DIY Big Year: 4 Weeks 400 Species

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Oct 6, 2017 | by Greg Miller

Black Oystercatcher at Playa del Rey, CA – photo by Greg Miller

In the previous posts I laid out a process of how I answered the questions “Where should I go?” And “When should I go?” Both of these questions are in light of the limitations of time, money, and health. Besides I have really felt like the working people are sort of left hanging with few options. I would never expect anyone to be as foolhardy as I was during my own Big Year in 1998. Working full time and doing a Big Year means you won’t sleep or do anything else for a year. But if you had just one week where should you go? Or two weeks? Or three or four weeks?

I have worked at many jobs. Most working people I know generally only have two or maybe three weeks of vacation. And rarely, some have four weeks. So I have had you all in mind. In this post I want to lay out the master plan for you so you can choose your most efficient options for getting a big number of species in a hurry. I’ve titled this one “4 Weeks 400 Species”. It’s a pretty decent number for a working person. In fact, I’m inclined to believe this may be one of the best conceivable plans to get to 400 for an “average” birder with “average” skills.

After this post I will provide you with information about your target species for each location. This will become your focus. And hopefully I’ll be able to give you some helpful tips to help you reach your goal.

The Working Person’s Big Year Plan: 4 Weeks 400 Species

  1. Cameron County, Texas / April 22-30 / 193 new species / total 193
  2. Clallam County, Washington / May 1-7 / 103 new species / total 296
  3. Cochise County, Arizona / May 8-14 / 64 new species / total 360
  4. Cameron Parish, Louisiana / December 15-21 / 45 new species / total 405

If you have only one week, then do only trip #1. If you have two weeks to use, do trips #1 and #2 for almost 300 total species. Likewise if you have three weeks, then do trips #1, #2, and #3 for a total of 360 species.

Did you also notice that it takes only two weeks to get almost 300 species of birds? And that it takes two more weeks to get the next 100 species of birds to get you to 400? So when you are at 300 species, you are half way in money and time to get to 400 species. And it only gets more difficult after this.

Note that is for the Lower 48 States only. It does not include Alaska or Hawaii. These States require long distance travel and considerable expense. Remember, I’m trying to save you some money, too. But don’t worry if you’re one of those birders who would like to see Alaska and Hawaii included. That will come later. And for those of you interested in coming to the U.S. and would like to do the 4 best consecutive weeks, I’ll address that in a later post, too.

The first thing that struck my mind was that the first three weeks were all in a row. They are back-to-back-to-back weeks. And then I realized that this was probably ok. During spring and fall migration more birds move through some areas than at any other time of year. And in spring, everything in migration is condensed. It all happens in a short amount of time. Fall migration is more leisurely and spread out over more months. So it does make sense that the best times to see the most species would happen during spring.

As a reminder, my “week” is seven days. The first and last days are for travel and the middle five days are for birding. This itinerary is one county per week. If you feel so inclined, you can add a few species in a number of places by visiting the adjacent counties. And when I lay out your target list I’ll also include “bonus” birds to add that will help build your list beyond 400.

Also, the “new species” designation is the number of new, never-before-seen birds that you should add to your Big Year list. In doing an efficient Big Year it is more important to add unique species than to go to all the popular places to just see a lot of birds. I love a lot of birds. But I also enjoy the challenge, logistics, and planning that go into doing a Big Year.

The mindset for a Big Year is different. A Kirtland’s Warbler counts as one species. A Rock Pigeon counts as one species. A Ross’s Gull from the Arctic Circle counts as one species. It is really a different way to think. And you may face a time where you want to chase a rare bird. But unless it is conveniently located and easy to twitch you are probably going to lose multiple species for your Big Year to chase it on a smaller Big Year schedule like the one listed above. But, of course, in the end the choice is yours. How often do rarities appear? Not often. And that is why we call them “rare”. <—Sorry. I couldn’t help the sarcasm there.

Do you think you want to do this now in 2018? Would you like to see my suggested dates for 2018? Ok. Here you go.

April 21-28, 2018 Cameron County, Texas
April 28-May 5, 2018 Clallam County, Washington
May 5-12, 2018 Cochise County, Arizona
December 15-22, 2018 Cameron Parish, Louisiana

If you drive this…well…it is a looooong way. Google maps says it is 39 hours of driving from Cameron County, Texas to Clallam County, Washington. And it’s another 28 hours of driving from Clallam County, Washington to Cochise County, Arizona.

Now at a cost of roughly $1,000-$1,500 per trip (see earlier posts), your grand total will probably be between $4,000-$6,000 for your four-week Big Year. Since I started traveling internationally, I find that once you reach this price level for what you want in the U.S. is now starting to look comparable to guided trips to Central or South America in terms of price. But in those places you will see more species in a shorter amount of time. The closer you get to the Equator, the greater the diversity of birdlife.

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