Birding as a challenge

Some feel a little bit unmasked, others just get amused about well-known habits and a few think the portrayal is too exaggerated: In the film „The Big Year“ David Frankel shows partly realistic and partly overdrawn how three US Americans run a Big Year. The Big Year of birding originated in the Anglo-Saxon countries and nowadays has different new variations across the world. For exactly one year, more specifically from 0 o’clock at the 1st of January local time until 31st of December 24 o’clock, you have to see or hear as many different species of birds as possible. It could become high performance sport, but in the original positive sense it is a sabbatical in nature or enough leisure time for a favorite activity. We show some variants and facts about a Big Year.

2016 was a record year worldwide as well as in North America. The Dutch Arjan Dwarshuis set the world record with 6,833 bird species in one year. The most well-known competition for a Big Year certainly is the one in the ABA-area of North America that is defined by the American Birding Association. Thanks to “El Niño“ 2016 was a perfect year to see rare species in Northern America you usually do not see. Besides the meteorological phenomena John Weigel’s success is also due to some few new splits in species taxonomy, which enabled him additional listings.

John Weigel surpassed all his predecessors with 783 species as well as his competitor for the year, Olaf Danielson.

John Weigel, who actually lives in Australia, used his Big Year to create awareness for the threatened Tasmanian devil and collect donations for protecting their habitats. On his blog he not only documented his Big Year but also informed readers about the animal. He describes how he experienced the highs and lows of the year and how he was supported by other bird watchers.

A Big Year in North America means not only daily changing periods for sleeping, but also the experience of different time and climate zones.

Via bike through North America
Without question it is important for any member of a Big Year that the observed birds are not disturbed. In addition there is a discussion about how ecologically minded Big Years are if there are many airline flights to take for bridging the big distances in North America. Dorian Anderson started 2014 an ecological variant of the Big Year and cycled 17,830 miles in one year across the ABA-area. He did not even take ferries and pedaled firmly on the US roads that are often not at all suitable for cyclists.

That is why he often got into dangerous situations and once had to take a break for a couple of days when he was hit by a car. Thanks to his blog he often had a couch for the evening at the houses of bird watchers, nature enthusiasts or just interested people, who wanted to talk to Dorian about his Big Year project and adventures. During his Big Year he collected $49,000 USD for habitat projects.

Compared to other ABA Big Years his radius was relatively limited by bike, but he nevertheless saw a notable 619 species of birds. One of it was a red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus), that first was accepted two years later by ABA as listing, because it was the first sighing ever in North America and was not on the official ABA-list.

Variety and history
In the meanwhile there are plenty of modifications for a Big Year, mainly ecological ones. This includes running a Big Day with a competition between different groups that count birds within 24 hours, only use CO₂-neutral ways of transportation and collect donations up to Big Sits or Big Stays. The latter ones mean that you make yourself comfortable in a smaller area of observation and not only protect the climate but also save your own energy. ZEISS regularly sponsors youth competitions in New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding, where already the very young get excited about birding and contribute to raise money for bird conservation.

Many nature conservation organizations use the competitions of one day not only to give information and experiences around nature but also to collect data according to the citizen science method. The first Big Year ever was run by a businessman in US during the 1930’s of the 20th century. Guy Emerson organized all his necessary business trips perfectly at that time when he could watch migratory birds in the different regions of USA. He was successful in doing this for years, until in 1939 he had his best year with 497 different species.

Personal year in nature
Why wouldn’t we follow Guy Emerson’s example? Originally bird-watching meant patience and silence. The spirit of competition just fits in here because it means a certain defined time for the favorite activity and note down all the precious sights of a bird species. Why not just start a Big Year around the house, in the next woods or during lunch times at work? For this we even do not have to wait until the 1st of January at midnight.

General rules for Big Years
On the list of ticks marks bird-watchers only put birds that they could identify without a doubt. If a bird disappeared too fast for identifying the exact sub species it does not count. Everybody trusts on the honor system within the birding community. There is no video proof necessary like in soccer. Verification in the form of are just sometimes necessary for rarity committees if accidental migrants are seen or heard or a species is seen for the first time in this area and is not on the official list of the bird organization of this territory.

In the end the knowledge and birding experience of the observer counts mostly. Significant for everybody is to behave in a way to never disturb birds in any way. If the Big Year is within an official competition the geographical limits and the time is defined by each organization of the area. The observations usually are documented in online lists or own blogs.