We often get asked the question: How is a Birding Big Year on a budget different from a “regular” Big Year?
Before we answer that question, let’s be clear about what “counts” in our budget and what doesn’t. We count all gasoline costs when we are traveling away from home, which has been the greatest expense for our Big Year. We count all lodging away from home, including motels and camping fees. The budget also includes entry fees to natural areas where we search for birds. We do not count food costs because we would have to eat anyway and eating from a cooler chest most of the time is just as inexpensive as eating at home. (An added bonus to the Big Year is that we have both lost extra pounds.)
So, How does a Big Year on a budget differ from other Big Years?
The main difference is that we don’t hop on a plane to chase rarities. In fact, we don’t have a single dollar in our travel budget for plane tickets. From the very beginning, we knew that we would not beat any records because we don’t chase rare birds unless they are close to where we are or on our way to our next destination. Most other Big Year birders in recent years have logged tens of thousands of air miles, thinking nothing of getting on a plane in the morning to fly across the country to see a rare bird and then return home that same evening. We could never afford that on our budget.
Since there are two of us, the cost of flying is doubled. That makes driving even more attractive…even with the high cost of gas lately. (That’s why we drive a Prius most of the time!) Driving takes more time but with careful planning it allows us to look for birds on our way from one place to another. It also means that we probably won’t see or hear some birds because we can’t be “two places at once”, which is nearly possible when you fly. For example, we spent a great deal of time following the migration all the way from the Dry Tortugas off Florida to San Diego and many points in-between with great success. However, at the same time, we missed some of the grouse and Greater Prairie-Chickens on their leks that we might have seen if we flew. (They are going to be much harder to see or hear the rest of the year.)
Another difference is that we are very careful about our lodging costs and try to camp or stay with friends or relatives as much as possible. However, this has had some impact on where we have gone and not gone. We started the Big Year in the northeast U.S. mostly because that’s where we have family and free lodgings! We really should have gone to northern Minnesota in February to get winter birds, but we didn’t want to pay for motels every night or camp out in sub-freezing weather. (After living in the Rio Grande Valley for 19 years, we are definitely not into snow camping!)
Finally, birding on a budget means leaving certain high-priced destinations and practices off the itinerary. For example, we have limited our travels to the lower 48 because Alaska and many Canadian destinations are too expensive to get to. Second, we have not used the services of a paid birding guide so far this year. Michael used to operate a birding guide service and we certainly appreciate the value of local guides for bird-finding, but we chose not to add that cost to our Big Year. Third, we are limiting our participation in pelagic trips because they often cost quite a bit. (But, see our post about our San Diego pelagic on May 19th. It was certainly worth its price!)
The Big Year on a Budget experience is showing us that we can see many birds on a budget much less than typical Big Years but the budget rather than the time limit will constrain the total we have at the end of the year.