Big Year or Big Waste of Time?

Anyone who read the book “The Big Year” has dreamed of doing a big year in North America.  From Asian rarities on Attu, to the dumps of Brownsville, Texas who wouldn’t want to see 700+ different species of birds in a calendar year?

Sadly most of us don’t have the resources to a) not work and b) pay for all those plane tickets to various parts of North America.  So many people do big years in their own states.  However I think they are a waste of time.

Yes you get to see different parts of your state you normally never would have seen.  Yes you get to see some really good birds you normally never would have seen and usually one or two once-in-a-lifetime birds.  But whats the cost?  Sure it costs money for gas and food, but I think the bigger cost is that you are neglecting your local spots.

Most big year birders have no trouble finding regular breeders, winter visitors and migrants, but very few of them actually find a rare bird.  By mid-Summer most big year people are racking up the miles chasing one rare bird after another.  They spend so much time chasing other peoples birds, that there is no time to find their own, locally.  If I had my choice I would much rather find a bird locally and make everyone else try and find my bird, rather than me going off (usually in vain, I’m bad luck) to find their bird.  I have and will continue to do both, but if given the option of staying local or driving a hundred miles?  I’ll stay local.

Not that Big Years are all bad.  Doing a big year in a region or even a single county can be very productive and the birds you find mean generally more than if you joined a mob to look at a bird at say Jamaica Bay.  By doing local big years, you tend to go slower and cover more area and when you do find something interesting, its generally more significant.  The birds mean more in your backyard than they do in far off places.

Now if your backyard happens to be Jamaica Bay, well your lucky.  But if not be content with the birds in your backyard, remember this is a hobby not a contest.  You get nothing for seeing 300 species in a year.  Can it be satisfying?  Sure.  But so can a lot of other things.

Before doing a big year, think about all the hours you will drive to chase a single bird.  Then think about spending those same hours actually birding someplace local.  Which would you prefer?


6 responses to “Big Year or Big Waste of Time?

  1. Yes you have.

    My question to you is, if you don’t reach 300 (and you should) would it be a disapointment?

    Your answer I hope, would be no. Because you should enjoy bird watching for what it is and not base what is good or bad on arbitrary numbers. Whether you see 100 or 300 species this year, as long as you enjoy what you do, that’s all that counts.

  2. I don’t much care for the whole “big year” thing that wealthy birders who can take a year off work sometimes do. Sometimes the only point seems to be that “I have enough money to do it and you don’t.”

    I find local “big years” a bit more interesting, as long as the birder isn’t burning tons more gas to do it. Though even these are less interesting to me than what happens in the same spot over years of time. There’s so much to be learned by what happens over time–is one species earlier or later arriving than usual? Lots more of them or fewer? How does a seemingly small change in local habitat affect bird species or populations? And then of course, comes the most interesting question of all: why did that just happen (or not)?

    As birders, our records can be valuable indicators of change. And that’s what I find most interesting of all.

    Carolyn H.

  3. I’m a huge fan of local patch big years or county big years. When I lived in Texas I would do a big year at my local patch (Hornsby Bend) every couple years (my high, 240) and one year did a big year in my local county (305). Fun to set a record that perhaps only five other people would ever care about, but more fun to really get connected to my local patch, or to repeatedly explore every nook and cranny in the county. And yes, it is nicer to make others chase a rarity you found, rather than driving all over chasing birds found by others!

  4. I disagree the Big Year birders rarely find rarities. Those doing big years in their county or state often find many rarities though most doing ABA area big years do not.

    I haven’t done a big year yet but I think I may do one next year. I think the best big year is a county or kingbird region big year because I wouldn’t to travel more than a couple of hours to see a bird that may not even still be there.

  5. Anyone doing a big year has the chance to find rarities. The more time you spend in the field the more likely you are to come across a rarity. During my Utah Big Year in 2007, I found 2 first state records, and countless other rarities, because I was birding 5 days a week.

    Best year of birding I will ever have!

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