Birding Big Year 2016

April 15, 2016

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

Filed under: Birding, Uncategorized — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 12:52 pm

Epic Wildlife Watching: The Big Year

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Planning the Epic Birding Big Year Trip

Written by Wallace Keck* for Windows to Wildlife (Spring, 2016)

Somewhere between bear jams at Yellowstone National Park, once-in-a-lifetime big game safaris in Africa, or ecotourism adventures to Central America, a much more watchable wildlife experience is possible – the Birding Big Year. And it is just as epic! Like so many birders before and beside me, I’m doing a big year.

Some readers might be familiar with the big year, having seen the 2011 movie of the same title, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. These comedic actors represented real-life characters who competed in the calendar year 1998 to see as many bird species in North America as possible. Sandy Komito won that competition with 748 species, a record that remained unbroken until 2013 when Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward topped it by one.

Big year birding is not birdwatching or merely listing birds one has observed. The essence of big year birding is competition, either with other birders or with oneself. Like all competitions, birding can be ruthless and fierce, all-consuming, and let’s face it – expensive. I am a few months into my third big year in the last six, and consequently perpetually and happily broke. I’ve set a personal goal of seeing 300 species in the United States in 2016. This goal is a far cry from the current record, but it is respectable and within my financial reach. As far as competition, I am personally driven to set goals and achieve them, but a handful of my friends are also doing a big year, so naturally a competition (be it real or imagined) can be assumed.

Chasing birds can be expensive. I’ve been socking away extra cash since last September. The costliest aspects of big year birding are fuel, oil changes, and probably a new set of tires before it’s all over. There are only so many birds within the habitats of Southern Idaho, and while it is possible to see 300 species in the state, my best chances for success require travel to the vastly different eco-regions of the country. To date, I have seen 107 species within about a five-county area. As the spring migration begins and Idaho becomes inundated with species from Central and South America, I am sure to pick up another 120. But that still leaves me way short of the goal.

Since early December, I have been pouring over field guides, maps, state checklists, and the Internet for times, seasons, and occurrences of birds, especially those I have never seen before. New birds are called “lifers.” I started the 2016 big year with 460 lifers to my credit – a feat that has taken over 30 years to achieve. Of the 300 species I intend to see this year, I am hoping that a dozen or more will include first time sightings (lifers).

Serious competitive birders do not simply bird by chance or serendipity, we study as if trying to pass the bar exam. I have spent countless hours digesting every piece of information about two target species that are located in the Edwards Plateau of Central Texas. I am determined to add Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler to both my life list and big year list.

These two species (the Vireo and the Warbler) are the centerpieces of a 5,000-mile epic big year trip that will surely include many rare and unusual birds from the Great Basin, to the deserts of southeast Arizona, down the Rio Grande River, up the Texas Gulf Coast, through the piney woods of East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, beyond the Ozarks, over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and finally the Colorado Plateau. Every birding big year should include at least one epic big year trip. However, unless I open a go-fund-me account, I will be birding fairly close to home the rest of the year.

I am well aware of the peer pressure to set a good example of environmental conservation and live a low carbon footprint life. On the other hand, big year birding and traveling is as valuable as pursuing a college degree. The education one achieves through significant study and field experience will last a life-time. By December 31st, big year birders will have gained a deeper understanding of ecosystems in peril, effects of climate change, impacts of non-native species, the interplay between urbanization and agriculture, and the threats associated with fragmented habitat. Not to mention, birders greatly increase their knowledge of botany, geology, and geography, as well as diverse cultures and history. Upon my return from the “big trip” I will have something far more valuable than a list of birds. The knowledge and experiences gained will serve me well in serving the park visitors, school children, elected officials, and colleagues within my sphere of influence. I will be able to speak more fluently about the state of our environment and the importance of an individual conservation ethic. At the very least, I will have some great campfire stories.

Finally, big year birders gain something even greater than knowledge and influence, or personal satisfactions. Birding is ultimately about relationships and life-long friendships. Birders can be cranky loners at times, but we share a bond that breaks all stereo-types. I have birded with high school seniors and senior citizens, complete strangers and Christian brothers. I’ve never met a birder I didn’t like.

If you’re still a birdwatcher, consider stepping up your game. It’s not too late to start your own big year. Join in with a nearby Audubon chapter, or visit your parks and wildlife management areas to attend a bird walk. Better yet, participate in a citizen science project, backyard feeder watch, or Christmas bird count. But be careful, the leap from a bird walk to a big year obsession is shorter than you think. Soon you will be on your way to an epic watchable wildlife adventure.

*About the Author: Wallace Keck is the park superintendent of City of Rocks National Reserve and park manager of Castle Rocks State Park in southern Cassia County. In addition to his obsession with birds, Wallace is an avid writer, public speaker, field botanist, and photographer, tirelessly promoting the parks. You can follow his 2016 birding big year at

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