Friday, May 18, 2018

Chasing Birds Across Texas: A Birding Big Year

This book was published in 2003 but I only recently came across it while browsing e-books for my Kindle. Yes, for those who love stumbling onto a book while crawling around the library stacks, you can browse electronic book shelves.

This is one man's account of his Big Year of birding. Mark T. Adams' day job  at the time was as an astronomer at McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains. In 2000, he had plenty of compensatory and vacation time so decided to take on a Big Year.  As birders know, a Big Year starts on January 1 at 12:00 a.m. and the birder works all year to find as many birds as possible in the wild within a defined area. The year ends on December 31 at  11:59 p.m. local time.

For some people their Big Year covers the entire United States and Canada but others limit their challenge to a region or state. While it is a personal challenge, there are rules: Each species counted must be on the ABA Checklist for the year of the challenge; you have to observe or hear the bird and positively be able to identify it for yourself. As Adams notes, it takes money, time, and stamina to successfully complete a Big Year. He estimates that he spent 1,050 hours over 174 days and made 32 trips away from his home turf, travelling 30,000 miles by car and 18,000 by airplane, to view 489 species in the year. According to his calculations, he saw more than 92% of the state's birds. Wow! I was exhausted just reading the book. Although Adams states that he did not set out to break the Texas record, established in 1995, his efforts ended up tying the record for a Texas Big Year (or any state or province, actually).

Painted Bunting, South Llano River SP
The book reads more like a diary rather than a story, with Adams highlighting the birds he observed, who birded with him or helped him find birds, and pointing out great birding locations across the state. Still, his chronicles fill the book with humor, as well as the drama of unproductive days, when he was outwitted by shy birds or just missed a rare bird that was only several feet away. Birding can be a lonely venture and Adams discusses hours spent sitting in swamps or near trees watching, or meticulously tracking and observing gull after gull to hopefully cull out the one that is different, allowing him to count another species. At the same time, he points out that birders are a friendly and welcoming group of individuals, many of whom invited Adams onto private property to find an elusive species or welcomed him into their homes after a day of birding. Adams also discusses his "nemisis" birds, those birds that everyone else finds but that elude you. For me, that bird was the Painted Bunting until I visited South Llano River State Park where they were in abundance.

Whooping Crane colt
I don't claim to be even a middling-level birder, being much closer to novice than expert, so I was enthralled by the variety of species that he found, some easily and some that he truly had to chase. It was also interesting to have Adams chronicle his efforts to see birds that I consider fairly common to the area where I live. He had to make a special trip to Rockport, for example, to see the Whooping Cranes. Lesson being: you have to go where the birds are when they are there. Even more exciting was the list I've been able to make of places to bird that I was totally unaware of and now want to try. For example, a prime birding location is in the cane fields around the Zapata Library pond in Zapata. Apparently it is a well-known stop for seedeaters, those birds with conical shaped beaks. I don't think I've ever seen a White-collared Seedeater, the species that eluded Adams for quite some time. I would keep this book simply to refer to for the most likely places to see specific birds as well as the most likely times of the year to see them. The other fun thing was recognizing names of birders I know if only through Facebook bird groups and pages.

An appendix lists all of the birds he located in the state, providing a great checklist for anyone wanting to try a Big Year in Texas. Or, for me, a Big Decade as it will take me that long to find all of these birds. Adams also provides a detailed list of other species that were reliably reported in Texas during 2000 but not seen by him (and therefore not counted in his Big Year).
Black-throated Green Warbler
Warblers are especially hard to locate
and identify, being the ultimate "LBBs"
(little bitty birds)

While I've seen the movie, The Big Year, and read a couple of Big Year accounts, it was interesting to learn that Adams would go out to hunt a handful of specific birds. The movie makes it look almost random rather than well-planned. He planned his trips to catch migrants and other non-native birds when they would be in specific locations. He often drove and looked, then drove some more eighteen to twenty hours a day, staying in cheap motels to sleep for a few hours before getting up before dawn to chase more birds. Reading these accounts is the closest I'll will come to experiencing a Big Year!