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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!

DIY Big Year: Assessing Your Limits

birders watching Blackburnian Warblers
Birders watching Blackburnian Warblers – photo by Greg Miller


Last week I presented you with an idea about doing a personal Big Year. Few of us can take a year off. Few of us can spend a whole year traveling. And not all of us have the energy or motivation to make that much of doing a Big Year.

I am writing this for those of us who like the idea of a Big Year, but do not have the resources to go at it full time. So what are the biggest limitations you face? The factors that are the largest for me include the following:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Health

Besides all those listed above, most of you have family or friends you don’t want to ignore for a whole year either. And then there are the things we take for granted in everyday life. To really be committed to a competitive Big Year you will end up doing a lot of things that are not the best for you. It is because everything is out of balance. To be so focused on one thing means you will be ignoring something else.

If you are at all competitive you may take a few of these chances:

  • You eat poorly because it’s cheaper and often times, faster
  • You stay at cheap motels that carry many risks for safety, hygiene, etc
  • You catch red-eye flights with more stopovers because they are cheaper
  • You exercise less (or not at all) because it takes up too much of your time
  • You drive while tired and are hyped up on caffeine to keep going

These are things that are not good. But most of us make concessions in life without doing a Big Year of any sort. And doing a Big Year—even a smaller personal Big Year—will add to your busy schedule. It will not make it easier. So when you decide to do a Big Year you are going to make some decisions that will cost you something. I hope that you choose your risks wisely. But, I will understand if you do not. Been there. Done that.

Besides, not doing a Big Year is also a decision with costs. None of us knows how long we have to live. Life is a balance of enjoying whatever you can right now while having considerable thoughtfulness and preparation for the future. You can’t live every day like there is no tomorrow or else you will have no money or no health for the future if you live until tomorrow. But if you don’t enjoy yourself now, your unpredictable life can bite you later. You may lose your health unexpectedly. Or your life. Or your money.

How much time do you have that you could commit to birding a personal Big Year? Will your birding be local only? Or will you have time to travel? If you travel, when can you go? How often can you go? Yep. We all have lots of questions. I am hoping that I can assist you on where and when to go to maximize the number of species you see, what you will expect to see, and provide you with suggestions for maximizing your time and money as well.

A few internet searches produced some average numbers for travel-related costs. Average airfare for the first part of 2017 was about $350. Of course this is going to vary wildly depending on where you are flying and how many days in advance you purchased your tickets. Travel within the U.S. can be fairly cheap with prices for roundtrip flights under $100. But you may spend $1,000 or more to fly to an out-of-the-way place or if you choose First Class over Economy.

For lodging, the average price for a night in hotel in 2017 was $137. If you are like me, that is what I will spend in 2-3 nights. But this doesn’t specify whether it’s a resort or not. Or what time of year it is. Many places have peak seasons. Or it’s a popular destination or a little mom-and-pop motel. Lately, I’ve stayed in motels from about $50-$80 per night across much of the U.S. You should make use of the many travel apps on your smartphone. Lodging was my biggest expense category in 1998. If you do the math, you will probably find that this is still true.

The average daily charge on car rental in the U.S. in 2017 so far is about $100. Some places offer much better deals for a weekly car rental. And you will save money on a smaller rental. But some places you may want to go my have rugged terrain and unpaved roads which may not be so fun or safe in your little rent-a-spec.

So how does this all add up? Well, using the above averages you will end up with a total of almost $1900 for a one-week trip for airfare, 6 nights of lodging, and car rental. You still have to eat. And you are going to need money to gas up your vehicle. And you’ll probably want to factor in buying some souvenirs during your trips. I usually count on between $1000 and $1500 for a budgeted, well-planned one-week trip within the U.S.

So if you are lucky enough to be young and healthy, and have a job that pays well, and gives you 4 weeks of vacation, and you have a life with few friends and no responsibility, then you are ready for 4 weeks of birding to fun destinations. But, if you are like most of us, almost all of your birding will be local. And only 1 or maybe 2 weeks can be dedicated to birding.

My plan is to give you options for 1, 2, 3, or 4 weeks of birding in your own personal Big Year. I will tell you where and when I think you have the highest probability for getting the most species of birds for the time you have available. Sound good? I hope so. Watch for my next post here on the Big Year Blog!

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