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

December 20, 2015

A Big Year Primer

Filed under: Birding — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 3:22 pm
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Planning the 2016 Big Year

Fingers rest at the keyboard on a quiet Sunday, December 20, 2015.  The sun is piercing through the late morning fog just out my cabin window, revealing intermittent views of Cache Peak.  Subtle hues of white and gray compete for attention, attempting to define what the day will be – mostly cloudy?  Partly sunny?  No matter; there will be birds at my feeder, flittering joyfully at the presence of new black-oil sunflower seeds.  And there will be anticipation by this avid birder of the moment, less than twelve days from now, when those birds count toward the 2016 Big Year.

A Big Year?  Many non-birding muggles have come to learn what that is, thanks to the 2011 film The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.  These acclaimed comedians each portrayed real life characters who spent 1998 chasing birds and the coveted title of Best Birder in North America. A Big Year is a dedicated effort to see as many bird species as possible within a year.  The effort can be motivated by the spirit of competition or personal achievement. Of course the Big Year concept predates both the movie and the year on which the book was based.  Whether explicitly labeled or not, mankind has been chasing birds long before the painter John James Audubon or explorers Lewis and Clark.  I chase birds; and there will be birders chasing birds long after I join the cherubim of paradise.

I am sitting at my oversized self-important oak desk.  A 4×6-foot National Geographic map of the United States dominates the left wall.  Bookshelves behind me contain 36 personal journals, chronicling 35 years of the most recent 52 years of life.  The journal 2016 is poised and ready for ink.  Atlas and road maps lay cluttered beneath a wooden lamp that was turned on a lathe by my father – a Christmas gift given to his son back in childhood days that were defined more by chess and fishing than birding and chess.  The 2000 edition Sibley Guide to Birds rests easily within reach. I am planning my own Big Year.

In the movie Moonstruck, the actress Olympia Dukakis asked the question, “Why do men chase women?” and the answer came back, “Because men fear death.” This humorous if not partly accurate answer, causes me to wonder:  “Why do men chase birds?”  Is it because of the prehistoric practice that men hunt and women nest?  I think it unlikely, as there are most certainly as many women who chase birds as men. Is it because chasing birds is so manly? [A bow to sarcasm].  Is it because we fear death?  Will breaking the 300 species threshold in 2016 help to define the meaning of my life?  When my bird life list finally breaks 500 (something I should have achieved years ago) will it finally give me a sense of accomplishment?

As I sit and wait for the epiphany, a Pinyon Jay band of sixty descends upon my deck feeders like Frank Baum’s Winged Monkeys in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  My Black oil sunflower seeds are tossed and dispersed erratically to attentive Dark-eyed Juncos below.  And then it comes to me.  I chase birds, because I fear God – not as defined from the Hebraic word mora (terror and dread), but yare (awe and reverence). I revere what the Creator has made for me.  “And out of the ground, the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every foul of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

These days, the names (both common and scientific) are all given, and the Lord God does not parade the birds before me; but He bids me to go find them. And find them I must. “For what can be known about God is plain to them.  For his invisible attributes, name, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

I never quite understood how rugged men of the mountain west could speak of fly-fishing as a religion until I watched the movie A River Runs through It.  Now hopefully it is socially acceptable to admit that birding is a religious experience.  I sit at my desk, plotting and planning, scheming and dreaming of trips to the holy lands in pursuit of birds – places like the San Pedro National Riparian Area, the Edwards Plateau, Ruby Mountains, Big Thicket, Cheyenne Bottoms, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Ozarks, and dozens more.  These lands are holy, because the Lord God has tucked His birds away there in ancient and pristine habitats; thus, there I will go.  In finding them, I will draw closer to Him.

A sacred pilgrimage can only be understood by those who set forth in humility, sacrifice, and determinationSuch is my Birding Big Year: humility, because I bare my soul, my success (or lack thereof) transparent to the reader; sacrifice, because instead of writing this blog, I could be birding; and determination, because the 2016 Big Year is an enormous commitment of time and resources over 366 days, and yet who can tell what a single day may bring.  I am determined to go, and I am willing to take you with me.

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