to the competitive spirit. In 2013 and part of 2014 I did overlapping county big years in Pennington Co. in South Dakota where I lived. By then I was no stranger to the area, but even then there were new areas to explore, which doing a big year led me to do.

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When I moved to Alaska in late August of 2014, I vowed not to be tempted to do an Alaska big year. To take advantage of being in Anchorage I did go to some of the hotspots (as reported earlier in this blog) this summer and fall, and I thought that would satisfy the itch. Just the opposite, however. It made me realize all over again what a wondrous state this is, a state that just begs to be explored even more. Somewhere between my fall trips to Gambell and to St. Paul, I could no longer keep the idea repressed and I started thinking seriously about actually doing an Alaska big year. Alaska is so huge, and I know so little about so much of it. I have found in the past that for me exploring and learning about an area is best done by making it part of a big year, so I don’t get too distracted by non-birding things and I keep on keeping on and am motivated to do the best job that I can. I know that I will truly be a stranger in a land in where there is much that I do not know. Even as I enthusiastically plan my 2016 Alaska big year, I realize how much this is a “fools-rush-in” endeavor. There are so many experienced knowledgeable Alaskan birders and I know I should tremble at my ignorance. But many of them have already offered to be of help and provide guidance in my planning.

This coming year will be what it will be of course – I can just hope to have some control in where it goes and how much time and effort I put into it. As with all big years there will be challenges and disappointments and even boring times, but I know there will be exciting new places to go and birding to do. I am already having fun in the planning and the trying to cram information about the best birding places and dates into my brain before the year begins. And it will begin VERY SOON!

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You will be able to follow my big year by looking at the ABA blog and periodically at my new blog site (, where I will try to post tidbits more frequently about what I am doing and seeing, and at my web site (, where I will try to keep my year list up-to-date so you can learn what birds I have seen (and have not yet seen). I also am on Facebook and will post pictures there if I have time. And—should you happen to find or learn about some great Alaskan bird or have other words of wisdom, I would love to hear from you. Maybe I will even run into you next year birding out in Alaska somewhere!