DIY Big Year: Increasing Your Efficiency

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Oct 18, 2017 | by Greg Miller
Clapper Rail feeding

Clapper Rail feeding – photo by Greg Miller

If you have ever done a Big Year you will probably have experienced spending an inordinate amount of time on one species in a specific area or a particular time of year only to find out later that this same species is much easier and/or quicker to find in another area or at a different season of the year. Or maybe you have listened to your friend’s advice and gone to a place and only added a handful of new species but you saw many of the species that you have already seen. Or maybe you just went to a place because it had a good reputation as a great birding spot. But you came away less than dazzled.

These are a few of the things folks face when building a big list, whether it’s a life list or a year list. You’ve probably spent some inefficient time and maybe a pretty large sum of money and you ended up with more disappointment than you did new species for the year (or your life).

Actually executing a perfect year is nearly as impossible as winning a State lottery. You cannot control weather conditions (well, at least not yet), or traffic, or what a specific species decides to do, or not do. This is a game of probability. To be the most efficient as possible, one must put themselves in a position to maximize the probability of adding the most species of birds, in the shortest amount of time, and at the least cost. This is no small task.

I have enough experience of doing things the hard way to help keep you from making the same mistakes. The lists of places and times I have provided for you in previous posts should help you get a higher number of species in a shorter amount of time. But now it is time to fine tune our efforts.

To do a successful Big Year you are going to want a list of target species for every location you visit. You should know what species to expect before you travel. And when you are brushing up on your identification skills, you should have a list of species that you spend the most time on before you ever leave. And when you have multiple trips, you should know what species are more likely on each individual trip.

I’ll explain with a fairly common and widespread bird across much of North America—the American Avocet. I am going to reference the first 10 Long Weekend post that does not include Alaska or Hawaii. Here is that itinerary:

Working Person’s Big Year Plan: 10 Long Weekends (without AK or HI)
eBird data for American Avocet 2006-2016 as of mid September 2016

Galveston County, Texas / April 22-30 / 11%
Hidalgo County, Texas / May 1-7 / 12%
Davis County, Utah / May 8-14 / 41%
Yakima County, Washington / May 22-31 / <1%
Cochise County, Arizona / June 1-7 / 7%
Atlantic County, New Jersey / September 1-7 / 11%
Monroe County, Florida / September 8-14 / 2%
Monterey County, California / September 15-21 / 6%
Clallam County, Washington / December 1-7 / 0%
Cameron County, Louisiana / December 15-21 / 26%

You’ll notice that a birder has at least a slim chance of seeing an American Avocet on 9 of these 10 trips. Only trip #9 to Clallam County, Washington, during the first week of December has no records of American Avocet in eBird between 2006 and 2016. The first trip where American Avocet can be expected will be trip #1 to Galveston County, Texas. Your odds of randomly seeing one on that trip will be about 11% or roughly 1 out of every 9 locations you go birding. Even though 11% is above the 7% threshold I used, this first trip is not the most likely trip of the year to add this bird. This species is a year target. It is expected on trip #1. But it should get a lower priority. I will give it a target priority of 3. Why? Because the best trip to see American Avocet on this itinerary is trip #3 to Davis County, Utah during the second week of May. The chance of randomly seeing an American Avocet on that trip is a whopping 41%. It is very easy to see on this trip. So it would get a higher priority on trip #3 than on trip #1, although it is expected on both trips. So for Davis County, American Avocet will get a priority of 2. This represents the very best location to find this species on this itinerary.

Why doesn’t it get a target priority of 1? Because there is another level of complexity for that ranking. American Avocet can be expected on multiple trips. But what if you only have one shot at seeing a particular species? It can be expected on one and only one trip.

Let’s use Altamira Oriole as an example. It has only been recorded on trip #2 in Hidalgo County, Texas during the first week of May between 2006 and 2016. It have never been recorded on any of the other 9 trips on this itinerary. A birder using this itinerary of 10 trips only has one chance to see this species. It has an eBird Frequency of Checklists of about 23%. Your chances are roughly 1 in 5 from any random location with Hidalgo County during the first week of May.

Did you notice I keep mentioning random? Because that 23% Frequency of Checklists is for the entire county. If you know what habitat the Altamira Oriole prefers you chances of success are greatly enhanced! And if you can recognize it’s call, it will help you track down this beautiful bird.

In summary, you will become far more efficient if you know what birds to expect with each trip. And you will further fine tune your efficiency by giving your best effort to locations where a species can most easily be found. And the more you know about its habitat and song, well, the faster you can find your target. Put it altogether and you will be a birding machine. Ok. Maybe just a bit more efficient. But I know this will help you have more fun finding good birds.

Here is a recap of the target priorities and their definitions:

  • Priority 1 – The species is a year target and it meets the threshold number and this is the only trip on which this species is expected
  • Priority 2 – The species is a year target and it meets the threshold number. This is not the only trip on which this species is expected, but this location is the best chance you will have all year
  • Priority 3 – The species is a year target and it meets the threshold number, but this is not the best location to see this bird, nor is it the only trip on which this species can be seen

See? This Big Year stuff is sounding easier if someone already gave you a list of trips, where and when to go, and soon to be revealed: some target species.

You. Are. Going. To. Love. This.

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