Big Year Birding – 5 Tips for a Fun and Successful Big Year


Are you thinking about doing a big year in 2014?  Believe it or not, there’s still time to plan for a fun and successful birding year.

I have received questions about and requests for tips on how to plan and prepare for a big year.   As my year is coming rapidly to a close, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on planning for a big year (or big day or big month, whatever you have the appetite for).

Let’s start with GOALS –  why do you want to do a big year and what do you want to get out of it?  There are as many reasons for doing a big year as there are birders.  Are you doing this for personal achievement, fun, fund-raising, or competition?   Do you have a “magic number” of species that you hope to see?  Are there particular areas you would like to include or exclude in your birding activities?   Does your club sponsor a big year competition?  Spend some time thinking about your birding objectives and, perhaps, even put a few thoughts down on paper. Thinking about your goals now will help you as you think about the next two planning steps.

Time and Budget – These two steps really go hand in hand.  If you watched the movie or read the book “The Big Year“, you know that a big year can become an all-consuming and budget-wrecking event.   Even if you plan to “only” bird your immediate area (such as a county, state, or club-defined area), you’ll need to think about the amount of time you can truly spend on birding and whether your budget can afford the extra expense.   I’ve spent the past year birding throughout New Jersey and have driven an “extra” 7500 miles (without leaving the state!).  All those miles mean additional expenses for fuel and vehicle maintenance.  Depending on your goals, you’ll need to budget for pelagic trips, overnight stays, and food (I’ve eaten plenty of cold meals using the hood of my truck as a table this year).   And, as my year progressed, I found that I had much less free time toward the end of the year to devote to birding.   Do you also have periods during the year that are better or worse for birding time?


Birding Area – What’s in and what’s out?  If you have limited time and money to spend on a big year, you can still have an incredibly enjoyable time by simply limiting your count area.   I have encountered many people this year who were doing big years only within their home county.  There are advantages – you’ll finally get to visit those under-birded parks and wildlife areas that never seem to make the cut during your “regular” birding years and you won’t have to spend huge amounts of time driving to get to them.   You can sleep in (relatively speaking) and still experience the morning chorus of bird song as the sun rises.   If you live in a small state (like me), you could do a state big year without breaking the bank, but you’ll need to budget more time for selecting and driving to birding locations.   As the area you intend to include in your big year increases, you’ll need to budget more time and money for traveling to and from your birding locations and the additional expenses that go along with all that travel.

Chasing (and Listing) – Are you a chaser or lister?  These activities normally go hand in hand, which is why I combined them into my final tip for a big year.  If you are not a chaser (and I was not before I started my big year), prepare for something akin to birding culture shock and, if you want to reach your species number goal, get over it.  Like it or not, chasing is the essential and defining component to a big year.   Unless you are fortunate enough to live in a birding hotspot, like Cape May (New Jersey), you are going to spend huge amounts of time chasing reports of rare birds.   I estimate that nearly half of my driving mileage (and considerably more than half of my birding time) has been spent chasing rare bird sightings.   And while there are times (not many mind you) when the bird will be exactly where it was reported (and active and out in the open), there will be many more times when you’ll devote hours moving from location to location, staking out a reported spot, or scanning huge flocks of birds in hopes of finding your target.   Some times you’ll find the bird.  Many times you won’t.   Again, get over it.

A great resource for chasing and listing is Cornell’s eBird.  Depending on your location, your state Audubon could provide valuable information about species lists,  birding locations, and recent sightings.


Remember – every bird counts!  Don’t overlook common birds in the rush to find those rare lifers.   And, above all, enjoy your time spent birding!

Until next time, Good Birding!



8 thoughts on “Big Year Birding – 5 Tips for a Fun and Successful Big Year

  1. judysbirds

    Thanks for the tips. Your post is VERY helpful. I am going to do a personal “Big Year” next year, and I’m currently defining my birding area. Originally, I was going to do a Maryland big year, but I didn’t want to leave out Bombay Hook in DE (a favorite daytrip for me). Ok – so Maryland/Delaware big year. But do I want to leave out Cape May and Edwin Forsythe NWR in NJ or Chincoteague in VA? So maybe a ‘Mid-Atlantic’ big year – NJ/PA, MD/DE, VA/WVA, DC? Or am I biting off more than I can chew? Hmmmm… I do know that I am adding in the caveat that to qualify for my “Big Year” list, I must be able to photograph the species. I have another week to decide…

    1. Greg Post author

      Hey Judy…that’s a pretty big area but could be achieved if you have the time and budget. Remember, it is your big year – you can pretty much do whatever you want. I am encouraging people to be realistic about their goals to reduce stress (yes, big years can become stressful) and have fun. One thing I didn’t mention, because many birders don’t bother with it, is that the ABA also defines birding areas for North America. If you are a member, they’ll list your results as well. If that is something that appeals to you, check out their website. Good luck and have a great year!

    2. Kathleen Farley

      Judy, you could do a radius a la CBC and see if that radius includes those locations. My year this year consisted of wherever I happened to be as I lived on the border between two states.

      1. judysbirds

        Thanks for the feedback, Kathleen. A gentleman in our local/county birding group on facebook just put out a “Green Big Year” Challenge – pick three local ‘hotspots’ (local parks, wildlife areas, communities) and keep a list of the birds in those three areas for the year. I like that idea also. Lots of food for thought before I set my parameters by New Year’s Eve. It will be fun no matter what!! Merry Christmas, by the way! 🙂

  2. Kathleen Farley

    I wish I had found this site sooner! I didn’t do a big year this year, more of a “year” in order to create a bench line for subsequent years and to establish realistic goals for the future. All good points!


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