Big Year Birding – Wrap Up

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I have spent the last couple days reflecting on My New Jersey Big Year, what I accomplished, and what I learned about birding and myself.

I was able to bird in all 21 New Jersey counties at least once – driving almost 9000 miles along the way.  To add some perspective to that number – the approximate distance from the Eastern Coast of the US to the Western Coast is about 3000 miles.  I drove the equivalent of three coast-to-coast trips without leaving New Jersey.

I managed to see 310 bird species plus a Eurasian Teal which I found, much to my surprise, doesn’t count as a full species (according to eBird).  Apparently, Green-winged Teal is considered a sub-species of Eurasian Teal – go figure – so you can count one but not both!   Don’t get me wrong – It was still very cool to finally see a Eurasian Teal.

I didn’t bird every day, but I submitted nearly 230 checklists to eBird during 2013.   My most commonly visited location, with 40 checklists and 104 species, was Charles Rogers Wildlife Refuge in Princeton.

I hope that I have raised awareness about New Jersey Audubon’s research efforts and, especially, their Citizen Science program.  I simply cannot say enough good things about the amazing people at New Jersey Audubon.  Please, if you are not already a member, consider joining the over 22,000 people who make up New Jersey Audubon.

Another goal of My New Jersey Big Year was  to raise money, through (tax-deductible) pledges and donations, for the Citizen Science program.  I am thrilled to announce we reached (and surpassed) our goal of $10,000.   To everyone who made a pledge or donation – THANK YOU!!  For everyone else, there is still time to make a tax-deductible donation !

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Some things I learned along the way – I certainly have a much more complete picture of birding in New Jersey and the amazing variety of habitats that makes our state one of the very best birding locations in the world.

And I have learned that I am not a chaser or lister.  To the large and active segment of the birding population who enjoys chasing and/or listing – I get it.  There is something to be said for the thrill of the chase.  And listing all those sightings can provide a sense of accomplishment, particularly as the year comes to a close and you look back at all that you’ve done.

However, something a “non-chasing” birding friend said a few months ago still resonates with me and will help to inform my future approach to bird watching.   Basically, she commented that her approach to birding was to “put herself in good habitat and then see what she would see”.   That makes perfect sense to me.  As another friend puts it – I plan to do more “Zen birding” going forward.

Thank you to everyone who has provided me with encouragement, tips on the locations of birds, suggestions, or shown an active interest in my Big Year.

Finally – a huge THANK YOU to my family and friends for your support, encouragement, and (at times) understanding.  Without a doubt – I could not have done this without you.

Greg

 

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Big Year Birding – Finish Line

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Have you ever watched Sanderlings feeding along a wave line?  A wave comes in – they scurry up the beach.  Wave goes out – they chase it down, grabbing tidbits of food along the way.  And like this group of Sanderling I photographed yesterday, I am always a little amused as I watch them run up and down the beach.

Yesterday was an amazing, and nostalgic, day of birding.  Some time ago I decided to finish My New Jersey Big Year the same way I started, with a North Shore birding run.   Back on January 1st, 365 days ago, I started my big year alone in a cold parking lot in Belmar, New Jersey.  As I watched the sun rise above the frozen horizon,  I had little idea what the new year would bring.  The havoc of Superstorm Sandy had left some of the best birding locations in New Jersey, like Sandy Hook, inaccessible and off-limits to everyone and had damaged others beyond repair.

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Due to the heroic efforts of the park service and dozens of volunteers, Sandy Hook re-opened in May.  So yesterday, my Grandson and I began the last day of my big year at Sandy Hook’s North Beach.  And in this photo my Grandson is scoping out an amazing life bird (the first of two he would see before the day was complete).

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Yep, my Grandson got his life Snowy Owl yesterday!  And we managed to spot another Owl sitting on the beach about an hour after we saw this one.   New Jersey, along with much of the east coast, is experiencing a Snowy Owl irruption and there may be as many as 20 of these magnificent birds hanging out around the state.

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After birding several places in Sandy Hook, we continued along the North Shore route until we reached that cold parking lot in Belmar where my great adventure had begun a year earlier.  After checking out numerous gulls, geese, swans, and ducks, we headed home and toasted our success with a cup of hot chocolate.

I didn’t add any new birds yesterday and finished the year with a respectable total of 310 species or, as eBird puts it, about 84.24% of the 368 species reported in New Jersey during 2013.   While I had some big misses this year, I really cannot be happier about my total.  I set a goal to see as many birds as possible and hoped that I would break the 300 species level.  To the best of my ability and within the time I was able to spare for birding this year, I accomplished my goal.

I plan to spend the next couple days reflecting on My New Jersey Big Year and putting together some final thoughts.

Until next time, I wish you all a happy and healthy New Year and, of course, Good Birding!!

Greg

 

 

 

Big Year Birding – Familiar Places

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Have you had a busy holiday season?

The holidays, for me, have been a whirlwind of activity – really great and really busy.   Poor weather conditions managed to wreck two of the three days I had set aside for birding, so when the forecast for the day after Christmas called for clouds, but no rain, I jumped at the chance to get outdoors.

I didn’t have a lot of time to plan for a new birding location, so I decided on a familiar place where I love to hike and bird – Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area.

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Colliers Mills, managed by New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife,  offers over 12,000 acres of  preserved Pine Barrens habitat.  The area is criss-crossed with sandy roads and trails, allowing access to remote locations and (for me) much needed solitude.

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Colliers Mills is dotted with old cranberry bogs, cedar swamps, and ponds to explore.   This pond was created by a beaver dam and is a reliable Spring and Summer spot for Wood Duck and wading birds.

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Parts of Colliers Mills are managed habitats for grassland birds and I am one of the NJ Audubon Citizen Scientist assigned to complete bird surveys during their breeding season.  Last Spring, I found this Northern Bobwhite while scouting my points.

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Even during Winter months, wildlife management areas like Colliers Mills are important bird areas.  I found this Savannah Sparrow foraging among dried grasses in one of the managed fields while hiking on December 26th.   Other birds, like the Brown Creeper at the top of this post, also rely on wildlife management areas for winter-time survival.

I have one more birding outing planned for My New Jersey Big Year.  Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll complete my year the way it began by birding along the North Shore.

Until next time, Good Birding!

Greg

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

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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?

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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.

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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!

Greg

Big Year Birding – Happy Winter Solstice!

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Happy “First Day of Winter”!

An odd feature (I think) of My New Jersey Big Year is that it began and will end during Winter.  While I truly love winter birding, December is a very difficult birding month for me.  Short daylight hours and long work days cut out nearly all of the birding opportunities during the week.  Like so many other people, I leave for work in the dark and arrive back home in the dark nearly every day.    Couple that with seemingly endless numbers of “lunch meetings” during December and, bingo – no birding.

And, let’s face it, there are simply too many “things” that need doing during the holiday season and, like all hobbies, birding gets the short end of the stick even on weekends.  Shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking – those are my December activities.

All that said – I have nothing to complain about when it comes to time spent birding this year.  My family has been HUGELY supportive of My New Jersey Big Year .

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Friends and co-workers, if they know nothing else about me, ask about the progress of my Big Year.  Many, many others have also generously supported New Jersey Audubon Citizen Science and have followed the ups and downs of my birding year.

I will, no doubt, sneak in a day or two of birding between now and New Years Day 2014.  There are reports of a couple great birds hanging out near the shore that I hope to chase soon.

In the meantime, I am enjoying time with my family and friends.

Until next time, Good Birding!

Greg

Big Year Birding – Species 310

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I was able to slip away for a few hours of birding Saturday morning and decided to go chasing a report of an Eared Grebe at Round Valley Reservoir (photo above courtesy of New Jersey Water Supply Authority).  This wasn’t my first trip to Round Valley, as I had chased reports of a Redhead at Round Valley back in January or February (it all blends together after a while, no?).

Saturday morning dawned damp and dreary after an all-night rain, but the skies began to brighten a little as I approached the designated parking area.  The sun was peaking through clouds as I unloaded my gear and realized, much to my dismay, that I had left my gloves and stocking cap at home!  Apparently, I left them lying on top of my camera case – also at home.

At this point in My New Jersey Big Year, all I could really accomplish was a smile and slight self-admonishment at my peristent forgetfulness.  This wasn’t the first time I had rushed out and left things behind and, as I have come to accept, it won’t be the last.

The lake appeared completed devoid of bird life as I hiked along the Blue Trail and I was coaching myself that this could be yet another fruitless search.   Until this year, I really have not been much of a chaser or lister, topics about which I will have more to say once my year is complete.   While there are those rare times when the bird is found quickly at the previously reported spot, more often a good deal of time is spent looking for a bird that has moved on, or is foraging in a different area, or is simply no place to be found.

I did not spot the Bald Eagle reported by other birders at Round Valley that day, but clearly something had happened to clear out bird life on the lake’s open water.  Unfamiliar with the trail, it took me a bit longer to arrive at the bird’s location than I expected.  My walk was well rewarded, though, as I found the Eared Grebe hanging out with a small raft of American Coot in the exact place reported by the Voice of New Jersey Audubon.

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Here’s a great public domain photo of an Eared Grebe I found on Wikipedia.  About the same size, the bird was happily feeding and interacting with the raft of American Coot and seemed well tolerated by the other birds.   Winter makes for strange flock-fellows in the birding world, I suppose.

December is grinding along and I’ve signed up for a couple Christmas Bird Counts , which will account for nearly all of my birding time between now and New Year’s Eve.  I plan to finish the year as I started it, with a North Shore run along New Jersey’s northern coastline.

Until next time,  Good Birding!

Greg

Big Year Birding – Christmas Bird Count

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Truly, My New Jersey Big Year is coming down the home stretch.  There are 28 days (counting today) left in 2013 and I still have some birding to do!

December is Christmas Bird Count month and another great opportunity to participate in Citizen Science.   This year I plan to participate in two counts, before wrapping up the year the same way I started – with another North Shore run.

December is a busy month with lots of holiday activities, planned and unplanned.  I hope you get the opportunity to go out for a bit of birding during the last few days of the year.  Who knows, maybe we’ll see each other in the field.

Until next time, Good Birding!

Greg