(noun) An informal competition to see as many unique bird species as possible within a designated geographic area in one calendar year, from January 1 through December 31. There is no formal big year competition, but the American Birding Association recognizes big year achievements within North America, defined as the continental United States and Canada, Alaska and offshore areas up to 200 miles from the coast or halfway to another country, whichever is less. Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Greenland are excluded.
Many birders plan their own unique big year goals with different restrictions, such as limiting the birding geographically to a single state or province, a specific bird refuge or the lower 48 states. For a more expansive adventure, birders with abundant resources might attempt a world big year.
Other personal limitations on a big year might include:
- Financial or spending limits
- Birding without hiring local guides
- Chasing only specific types of birds, such as ducks, hummingbirds or warblers
- Identifying birds in a specific way, such as by sight only or by sound only
- Requiring photos of all birds to count toward the year's total
Many factors beyond those limitations can also affect the success of a big year. The economy is crucial, as traveling birders spend money on guides, fuel, accommodations and meals, and economic changes can drastically affect the amount of possible travel. Weather patterns are equally crucial, and many big year birders hope for storms that will help bring rare and vagrant birds into counting range. A birder's skills, experience and equipment are also prominent factors in their success for a big year.
Because there is little oversight to an individual big year, unsubstantiated sightings, particularly from unknown birders, may be questioned or rejected by birding authorities. Many big year birders stake their birding reputations on their results, and offering proof of bird sightings is a sure way to substantiate each bird counted. The most common ways to do this are either to go birding with groups where other birders can also witness the sighting, or else to photograph each bird as sighting proof.
The current acknowledged record for a big year is held by Sandy Komito, who in 1998 recorded 745 species. His exploits to do so, as well as the simultaneous big year efforts of Al Levantin and Greg Miller, have been detailed by Mark Obmascik in the book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession which inspired the movie “The Big Year” in 2011, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
A smaller version of a big year is a big day, when all the same guidelines are followed but the time period is compressed to seeing as many bird species as possible in a single day. A big month is another common variation.
Photo – Rose-Throated Becard © Dominic Sherony