Following is an interview between Greg Miller Birding (GMB) and Greg Miller (GM). Recorded on 11/2/2015 in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.
[GMB] In 1998 you did a Big Year in North America and racked up 715 species. It was a crazy year and your story was part of the book written by Mark Obmascik that came out in 2004 and was later made into a Hollywood movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. And Jack Black played your character. The movie was released in fall of 2011. Rumor has it that you are doing another Big Year in 2016. Is this true?
[GM] Guilty. Yes, it is true. I am doing another Big Year in 2016.
[GMB] Whatever possessed you to do another Big Year? Are you insane?
[GM] Insane? Haha. Did you not read the book or see the movie?
[GMB] <laughs> Good one.
[GM] I am doing another Big Year, but this one will be quite different. I am doing a Big Year as a series of tours. I want to bring other people along for a unique experience. It will be made up of 11 one-week tours with the company, Wildside Nature Tours. Every tour is just Sunday to Saturday (except for one). And every tour is the same price ($1750).
[GMB] Well the new record is 749 species set in 2013 by Neil Hayward from Massachusetts. Are you gonna try to break the record?
[GM] Haha. No way! That would be what you call “insane”! <does quote marks with fingers> Besides I’m only doing 11 one-week tours this year. And they are all in the Lower 48 States. No Alaska this time.
[GMB] Sooooo, exactly what is the point of all this? What exactly are you doing? What record are you going after?
[GM] No record. But I do have a goal. I want to try to see 500 species in the Lower 48 States in one calendar year. January 1 through December 31, 2016 with tour participants. 11 weeks is roughly one fifth of a year. So I’m not even spending a whole year birding. I want to treat participants with the experiences of target birding in many different locations. I want to share with them what it’s like to go to some of the best birding areas of the country, and see some of the best birds of the United States at the best times of the year. It’s the same curiosity that took me on the journey of a lifetime in 1998.
[GMB] Fascinating. But you ran hard and fast at seemingly superhuman levels in 1998. Are you gonna drive your participants hard like that?
[GM] Haha. Of course not! But I am not going to be lollygagging around either. To increase our probability of seeing lots of species we will have to visit as many habitats as possible in each region. We will have target species for each location.
[GMB] So how did you decide to do a Big Year in 2016? Your 20-year anniversary will be in 2018. Why 2016?
[GM] Part of my reasoning for 1998 was realizing how short and unpredictable life can be. And wanting to do something I’d always wanted to do. Here in 2015 the same thoughts are strong again in my mind. So I’ve pushed hard since this summer to get this planned and made available. 2016 it is!
[GMB] Curious. How did you plan this series of trips? Why go to these locations? And how did you determine when to go? How did you get to the 500 species target?
[GM] Great questions! First, I’ve wanted to take people along with me on a Big Year to experience it firsthand for a long time. But setting a North American record with people is too tall a requirement. I needed something smaller, but still a good mark to hit. But what was possible? In the last few years I’ve downloaded lots of data from eBird. (eBird is a Citizen Science online database with millions of checklists submitted by birders from around the world) From that data I’ve created what I call the Impatient Birder’s Guide to North America. It’s a free online resource I’ve made available at my website, www.gregmillerbirding.com. I used it to plan when and where I should go to maximize the number of species I’d see in a year.
[GMB] Whaaaaaaaaat?!? You can plan when and where to go to maximize the number of species you see? How can birders use this?
[GM] Uh-oh. They can’t. At least not yet. The concept is working on my own data on my person laptop. But an interface for the public is not yet available.
[GMB] But that sounds amazing. If I had 625 species on my life list, could you tell me where and when to go to get the maximum number of species for my next trip?
[GM] Yes, but… <shhhhhh!> Don’t let that idea out of the box! Somebody else might use it.
[GMB] Umm. Too late dude. It’s already in our interview.
[GM] Ohhh. Well. Ok.
[GMB] So you have the very best 11 weeks out of the year to go to the very best places?
[GM] Not exactly. It’s the best 11 weeks I have available. I still have other things I have to do. You know? Responsible things.
[GMB] What do you mean, “not exactly”?
[GM] I am going to be at booths for Wildside Nature Tours for 6 festivals. They are 1) Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Florida in January; 2) Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio in May; 3) Acadia Birding Festival in Maine in June; 4) Tucson Bird & Wildlife Festival in Arizona in August; 5) Cape May Fall Festival in October in New Jersey; and 6) Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Texas in November. So those are the festivals I am working around for my Big Year. I also could not use the month of March 2016 since I am taking the time to go on a fantastic journey on a riverboat on the Amazon River with Wildside Nature Tours. It will be an epic trip!
[GMB] Wow! Fun festivals and the Amazon River cruise. So you did all your planning based on what you had left, correct?
[GM] Exactly. And 11 trips was the fewest trips I could do and still have a shot of reaching the cool number of 500 species.
[GMB] Why did you limit it to just 11 trips? Why not use up the whole year?
[GM] Haha. I am more mellowed out now than I used to be. 11 trips and 6 festivals plus an international trip is, well, quite enough. Plus, it will take a lot more effort and planning to make this a commercial venture. Things have to be laid out like where we will stay. And I have to get commercial permits from many of the areas we’ll be visiting. So the schedule will not be as fluid as when I did this on my own. Plus, I have to make sure all our trips fill up. I can’t afford to do a Big Year again on my own. Well. I couldn’t afford it the first time. But at least the first Big Year was paid off (it took 6 years).
[GMB] Is there anything else that we should know?
[GM] Yes. More information can be found at bigyeartours.com or wildsidenaturetours.com or you can come visit the Wildside Nature Tours booth at the upcoming Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, TX (Nov 4-8, 2015). For every participant that signs up, Wildside will be making a donation to the American Birding Association’s (ABA) Young Birders. If you would like to raise money, feel free to use my species numbers as a year-long birding marathon to raise money for your favorite organization. If you do, please let me know. I’ll post it here and give you a plug. And if I’m in your area next year and you’d like to get me to speak to your group/organization, feel free to contact me at email@example.com. And special thanks to Wildside Nature Tours for agreeing to my crazy ideas. And thanks to everyone who uses eBird and to eBird (eBird.org) for making their data available. This wouldn’t be possible without them.