Our Year in Review: what didn’t work

Given our high species total, we really shouldn’t complain about any aspect of our year. But we will anyway …

There were some decisions that we made that reduced our species number. Had we been a bit better informed, better prepared, or more patient in these cases we could have had about a dozen more species during the year. We were there and the birds were there. We just messed up.

First, at the start, we made a decision not to include pelagic trips in our Big Year. We thought that they were too pricey and too unpredictable to make them a good choice on our limited budget. Later on, we changed our minds and did two all-day trips from San Diego that were very well priced (under $100 per person). We had good success and definitely wish we had planned more such trips during the year, especially on the East Coast. (We tried to do one other trip from the California coast in September but it was cancelled due to bad weather.) All-in-all, the single largest group of birds that we should have seen but didn’t was the pelagic birds.

Second, we were too strict with our budget early in the year. We did not want to spend too much money chasing any single bird and so we did not spend enough time on the rarities we could have seen during our first trip of the year. In fact, that first trip was far too rushed overall. (We went from NJ to ME, down to FL, and home to TX in just over three weeks!) The best example of this was when we chased after the Common Chaffinch in NJ. We went to the feeders where the bird was being seen and spent four hours waiting one afternoon. We debated whether to return in the morning, when the bird was being seen more regularly. We decided not to stay because it would have meant spending a night in a motel and we didn’t want to spend that much money on one bird. As it turns out, spending that extra $70 or 80 for that one bird would have been a bargain compared to what it cost us to add a single species later on in the year. John Vanderpoel said it best: It’s better to spend more time getting a bird the first time than to have to go back later and try again (or to miss it altogether).

Third, we did not have a sufficient network of birders helping us find our target birds. We ruled out hiring birding guides because of the perceived high cost of their services and relied on eBird and rare bird alerts instead. That was a false economy, especially when we got near the end of the year and were traveling long distances to see just a few birds.

Fourth, we were “birding snobs” at the start of the year when we decided not to chase after exotic birds in urban areas. We made that decision in the midst of our far-too-rushed January trip and after Michael had just had a traffic-induced meltdown in Miami! Later on, we did search for some of these birds but it was too little, too late and we did not have much success.

Fifth, when we started the year we were content to miss a few birds as long as we reached our minimum target number. As the year went along, and we had reached that minimum in early June, we kept ramping up our target number. We were naive to think that we would be content to miss a few birds! When you are doing a Big Year you want to see as many birds as possible. You can’t pass anything by without making an effort to see it.

Finally, we did not prepare for our Big Year far enough in advance. We only decided to do a Big Year in November of 2011. We had less than six weeks to do our research and plan our year. We ended up planning much of our year on the fly. If we had it to do over again, we would have spent a year doing exploratory trips and planning a more cost-efficient and birding-efficient itinerary for the year.

Bottom line: We did very well on our Big Year adventure, but we could have done even better.

Our Year in Review: what worked

Our stated goal at the start of the year was to record 90% of the “usual” Big Year total of species while spending only 20% of the “usual” amount of money.

Usual is in quotes because there are really no such numbers out there. Big Year totals  are all over the charts and very few participants have ever made their expenditures public. In addition, early in the year we decided to limit ourselves to the lower 48 states. (We had never planned to visit Alaska because we knew it would cost too much and we decided to leave out Canada as well.) So, we chose to use 90% of Chris Hitt’s lower 48 record total of 704 species as our target: 634 birds.

Our decision to set our budget at $10,000 was also somewhat arbitrary. That amount would be 20% of a total budget of $50,000. We didn’t know if that really was a “usual” amount for a Big Year, but we had seen reports of people spending considerably more than that and thought it would be a reasonable number to use. We doubt that people routinely spend as much as $50,000 for a Big Year in the lower 48 alone, however. We have “heard rumors” that some have approached that amount, but we think our $10,000 budget is actually more like 25% of a “usual” lower 48 Big Year rather than 20%.

In any case, our attempt to see a large percentage of the birds of North America on much less money than some might have expected it to cost, worked!

The main components of our strategy that led to that success can be found in our choices of where and when to do our main birding trips and our cost-saving methods while on the road (driving a Prius and camping many nights).

There are only a few main bird-finding strategies for a Big Year. You can either search for birds by region and season, you can chase rarities, or you can do some combination of those. Let us clarify what we mean by that. Each of the main geographic regions of North America has a fairly specific subset of birds that inhabit it and a fairly specific date range when the chances of finding a large portion of those birds is high. If you visit each region during its best dates you should have a good chance of seeing most of the birds. This strategy seeks to maximize the chances to see the birds that one would expect to see in the region.

On the other hand, reaching high numbers on a Big Year depends to a great extent on how many rare birds you see; the ones you would not expect to see. In fact, it is only by seeing rarities that you can reach anything close to the record number of Chris Hitt. So, the second strategy would be to simply chase rarities and hope that you would see all of the more common birds along the way.

In our combination strategy, we spent most of our time pursuing birds by region and season and only a small portion chasing rarities. We had decent success finding the rarities we did chase and we had very high success finding the expected birds.

Our Year in Review: BVD birds

We are comfortable with our field identifications of all 654 ABA species and the five non-ABA birds, but we would have liked to get better views of some.

Our list of BVD (better view desired) birds includes species that only one of us saw well, species that were identified only by sound, and species that we could identify but of which we wish we had been able to get a photo (for rarities) or other better look. The list:

  1. Thick-billed Murre (distant view)
  2. Black-headed Gull (no photo)
  3. Red-breasted Sapsucker (Renee missed it.)
  4. Northern Saw-whet Owl (heard only)
  5. LaSagra’s Flycatcher (no photo)
  6. Ancient Murrelet (Renee missed it.)
  7. Whiskered Screech-Owl (heard only)
  8. Zone-tailed Hawk (distant view)
  9. Bachman’s Sparrow (heard only)
  10. Mangrove Cuckoo (heard only)
  11. Common Poorwill (heard only)
  12. Flammulated Owl (heard only)
  13. Black Rail (heard only)
  14. Virginia Rail (heard only)
  15. American Woodcock (brief view)
  16. Greater Pewee (Renee missed it.)
  17. LeConte’s Sparrow (heard only)
  18. Great Gray Owl (heard only)
  19. Bicknell’s Thrush (heard only)
  20. Black-backed Woodpecker (for Michael, heard only)
  21. Greater Prairie Chicken (for Michael, heard only)
  22. Hoary Redpoll (no photo)

Thankfully, the list is short. Only 3.33% of our species are BVD birds.

Back Home

We arrived back in the RGV today.

We were delayed due to some medical problems in Michael’s family but everyone seems to be on the mend now.

We’ll write some more about our Big Year for any of you who are still paying attention. If there are any questions you have for us, you can write to the info email address and we’ll try to answer.

Bird on!

Our Year in Review: memorable moments

Here is our Top Ten List of Most Memorable Moments (birdwise) of 2012.

10. Eye-to-eye with puffins, murres, and Razorbills on Machias Seal Island, ME

9. Pink-footed Goose, Northern Lapwing, and Little Egret (all ABA Code 4 birds) in two days during the waning days of the year

8. Up-close-and personal with a Northern Hawk-Owl at Glacier National Park, MT

7. Fall-outs on the Dry Tortugas in southern FL and at High Island, TX

6. A countable population of Aplomado Falcons in southern NM

5. All three rosy-finches at Sandia Crest, NM

4. Gulls, alcids, and sea ducks at Cape Ann, MA

3. A Gyrfalcon in central MA (and we found it on our own)

2. A South Polar Skua circling the boat a dozen times off San Diego, CA

And the Number 1 Top Ten Most Memorable Moment of 2012:

All the great times we spent birding with old, new, and soon-to-be, birding buddies!

Our Year in Review: pet peeves, wisdom (?) and such

Here are some things that we have come to think during the year:

If you are going to cut in front of me in your car go faster than me!

But, also … Slow down. Life is to be savored. (Contradictory, we know.)

And … Big Year birding is not conducive to slowing down.

If you see a good bird, make your directions easy enough for anybody to follow.

And … “My House” is not a good description for a location on eBird.

Your definition of cold is very likely to be different from ours. (Ditto windy, nice, etc.)

If someone is not the same kind of birder as you that does not mean they are weird.

Except, of course, Big Year birders. Weird is a necessary trait for them.

The birding gods have a strange sense of humor.

And … Exactly how many times must we miss a bird by one day to satisfy those gods?

This country is a really, really big place.

And … The rarest birds are almost always the farthest away.

Every place has some good birds, but some places are just plain fantastic!

And … You can’t be everywhere at once, so go to the fantastic places first.

And finally … Birders are the best people in the whole dang world!

Our Year in Review: where the birds are

Here’s a list (in no particular order) of our top ten favorite birding locations during the year:

  • Coastal New England – Massachusetts to Maine
  • Southern Florida – especially the Dry Tortugas
  • Coastal Texas in the spring
  • The Rio Grande Valley of Texas
  • Southern Arizona – especially the Patagonia and Sonoita area
  • Northern Minnesota in the summer
  • The Northern Rockies – Colorado to Montana
  • Southern California – especially the Salton Sea and San Diego
  • The Olympic Peninsula of Washington – especially the coast
  • Coastal California – Santa Barbara and north
A week or two in each of those areas could easily get you over 600 species for your list.

There were also some “stinker spots” but we won’t publish that list.

Our Year in Review: time spent afield

At the beginning of the year we expected to be able to spend about 200 days away from home. We thought more than that would cost too much money to fit into our budget.

We actually spent 248 days away from home. About 24 of those days were at our RV in New Mexico. So, 224 were truly away from either home.

How did we afford to spend so much time traveling? There were two main reasons; camping rather than staying at motels and staying with friends and family. We haven’t figured out exactly how many days we spent camping during the year but it was about 2 or 3 days roughing it for every one day in a motel. We spent about 50 days staying with friends and relatives. The generosity of those people saved us a ton of money during the year! (It was also a great help to have friends and relatives who lived where there were actually lots of good birds to see.)

Thank you, thank you to all of you who let us crash with you during our crazy adventure!

Our Year in Review: money matters

We were very careful to keep track of the actual expenses of our birding Big Year. All travel, lodging, and entrance fees associated with getting to and viewing birds were included in our $10,376 total. We did not count our meals, reasoning that we would be spending about the same to eat no matter what we were doing.

But, there were other expenses that we incurred during the year that were not directly related to birding but were a consequence of our travels. For example, we had to replace six tires during the year due to our high total of miles driven (about $700). We also had to change the oil in our cars much more often than normal (about $200). Also, even though we did much of our own cooking while on the road, we did tend to spend more on restaurant food than we would usually do at home (hard to estimate but about $500). Finally, we sometimes had to pay for someone to mow the lawn while we were away (about $200).

If we add those amounts to the cost of our Big Year, we find that our total is only about $12,000; still a very reasonable expense for the number of birds seen ($11,976 / 659 = $18.17 per species).

Our Year in Review: some numbers

Total species seen on a budget of $10,000: 648 ($15.43 per species)

Total species seen on a budget of $10,376: 654 ($15.86 per species)

Number of non-ABA species seen: 5

Total miles traveled by car and boat: 60073 (91.85 miles per ABA species)

Total miles traveled by air: 0


Here’s a graph that shows our results over time:

You can see from the graph that we reached 600 species fairly early in the year and then had a very gradual increase in the species total after that.