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.
The fortitude and planning it takes to complete a big year is substantial. It means committing to long days, traveling constantly, relying on others, disappointment, sacrifice and usually lots of money. If you read any of the blogs or books these folks have put together you will see that a big year is not for the weak of heart as you will be traveling by whatever means necessary to see the next bird on the list. Sometimes it means living on a boat for a week and in tents the next. It means chasing down that twitch that was listed on the rare bird site in the morning, only to have a happy birder say to you “Oh yeah, he was here, but it flew to the east 25 minutes ago.” It means asking the bank, or the parents, (same thing) for a loan that will take next three years to pay off. It usually takes me a month to plan a trip to a place like Texas or Belize that has me on the ground for only a week or two. Can you imagine what it takes to plan a whole year? What keeps a person going through all this? The rush they get when they see that next rarity putting them that much closer to beating the previous number.
The informal contest does not have to be limited to just the ABA area. Personally, I have a big year contest with myself every year. I keep track of the species I have seen annually, which has gone from less than 50, when I started counting, to more than 400 species tallied last year. It can be associated with any geographical area. For example, Russ Cannings completed a big year in British Columbia with 373 species, which is no small feat given the size of the province. Lynn Barber had the record for Texas in 2005 with 522 species. These folks are just a few of the great many people that have made the choice to spend a year committed to their passion. Currently, there is one gentleman that is on his way to birding the world. Noah Stryker has set out to see more than 5,000 species worldwide in 2015. He is currently in Uganda as of September with 4154 species. We wish you luck Noah.
The big year is more than ticking off species on a list. The big year is about connecting with other people who have the same interests. It’s about seeing amazing country-side that would turn most of our fellow citizen’s green with envy. It’s about getting the most out of yourself while doing something you love, and really, isn’t that what it’s all about?