We Need Your Help

During our Big Year on a Budget we wondered if there was a sure-fire, slam dunk location for each of the hard-to-find species in the lower 48 states.

We answered our own question for a few of those species: State Forest State Park in Colorado for American Three-toed Woodpecker, Sandia Crest in New Mexico for rosy finches, Great Salt Lake State Park in Utah for Chukar, and Mercey Hot Springs in California for Long-eared Owl. But we’d like to hear from you about your best locations for some of the tougher species to find.

Send us your top hot spots for your hard-to-find species. You decide what species you find hard-to-find and then tell us where you would suggest we go to look for them.

We’ll visit your spots and see if they are truly slam dunk spots!

Migration Is Heating Up

There are plenty of birds to see in the Rio Grande Valley at any time of the year but spring migration is the best time to see a wide variety of species.

Most of the Valley specialties are year-round residents. When spring rolls around they are joined by dozens of species that are just passing through on their way back north. The peak time for this migration is the last two weeks of April but the vanguard of migrants starts to arrive by mid-March and the stragglers are still passing through in mid- to late- May. This two-month migration window provides some of the best birding of any place and time on the entire North American continent.

If you only have money to visit the RGV once during the year make sure it’s during the spring migration!

Diminishing Returns

It cost less than $6,000 to see the first 600 species of birds during our Big Year (less than $10 each) but almost $4,400 more to see another 54 ABA species (about $81 per species). That’s a classic case of diminishing returns.

We were seeing many new birds each day at the beginning, but at the end we often went days or weeks without seeing anything new. So, one important tip to seeing more species on fewer dollars is to plan your trips where and when there is the best opportunity to see many new species. That sounds obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Even now we are analyzing our life lists to see what birds we still need and then trying to figure out where and when we could see the greatest numbers. For us, we know that we need to take pelagic trips from northern California or Oregon and from the east coast. We also need to take some trips to Alaska. Even though these trips will be expensive, they will provide us with the greatest opportunity to see the most birds for the least cost. Other than that, most trips would only give us the opportunity to see one new species in an area, such as the Colima Warbler in Big Bend National Park or the Himalayan Snowcock in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. (The cost per species for those trips would be very high. That’s why people who try for record numbers on their Big Years spend so much!)

There are many resources online to determine when and where to see specific birds. Checklists from natural areas can be located at the US Geologic Survey site: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/chekbird/.  Just click on the state that you are interested in visiting. A list of checklists will come up and you can click on them and even print them out to take into the field. These checklists include information on the probability of seeing a species as well as the time of year when it is most prevalent. The lists allow you to see many species at a glance but, unfortunately, many of them are old and not completely accurate.

More recent sightings can be located at the American Birding Association’s website http://birding.aba.org/. You can click on the location you are planning to visit to see what has been seen recently in that area. There are also archived lists to see what was seen at a particular time in previous years in that region.

Perhaps the most comprehensive resource is ebird, but only one species can be entered at a time. Go to http://ebird.org and click on the explore data tab. Then click on the range and point maps. Finally, enter the species you would like to see. You may also want to limit the search to the last three years so that you get recent data. The dark purple indicates the best areas to see a particular species. Then enlarge the map. When you see the “bubbles” click on them to see the location and date(s) of the sightings. This gives you not only an idea about where to see specific birds but also the time of year when they are most often seen. In addition, next to many of the sightings is a link to the complete checklist from the person reporting, which indicates what other birds were seen at the same time as your target bird.

As many people noted during our Big Year, we returned to the same areas multiple times.  No matter what time of year you visit a birding hotspot, you are going to miss some birds. For example, people visit South Texas in the winter so they can see the Whooping Cranes as well as many other South Texas specialties. But some birds don’t return until after the Whooping Cranes have headed north. For example, the Groove-billed Ani is unusual to see in South Texas until April or May so you are unlikely to see both cranes and anis on one trip. But multiple trips obviously cost more than a single trip to a region, all the more reason to plan carefully (and to hope for good luck!).

There is no way to avoid the law of diminishing returns but online resources will make your birding more cost efficient.

The Single Most Important Consideration For A Budget Big Year

People have asked us what the “secret” to our budget Big Year was.

Our approach to the year was to travel extensively to visit all the main habitats of the continent in multiple seasons. All of the travel, except for pelagic bird trips, was done by car. So, the single most important cost consideration for us was the cost per mile of our vehicles. We’ve said it before, we would have had to stop about June (with “only” 600 species or so) if we did not use our Prius for 3/4 of the miles we traveled.

The combined mileage for our Prius and our minivan was about 40 mpg. Since we drove nearly 60,000 miles in the year, that works out to about 1500 gallons of gasoline. A typical economy car gets a combined mpg of about 30. So, we saved 500 gallons compared to that. A typical van or SUV gets 25 mpg or less, so we saved even more compared to that.

Our average cost for gasoline was about $3.50 per gallon. Based on that, you can see that over half of our total budget was spent on fuel ($5,250 out of $10,376). Had we used a typical car that amount would have been $7000 or more. We would have had scant resources left for all of our other expenses.

So, the “secret” to our Big Year was to drive a fuel efficient car.

Drought and Birds

We have hardly had a drop of rain in South Texas since we have been back from our Big Year and the effects of the drought on birds are obvious.

The numbers of most small birds are noticeably lower than in previous winters. Whereas we often saw dozens of Orange-crowned Warblers, for example, we now see just one or two on a typical walk in their habitat. That seems to be the case for most other insect-eating birds as well. Without rain there is scant plant growth for the insects to eat and fewer birds up the food chain.

Resident seed-eating birds have fared even worse. Populations of Northern Bobwhite have crashed, and we didn’t even see a single grassland sparrow during our recent birdathon day. Soils are bone dry and there is no indication that any new plant growth is imminent as the spring season begins.

Water birds are also hard hit. Many ponds and marshes have dried up and it is only where state and federal agencies have been able to buy some water rights to flood parks and refuges that our usual wintering populations of ducks, shorebirds, and waders are hanging on. Water is such a magnet for these birds in these few locations that the birding can be wonderful there … and almost nonexistent elsewhere.

Temperatures have been on the warm side this winter, a further factor intensifying the drought conditions, and strong winds have been frequent, drying out the land even further. It is a perfect storm of dry, dry, dry.

In less than a month the spring migration will be starting and thousands upon thousands of birds will stop by on their way north. Let’s hope there is something for them to eat when they get here.

What’s Next?

We have been spending most of our time catching up on things we neglected during our Big Year.

The house needs some maintenance and repairs. The drought has hurt our landscaping and we have a long list of “would ‘a, should ‘a, could ‘a” things to take care of.

But we have started planning for our next birding adventure. Our son will be doing a semester in Italy as part of his studies in architecture at Cornell University and we are hoping to spend about a month in the fall visiting with him and doing some birding there. We have never been to Europe and, even though it is not an especially birdy place, nearly everything we see in Italy will be new for our world lists.

In the meantime we hope to write some more and process more of our photographs from last year. Stay tuned if you are still interested in our budget Big Year.