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Alternatives to the Perpetual Big Year


As the final days of 2019 pass, and January 1st
looms, many organizations (eBird, BirdsEye, etc.) are promoting more and bigger
birding in 2020, often with a “How to Do a Big Year” theme. Meanwhile, I had
been contemplating writing an email proposing a different strategy:  one discouraging the seemingly perpetual county year listing habit that has
developed in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Granted, we all
bird for different reasons, with different styles. However, while some think of
Big Years as primarily exploratory (and perhaps they are in less populated
areas), long year lists are usually comprised of large numbers of species found
by other observers that required chasing, often with few rarities or unexpected
birds actually found by the owner of the list. Big Years on any scale have
increasingly become  a product of how
successful a person is at chasing birds found by other people, with little time
devoted to exploration and a great deal of time earmarked for running after
reported rarities. Clearly birding with this approach is satisfactory for many,
but there are other, potentially more gratifying ways to bird than just being
caught in an empty, unending cycle of chasing year birds.

Admittedly, year listing has a long tradition. However,
since the inception of the Top 100 in eBird, the ephemeral year list has taken
on a life of its own.  Chasing rarities
has always been a part of birding, but chasing the rarity du jour is now
repeated every year by everyone scrambling up the Top 100 until falling back to
zero on January 1st.  (Clearly
Sisyphus kept a year list.) A major downside to this is increased visitation to
sensitive or restricted areas, with many eBird users not plugged into local
listservs simply setting their maps app to direct them to the coordinates of
the rarity, with no understanding of access restrictions.  Behind the scenes, eBird reviewers are
cringing, dreading the onslaught of all of the known winter rarities being
reported again and again the first week of January by dozens of birders anxious
to get all the known rarities out of the way. So, as January 1st
approaches, I’d ask that people reflect on how much Needs Alerts from eBird
drive your behavior? Are they set to Hourly for Year Needs? How much time do
you spend going to look for birds found by other people for your year list?
Does that bring you the same satisfaction as unexpected discoveries or birding
in new areas? Are public data displays like Top 100 your primary motivation?

Late last year, after learning about the 5-mile radius
(5MR – ) approach
to birding, I encouraged many birders to try it out, and several did. (Missed
out? It’s not too late! Draw your circle with this tool: )
This has been a very successful style of birding for a lot of people, a new way
for folks with limited time or money to stay active and engaged, and a number
of new local hotspots have been found. Many folks have told me it has
rejuvenated their interest in birding! The main point of this challenge was
(and is) to encourage exploring the local nooks and crannies around your
neighborhood. (I, for one, largely ignored Point Loma this fall as it fell
outside my circle.)  Not all circles are
equal, and the competition was really just intended to be with yourself – how
many can you find, regardless of what others (in perhaps better locations) are
finding? Where to get shorebirds if you’re land-locked? Checking that golf
course pond repeatedly in hopes of a snipe or Spotted Sandpiper. Scouring small
parks or residential streets for a rare warbler or vireo versus visiting the
same famous hotspots every day. And so on. Exploration and discovery is major
part of learning the status and distribution of birds in your neighborhood,
your county, or your state. What is expected and not expected, when and where. Let’s
do it again next year. It need not be a year listing approach, but simply
adding to your cumulative patch total. Or – just throw the list out the window
and bird with a sense of discovery and contribute to the ever-changing status
and distribution of our local or state species. Yes, one is allowed to travel
outside your circle, and visit famous sites, and chase rare birds, but I
encourage you to spend more of your time exploring under-visited areas of the
county or state.

Will you consider making a detour to check a park on
your return from a (un)successful chase across the county? Large gaps in
coverage are evident from looking at eBird maps – how much of this is being
driven through without checking?

Take a look at this map of House Finch observations in
San Diego, for example:

This species likely occurs across nearly all of empty
space on this map, but they’ve not yet been recorded there by eBird users,
almost certainly due to poor coverage.

Let’s look closer at North County:

And now the southeast corner:

The red pins in the very southeast are from Jacumba,
related to searches for a recently found Lark Bunting. To the northwest of
that, the Laguna Mountains, and the trail out to where Evening Grosbeaks and
Red Crossbills delighted many. What awaits discovery between your house and
Jacumba, and how many of you stopped somewhere else on the way to or from the
Laguna Mountains?

If the eBird coverage of something as ubiquitous as
House Finches is incomplete, just think of what the situation is for species of
local and conservation interest like California Gnatcatcher or Cactus Wren. And
how many rarities are hiding out there awaiting discovery? I get it, many
people have stated that they don’t want to bird in residential areas or
business parks. (However, many of these areas are certainly visited by folks
when rarities are reported from there!) But what about the large swath of rural
and undeveloped habitat in east San Diego County? Or any number of the more
aesthetic state and county parks?

Not all of these unexplored areas are public, and most
of them will not turn up anything “rare” on the first visit. But they may after
multiple visits at different times of year. More importantly, however, by simply
birding these hinterlands, you are updating and expanding our combined knowledge
of status and distribution. By submitting eBird checklists from these areas, we
fill in gaps on the maps. Another Greater Pewee checklist from Balboa Park this
winter is a drop in the bucket compared to a visit to Barrett Lake or Portrero
County Park. (Ever been to either of these locations? Me neither!)

Will you return to Jacumba in 2020, regardless of
what’s reported from there? Will you check other
trails in the Lagunas or the Cuyamacas for crossbills this winter? On the way
to or from these spots, will you stop off for a quick 5-minute stationary eBird
count in the middle of nowhere?

Hopefully, while you’re out in the far corners (or in
the nearby nooks and crannies) you’ll be using breeding codes in your
checklists, when appropriate. See the following link for a full explanation on
when and how to use them:

Noting a bird on a nest, or one carrying nesting
material increases the value of your efforts. A revisiting of Unitt’s San Diego County Bird Atlas (which
included coverage through spring 2004) is overdue, and eBird data may one day
be utilized as the basis for a new version, much in the way iNaturalist data
helped drive the San Diego County Mammal

We all, well most of us at least, enjoy listing. I’ll
be on my way as soon as possible to see a new county bird, and given the
distance, a state or life bird, but in the mean time I’ll try to focus on finding
one on my own, or trying to familiarize myself with some new part of our vast
county and state. Hopefully, by foregoing a list driven by Year Needs Alerts
from eBird (Unsubscribe! As noted 5MR birder Karl Marx said, “You have nothing
to lose but your chains!”), you’ll reduce stress in your life, explore parts of
the county or state you’ve never heard of or been to, and, with luck, build a
more satisfying list of “self-found” species of your own discovery. And, yes,
reduce the workload of your poor eBird reviewers! By all means, bird more in
2020, but bird differently!


Best birding in 2020, regardless of your approach.

Justyn Stahl

San Clemente Island

Source: SanDiegoRegionBirding Latest Reports