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Plan a Big Year

Steps to Start Planning Your Birding Big Year

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Green Jay

Will you plan to add the green jay to your big year list?

Dan Pancamo

A big year is the ultimate birding adventure – a year-long quest to see as many bird species as possible. But how can you plan for this type of long-term birding to make it a productive and efficient twelve months? If you're thinking about a big year, start planning early with these basic steps to make it the best and birdiest year ever.

Choosing Your Big Year

The first step in planning a big year is to decide what type of year you want to do. While the most familiar option is to see as many different bird species as possible within the geographic guidelines set by the American Birding Association (Canada and the continental United States including coastal pelagic zones), there are other ways to set guidelines for your big year, such as:

  • Birding for a single type of bird, such as seeing as many shorebirds, raptors or warblers as possible
  • Geographic limitations such as a single state or county, or limiting to national parks or other boundaries
  • Budget limits, such as seeing as many birds as possible for a total of $5,000
  • Counting only endangered species or subspecies
  • A lifer big year, where only new life list birds add to the big year total
  • Requiring that each bird seen be accompanied by a photograph for verification

Once you have decided what type of big year you want to plan, you can take steps to turn your birding dreams into reality.

Big Year Budgets

The biggest birding years require the biggest budgets, and the financial costs are the most limiting factor for many interested birders. The costs to consider when planning your big year include:

  • Transportation: Rental cars, gasoline, car insurance and maintenance, airline tickets, etc.
  • Accommodations: Hotels, hostels, campsite fees, etc.
  • Meals: Food while traveling, including any special dietary needs or preferences
  • Birding Gear: Proper clothes to wear out birding in different locations, portable optics, regional field guides, etc.
  • Guides: Fees to hire local birding guides if desired, including their transportation costs
  • Admission Fees: Gate charges for preserves, parks, gardens and other birding hotspots
  • Festivals: Registration and trip costs for birding events and festivals, including pelagic tours and similar excursions

Depending on your type of big year, there are plenty of ways to cut costs to keep your year on budget.

  • Contact local birding organizations and ask about amateur guides rather than paying higher fees for professional guides.

  • Opt for lower cost accommodations such as hostels or camping, which will also typically put you closer to birds than pricier options.

  • Purchase a Federal Duck Stamp for free admission to many preserves, and choose other membership options for groups of preserves to save on overall fees.

With care, it is easy to budget for a big year and plan twelve months of birding that won't lead to bankruptcy.

Study for Your Big Year

Just as learning bird calls, ranges and field marks can make all your birding easier, studying for the entire year can help you plan a better travel route to take advantage of the most productive birding times in different locations. The more well-versed you are about local birds, even if you haven't before visited every location, the easier it will be to find different species and add to your big year total.

Before your big year begins:

  • Learn when bird migration peaks in different areas so you can see not only local target birds but also passing migrants in the same place.

  • Study road maps and alternative routes, including road construction projects and seasonal road closures to plan your route effectively.

  • Join email lists of bird sightings and browse archives to learn about local migration, rare bird sightings and the most popular birding spots in each area.

  • Contact local groups and ask for tips about the best places to see specialty species and the possibility for rare bird sightings.

  • Learn bird festival dates for local events that target great birding times so you can take advantage of the events themselves or the favorable conditions that lead to better birding.

Most importantly, study the birds for your big year. The more familiar you are with the birds you hope to see, the more easily you will be able to visit the proper habitats at the proper times to see them. Learn bird field marks, calls, behaviors and other distinguishing characteristics that can help you easily add these birds to your life list.

More Big Year Planning Tips

No matter where or when you will be planning your big year…

  • Plan some breaks or holidays. Keeping up a grueling pace can sap your enthusiasm for birding and breed resentment among family members and friends, so be sure to schedule down time when possible.

  • Save money for several months prior to beginning your big year so you have a more flexible budget. At the same time, apply for a few extra credit cards if possible so emergency funds will be available if needed, but keep them only for emergencies.

  • Use social media networks and online connections to cultivate a flock of birding friends who can send you tips or help out with directions, a quick meal or a couch to crash on when you're in the neighborhood – and reciprocate those favors when your friends plan their own birding trips.

  • See your doctor before beginning a big year and make plans to stay healthy with appropriate vitamins, a nutritious diet and sufficient exercise. If you take steps to get healthier several months before beginning a big year, you'll have more stamina and energy for a full year of birding.

Don't forget, a big year is about enjoying the birds. Plan to have fun, and no matter how far you travel or how many birds you see, your big year will be a success!

Photo – Green Jay © Dan Pancamo

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