American Birding Podcast



Expectations–Stop and Smell the Roses

When you walk out the door to go birding do you have specific expectations of what bird(s) you want to see and specific plans on how to see the bird(s) you are hoping to see? Or do you just go to a nice habitat, like a woodlot or a seashore or a marsh or the mountains, and see what you can see? It helps to have at least some expectation of seeing some cool bird to lure us outside, or we might just stay home and never have the incentive to get out and bird at all.

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Probably most of us do a little of each of these things. In my experience, however, the nuttier a person gets about birding (for example, serious listers, big-year birders and the like), the less likely the person is to “just go birding”. I think in some ways that that is sad. Most of us originally began birding because we just liked to be outdoors and birds were so much fun to watch. Speaking for myself of course, when our birding becomes too targeted, we risk losing the joy. Our hopes and expectations of what we need to see get in the way of just seeing. When all our birding is only listing (e.g., life list or year list), we can cease to appreciate or even notice birds that are already on our list, and can sometimes only pay attention to “good” birds, the birds new to our list.


That is why, as a nutty big-year fanatic, I try very hard to regularly take a birding break from the hunt, to help myself remember why I love birding so much. It is tiring to be constantly on the hunt for hard-to-find birds. Birding can become a chore if I am not careful. Although serious birding can be work, I want it to be fun work and taking a birding sabbatical for a day or so every now and then, rather than being a nonstop chaser or lister can be very refreshing. Basically, I am recommending a bit of moderation, a slowing down, a time to enjoy what we do as birders. While the hunt can be exhilarating, maintaining a nonstop pace at anything is not to be recommended.

The higher our expectations of what bird(s) we strongly want to see, the more we also risk our birding becoming a win or lose situation. If my goal is a White-winged Crossbill (as it has been recently in my Alaska big year) and if I spend hours looking for a White-winged Crossbill and do not find it, I run the risk of disappointment and even depression if I fail in my goal, especially if I fail repeatedly. It is my theory that it is only the people who can stand to “fail” in their bird chases who will keep birding long term. Or to say it another way, if you cannot stand to fail, you are unlikely to last long as a birder. Birds just don’t always do what we want them to do. Although the uncertainties of when birds will be found, where birds will be found, and which birds will be found are part of the allure of birding, they can also be a cause for stress.

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People that do big years usually try to anticipate how many birds that they might expect to get in their big years. I find that if I set my expectations too high for a big year, or even a big day of birding, I am likely to give up and think it is impossible. Personally, I like to set my expectations initially at some number that seems like it would be possible without extreme luck if I just kept on with the big year for the whole year. Then, if all goes well, and I keep at it, maybe I can reach my initial goal before the year is up, giving me a feeling of accomplishment. I can then work toward a new goal with a feeling of momentum. That’s the theory, anyway. It’s all about expectations – and whether we use them to motivate us or to drive us to distraction.

In 2015, without consciously doing a big year, but just travelling to bird in many of the main Alaska hotspots, my list was 227 species. So, in 2016, which I am doing as an Alaskan big year, I expect to see that many birds and more. I’ve decided that a reasonable goal for this year is 250 species in Alaska. I understand that quite a few people have gotten that many in a year here so perhaps I can too. And when/if I reach that goal, I will work toward a new goal. But, whether or not I reach my expected goal, I already know that it will be a great year for me – especially if I give myself a break from expectation birding every now and then.

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