March 2, 1975, the day I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee, is also the day I started keeping a life list, in Michigan. Two weeks later, when Russ and I went to Illinois, I started a new state list. By the end of the year, I’d seen 120 species and was keeping four state lists. On January 1, 1976, I naturally started a new year list—by December 31, I was up to 225 species seen in 7 states and Ontario, and was addicted. Listing doesn’t keep me from enjoying each bird as it comes, but does help me remember sightings days, weeks, months, and years later. Now that I’m photographing birds, I get the same thrill when I find even the most common birds, and I still savor each one, watching what it’s doing and listening to its vocalizations, only now I swap out binoculars for my camera. My vision has been noticeably deteriorating in the past couple years, but thanks to my camera, what I don’t see clearly in the field I get to savor later. The photos also help jog my memory for my list keeping.
My first few years of birding, I was very organized with my birding data, but after having children, my listing became more haphazard even though I never stopped watching birds. In the late 90s, a computer program called AviSys started keeping track of my lists for me—at least after I entered the data. That took a lot of time, and I still have a lot of daily checklists from years past that I haven’t added, but going through old notebooks is a pleasurable activity, especially during ice storms when I can’t get outside anyway. Now I’m trying to get into the habit of entering my sightings as I go into a great program called eBird, which makes the data available to everyone in real time.
Doing a Big Year in 2013 was an entirely new thing for me, and data keeping has been complicated, especially regarding logistical matters. I spent 150 nights away from home, traveling almost 37,000 miles by car and van and over 13,000 miles by air, birding in a total of 28 states to see 604 species of wild birds, 593 which are countable by the American Birding Association’s rules. I’m not very competitive, but on January 2, I decided I might as well submit my total on the ABA Listing Central webpage. It was lucky I did it then—for a few days, my total was #1 in the Lower 48 category for the year, and #4 for all time!
Of course, I know darned well that plenty of other people have seen more species than that in a single year in the Lower 48. The three birders whose real-life Big Year in 1998 was immortalized in the book and movie The Big Year certainly saw well over 600 species in the Lower 48 as they tallied over 700 for North America, but they each posted their numbers only in the “ABA Area” competition (which includes the continental US and Canada), not bothering to separate out the species they saw in the Lower 48. And Neil Hayward, who broke the all-time Big Year record with 750 species in 2013, hadn’t posted yet when I submitted my numbers. So my standings were sort of meaningless and would definitely drop the moment Neil hit the website, but I couldn’t help but grab a screenshot proving that for one brief shining moment, I was Number One in this tiny competition. I don’t know why that felt so cool, but it did.
On January 6, Neil Hayward posted his numbers. Of the 750 species he saw in the US and Canada, an astonishing 690 were seen in the Lower 48—almost 100 more than I found. Birding is a sport of diminishing returns, so Neil had to work a lot harder to get his number so much higher. His 195 nights away from home dwarfed my 150, he flew an order of magnitude more miles than I did—almost 194,000!—and he drove 15,000 more miles than I did. Like me, he birded in 28 states, but he also covered 7 Canadian provinces.
I’d never aspired to do a Big Year before, and as wonderful and fun as it was, I’m not interested in doing it again. So many of my most wonderful experiences had to be cut short so I could head on to the next destination. As I go through my lists and photos now, I’ll be thinking of last year as a scouting adventure, hoping that Russ and I can head back to the coolest places to explore them together in more leisurely fashion. My Conservation Big Year was the grandest birding adventure I’ve ever had, and one of the unexpected bonuses is how it’s whetted my appetite for a lifetime of adventures to come. I hope on one of them I’ll bump into Neil Hayward so I can congratulate him on his hard-earned achievement. He really IS #1.