Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Year for the Birds

You may remember that a few months ago, I talked about Big Days and birding competitions. If you don't have any recollection of that post, you can click here and refresh your memory. At the end of that post, I said I would revisit that topic and... I never did. Finally, three months later, I'm finishing the story.

There are Big Days, which are 24-hour-long team efforts to see as many species as possible. Some people, however, are so thrilled by the chase of rare birds that they don't want to do just a Big Day. They want to do a Big Year. In a Big Year, a birder starts birding on January 1 and keeps on going for 365 days.

There was actually a movie called "The Big Year" that came out in 2011. It was based on the book "The Big Year" (how shocking) by Mark Obmascik, where he followed Al Levantin, Sandy Komito, and Gregory Miller in their 1998 birding race. I really like the book, and I thought the movie was a fairly good portrayal of birding. If you're interested in Big Years, you should totally check out the book or the movie, or both. : )

Depending on the competitiveness of the birder, a Big Year could range from a pretty casual year of birding, to a year devoted wholeheartedly to birds. Some people just want to see how many birds they would normally see in a year. Many, however, put a lot of effort, time, and money into this event. In the book "The Big Year," one of the men was able to keep working full-time the entire year, but it was hugely stressful. I would imagine that many people who do Big Years are retired, or at the very least take a lot of vacation time off from work. This is because finding enough birds to even have a shot at winning the competition takes a huge amount of time.

Basically, there are 675 birds that commonly live in North America. These birds are everywhere, from California to New York, from Texas to North Dakota. And some of these birds, although they are "common residents," live in very specific places. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken can only be found on swaths of land across Oklahoma and Kansas. The Kirtland's Warbler has to be hunted down in the extreme northern part of Michigan. To find all of these North American residents, a birder would have to cover all of the United States. (Only birds found in the U.S. count towards a birder's Big Year list.) And they couldn't just travel cross-country and be done by January - many of these birds are migratory. The birds of the United States cycle through from winter to spring, from summer to fall, so a Big Year birder has to be on their toes every season.

On top of those common residents are the vagrants and the accidentals. Sometimes, birds get swept into North America from Asia, Europe, and South America, birds like Pin-Tailed Snipes and Tufted Flycatchers. These rarities are what get Big Year birders really running. If a rarity-hunting birder gets word of a really special vagrant, it doesn't matter that they're in New Jersey and the bird is in New Mexico. They will hop on a plane and hurry over to find that bird. In past decades, birders have relied on Attu, one of the islands in Alaska's Aleutian chain, to get dozens of Asian rarities. From 2000 to 2010, however, there were no birding trips to Attu.

After all of this hunting of both common residents and crazy rarities, Big Year birders end up with over 700 species. The all-time record for a Big Year is 745 birds, held by Sandy Komito from 1998. In 2010, Robert Ake had the largest list with 731 birds. The final step in a Big Year is where the participants send in their lists to the American Birding Association, who compiles a list of the results. The 2010 results can be found here. Unfortunately, I could not find the 2011 results online.

So, yeah! Big Years are really exciting, for both the birder and the entire birding community, but they are also exhausting. I don't know if I'll ever attempt one. We'll just have to see! If you're interested, you can follow one woman's 2012 Big Year experience by clicking here and scrolling down, where all of her posts to the American Birding Association's blog are listed. I hope you have enjoyed this post, and I'll see you again in a couple of weeks!

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