Sunday, November 4, 2012

Thinking about a Big Year?!

Red-tailed Hawk - digiscoped with Swarovski ATX 85mm and hand-held iPhone.
I was low and in the weeds, hence the weed blur which I thought was a kinda cool effect.
Ada County, Idaho
The idea of a birding "Big Year" - striving to see as many birds as possible in one calendar year - has always intrigued me. I don't see myself in much of a position to attempt a Big Year on a grand scale like the ABA area or even my own state of Idaho. Just the thought of a Big Year in Ada County in which I live, seems daunting enough. It's a large county as far as square miles to cover and hosts a nice diversity of habitat and birds. According to eBird, there are right around 300 bird species documented here. I think it would be a fun and exciting challenge, but I'm trying to give myself a reality check about how much time and effort might be involved before approaching my family for support. When I do things like this, I go all the way, fully committed. My personality type would not allow me to do this casually.

If you're gonna do a Big Year, ya gotta start planning early. So I turned to eBird for information. I've downloaded the eBird data for Ada County and begun sorting the list in several ways. I also ranked each species by the probability of seeing it:

1 = Should be easy to see
2 = Should be able to see with some effort
3 = Should be able to see with some luck and additional effort

There are about 130 species I should be able to see fairly easily just by getting out and about with the same regularity I currently go birding. There are another 70 species that are regularly occurring that I should be able to see by expending some additional effort. The remaining 90-100 species will take a bit of preparation combined with a lot of luck and the aide of fellow birders willing to share sightings with me.
Ada County Major Birding Hotspots
The eBird data also shows the window of opportunity I have for seeing each migrating species. Knowing your window of opportunity is critical to Big Year planning no matter what scale you are attempting. I'm also able to see on the eBird maps, where the best places are to see each species. I've started gathering this information into an Excel spreadsheet which is helpful to me in sorting and filtering for the information I want.

Some people might try and do a Big Year all on their own effort, and more power to them...but I won't be shy about asking for all the help I can get. If I do this Ada County Big Year, the Idaho birding listserv will be a great source of leads. I've also compiled a list of active and experienced Ada County birders I would plan to ask to be my consultants for the best times and locations to see each species, to be my trip companions, and to have me on speed-dial in their cell phones when they see something I haven't seen yet. At the same time, I hope my efforts might help spread the joy and excitement of birding as I share my escapades in the coming year.

Here area a couple more recently digiscoped images just for fun...


  1. I can well imagine the magnitude of the project you described. It sounds like a lot of preparation is needed and countless hours in the field. It would be very rewarding experience. All the best!

    1. Thanks Daniel. I am currently in preparation mode to present a proposal to the Mrs. My financial situation in the coming year is uncertain and I may not have fuel to get out to the regular migrant traps. We'll see what happens!

  2. If you haven't, set up a year needs alert on ebird, you can get an email every day or every hour when someone sees a bird you haven't seen yet in your county.

    1. Excellent reminder Manti! If I do a Big Year, I will most certainly use the eBird county alerts.

  3. My husband is currently doing a big year. He also started birding at the same time. That's right, other than your basic around the yard birds like robins and cardinals he didn't know much about birds and didn't bother spending much time looking at them until watching The Big Year. Oh if I'd known what was in store I would have seen the movie by myself LOL. He got bird number 550 today.

    Here is his blog:

  4. You're doing it the right way. When I did my Triangle Big Year I made a list of 200 species I should be able to see with minimal to normal effort. You'll want to get at least 95% of those.

    After that, get your ear to the listserv, make friends who are known to find good birds and will call or text you, and be prepared to chase whenever something good shows up.

    Also, try to get even expected birds as early in the year as possible. For instance, if you have the opportunity to get a bird in spring that you'd almost certainly get in fall, take that opportunity. It saves you time and worry to get them right up front.

    Another tip, set benchmarks for yourself and try to stick to them. If you want to be at 150 by the end of January, push for it. Good places to stop and re-evaluate your planning are at the end of the January, at the end of May, and at the end of August.

    Good luck!

  5. I'm just wrapping up a big-ish year in my home county in NY and you're following the same steps I started with a little over a year ago. I have a Google spreadsheet that I set up of all the expected and many of the unexpecteds, but gave them a 1-5 ranking (I started with 3, but went to even finer detail). In addition to "best times" to find them, I tried to include known locations when I had them -- that helped target birding trips through the year.

    I haven't blogged a thing about it this year - too busy either working, birding, or family-thinging to do it justice - but plan to recount the highs, lows, and in-betweens starting in January. (Spoiler: the best part has not necessarily been the birds, but finding new places to explore in my county.)

    Good luck on your quest! Oh, and Nate's advice is spot on. What he said!

  6. Sounds fun and daunting at the same time. If you go for it, we will enjoy watching your count go up :)