Loose the hounds!

Happy New Year, everyone. The game is afoot!

The waiting is over. The plans have been made. (They will be unmade soon enough, but for now they are made.) The grand adventure is set to begin at midnight!

We will miss the “dropping of the ball” this year because we are getting some rest before starting our crazy adventure of a Big Year. But at the crack of 0-dark thirty we will be on our way to our starting point to listen for a possible owl and watch the wildlife refuge wake up to another day. The excitement is building as we anticipate what the day will bring.

Things have not been too promising in our scouting trips so far and CBC results have been very low – perhaps as low as they have ever been for the Oceanville count circle, according to an unofficial report from a participant – but we are optimistic that whatever we find will be a good day of birding to start our year. Besides, as it is often said: A bad day of birding beats a good day of _____ (insert whatever here)!

We’ll start the Big Year with the help of Michael’s brother, a local birder, and our son, Allan. The company of family, and four sets of eyes, should make our day even better. We’ll check in at the end of the day with the first day’s list.

Ready. Set. Go!

Be careful what you wish for!

In our last post we were lamenting the lack of cold temperatures and hoping for some help from Arctic air to push northern birds closer to us.

Well, the region did get some of that cold air and it may not be having the effect we had hoped for. Instead of increasing the numbers of northern birds we have seen (so far at least) it seems to have chased some of the rarities that were hanging around away.

This is all based on unscientific sampling, but the numbers of ABA-area code 3 and 4 birds that were hanging around in the Northeast US seems to have dropped considerably in the past few days. For example, the Brown Booby that had been hanging out on Cape Cod for months is now gone from the rare bird alerts and the Pink-footed Goose seems to have moved on as well. These movements coincided with some weather fronts and a return to seasonably cold temperatures for the region. There is no way to say for certain that the weather pushed those rarities out but it is very frustrating to track a rarity for weeks only to see it drop off the radar three days before the start of the Big Year!

Sigh! That is the nature of birding, however. As my ornithology prof back in grad school used to say: “Birds have wings and they’re gonna use them.” As much as we joke about it, there’s no way to tie a rarity down until you get there to see it. We’re just going to have to find our own rarities!

But, if you see a rare bird PLEASE let us know! (email info@birdingonabudget.com)

We may have picked a bad year…Part 2.

We’re still waiting for winter. Where is it? I guess global warming is real.

We decided to start our Big Year in the northeast US so we would have a chance to see the northern birds that come south for the winter, but the temperatures have been so mild that they may not be here. Yesterday was the first full day of winter and the daytime high in southern New Jersey was 63 degrees, 20 degrees higher than normal! Similar high temperatures have prevailed throughout the northern states. Daytime highs in Duluth, MN, for example, are averaging 10 to 15 degrees higher than normal throughout December.

These high temperatures, coupled with forecasts for bumper crops of seeds in parts of Canada’s forests, may mean that the winter finches, grosbeaks, redpolls, and the like will have no reason to go south for the winter. That will make our chances of seeing these birds very slim. We have not planned for, or budgeted for, a trip to the far, far north to get these birds on their breeding grounds.

On the plus side, the mild temperatures will make birding easier and will keep some birds “up north” that might otherwise flee south. For example, we saw a Brown Pelican on the beach in Brigantine, NJ on Wednesday. That’s quite a bit north of where it usually is this time of year.

So, as much as we like warm winter temperatures from the standpoint of human comfort (We do live in south Texas, after all.) we find ourselves wishing for some good, old-fashioned winter weather for the start of our Big Year.

“The best laid plans of mice and men…

…often go awry.”

We have been trying to finalize our plans for the Big Year and we thought we had things set, at least for the start, but it looks like we will have to go back to the drawing board. For one reason or another we are revamping yet again. I’m glad we only had a few weeks to do our planning. I can only imagine how many changes we would have made if we had started planning a year ago!

So, we are now planning to start our Big Year in New Jersey. This is actually better in a couple of ways than our plan to start at Montauk, New York. First, we will be in South Jersey visiting family anyway, so it makes sense not to drive five hours to start out. Second, our intended starting point will be the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge (better known to old-time birders as Brigantine NWR). This is a good starting place because Michael got his start birding there as a child. Brigantine was where he introduced Renee to birding as well. So, Brigantine closes a circle for us, in a way.

We are also having to reconsider our plans for our winter birding because the winter, at least so far, has been very mild and it is unlikely that we will see some birds (specifically, the northern species that come down to the lower 48 when winters are cold up north) with our original plans. We are playing around with a trip to Sax-Zim Bog, MN, in January to get the northern specialties there. Now, you have to understand this in the context of where we live. We have spent the last 18 years in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, during which time we have seen snow exactly once. To make a trip to the “Great White North” is a bit daunting for us. For one thing, we don’t own enough clothes for that trip!

So, we have to change our prediction game: given our new start location, what will be our first bird for the Big Year? Make your guess in the comments.

Can’t Wait!

Wow! It is tough to wait until January 1 to begin our Big Year. We are like a couple of kids looking at the presents stacked beneath the Christmas tree but knowing we have to wait to open them.

We are keeping track of rare birds being sighted across the country, including in South Texas where we live. It is so frustrating to know where they are or even seeing them and not be able to count them. What if the Barnacle Goose is no longer in Califon, New Jersey, when we get there and start counting? What about the Rose-Throated Becard that we have already seen but can’t count toward our Big Year. Will it still be here at the end of January when we return?

Renee is a person who is used to planning, but we can only plan in broad strokes. We know we are going to begin the Big Year in the northeast but our exact locations depend on where the birds are at that time. Our birding on a budget approach requires that we see as many of the birds in a location as possible because we probably will not get to return to that region during the same season.

By driving around in a Prius rather than flying, we will save a great deal of money, especially for two people. We also won’t be spending money on last minute airplane tickets, which can be expensive. Although we have great flexibility when we are in a region, we won’t be able to hop on a plane to get a rarity when it appears next November or December. That is why it is so hard to wait when we see all the great birds popping up around the country.

Logic tells us that, even though we may not get the rare birds that are here now, there will be others later on. But logic sometimes gets pushed aside and we just want to start right now!

You’re doing a big year!? Have you lost your minds?!

People can be excused for thinking that we have lost our minds. After all, we are going birding for an entire year. We’re not building an iconic structure, saving the world from a deadly disease, or writing the great American novel. We’re spending an entire year watching birds! Who in their right minds would do that? We’ve lost our minds. But, we would argue to the contrary: birding is actually a great way to keep one’s mind.

Research has shown that one way to keep your mind from deteriorating is to solve puzzles. What better puzzles are there than to try to figure out how to see as many birds as possible across an entire continent, or how to identify an array of confusing species that all look like “little brown jobs?” It is an ever-changing puzzle. We are constantly re-evaluating our options. Recently, we talked with Ben Basham, the first person to break the 700 bird mark in North America during a Big Year. He convinced us that, even though it would strain our budget, we had to go to the Dry Tortugas, in Florida, during spring migration. So today we made reservations for the boat ride there and back. That one small change meant that we had to rearrange our itineraries for other planned trips as well…a never-ending puzzle.

Learning a new language is another way to stay sharp. An understanding of the language of birds is essential to a successful Big Year. So, although we know most of the calls and songs from South Texas birds fairly well, we are going to have to learn or re-learn the language of the other North American birds as well. We won’t be listening to the XM radio much. It will be CDs of bird songs playing in the car as we drive 50,000 miles during the year.

There will be lots of other new information to learn as well. We are brushing up on identification skills with Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding and studying tons of internet articles. The mind is being stretched to accommodate all that stuff. We won’t know if it worked until we try to pick out a rare gull from among a flock of thousands of gulls in a bewildering variety of plumages, but the mind is being exercised in any case.

Physical activity and social activity are other keys to keeping one’s mind sharp. A full year of birding – of hiking miles every day in the great outdoors – is an ideal form of exercise, and meeting other birders and sharing our sightings and experiences is an ideal social activity.

So for the “birders of a certain age” out there, who are worried about losing their minds or who face criticism from those who think they have already lost it, take heart in knowing that, through birding, you are actually keeping it.

Please Comment on Our Plans!

We have made a preliminary Big Year travel plan and would like your input, especially if you have ever done a “birding blitz” of your own. Comment below or email your comments to info@birdingonabudget.com.

The itinerary below shows the main areas we intend to visit each month. What did we leave out? How could we be more efficient?

January: New England / Atlantic Coast / SE US / Rio Grande Valley

February: California Coast / Oregon / Washington / British Columbia

March: New Mexico / Arizona / West Texas

April: Rio Grande Valley / Texas Coast (and inland) / Florida (including Dry Tortugas)

May: Rocky Mountains / Northern California / Pacific Northwest / British Columbia

June: Upper Midwest / Southern Canada (Great Lakes and coast) / New England

July: Appalachian Mountains / Lower Midwest

August: New Mexico and Arizona / Southern California

September: Central California Coast / Southern Great Basin

October: Texas Coast / Southern Great Plains / Rio Grande Valley

November: Rio Grande Valley / Gulf Coast / Southern Florida

December: New Mexico and Arizona / Rio Grande Valley

Whew! That’s a lot of traveling around, but there is no other way to do a proper Big Year, is there? If you think of a better way, let us know!


Why did we choose a budget of $10,000?

One of the aspects of our Big Year that sets it apart from some recent attempts is that we are trying to do it on a relatively modest travel budget of about $10,000.

How did we choose that number?  There were several considerations. First, since we are retired and still have three kids in college, we simply don’t have a huge stack of cash lying around to allow a Big Year full of plane flights and guided tours to chase rarities across the continent. $10,000 is a doable number while still paying the bills. Second, it was a nice round number that might actually be possible for the “average birder” to set aside during a few years of saving and preparing for their own birding adventure. We want our Big Year to show that you don’t have to have deep pockets to get deep satisfaction from birding the continent. Finally, we wanted a number that we could relate to the pioneer budget-birding adventure of Kenn Kaufman, who famously did his big year in 1973 on a budget of just $1,000.

So how does Kenn’s solo budget of $1,000 compare to our budget of $10,000 for two people? Very well, in fact. If we compare $1,000 in 1973 to the inflation-adjusted amount today, we get a number of about $5,800. Since we will be driving our Prius instead of hitchhiking our way across the country, we have added about $3200 for gas to cover the 45000 miles we expect to drive. (Kenn hitchhiked over 69,000 miles!) Then, since there are two of us, we have added about 10% to cover the increased entry fees into parks and refuges and the increased cost of lodgings for two instead of one. That all adds up to $9,900, which we rounded up to $10,000 to get that nice-looking number! So, our $10,000 today is roughly equivalent to Kenn Kaufman’s $1,000 in 1973. (And we won’t even have to eat cat food on our trip! – as Kenn sometimes did in his early travels. In fact, we are not including food costs in our budget. We have to eat anyway and we don’t expect our travel meals to cost much more than the meals we eat at home.)

So, do we expect to see the same total number of birds as Kenn (666)? Unfortunately not, and there are several reasons for that, too. First, we are not elite birders like Kenn Kaufman. In fact, very few people are. We will miss many birds simply because a second-year Thayer’s Gull, for example, will go undetected in the flock of gulls at the Brownsville dump. (Not that we won’t pick up Thayer’s somewhere, but you get the idea.) Second, as already mentioned in an earlier post, despite the relative parity of our budgets, we don’t see any way to fit a trip to Alaska, or more than one or two pelagic trips, into our budget. Those might be possible for one person, but for two they just cost too much. As much as possible, we want to both see everything, together. Finally, we will likely see far fewer birds because, for us, the journey is more important than the number. Now, I’m not saying that, Kenn and other elite birders only cared about ticking off species. Their aesthetic and conservation bona fides are well established. I’m just saying that we expect to have a much slower pace than a typical big year. If we miss some rarity because we would rather spend a day photographing common birds, then so be it.

So, there you have it; a Big Year without the big buck$!

Bugging on a Budget?

A shameless plug for my favorite TX state park, Estero Llano Grande.

I didn’t get a picture of the rare birds at Estero Llano Grande State Park (Rose-throated Becard, Crimson-collared Grosbeak) but one of the volunteers there, Rick, pointed out this rare bug! How many of you know it?

Whenever you are in the Rio Grande Valley, whether looking for birds or bugs, you really need to go to “Estero.” While you’re there, join the Friends of Estero Llano Grande State Park and help them continue their great work. With the economic troubles affecting us all, the state parks have seen their funding cut to the bare bones. They need your help now, more than ever. The park is located south of Weslaco on TX highway 1015, just across the road from the executive golf course. You can’t miss it!

Estero has been open for just a few years but already it has established itself as one of the best birding spots in the RGV! Support them by becoming a member of their friends group. You can find the Friends of Estero Llano Grande State Park on Facebook.

We may have picked a bad year to do a Big Year.

We’re not trying to make excuses or lower expectations in case we miss our target species number, but some recent data suggests that we may have picked a bad year for our Big Year count.

A study released recently by NASA suggests that bird populations are likely to be significantly reduced throughout much of southern North America due to the effects of last year’s severe drought and the expected lingering effects of the La Niña oscillation. In addition, bird populations are expected to be lower in areas of the northeastern US that were severely impacted by flooding caused by last year’s hurricanes and tropical storms. Other studies show that many species of neotropical migrant birds (those that spend the winter in Central and South America and return to North America to breed) have been in decline for many years due to habitat loss on both the wintering and breeding grounds and other factors. Together, these studies suggest that 2012 will not be a banner year for counting birds.

The plight of bird populations in many places around the world is dire. Pressures put on natural resources by the ever-increasing human population (recently surpassing the 7 billion mark – when I was born the number was just 3 billion!) are leaving precious little for the birds and other wildlife. Subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes in climate are having an impact as well. At first glance it may seem that milder winters in the western US are a good thing. But consider one possible effect of milder temperatures: warmer winters mean a greater survival rate of over-wintering insects in western forests. More insects that survive the winter means greater insect damage to trees in the spring and summer, with a consequent increase in tree mortality. More dead trees means less habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Our Big Year is a fun adventure in the great outdoors of America. Counting birds in this way will have no positive impact on wildlife. But we hope that our account of our adventures will illustrate the great beauty and diversity of birds and other wildlife and, perhaps, inspire others to do a little something to help preserve it.

Visit the Donate for birds! link on the webpage and make a contribution for conservation and education.