Saturday, October 11, 2014

Oct 10 (Day 283) - Thoughts on Big Years - This post is going to get me in trouble.....

Let's first deal with today. I rode 96 miles from Taft, CA to Ventura. It was a challenging, but very scenic ride that has put me in position to bird Ventura for the next ~3 days or so. The ride itself was actually very pleasant. It never got too terribly hot, and the road conditions were fantastic from start to finish. Highway 33 was surprisingly quiet with just a few motorcyclists zooming up the hills I descended into Ventura. I made only one birding stop today to photograph Lawrence's goldfinch. I was not able to photograph the fly-by goldfinch I saw the other day, so I was very satisfied to document this species today. I also swung through the Ventura Harbor when I arrived. There were lots of shorebirds (as always) at this spot. I did manage one decent willet shot on this outing.

So close.....99 miles

A very heavy crop of a distant Lawrence's goldfinch


OK, here's my first thought on Big Years. If you are thinking about doing one, either in the near or distant future, go buy a DSLR and really learn how to use it BEFORE your year starts. I understand that much of birding, Big Year and other, is "on your honor" when it comes to reporting sightings, but with the technology that exists today, there is no excuse for not doing every single thing you can to document your sightings. This technology did not exist 30 years ago, so we cannot hold people in that era to the same standards. That someone (Kenn Kaufman, e.g.) did not document every bird he saw on his Big Year should not detract from it one bit. Today, it is a different story. I fully understand that no one can be expected to document every species he or she sees; It just isn't possible. I was able to get the fly-away Sharp-tailed grouse onto the sensor, but I was not able to nail a very similar fly-away Greater prairie-chicken. However, and maybe it's just me, but if someone was to go out and do a full-fledged, traditonally-moded Big Year and only photograph a fraction of the important species, I would have to wonder what's going on. Like it or not, the technology exists, in the right hands, to document a very high percentage of birds. Learning how to photo document should just be part of a person's preparation for a Big Year. This is why I have gone to such great lengths to photograph everything I can - I want to leave as little doubt as possible. I can hear the old guard crashing down on me on this.......

Why does this matter? I am going to catch a ton of heat from purists on this one, but let's be honest. While 99.99% of birders are perfectly honest, there are always going to folks who, for whatever reason, feel the need to knowingly misreport sightings. I know of at least one episode of a state record that "fell" under such circumstances. As Big Years grow in popularity, there is incentive to be the top dog. Many of the most most successful Big Year birders have reaped tremendous windfalls from their exploits. I am in no way suggesting that anyone (myself included) who undertakes a Big Year is doing it with dishonorable intentions. However, as the potential rewards for running up high numbers grow larger, we must be cognizant that the incentive for dishonesty increases correspondingly (see NCAA football). Like I said above, while not foolproof, making concerted efforts to document sightings should help to counterbalance these tendencies. You have to remember, I was a scientist in my former life; We are trained to be skeptics!

Next up: we need to make Big Years about more than just running up high species counts. Why? Because if we don't we're only going to have a few very select people spending lots of money to fly and drive everywhere as they seek to run up these totals. I do not think that this has been a problem up until now, but, as birding grows in popularity, I think we might a lot of formulaic Big Years moving forward. It has the potential to get old really fast. "I saw X# of species using planes/trains/cars/boats in this state/country/continent/world". It's the exact same model being deployed over and over, and generally one's finances dictate at which scale he or she deploys it. I just think that moving forward, we need to hold people to a higher standard of creativity when it comes to Big Year permutations. I mean really, do you want to take a run at 750 in the next few years only to come up with 748? For me I would much rather create an entire new way of doing it (i.e. continent wide on a bike) than chase someone else's number. That's the best thing about my year; I'm not chasing a number, I'm just chasing birds. In full disclaimer, I am now chasing my own personal number of 600, but that only realistically came into the picture when I did so well with off-lek grouse this summer. 

You know what I'm really waiting for? 

Bicycle Big Year in the UK (minus Northern Ireland since it would require gas to get there). Someone over there needs to do this - it's all yours for the taking!!! Don't wait too long or I might do it!

Walking Big Year.

Pogo stick Big Year. 

Public transportation Big Year. 

Team Big Year (at whatever geographic scale) where 3/4 people must see/hear every bird (like in the World Series)

Big Year fueled ONLY by bacon (and vitamin supplements, to prevent scurvy and such)

All of these would make for incredible stories, and the species total ultimately isn't going to mean a thing for any of them - that's why they'd be cool. I had a tremendous time following Neil's Big Year last year, but I can say with certainty that I would rather follow the progress of any of the above than a year that seeks to take down his 750. Plus, it's only going to get easier to take a run at Neil's number in the future as more species are split and more exotics are deemed countable. I also had a really good time following Dave Pavlik's photographic Big Year from 2013. He only counted birds of which he obtained a diagnostic photo! Stuff like this is great. There's a lot of creativity in the bird community. Now let's see it.....


  1. Love your take on creative Big Years!

  2. You won't get any argument from me! I loved following Neil's Big Year also, but no more than I am enjoying yours. For one thing, I've been to a lot of the places you describe. I'll never visit Attu or the Pribilof islands, and I probably won't do any pelagics. I've found almost all of my 583 life birds on my own, mostly camping as I traveled. (Nor do I enjoy twitching other birders' rare finds.)

  3. I think you are right on. A big year should be about the birds, not the birder. You are setting both a good example AND an honorable record that I for one, am so glad to be witnessing vicariously in almost real time. I would compare it to reading a comic book the day it comes out as opposed to decades later when found in someone's attic. You and the queen have become a regular part of my day for almost a year. LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!!!!! We NEED T-shirts!

  4. FLAME I agree with you completely. Except maybe the bacon-fueled Big Year. The jealousy would kill me, since (the sulfites/nitrates in) bacon gives me migraines, but it's baaacooonnn!! I've learned a lot from you this year and hopefully have grown as a birdwatcher as a result. I'm much more attuned for confirmation bias, for example. HMMM, I do have relatives in Ireland, guess I better start saving more Irish Birding/Pub Crawling Big Year....hmmmm. ...Adam

  5. FLAME I agree with you completely. Except maybe the bacon-fueled Big Year. The jealousy would kill me, since (the sulfites/nitrates in) bacon gives me migraines, but it's baaacooonnn!! I've learned a lot from you this year and hopefully have grown as a birdwatcher as a result. I'm much more attuned for confirmation bias, for example. HMMM, I do have relatives in Ireland, guess I better start saving more Irish Birding/Pub Crawling Big Year....hmmmm.

  6. Hey Dorian, couldn't agree more. A biking big year was definitely low-hanging fruit waiting to be done in the L48. You haven't mentioned Red Phalarope much -- but a quick check of eBird shows several land-bound birds seen within the last week or so within a day's ride of you. Make sure you keep your eye out for reports! -Dave

  7. #nailedit When I did my state big year, I made a point to photograph as many species as possible. In the end I photographed 1 more than the previous person saw. The birds I didn't photograph tended to be audibles or flyovers where getting a photo wasn't realistic--and this was 7 years ago now. The ability to record audibles on the fly and capture photos is getting easier and easier by year. I would expect anyone who topped my record to have photographed at least as many as I did, because that's the standard I used. I am a skeptic at heart, and I expect others to be skeptical of me as well, I think it comes with the nature of birding, and not necessarily for the nefarious reasons you pointed out, but in my opinion human error in birding is fairly common--we all make mistakes. I always try to get a photo of rarities, or even early/late arrivals, etc. It's easy. In early September we had a "big day" competition in northern Utah where observations were worth less than documentation for the day total. Anyone could claim hearing 100 species, but photographing 100 takes a lot more patience and in the end leaves no doubt. I'm done now dude, keep it, up, I'm really jealous of your fall birding along the coast--I've been mostly cooped up this fall so I'm birding vicariously through you.

  8. How about the Big Year that raises the most donations for bird conservation?

    1. What if one birder has a single rich friend who gives $100,000 to his/her year versus someone who has 5,000 people give $10 each? The first raises 2x more money , but the second is more successful in my book since more people got involved.