A Big Year is an informal competition among birders to see who can see or hear the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.
“The Big Year,” from which the competition is based, is a non-fiction bestseller by Mark Obmascik. The concept is simple: three crackerjack birders seek to set the record for most birds seen in North America in one calendar year, traveling all over the continent in search of exotic species.
And “The Big Year” is also a big-budget Hollywood movie about three ultra-competitive bird-chasers, played by Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.
Michael Delesantro and Renee Rubin, of Weslaco, Tex., decided to make this year their “Big Year.” They started their journey in New Jersey on Jan. 1, their story is chronicled on their website: www.birdingonabudget.com.
Many birders who attempt a Big Year spend upwards of $80- to $100,000 on the journey, Delesantro said.
“We decided to do our Big Year on a budget of $12- to $15,000,” he said, “just to show it could be done. But we’ve struggled. Finding places to camp has been difficult, many of the campgrounds are closed for the winter. And gas prices are high. Gas was $3.25 in Texas when we left and $4.50 a gallon in California.”
But, the couple said, they are enjoying the trip and are learning every step of the way.
Delesantro has been a birder for nearly 40 years, since their retirement, his wife has joined him in the hobby.
“We live along the Rio Grande, only about 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “It’s one of the top three, if not the number one area in terms of the variety of bird species you can see. But we don’t have the forests there. We’re really enjoying the forests.”
“One thing I’ve realized on this trip is how much I don’t know,” Delesantro said. “I was a decent birder at home, because I know what to expect to see. It’s different here. There are Song Sparrows in every state, for instance, and in every state the Song Sparrow sounds different — they have a different accent.”
The best advice Delesantro has for new birders are to keep a list and take plenty of pictures.
The quality of the photograph doesn’t matter, as long as it helps him identify the bird.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve said to myself ‘there goes another bird I’ll never be able to identify’ if I don’t have my camera with me,” he said. “When I take a picture, I can blow it up on the computer and study it.”
Last week they traveled from the coast of Washington State, through Lewis County, on their way south. Their goal in our neck of the woods was to spot bird number 388 on their list: the Evening Grosbeak.
Their destination: my backyard.
Just a few hours before the couple arrived, Evening Grosbeaks by the dozens filled the trees.
But as they pulled up the drive, there was nary a songster to be found. Not one.
“That’s how it’s been for us lately,” said Delesantro, “we’ve had some bad luck. We couldn’t find the Common Redpolls in Redmond Beach Park this morning, and they had been there the day before.”
After a few hours of fruitless searching, Delesantro finally spotted the reason for the sudden disappearance of the grosbeaks — a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It was an identification the learned birder could make on the fly without hesitation.
“They like to hang out around bird feeders,” Delesantro explained. “Their relatively short wings and long tail helps them to cut sharp turns and quickly move in and out of branches. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a song bird specialist.”
The next day the Evening Grosbeaks returned to my backyard, but it was too late for the Texas pair. They were already on their way, enjoying the birds of Oregon and California before heading back home to Texas.
Song, Silhouette, Size and Scene
Using Simple Tools to Find and Identify Birds in Your BackyardBy Kimberly Mason For The Chronicle
As the old saying goes: “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.”
Everybody knows what a duck looks like. But is it a Mallard? A Wood Duck? Or is it a rarely seen and much sought after Tufted Duck?
As we look with new, birding eyes, attempting to attach a name other than the simple “bird” to a winged creature, we tend to get overly excited and jump to the conclusion that this must be a rare bird, a new bird. It’s a common mistake for beginning birders.
But, more than likely, it’s a common bird that we have seen many times before. Only our eyes are new and rare, not the bird.
I remember the first time I had worked to identify a new and exotic-looking bird at my winter feeders.
A pair of them flew in and launched themselves at the feeder. They seemed fearful, wary, but hungry enough to have honored me with their rare visit.
I was also fearful, fearful that they would get away before I could document the event.
I grabbed a camera and fired away from behind the glass, hoping to capture a photograph that would help me identify them later at my leisure.
I made mental notes: size of a Robin; long, pointed, bright yellow beak; covered in white, snowflake-like spots; black, iridescent feathers; orange feet and legs.
I searched through my bird books, starting with all the rare birds I knew I had never seen before. I was excited beyond words.
When I finally found a photograph that looked like the birds outside my window I literally jumped for joy … until, that is, I read their name: European Starling.
Starting With the Ordinary
You don’t have to make a “Big Year” cross-country trip (see sidebar “Big Year on a Budget Birders”) across the United States in order to be able to call yourself a birder. A birder is anyone who has an interest in identifying birds, watching bird behavior or simply enjoys watching them eat seed from backyard feeders.
If you want to become a better birder, however, you must study the birds by getting outside to actively listen to their calls, observe the different shapes, compare their sizes, and notice which birds like to hang out where.
As you learn the song, silhouette, size and the scenery that a particular bird prefers, it will help you find that “rare” bird when it does show up in your backyard. Because as you become familiar with the familiar, the uncommon will stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
Some birders do a majority of their birding by ear.
To help you learn to identify a bird, there is no substitute for actually getting out in the field or forest, hearing a bird song and then tracking down the songster.
But there are smart phone applications, internet websites and CDs with recorded birdsong available for home study or that you can take into the field.
(Do be aware, however, that if you use a recording to attract birds, you may be adding to their stress. Use recordings sparingly and never use them on threatened species or in heavily birded areas.)
As you learn the songs and calls of the more common birds in your neighborhood, you will also learn to recognize new song, which will help you find new birds to add to your list of sightings.
Silhouette, Shape and Size
Get in the habit of comparing a new bird with a bird that is more familiar to you. Is it the size of an American Robin? Smaller than a Dark-eyed Junco? As large as a Bald Eagle?
What is its shape? Is it slender like a Western Scrub Jay or fat like an American Robin?
Does the bird carry a long or short tail? Is the bird carrying a tiny beak, a stout and short beak, a dagger-shaped or a hook-tipped beak?
Set the Scene
Woodpeckers climb trees, ducks swim, and shorebirds wade. You’ll never find a hummingbird foraging in the mud like a snipe and you will probably never see a duck perched in a tree like a sparrow.
If you see a bird that looks like a Blue-footed Booby, but instead of standing somewhere near the Baja coast, you are in Ocean Shores — then it is very likely the bird isn’t a Booby.
Those are all easy calls, but most bird species are predictable in their habits and their chosen habitats.
As birds migrate and seasons change so do the species of birds that are common for any given area.
Your feeders may be packed with Pine Siskins now and four months from now you’ll see hosts of American Goldfinches in their place.
Mark Your Calendar
As spring approaches, there is a lot of noise going around the Tweeters mailing list (http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/TWET.html) with birders relaying their excitement over sightings of the bird that means “Spring is Coming” to them in their neighborhood.
For some, it is the return of the swallows, for others (like me) it is the red-winged blackbird’s song.
Keep a record of what bird you see, when you see it, and where it was when you saw it. Keeping a record of your bird sightings will simply and easily make you a birder.
By keeping a journal of your sighting you will also add to your knowledge and understanding.
If you have never kept a list (like Glenn Thompson of Toledo and his list of 88 species), never sketched a bird or never taken notes or written a description, you’ll never know how much these practices will shape and sharpen your birding skills.
Try it, you’ll like it.
Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer based in Cinebar. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.