In 1998, Greg zig-zagged 130,000 miles across the USA, while trying to hold down a full-time job, aspiring to reach at least 700 species of birds in one calendar year. "The Big Year," a novel by Mark Obmascik detailed his travails alongside two competitors. The book was later turned into a movie of the same title that starred Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson!
The question I get asked the most about going to Southeast Arizona in August is “Why August? Wouldn’t it be terribly hot?”
Well. Yes, it is hot. It’s extremely hot in the desert with temperatures sometimes reaching over 100 F. But it is usually quite comfortable in early morning. So bird the desert in early morning and then go into the mountains for the rest of the day where temperatures are 10-20 degrees cooler. In some places you may even need a sweater or a jacket!
But, they say again, “Why August?”
Well. Let me ask you a question. Do you know how migrant birds here in North America winter in places much further south than their breeding grounds–like Central and even South America?
And you probably reply “Yes”.
And do you know how this birds migrate north to breed in summer in North America?
And you probably reply “Yes” again.
Has the little light bulb in your brain turned on yet? Have you gotten your “Aha!” moment yet? No?
Many species make their “northern” nesting places in Southeast Arizona. Birds that then retreat in winter months south of the Mexican Border. In fact, there are more than 40 species that are found here in summer more easily than anywhere else in the United States or Canada. And that is a big number when one is building a list–whether a life list or a year list.
And besides, Southeast Arizona is like the Galapagos Islands of North America. The mountain ranges are like islands jutting out of the desert. And each of these “sky islands” have unique habitat that more closely resembles that of Mexico than the United States. It offers unique habitat for specialty birds.
Did you know that according to eBird data that if you live in any state east of the Mississippi River your best bang for the buck for number of new species is Southeast Arizona in summer. Not only that, but the rugged scenery of Southeast Arizona is absolutely beautiful. You should totally go there!
Hey! And did you know there is a Big Year Tour coming soon, August 13-19, 2017? Read about it at BigYearTours.com!
The 2016 Big Year Tours with Wildside Nature Tours were a lot of fun and far more successful than I imagined. My original goal was for 500 species of birds, all in the Lower 48 States. But instead of doing an individual Big Year, I set out to do it with tour participants. And with everyone’s help, we pushed over the top with a final total of 545 species. And we helped raise a total of $27,000 for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder program!
I want to personally thank every one of our participants who helped each other in the field to see birds they’ve never seen before, lent a hand to those who needed help getting around, and were patient as individuals to promote the group welfare. It was a pleasure visiting so many of the place I birded during my own Big Year in 1998. And I want to thank Leica for the quality optics I used this year in support of our goals and the ABA Young Birders.
To those of you who missed a tour you wanted to go on or missed the year’s trips entirely, you have a second chance. We are doing this again this year! It’s not too late to sign up. Check out the upcoming Big Year Tours for 2017 here at bigyeartours.com. And you can still read blog posts from 2016 at bigyearblog.com.
This Big Year Tours plan was not a perfect one, but it was the best I could do with what times were available in my schedule in 2016. And really, isn’t this how everyone’s Big Years go? It’s all about being efficient and focused with the time you have.
Here is some winter reading for you—a summary of some interesting data for 2016. I certainly hope you can join us in 2017 for more cool birds, spectacular scenery, and tons of fun!
Only eight species were seen on every single one of our 11 one-week trips:
Great Blue Heron Northern Harrier Red-tailed Hawk Greater Yellowlegs Rock Pigeon European Starling House Finch House Sparrow
(Did you expect Northern Harrier & Greater Yellowlegs on this list? And how could we have missed Mourning Dove on this list? Yep. Surprises for me)
More than half the number of species seen (52%–285 species) were encountered on only 1 or 2 trips. This means that the tours listed do an efficient job of picking up new species for the year total. And less than 100 species were seen on more than 50% of the tours.
Amazingly, about one third of the species seen (34%–184 species) were seen on one and only one tour of the 11 one-week tours. Following is a list by tour of one-tour-only sightings:
January – Southern California Ross’s Goose Greater Scaup Bufflehead Mountain Quail Brown Booby Ridgway’s Rail Yellow-footed Gull Spotted Dove Prairie Falcon California Gnatcatcher Townsend’s Solitaire Bell’s Sparrow Red Crossbill Scaly-breasted Munia
January – Florida Egyptian Goose Muscovy Duck American Flamingo Snail Kite Purple Swamphen Limpkin Whooping Crane Red-cockaded Woodpecker Florida Scrub-Jay Sedge Wren Western Spindalis Spot-breasted Oriole
April – Texas & Louisiana Swallow-tailed Kite Mississippi Kite Clapper Rail American Golden-Plover White-rumped Sandpiper Gull-billed Tern Seaside Sparrow
May – Ohio & West Virginia Trumpeter Swan Ruffed Grouse Rough-legged Hawk American Woodcock Eastern Whip-poor-will Gray-cheeked Thrush Wood Thrush Louisiana Waterthrush Blue-winged Warbler Swainson’s Warbler Cape May Warbler Bay-breasted Warbler Chestnut-sided Warbler Henslow’s Sparrow
June – Maine & New Hampshire & Vermont Common Eider Wilson’s Storm-Petrel South Polar Skua Razorbill Black Guillemot Atlantic Puffin Roseate Tern Arctic Tern Black-backed Woodpecker Yellow-bellied Flycatcher Alder Flycatcher Willow Flycatcher Winter Wren Canada Warbler
September – Bay Area California Black-footed Albatross Pink-footed Shearwater Sooty Shearwater Black-vented Shearwater California Condor Bar-tailed Godwit Ruff Red Phalarope Cassin’s Auklet Elegant Tern Vaux’s Swift Yellow-billed Magpie Lawrence’s Goldfinch
October – Washington Cackling Goose Harlequin Duck Pacific Golden-Plover Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Mew Gull Slaty-backed Gull Red-breasted Sapsucker Northwestern Crow Pacific Wren American Dipper Varied Thrush Lapland Longspur Fox Sparrow Golden-crowned Sparrow
October – New Jersey & Pennsylvania & Delaware Long-tailed Duck Great Cormorant Purple Sandpiper Northern Saw-whet Owl Rusty Blackbird
November – South Texas – Rio Grande Valley Plain Chachalaca Least Grebe White-tailed Hawk White-tipped Dove Common Pauraque Buff-bellied Hummingbird Ringed Kingfisher Green Kingfisher Golden-fronted Woodpecker Aplomado Falcon Green Parakeet Great Kiskadee Couch’s Kingbird Green Jay Black-crested Titmouse Clay-colored Thrush Long-billed Thrasher Olive Sparrow Altamira Oriole Audubon’s Oriole
Above I have listed the “rarest” birds seen on the 2016 Big Year Tours with Wildside Nature Tours. The rank is derived from eBird data for the Lower 48 States as of December 31, 2015 based on the total number of checklists submitted for each species from 1900-2015. There are just over 900 species reported in the Lower 48 States in eBird for this time period. All our target species were 1-500, or the 500 most reported species in the Lower 48 States. These were surprises we bumped into along the way. The lower the rank, the more common the species.
The chart above shows the running totals as the Big Year Tours progressed in 2016. These tours with Wildside Nature Tours were so much fun we are doing it all again in 2017! Check out bigyeartours.com for more information.
2016 was a TERRIFIC year! The 11 one-week tours with Wildside Nature Tours tallied a total of 545 species of birds! The chart above lists the totals by tour for each of the 11 tours. We had so much fun we are doing it again! Join us this year, 2017, for more fun in the field!
Today was the last day our Texas Rio Grande Valley tour. And it was our 11th of 11 trips with Wildside Nature Tours this year. This morning we drove all the way out to Falcon Dam State Park. The drier habitat there got us five new species for the tour but no new species… Continue Reading
Day 5 in the Rio Grande Valley started with, well, more rain. And our first birding stop was <…drumroll…> south of the Border Fence. A conversation like this may have occurred: Person A: Is that the Fence everyone is talking about? Person B: Yes. Person A: But we just crossed through it. Are we in… Continue Reading
We began our day at what is probably now my favorite place to bird in the Lower Rio Grande Valley–Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, TX. If I had only one South Texas site to visit, this would be it. It is really a remarkable place to visit! Always a crowd favorite is… Continue Reading
Never a trip goes by without having to face a few obstacles. We woke up to pouring rain this morning dampening our plans to go to Estero Llano Grande. So we checked radar and decided we would try to catch a short dry spot in Cameron County–the county just east of us. As soon… Continue Reading
We loaded our vehicles this morning at 5:00am and headed up river. Our first stop was the tiny river town of Salineño, TX. We got to watch the sun decorate the landscape in front of us as it rose in the sky. The first light of morning here is always magical. The day started… Continue Reading