Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Did you hear what I heard?

There will be a link to John's spreadsheet in the next blog.
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Before you start your big year-

Get thoroughly wired

If you don't hear about a bird, you won't see it. John signed up for NARBA alerts to go to his email. BUT he doesn't check his email. Last Saturday, when I signed into his email from my computer, I found the alert about the spindalis. It was morning so we had time to slog out to Key West and get it, with help. Robert, who was also doing a big year, got NARBA alerts on his Iphone. As soon as he got off the plane in New Jersey on Monday, he texted me about the Thick-Billed Vireo just found out on Key West. This time it was noon and we were not interested in doing the driving slog again. That bird might have been 690. Oh well.

Hone your birding skills

We had traveled the world, but not so much the US recently. John was rusty on ABA birds at the start.

Get connected to other birders

John is not naturally outgoing so that wasn't going to happen in his big year. But the more birders you know in more ABA places, the better. Before he started his big year in 2011, John Vanderpoel had been traveling the US filming birds and getting to know local birders. Of course, towards the end, it helped that he was getting close to the record. Lots of people stepped forward to help. He had an amazing year, one short of the record. Ouch!

Get healthy

John was fortunate not to twist an ankle or get a major bug during the year. He would get little sleep and forget to eat. Doing a big year is a strain on your body, especially at the pace you need to maintain to get over 700.

Chase, chase, chase

Hit the ground running. The first few months, John could have done a lot more pursuit of vagrants and sewn up more of the wintering birds. He needed extra time this winter to find some of them and ran out of time to find some of them.

Use your spring wisely

John tried to do this but the difficulty he had getting to the Dry Tortugas cut a couple of weeks out of the prime time. You need to pick and choose destinations. Sometimes, the payback is not worth the investment of time and energy. You only get one spring and those birds are not as easy to find outside of migration. Several warblers eluded him.

Update your equipment

We did not have a decent scope. At least, John had 18 power image stabilized binoculars. John is hard of hearing and choose not to get hearing aids. He never heard the Bell's Vireo, California Gnatcatcher or Gray Vireo. I had to get them to come out and pose. I did get him a recorder and earphones in June. He should have learned to use them before his big year started. He didn't use them much, too awkward.


The more you know about birding hotspots and quirks of various target birds the better. Each new area and bird had a learning curve. John chased the Virginia's Warbler in seven states. He finally saw a wintering bird in November in West Los Angeles. We didn't get it until our second visit to the VA garden. It had been there last winter and he didn't bother looking for it then because he thought he would get it easily somewhere else. NOT!


John likes the flexibility of driving but it takes up too much time. Flying from place to place and renting a  car is almost always better. Just don't rent a car in Chicago and drive it to California. Fly home! More experienced travelers know how to fly cheaper than us, I presume. Booking a last minute trip to Miami over New Year's got us two birds, but cost an arm and a leg. Amazingly, most hotels and car rentals were booked up. Who knew?

Bribe Lady Luck! You will need her on your side. Hiring experts helps too.

Have fun!

We were naive. John jumped into this with only two months preparation. He is blind in one eye and hard of hearing. By September, he was discouraged and close to quitting. 700 was no longer likely. Even though I tried to talk him out of his big year initially, I kept pushing him to complete the task and accompanied him on the last few months. Frustration alternated with elation. He knows a heck of a lot more about birds and birding now. How much did it cost? I'd rather not know. The experience was priceless!