For much of the past five years, I haven’t been able to bird as much as I wanted to. Kids, work, life – you name it, but my time was claimed. This year, I finally had enough, and I decided I was going to be a more active birder if it killed me. I decided to embark on a ‘little big year.’
A big year, for those interested, is when a birder sets out to see as many species as possible in one year. Mostly, you see the big-time birders doing it. I have zero expectation that I could ever compete with them. However, I decided I would ramp up my birding game and just see how many birds I could see in 2018. I’m a fairly experienced birder, but I just haven’t been as madly-devoted to the hobby as I was before my kids got here, and before grad school took up so much of my time. So, I may not end the year at 300 species, but I’m going to try for the best little big year I can accomplish.
I joined eBird, something that I’ve intended to do for years (actually, I think I’ve had an unused login for almost a decade). I was surprised how much more engaged eBird made me as a birder. I must admit, it stimulated my competitive side a little, and I started trying to keep up with the experienced birders in my tri-county area. To my moderate surprise, I have actually done fairly well for myself so far this year.
I got a late start by missing birding the first few weeks of January, but so far this year, I’ve got a state year list of 175, birding almost exclusively within three counties. And actually, there’s a some rather common species I should be able to knock out fairly easily. At one point, I had the 28th largest year list in the state, although I’m back down in the mid-30s currently, due to a few weeks of less-frequent birding. If I could escape to the coast for a day or two, my list would shoot up substantially, due to the different bird assemblages present along the Gulf that I don’t really have access to here.
I’ve also been paying more attention to county listing, and I’ve currently got 130 species in my home county, and 119 and 131 species in neighboring counties. That puts me at 3rd or 4th in each of my three counties. Er…not that I’m counting (ok, I’m counting a little.) Really, the top 2 or 3 folks are much more active birders than me, so I entertain no notions of getting to 1st. It’s really just an honor to be in that company.
Indeed, one of the things that I have really enjoyed this year has been getting active in the local birding scene. I have tagged along with the Audubon Society for a few trips, and found them to be a lot more fun than I ever expected. I even joined Audubon this year. I’ve met a good half dozen local birders (often by running into them in the field), getting to know them well enough to exchange texts and calls when a local rarity is spotted. Birding has always been a solitary meditation for me, but I’ve enjoyed being in the presence of people who can speak the same language.
I’ve also been working hard at building my life list. I started 2018 with 225 species on my life list. It should be much higher after all these years of birding. I just scaled my birding back so much over the last 8-9 years, I haven’t added many of the species I could ID without much trouble. So, this year, I set a goal for myself: Get my life list to 250.
And, to my surprise, I’m approaching my goal! I’ve added 21 species to my life list this year, and I’m only 4 species away from hitting 250. I’ve seen some fantastic birds this year. I upped my duck and sparrow game this winter, and I ended up confidently adding birds that I’ve probably seen before, but never taken the time to learn or look for – like Vesper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, American Pipit, and the wacky blackbirds (Rusty and Brewer’s). The Audubon Society helped me out on a trip to see my first Horned Lark, a nemesis bird, right next to a big pile of manure. I saw a beautiful Golden-winged Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler the same morning – just awesome birds. I learned a lot analyzing some difficult shorebirds, ultimately identifying Short-billed Dowitchers (not a lifer, but only seen once), and some of the peeps – Least, Semipalmated, and White-rumped Sandpipers. My most recent lifer was a cool little Grasshopper Sparrow, at a location suggested to me by some local birders. I can’t believe I got to see it so well! No telling what will be next.
Just the other evening, I found myself on top of a lonely hill in the middle of nowhere at sunset. I was between two bands of thunderstorms, so there was frequent thunder and lightning (I stayed in the car for the most part!) I was waiting for some special birds to start calling after dark. The light rain wasn’t optimal, and I was feeling a bit glum, but around 8:15, I heard the first bird start to call far off down the hill: “Chuck-will’s-widow! Chuck-will’s-widow!” After fifteen or twenty more minutes, I’d about given up on the other bird, but I made a stop halfway down the hill on my way out, and after a few minutes, I heard a faint call off to the east: “Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will! Whip-poor-will!” Both goatsuckers in one evening (Whip-poor-wills are fairly rare around here). On the way home, I picked up my first-of-season Common Nighthawk as well. All three nightjars, sweet.
None of the nightjars were life birds, but it sort of illustrates where I’ve been coming from by not only working on my life list, but going for my ‘little big year.’ I’ve been rediscovering birding, in a way, by rediscovering many of the birds I’ve seen in past years. I’ve refreshed my ID skills, and built on them substantially, through spending so much time in the field. No matter how else I look at it, I’ve had a good time and I’ve seen some beautiful places.
My son has a Curious George CD that he and I listen to all the time on the way to school. There’s a line in one of the songs, which I’ve changed a bit here, that describes how I feel about my little big year. I think I’ll end this entry on that line.
“The more I see outside, the more I see of me.”