Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Stories

My Little Year

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

December 31, 2013. Neil Hayward finishes his record-breaking Big Year with 749 birds sighted.
January 1, 2014. I begin my little year with 25 birds sighted. Off to a good start.

The object of a Big Year is to see in one year as many species of birds as possible within the continental US, Canada and their coastal waters. Birders spend the year traveling around the continent, chasing reports of rare and accidental birds. They are prepared to hop on a plane at a moments notice and travel to any and every corner of North America to see that one special bird.
On the back cover of Mark Obmascik’s book The Big Year, Outside Magazine sums up it up like this,

“Every January 1, a quirky crowd storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year - a grand, expensive, and occasionally vicious 365-day marathon of birdwatching”.

In March of 2012, while on vacation in the Everglades, I read the book, “The Big Year”. The book had recently been turned into a movie and it was getting a lot of play in the newspapers. Until the movie, I had never heard of a Big Year. However, it seemed the perfect book to read in the Everglades, a birders paradise. As one can imagine, it piqued my interest. My first thought was, Can I do a big year? How wonderful it would be to devote an entire year to birding around the country.
My second thought, which came almost simultaneously with the first thought, was that I had no real desire to do a Big Year, for a number of reasons. They are: 1. I can’t afford to take a year off from work. 2. I can’t afford to spend enormous amounts of money flying all over the continent. 3. While I enjoy birding, I don’t have the dedication it takes to do a Big Year, and 4. while I consider myself a fair birder, I am in no way good enough to try a Big Year. For instance, like most birders of my level, many sparrows are designated as LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs) and most sandpipers all come under the heading of “peeps”. So a Big Year was out.ibis
And yet, I knew that in hiking around the Everglades, I would see quite a few birds that I would not see at home, back in Massachusetts. It seemed a shame to waste those birds sightings. That’s when I decided to do a little year. I would set a goal for myself to see a certain number of birds within the year. I would try to choose a number that was possible to attain, yet would take a bit of effort and that would be a challenge to see, considering the time and funds available as well as my level of birding expertise. The number I chose was two hundred birds. I would try to see two hundred birds within the year. Then, when the year was up, I would start on a new little year, trying to reach my goal of 200 birds, as well as beating my record of the year before.
Like the Big Year, my little year would be a competition. But unlike the Big Year, it would be a competition against myself. The competition - to reach my goal - would drive me to get out birding as often as possible, but it wouldn’t rule my life. If I didn’t reach my goal, I would always have the next year to look forward to.

After having done two little years, this is what I have gained:

  • Twice the Enjoyment. I now have two levels of birding enjoyment - the normal pleasure I get from watching birds as well as the anticipation of seeing a bird that is not on my list. This adds a new luster to seeing even the most common bird. For instance, the tufted titmouse is an every-day visitor at my bird feeder. I enjoy watching them flit back and forth from the bushes to the feeder. It is akin to the pleasure of seeing a good friend every day. However, on January first, there was the added pleasure of seeing the first one of the year so I could add it to my 2014 little year list. That gave my New Year’s day sighting - my first bird for 2014 - a special flavor.

  • Exciting Vacations. The little year has added a new dimension to vacations. Now, when my wife and I plan a vacation, we keep in mind all the new birds we might see, birds that can be added to our list (my wife is also doing a little year). Now, included in the attractions of a vacation sight are the best birding spots in the area.

  • Improved Birding Skills. I am no longer content to identify sparrows as LBJ’s and swamp sparrowsandpipers as peeps. Now I spend the time with the field guide looking for those obscure field marks that will let me distinguish a juvenile Lincoln’s Sparrow from an immature Swamp Sparrow, or a Semipalmated Sandpiper from a Western Sandpiper. I consider myself a much improved birder from two years ago.

  • Anticipation. Like any good hunt, most of the pleasure is in the anticipation. Every time I am out birding, I know there is always a chance of seeing something new - something not on my list. This adds a little spice to each and every trip.

  • A Big Win. While out birding one day, I met a fellow birder. He asked me if I had seen anything unusual. I replied that I had spotted a pair of nesting Tennessee Warblers. He told me that was unusual since they breed much further north. Upon pointing out the pair to him, he correctly identified them as a pair of Warbling Vireos. As you can imagine, I was quite embarrassed by my misidentification, but he said, “Don’t worry. Whatever makes you happy.” Of course he was absolutely right. It didn’t matter if I correctly identified every bird I saw. It wasn’t important that I reach my goal of two hundred birds. What was important is watching the birds makes me happy and doing a little year each year is one way to get me outside doing something I really enjoy. So, no matter how many birds I see, I consider myself a big winner every year.

So, How have I been doing on my little years? My first year I saw 188 birds. Last year the total was 215 birds. As of the first of this year - January 1, 2014 - 25 birds. Only 191 to go to beat last year’s record.
Of course, the totals don’t really matter. Of much more importance is the pleasure I get from my little year, especially when I am joined in my birding expeditions by friends who have also started little years.

Is that a Fox Sparrow I see out my window? Gotta run.