Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Big Year Fatigue

This Buller's Shearwater was photographed in 2012, off Half Moon Bay, CA. We had a great many of them that day, which I don't think has happened in a few years here. My YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF is currently without this species.

For some reason, rabid county listing in all 58 of California counties sounds inane and empty to me. No offense, just being honest. Why anyone would want to drive hours to chase a locally uncommon bird in Amador instead of putting that time and money towards a trip to a Nome or a Oaxaca or a Cuba or a Ecuador is beyond me. I do not care if you have seen Surf Scoter in 20 inland counties, especially if none of those birds were self-found.

I have never been one to really bash county listing or any other kind of listing though. As far as I know, no one appreciates day birds and trip birds more than me. I list the hell out of things, but year birds...I can really get behind year birds. Doesn't it seem like a good idea to try and see a species once a year? It is, I assure you. I love yearbirding, even though the last time I did any sort of big year was almost 20 years ago. I set the Ventura County big year record back when I was still a minor (which was subsequently demolished the next year), so I've got a little bit of history with this.

Yearbirding, of course, goes hand in hand with full-fledged big years, and in the U.S. you can't talk about big years without bringing up ABA big years. The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive and I were talking about this very thing the other day, and Felonious had some interesting thoughts on the subject. I suggested that he put a post up, and this is what he had to say. Remember, if you finish this post fuming and butthurt, please direct all animosity toward Felonious. - Seagull Steve

With 2016 now well in the rearview, what has also passed in birding circles is the constant chatter of what the 4 ABA big year birders were doing last year. To cut to the is somehow a relief to not be hearing about so and so flying from Alaska to Florida and back to Alaska to get a few ticks, and to not read some sort of rubbish about it being some mystical, spiritual journey. I know that I'm not the only one who has lost my appetite for this sort of thing. I've never been one to get very excited about ABA big years, but they always seemed interesting to some degree. However, by the end of 2016, I was over it entirely. I had Big Year Fatigue.

In 2013 I found myself crushing this Black-capped Flycatcher in Costa Rica's Talamancas. I can rest assured that I will not see one of these for my YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF that I'm doing this year.

I don't care what anyone's ABA list is, be it one put together in a year or within a lifetime. Those who have really high ABA lists generally have access to wealth, or are tour guides, or both. Sure, if you have 800+ species I am going to be envious of some of your experiences, but it's not like I equate one's list size with happiness. I could actually argue that the inverse of this is true...but that is for another time.

In 2016 I found myself going back to the same topics repeatedly whenever big years came up in conversation, and Seagull Steve thought it was time I shared them with a wider audience. I present them to you now, not as birding gospel but merely birding food for birding thought.

Conservation: Birding in all its forms is great, but conservation is more important. Without conservation, there is no birding, only evil and Rock Pigeons. Personally, if I was going to spend a whole year and a great deal of money birding and burning gas, I couldn't do it without some kind of conservation tie-in. Most big year birders don't do this, though I know at least one ABA yearbirder put his money where his mouth was last year. I respect that. In other cases, it seems like conservation was given lip service and nothing more. Conversation is great, but it's not the same thing as conservation.

Time: A Big Year on an ABA level, or in a big birdy state like California, requires you to be birding constantly. There are very few stretches that are not conducive to adding birds that you might not see again for the rest of the year. It's essentially a full-time job when you figure in the absurd amount of travel time it is necessary to put in, so you have to be in the envious position of being retired or unemployed, or have a job that will let you take a lot of leave for an entire year yet somehow pays well enough to finance this absurd pursuit. Most of us aren't lucky enough to have this kind of time, which is one reason why I find really ambitious big years somewhat difficult to relate to.

White-tailed Hawks were nice to see on the regular back in 2014. Though my YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF features a modest number of hawks, this hawk is not included. Photographed in McCook, Hidalgo County, Texas.

$$$: Money is a huge factor in big years. It's a lot like politics...the more money you have to spend, the more likely it is you will have success. Think about it...for the typical ABA Big Year, you are taking dozens of flights, with destinations from Gambell to Miami, St. Johns to San Diego. The costs of flights, lodging, tours, gas, rentals must be astronomical. Even if you are doing a Big Year on a state level, you are putting a great number of miles on your car...the costs of constant frantic birding can add up in a big way, no matter what the scale. A large pool of disposal income, another thing most of us do not have access to, is highly conducive to the kind of success you can achieve, though obviously not everyone who does a big year drops in on a rarity with a golden parachute and silver spoon in hand.

Social constraints: Some birders exist in a sick relative to help, no significant other, no close friends nearby that would be missed. No children to raise, or they are already grown and out of the house. Some people never find themselves in a position to do a big year, even if they have the time and money. The big year birder is either very fortunate in this regard, or they have little regard for other people (a common trait in birders).

In 2015, I picked up this nice male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker early in the year. No such luck for my ongoing YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF. Photographed at Casto Valley Regional Park, Castro Valley, CA.

Reputation: If you are going to do a serious big year, whether it be in a single county or for the entire planet, you want to have the respect of your peers. You are probably trying to set some kind of record, after all. If that is the case, you should be a good birder. I don't think that is a controversial thing to say, but there are not many people out there saying it in public...but hey, that's what BB&B is here for, right? Right. There are records and all involved here that a lot of folks actually take seriously and for this reason, stringers should not be doing big years. However, with the Dunning-Kruger effect in play, we can't exactly expect birders to be policing themselves in this matter. It is also preferable that when you are using tour guides (inevitable in a ABA big year) that you can actually identify the birds that the guides are showing you. Just because your guide saw that Willow Warbler well doesn't mean you can automatically count it. Well you totally can, but in case no one has told you yet, that is really lame.

Hype: We heard about 2016's ABA big year birders constantly from both interested folks and from some of the birders themselves, who varied in their self-promotional habits between seemingly doing none at all (a breath of fresh air) to constantly making themselves as visible as possible online. It's true that if you portray yourself as a big deal that some people will actually believe you...just look at Seagull Steve, the #7 birder in the United States. He would know.

As I said, big year birders are highly variable in the amount of attention they want to draw to would not be fair of me at all to try to make any sweeping generalizations about that. I mean, compare the press of Noah Strycker's world big year with Arjan Dwarshuis'. Do you even know who Arjan is? If not, that illustrates my point perfectly...he saw hundreds more species than Noah did in 2016, completely demolishing Noah's impressive record set the year before. Yet there was almost no buzz around what Arjan was doing, at least not in 'murica. So you can go about your business like Arjan did, or have people create buzz for you like Noah did, or you can really make it about yourself and pull some Swallowgate tactics. I think I prefer the under the radar style, but maybe relentless attempts for attention are more your thing.

The book: Many a big year birder has gone on to write a book. This is now about as predictable as Sanderlings flying north in spring and south in fall. While everyone always welcomes a Sanderling when it arrives, the same cannot be said about another big year book. It's a cliché, let's be honest. I'm not saying that all these books are terrible or even bad at all, but it seems like behind almost every big year is a book being written. How many more of these books, which by necessity have the exact same plot, will be written? Of course, many speaking engagements will be planned as well....there's no publicity for a birder like a big year.

I've seen a modest number of green birds, and Mexican Parrotlet is by far the most leaf-like. There are two of them in this photo, you know. I have not yet seen this species for the current YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF. Photographed in 2016 at Lower Singayta, Nayarit, Mexico.

The big year modifier: Speaking of cliché a leading tastemaker in birding, I officially am announcing that the phrase "little big year" has been a tired and uninteresting cliché for a long time, a long time. Just like I put an end to the phrase "Birds have wings. They use them.", it is now time that we put little big years on the proverbial shelf for a couple decades so some of their freshness may be restored. Consider some alternatives, such as shitty big year, fake big year, regular year, modest big year, kinda large year, swollen but not uncomfortably so year, or call it what it usually is...YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF (Year Of Hopefully Observing Many Bird Species Locally Because Frequent Travel Is Not Financially Or Logistically Feasible).

I do have one resoundingly positive thing to say about the 2016 ABA big years though - the big year deathmarch did have one unique aspect to it. It was not a well-kept secret that the big year birders were not one big happy family, which two of them acknowledged repeatedly on their respective blogs. BB&B, being who we are, fully endorses this. Fear and loathing? Allegations of stringing? Bitter birding rivalries? Where?! Point the way! While some leading birders attempt to portray birdwatchers as one big happy family, BB&B has no such illusions. That's why you are here now. So thanks, 2016 ABA yearbirders, for keeping it real.

Black-legged Kittiwake was a bird I didn't get to see last year, but luckily they were readily available to gobble up for this year's YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF! Photographed earlier this year at the Pilarcitos Creek mouth, Half Moon Bay, CA.

No need to go on forever about this, I've said my piece. I'm not against big years, I just am not really excited about them anymore, at least on the scale of the ABA Area. Perhaps there are more interesting things to be excited about, no need to get offended. Maybe the fatigue will wear off. At least there is one thing about big years we can all agree on...despite the crazy-good cast, The Big Year was a major disappointment. It sure gave birding a lot of publicity though!


  1. Thank you for YOHOMBSLBFTINFOLF; that is an acronym which has been missing from my life heretofore.

    1. You are welcome. Use it widely, and constantly.

  2. Well. Our friendship has had a good run. It's time I told you... I liked the big year. Insert grimace emoji.

    1. That's quite the disclosure. It's been real FJ.

  3. I was wondering what kind of fatigue I was suffering from! I agree, the whole big year thing has become a bit wearisome. At this point lots of interesting "niche" activities seem to be more interesting and attainable - 5 mile circle, green birding, etc. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. Felonious didn't even talk about the blogger on the ABA page who covered NOTHING but big years...I get that people like big years but if that's all I wrote about I would go batshit.

  4. But without Big Year books, how would we get to hear about people who go out to find birds, but end up finding themselves?

    And I liked the Big Year movie, too, so I guess that makes two of us.

  5. ABA Big Years really are blasé. There was another, quieter Big Year that happened in 2016 which was tremendously exciting compared to the Big 4. Tommy DeBardeleben, #1 eBirder for Maricopa County, Arizona, did an Owl Big Year. Tommy's Owl Big Year (TOBY) had self set rules for him to see and photograph all 19 species of Owls in the ABA in a single year. Operating on a shoestring budget while being employed full time, he pulled off this incredible feat by August. I doubt any of those ABA birders had half as good of looks at those Owls as Tommy did even if they had the same number of Owl ticks.

    The story is on his blog:

    1. I will check it out, thanks Josh. It's all about the nontraditional big year.

  6. Competitive listing has an irredeemably "modern" flavor. I understand why it has been a pox in the UK, which is still a fairly modern place. But the United States, where postmodernism caught on and flourished so? Please. Get that shit out of here. Take your big number and show it to someone who gets a rise out of big numbers. Get your stupid narcissistic bullshit out of here and don't come back until you've cured yourself of this pathological modernism. There will be a piss test.

    By the way, re: the THGU lump. No matter how you slice it, this lump would/will take a bit of the fun out of being a gull smartypants in the Great Lakes region, where gullers take great pride in having access to a broad spectrum of Iceland-types and engage in what is too often the stupid parlor game of separating the two common forms. However, I don't think you'll see much evidence of butthurt. Great Lakes gullers have already gotten out in front of this one, as they say. The same gullers who stood against this lump for years (probably hoped to make a splash with a paper or article on the urgent business of separating Iceland-types, now much less urgent) now suggest the opposite, apparently hoping that no one is really paying attention.

    I don't meant to paint with too broad a brush here. For example, one big exception would be Canadians, who really have been in favor of lumping for a long time. Simple test to determine whether or not someone has been a longtime “lumper”: ask to see their ID. If they're a citizen of Canada, they're likely being honest. If they're a citizen of the U.S., I'd wager that they underwent a recent and miraculous conversion in order to not seem out of touch once Dunn threw down.

    1. No Great Lakes butthurt? Interesting...I have observed a great deal of it already and assumed the butthurt was evenly distributed among Lower 48 birders. I guess being on the right side of birding history trumps baseless whinging.