Belize has come up several times when talking with people about birding abroad. I heard it was clean, the locals were friendly, the countryside was pristine and the birds were everywhere. My trip to Belize proved that I could not find one argument to the contrary. It is all of those things and more. The three “Bullseye” birds I had always wanted to see in the wild were the King Vulture, Limpkin, and Golden-hooded Tanager. I recalled The King Vulture from the perspective of a young, impressionable 9 year old zoologist when on a family visit to the San Diego Zoo. Seeing this somewhat ugly yet captivating raptor always intrigued me and I wanted to see it in the wild. The Limpkin intrigued me when I dipped on it in Florida and I started looking into the strange half crane, half rail. The Tanager, well…he was just the cherry on top. Who wouldn’t want to see this beauty up close?
The big year could mean many things, but in this case, we are talking about how it pertains to birding. There has been a lot of talk lately about “The Big Year” which was made main stream by a movie of the same name starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Until the release of this movie in 2011, the big year concept was relatively unknown. I am asked consistently, “Hey Mr. Birder, have you seen this movie?” and “Do people really travel around looking for birds?” I tell them I have seen it, and if I had the cash and time for my own “Big Year”… we wouldn’t be standing here talking right now. I do find, however, that some people are still a little unsure about what the big year is, so I am going to break it down for you.
Some bird watchers like to keep a life list of all the birds they have ever seen and identified. This can be in the form of a journal, a spread sheet, or a web site like eBird. This list is the driving force behind the concept of the “big year.” For example, there are approximately 900 species in the American Birding Association’s (ABA) geographic area which covers North America north of the Mexican border. The idea of the big year is to identify as many of those 900 species as possible. The current record for this area is 748 species shared by Neil Hayward and Sandy Komito.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that there have been three things that have transformed my love of birding since my grandfather gave me a field guide nearly 35 years ago. The first was my Zoology Prof from Santa Barbara and the introduction of the life list. The second was the camera my Mom bought me for Christmas some years after, and the third was finding and using the fantastic site www.eBird.org. The attributes this site offers, to even the backyard birder, are amazing. The best part is that it allows each and every person that uses the site to be a citizen scientist, hold a life list and research birds around the world, for FREE. Every piece of information that is entered into the site is used for a multitude of reports that give insight into the health of birds, the environment and the earth, all entered by regular people just like you and me.
When referred to in birding, a life list is a list of all the birds you have identified in your time as a bird watcher. Each bird on your list is considered a “lifer” and is the reason for "The Big Year" which I will discuss in an upcoming blog. Some people have a list that represents the birds they’ve seen in their back yard and some have a list that encompasses all the birds they have seen worldwide. Some folks keep a journal by the window while others have a series of spreadsheets to track each location, region, and country they have visited. For most birders today, the truth lands somewhere in between where both electronic and hand written lists are used. A great many people regret not having started their life list sooner for various reasons, some as simple as forgetting when or where birds were sighted. The important thing is to START!
My list goes back to college in Santa Barbara when my zoology professor introduced me to the idea of a life list. I still have the entries from my first visit to Shoreline Park where the first bird to hit my list was a Brown Pelican, seen on Nov 4, 1989. I enjoy the fact that 26 years later I can see the details of that first sighting.