For the birders that I have met, the birds are top priority. But, there is a social aspect to birding. If you go on docent-led tours, or if you go to a birding conference, you are bound to meet other birders. Even if you take a solo trip to a wildlife refuge, you will probably run into other people with binoculars. With most of these people, you will have only a casual conversation - a quick, "Hey, how's it going, seen anything good?"
But you may reach the point where you wonder how you compare to other birders. You want to have a good time birding, but you also want to challenge your skills against the skills of your friends. Is there such a thing as competitive birding?
You can bet your boots there is.
First of all, there's the Big Day. This is where one person, or a team of people, see how many birds they can find in 24 hours. It can be any day of the year, but many teams choose some time during migration. Most people look for birds across a state. Others might limit their efforts to a county, or they might do a "green" Big Day, where they travel entirely by bike or foot. (If you put limitations like these on your team, you only compare your score to other teams that limited themselves in the same way. Here are the scores for some teams that did a green Big Day in 2012.) The Big Day itself is fun. It takes you across wide swathes of habitat, and forces you to identify birds as quickly as possible. It's exhilarating, and it's exhausting.
But, on top of that, you can submit your results to the American Birding Association to see where your team ranks in comparison to others. The ABA releases a "Big Day and List Report" in the summer of the next year. I just got mine for 2011, and the numbers are stunning. Last year, eleven Californian teams submitted their Big Day reports. All of them had at least 200 species, and the top team had 231 species. That means that in one day, they all saw more birds than I've seen in two years.
Birders in many other states approached or got more than 200 species in one day. Texas was the break-out winner with 264 species. The team in second place for Texas had 260. Can you imagine being so proud of your 260-species-long list, then learning that someone else beat you by 4 birds? It would be so frustrating! But, at the same time, the experience of seeing that many birds in one day is amazing enough by itself. Learning where you rank is just an extra bit of fun.
That's one great thing about birders. Even during a competition, they are still supportive of each other. I think that's because we really love birds. If we do a Big Day, or any other kind of competitive birding, it's because we want to have fun. After all, even an event like this isn't a perfectly fair judge of your abilities. A lot of birding depends on luck. You may be one of the most experienced birders in the nation, but nature could easily prevent you from getting the highest list. A landslide could force you to take an hour-long detour. Fog could ruin your visibility. You could get stuck in a traffic jam. The birds could just refuse to show up. Every birder knows this. No one is going to hold it against you if you say that "the birding wasn't very good." That's not a measure of your skill - it's a measure of how nature was feeling that day.
Just for funsies, here's the account of one man who did a Big Day in Ecuador. Mm, tropical birds...
There are plenty of other birding competitions! Next week, I'll talk about a couple of them.