Birding Big Year 2016

April 15, 2016

Epic Birding Trip Part 1: Strategery by the Numbers

Filed under: Adventure, Birding, Birds, Parks, Travel, Uncategorized, Wildlife — wfkeck @ 11:14 pm

The Epic Big Year Birding Trip begins!

Time is a ruthless taskmaster, and the calendar an obnoxious billboard; both reminding me that the appointed date of departure for the one big birding trip this year is looming.  Since early winter 2015, I have been planning meticulously (some might say obsessively) every detail and every mile.  I have engineered the itinerary forwards and back, affirming key dates where I need to be and when, yet trying to work in enough flexibility to stay longer or leave sooner depending on how cooperative the birds are.  I know birds.  They are prone to misbehave and fail to meet me at the designated locations.  If ever there is a time to be bird-brained, it is this week. I simply must think like them, for I am scheduled to take flight at noon, Friday, March 25. My devious plan to see 200 species has to be flawless.

If planning a 5,000-mile/15-day birding trip is not enough, add to it the pressure to keep up the big year list, lest I fall horribly behind my competitors.  Thankfully, I reach my 100th bird on February 21.  The American Dipper presents himself without prompting at the Cassia Creek bridge in Elba.  Shortly thereafter, #101 Golden-crowned Kinglet fidgits in a nearby willow.  But then I suffer through an 11-day dry-spell until Say’s Phoebe and Sandhill Crane migrate in.  All told, my pre-trip total is a mere 113.  My competitors had that many before leap day!  I try to console myself with the fact that I only had 94 at this point in the chase back in 2012, but then remember that I was only 2 behind in 2014.  No, the only consolation I relish is the knowledge that I will get many, many birds on this trip.

Work is unrelenting.  I put in the overtime to wrap up various projects and assignments in anticipation of the prolonged absence.  Conference calls, business trips, and the incessant assembly line of email remind me of the Wac-A-Mole arcade game.  Just when I am sure I have them all answered, four more pop up.  And then there are the honey-do’s, the car repairs, and other off-duty responsibilities.  I still need to buy a camp stove, food, and withdraw my stash of mad-money from the credit union.  Finally, I need to just sit down and finish my itinerary!

The Big Year Birding Trip revolves around two key species: Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler – both endangered species, both potential lifers, and both arriving even now to the Edwards Plateau west of Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The “strategery” of the trip is to reach the area a few days after the first arrivals are typically reported in eBird and soon enough to find them by call and song.  If they pair up and stop singing I’m doomed.  Departing on March 25, gives me just enough time prior to that event to bird my way down through Nevada, Arizona and along the US-Mexico border.  If all goes well, I’ll have a few days in Southeast Arizona to raise the Big-Year tally to 150 or better.  I really don’t know what to expect in the Davis Mountains, but I’ll need a day there just to keep from reaching the Edwards Plateau too soon.

If after bagging the vireo and warbler, and if the plan is still intact, I will race for the border along the Rio Grande and “mine for gold.”  Every birder knows that a serious big year demands a visit to the mecca of hotspots between Laredo and Port Isabel.  Emerging from there, I should be sitting around 200 if I time it perfectly with the neotropical migration.  As I bird my way up the gulf coast from Padre Island to High Island, I’m counting on another 30.  Traveling through NE Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, I could keep raking in the migrants, or at least score 25-30 common birds of the eastern US.  After a day or two of downtime with family in NW Arkansas, I will turn my attention to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, southern Rockies of Colorado, and finally the Colorado Plateau of Utah.

Hours at the computer, I rub my eyes and wonder; have I picked the right refuges, parks, and hotspots?  Have I given adequate time at each stop to make the trip count?  I tally the miles, estimate the cost of gasoline, project the price of camping and food.  I even pad the budget with three random nights in a cheap motel, knowing I won’t be able to live with myself for two weeks without the occasional shower.  In addition to these logistical fear, I worry – have I studied enough?  I cannot afford to spend precious minutes in the field thumbing through field guides just to decide whether I am looking at a Bell’s Vireo or a Gray Warbler.  I need to know that a Cassin’s Kingbird in spring along the banks of the lower Rio Grande is less likely to be seen than a Couch’s Kingbird.  But I also need to remain vigilant, because the best part of birding is catching up to and confirming the presence of a species that by all accounts should never be where it is.  some birds ignore the books and statistics and just do their own thing.

Finally, there are these lingering fears: will Susan be ok while I am gone? Will these Jeep tires really last another 5,000 miles; will I fall victim to highway robbery? (I watch too many movies).  She assures me that she will be ok.  I have far less confidence in the tires.  Thursday night, March 24, I fold and pack the last load of laundry, and add the duffle bag to an already bulging cargo hold.  Fifteen days on the road in spring…one cannot be sure if they will need a parka or pair of shorts – so both make the trip.

Friday, March 25: I spend the first half of the day whacking the last few moles.  I set the out-of-office feature on my phone and email app as a vain attempt to reduce the workload that will be waiting for me on the other side of this trip.  And then it happens…noon.  I point the Jeep south toward the nearly 60 miles of dirt road between me and the Nevada state line.  I haven’t a care in my mind, except the self-imposed pressure to get the birds. I make it a rule not to count any birds for the trip list until I travel the four miles to the Utah border.  Moments later with the Almo Valley in the rear-view mirror, I reach the boundary and grab my pen and notebook: Trip bird #1 – Mountain Bluebird. The male takes quick flight without a sound. A hush falls over the high desert.  It begins to snow.

(Stay tuned for Epic Birding Trip Part 2: What happens in Vegas….)

1 Comment »

  1. Cannot wait for the next part of the story!


    Comment by Linda Swanson Ziulkowski — April 16, 2016 @ 12:48 am

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