How I came to do a Big Year

By the time I was out of high school, I had already traveled with my family to every state west of the Mississippi River. My life list had grown, but it had a few nagging holes in it. We had traveled through Southeastern Arizona but we missed most of the great list of breeding birds in that area. Our travels were through dessert terrain along I-10. We stopped in Tucson. But many of the species we hoped for were not found even though it looked like we were in the right area according to those early range maps. But the available information changed dramatically in the 1970s. I was introduced to the Lane Birdfinding Guides (now ABA/Lane Birdfinding Guides). A birding friend showed me a copy of the Lane Birdfinding Guide to Southeastern Arizona. I was impressed at the uniqueness of this guide. It gave directions like drive down this specific road for 3.8 miles and look for Rufous-winged Sparrows on your left. Really? Information this specific would work years later? My curiosity rose to new heights.

Then I read Roger Tory Peterson’s Dozen Birding Hot Spots. The stories about traveling to each of these spots were so descriptive that I could dream of myself being in each these locations. It didn’t take long before a trip was hatched. My cousin Kent Miller and I decided we would drive to Southeastern Arizona. It was the early 1980s. I was a school teacher just out of college. I had summers free. Kent was just out of high school, a birder, and also had a free summer.

We drove the first 1,000 miles to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The second day we drove another 1,000 miles and reached Tucson. Both of us were totally enthused. It was hard to sleep. We had 8 hardcore days of birding. We really slayed the list. Bird after bird was checked off as we followed the directions in the Lane Guide to Birdfinding in Southeastern Arizona. Our life lists were growing by leaps and bounds. Toward the end of our first week we found out there was more than just one Lane Guide. We stopped at Tucson Audubon and picked up all the available guides. Then on a whim we decided to drive to Southern Texas—in the middle of June. Haha! Yes, that meant triple digit temperatures and stifling humidity. But we were undeterred. We had a lot of success in Southern Texas, too. I had new faith in a series of birdfinding guides.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s though, that I came across a resource that put it all together. It was called Birdfinder: A Birder’s Guide to Planning North American Trips by Jerry Cooper. I pored over this book intently. In 1996 I went through the whole book and made a list of holes in my life list. I started making birding trips to fill in the gaps. I had good success with the Cooper book, too. But then it struck me: What if I combined everything from all the ABA/Lane Guides, the Cooper book, and all of my own experience…and I did it in one calendar year? How many species could I see in one calendar year? The Cooper book had aggressive schedules that got a person to 650 species. But I could not afford to take off a whole year. How many species could I see on a budget? While working?

The year 1997 was a dry run. I took four one-week vacations to the best spots I could imagine: 1) Southern California; 2) Southern Texas; 3) Southeastern Arizona; and 4) Southern Florida. I racked up 537 species in four aggressive weeks of birding trips and birding my home state at the time, Maryland. Amazingly, I accomplished all that for only about $5500 for the year.

For several years previous to 1998, Attours was threatening to end their tours to Attu, the Westernmost Aleutian Island. This island has fantastic birding stories that are legendary to North American Birders. It is one of the most remote regions of the continent. Numerous bird records for North America occur only here. Birders hold this location in high regard for its reputation for vagrant or accidental Asiatic species. Birds migrating northward from Southeast Asia to their nesting grounds in Siberia would get blown off course and find their way to the tiny island of Attu. The island was only 300 miles East of the Kamchatka Peninsula of Eastern Russia and 1500 miles West of Anchorage.

So when rumors that tours to this island were going to be discontinued, I decided to pull the trigger and pay the high price to visit Attu. But I got to thinking. If I birded Attu, threw in a trip to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, and a spent a week on mainland Alaska, I might be able to add 50 species that I had not seen in 1997. So 537 plus 50 would put me at 587 species. Surely I could eke out another 13 species and get to a very respectable 600 species in one calendar year—while working. Or at least I thought it was a worthy goal and a possibility.

And this is what got me to 1998—the year that I did my “dream” year. It turned out to be far bigger than I ever imagined. Once the momentum kicked in, I did not stop at 600…or 700. But you know that story. It’s in the book by Mark Obmascik, The Big Year. That year was the culmination of years of curiosity, daydreaming, practice, and a bit of the insanity that goes with an obsession.

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