Sunday, October 23, 2011
Have you ever wanted to do a Big Year?
On the last Audubon birding trip I went on, one of the other birders suggested that I could do a DeWitt County big year, now that I have moved to Clinton, IL. It's a fun idea, but at this time, I am not seriously tempted, because that would entail focusing the majority of my birding efforts on one county, and if there's one thing I consistently crave, it's variety.
Then Greenturtle and I watched the movie. If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what a Big Year is. Just in case, the short answer is, trying to see more birds than anyone else in from January 1 to December 31 in a specific region. The Big Years most often memorialized are across the whole of North America, though the birders in the book The Biggest Twitch take on the whole world.
As the movie The Big Year, and even more so the book of the same name upon which it is based, makes clear, the whole thing is a pretty intense endeavor. It's also extremely expensive, and after one has seen the birds typical of each region, the race becomes who can find the most rarities, so be ready to fly to parts unknown at a moment's notice.
As we discussed it, Greenturtle and I agreed that even if we were independently wealthy, we wouldn't really want to engage in those shenanigans. Since he's not a birder, his response is understandable; in my case, it's because I would rather go some place brand new to me and spectacularly birdy and enjoy seeing it thoroughly than continuously race around chasing my own tail.
But as I formulated my response, a slightly different idea crossed my mind. I don't have the resources for a big Big Year and would spend them otherwise if I did, and a county Big Year feels too restrictive...but how about an Illinois Big Year? I got so excited about the idea that I even managed to convince Greenturtle to agree to join me for a year's worth of madcap birding escapades. I even took a look at some sites on the Internet to get a feel for how many birds I would have to see to make a go of it.
The American Birding Association has the number of Illinois birds at 319, if I recall correctly. On ebird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's database, the top birders of the year usually tally up in the high 200s. Just for comparison (this is shameful, probably how many people would feel about revealing their weight), my Illinois state total has remained fairly static this year. I got a few nice new birds -- pine siskin, Forster's tern, worm-eating warbler -- but not that many, and my Illinois total is a lackluster 211.
The top birders bird a lot. They live to bird. Some of them are retired, so they have more freedom...as free as a bird, as it were. And they are good at all the tricky species. The hawks. The gulls. Don't even get me started on gulls. I see three species each year -- herring, ring billed and Bonaparte's. After racking up the Bonaparte's, I pat myself on the back and consider my gulls complete. And I mostly bird in central Illinois, ignoring two whole regions of vast birding potential -- Chicagoland and Lake Michigan to the north, and the whole of Southern Illinois. I also don't chase rarities. By and large, I'd rather go for a long hike somewhere fun and peaceful than drive two counties away to look at a purple gallinule someone saw floating in a sewage plant there.
So me, a big year? Who am I kidding? I don't have the time. I don't have the skills. I don't have the single-minded focus. Still, I'm thinking about trying it. Because the worst that can happen is that I inform everyone I'm doing an Illinois Big Year and tally up my normal 175 species for the year and slink away, pretending the hubris never happened. But the best thing that can happen is that I see tons and tons of new birds in exciting places, even though someone else is bound to see more than me. I'm still thinking it over, but it sounds like just the thing to break me out of my birding rut. (A trip to central America would probably also break me out of the rut, but driving around Illinois is a lot more feasible right now.)
Have you ever wanted to do a Big Year, even if just your home state or county? Or do you think that sounds like the kind of craziness you are better off avoiding?