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.