Thursday, August 11, 2005

Listing, Chasing and Big Years



In 2004 I did a Wisconsin birding “Big Year,” the term used to describe a veritable race to see as many different bird species as possible within the state boundary in 365 days. The crowning numerical achievement in our state is crossing the 300 mark, but I came up a little short at 291. More than a consolation, though, I finished the year with over 20 life birds; many of those were species I probably wouldn’t have seen without a long drive. I carpooled as often as possible with other birders who were also doing big years, but I still logged about 3,000 miles on my car for birding trips. It was also nice to see many of Wisconsin’s State Parks and Natural Areas…places I had never seen before even as a life-long resident of the state.

I began this year by taking a bit of a birding break and barely birded at all through January and February. Once March arrived with returning ducks, and knowing what species show up in April, I felt compelled to get back out in the field, but at a much more relaxed pace. I resolved that this year would be different. I wouldn’t chase unless it meant a chance at a life bird, or if it was a supremely satisfying natural area like Horicon Marsh, Spring Green Reserve or Thomson Prairie…places I love to visit and explore at least once a year.

This year I’ve done the vast majority of my bird watching closer to home at places like Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Nine Springs, Odana Marsh, Governor Nelson State Park and Baxter’s Hollow. Some of these places are even right along my daily commute to work. Like many other people, birder or not, I’m certainly conscious of ever-rising gas prices, “peak oil” and the whole science and politics surrounding global climate change…it seems like common sense to minimize travel by automobile for now.

Here’s what surprised me and why I’m writing this. Last night I was looking at my counts for 2004 and 2005 when I noticed last year on this day I was at 266 species and this year I’m at 250. So…sixteen species? That’s the difference that all that driving around made? It’s true that last year there were fall field trips to Wisconsin Point and winter boreal excursions that tacked on quite a few species, but the difference in effort up to this point seems quite minimal when looking at it purely from a numbers perspective.

Doing a Wisconsin “Big Year” certainly was a lot of fun, filled with fond memories of rare and interesting birds and sharing those experiences with other birders, but I wouldn’t want to make it a yearly habit. And now that I see on paper that the difference is less than a few dozen species it hardly seems to justify the extra expenses, time and travel to play a numbers game. It is also a good reminder on how great the birding is close to home.

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