January 03, 2022
As 2021 has ended I wrapped up my bird count for the year and this is my “official” report. During my first attempt at birding during 2020 I recorded 26 different species. I had decided for my totals I would only count those birds I was able to take photos of (not the permissible “hear or see”) so while I had identified several other species, they were not included in my count. When I tallied my birds for last year, I found that I had exactly doubled my identifications, with 52 species. This was due to being more purposeful in looking for birds, being willing to stop along the road to take a picture, and by increasing my ability to identify the birds I see. All three need much more work before I become proficient.
When I looked online, I found a big year is “a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound, within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area.” This was popularized in North America, and big years are commonly done within single US states and Canadian provinces, as well as within larger areas such as the entire world, the lower 48 continental US states, or within the official American Birding Association Area (ABA). The ABA big year record of 840 species was set by John Weigel of Australia in 2019 and the world big year record of 6,852 species was set in 2016 by Arjan Dwarshuis of Netherlands. The 1969 foundation of the American Birding Association standardized and regulated North American Big Years, with the ABA area defined as “the 49 continental US states (excluding Hawaii), Canada, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, plus adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever distance is less.” Hawaii has since been added to the official ABA area. Only 788 species to go.
Several things changed to allow my bird count to increase last year. I received a single lens reflex (SLR) camera with a standard and attachable telephoto lens to get photos from variable distances of more birds. I increased the number of identification tools from my two identification guides to three manual guides, along with two online guides, all augmented by two phone identification apps. I was also given an identification course to help with bird identification. This year at Christmas I was given another tool, a digital class on photography and how to take wildlife photos (birds!). I realize it would be a lofty goal, but what about again doubling my identifications to 104? What, it could happen.
Thoughts: Traditional big year birders have drawn criticism from environmentalists for failing to consider the ecological impact of their travel. Several birders have attempted “green”, or alternative big years to raise awareness for both birding and the environment. One teenager and his parent’s traveled over 13,000 miles by bicycle and tallied 548 species, raising more than $25,000 for bird conservation in the process. The first continent-wide “green year” took place in 2014, as Dorian Anderson bicycled 17,830 miles around the United States, amassing a self-powered, petroleum-free 618 species during his 365 days on America’s roads. Dorian visited 28 states and raised $49,000 for habitat conservation. Big years require a combination of knowledge, skill, determination, and luck. The same could be said about outlasting the pandemic. It takes more than just luck. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.