Big Year #1: I Commence my Thoreauvian Big Year

On New Year’s Day, I started keeping track of all the birds I’ve seen this year. For some people, this is a kind of tradition, though I can’t say I’ve ever done it before. And for birders who incline towards competitiveness or merely personal challenge, January 1st is the day to kick off a Big Year in pursuit of the ever unquenchable desire for More Species. I came up with 52 species in a walk around the Bahia Lagoon and the adjacent neighborhood streets, as well as four additional species in a brief count at a backyard feeding station down the road. (If you’re curious about these particular sites, you can check out my eBird* lists from the lagoon and yard or check out our profile of this birding hotspot for your own exploration.)

56 birds before noon on 1/1/18. Not bad for a few hours’ stroll on the edge of the neighborhood. But I’m hoping to see a lot more birds this year – in fact, I’m aiming to see more or less all the birds that occur in this neck of the woods over the course of the year, an undertaking which I’ll be sharing here. My precise intention is a new twist on the classic birding challenge of a Big Year, in which one attempts to see as many species as possible between the first day of January and the last day of December. Now, a full-scale modern Big Year involves a lot of time, long-distance travel, and obsessive chasing of reported rarities. Personally, I’m not really into all that. Other birders who have similar doubts about the rationality of full-throttle Big Years have proposed a few alternatives that cut down on the ratio of travel time (which is, after all, merely instrumental, as well as being expensive and carbon-intensive) to actual birding time (which is, after all, the goal). One option is a geographically-limited Big Year, such as a County Big Year. Another is a Green Big Year, in which one is limited to travel by foot or by bike (or by boat in some cases).

Even those seem a little intense for my tastes. Here in Marin, with our diversity of habitats, coastal proximity, and migratory hotspots, a dedicated county lister might hit 250 species in a year, but it would probably take a lot of trips out to the ocean to stare out to sea and hunt for migratory vagrants. I prefer looking at close birds that belong here rather than oceanic specks and lost and harried birds with faulty compasses. And a serious Green or Biking Big Year could exceed 300 species if the undertaker starts fanning out across the state on longer bike tours. While I’m not intrinsically opposed to trips to the coast or long bike rides, my current ambitions are a bit more modest and perhaps more widely shared, to some degree or other: to become more familiar with the local birdlife in the place where I live, and to spend more time out in nature (while not necessarily spending, one might clarify, more time travelling to nature).

Another old guy: William Henry Hudson. I like reading these old naturalists’ books – and they’re pretty much free.

As W.H. Hudson, early bike-birder and generally decent and sensible man, pointed out back in 1909:

It is little to a man’s profit to go far afield if his chief pleasure be in wild life, his main object to get nearer to the creatures, to grow day by day more intimate with them, and to see each day some new thing.

W.H. Hudson, Afoot in England

Or as Emerson says more philosophically:

All America seems on the point of embarking for Europe. But we shall not always traverse seas and lands with light purposes, and for pleasure, as we say. One day we shall cast out the passion for Europe, by the passion for America. Culture will give gravity and domestic rest to those who now travel only as not knowing how else to spend money… Sanity consists in not being subdued by your means.

“Considerations by the Way”

The means of seeing birds have reached rather astronomical heights: we have cars, planes, fancy optics, and vast streams of information that report to us the daily appearance of birds common and uncommon. But these are all merely means, and I think it is important to keep the actual end in mind, for which purpose it might be refreshing to periodically reconsider how we use these various tools.

The foremost localizing naturalist in American culture, of course, is Henry David “I have travelled a good deal in Concord” Thoreau.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon… There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.


And so, for the sake of having fun and deepening my experience rather than going manic after checkmarks on a list, I’m imposing some limitations on my counting ambitions by creating something I hereby dub the Ten Mile Thoreauvian Big Year.

Ten Mile – I’m only going to count birds within a ten mile journey from my home in southern Novato. This range includes all of Novato and the northern part of San Rafael, including such bird rich areas as Big Rock Ridge, Lucas Valley, Loma Alta, and the Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds: the area, in effect, where I live. This isn’t quite the same as as a ten mile radius on the map – it’s perhaps more like six and a half – because getting to most points 10 miles away as the pigeon flies would take a considerably longer travel distance – beyond the scope of a day’s walk and therefore beyond the most reasonable definition of my home territory.

Thoreauvian – In the spirit of Thoreau’s classic defense of walking (“a 10 mile radius is plenty interesting”) and unimpressed evaluation of high speed transit (“we can start at the same time, and I’ll actually see the country while you’re working to pay for your train ticket”), I’m not going to be using a car or other gas-burning vehicle to find these birds. I’ll be doing a good bit of walking and a good bit of biking, a nice human-scale technology that I think Thoreau would be fine with. (In full disclosure, I also have an pedal-assist ebike, which I’ll also be using and which technology I heartily endorse, even if ebirding on my ebike doesn’t sound particularly Thoreauvian.)

Sure, I could just call this a Green Big Year with a ~7 mile radius. But I’m not walking and biking just because it can be labelled as “green” – I’m doing it for the equally Thoreauvian reasons of conservation, frugality, and above all quality of experience. What, after all, is the point of this exercise? Why undertake a Big Year of any kind? The listing practice should push me to spend more time outside with birds generally, resulting in more hours spent under the open sky, more species seen, and more individual birds encountered than might otherwise be the case. The quest for additional species will encourage me to grow my identification skills (to make sure I find as many gulls, for example, as possible) and improve my familiarity with the various different local habitats and their associated bird populations. And the limitations on means of transport and distances travelled will make sure that the focus remains on these intrinsically worthwhile activities rather than being dissipated by the merely instrumental to-and-fro of motor-enabled bird watching. If I drove all over Marin or the Bay Area my final species count would probably be ~250 rather than ~200 under this proposed regime, but my actual time in the field would be less, my expenses and footprint would be greater, and although I might become a more experienced visitor to the distant corners of the county I would not make as much progress in a more important goal: growing more deeply at home where I am.

Common Goldeneye by zenbikescience on Flickr

Progress Report

56 species as of January 1, 2018

On New Year’s Day, I visited my parents’ house in Bahia, in northern Novato, where I found a few marsh birds around the house (common yellowthroat, Lincoln’s sparrow) and went for a walk around the neighboring Bahia Lagoon. This pond attracts a wide variety of ducks and is the countywide hotspot for goldeneyes: although the overall goldeneye volume is quite low this year, I did find both common goldeneye and the less abundant Barrow’s goldeneye. Other notable waterbirds included three red-breasted mergansers and two Forster’s terns. The surrounding grasslands hosted flocks of savannah sparrows, western meadowlarks, and a few hawks, including one northern harrier and one American kestrel.

* eBird, if you’re not familiar with it, is a website and citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who also sponsor the backyard-focused Project Feederwatch and the shorter term Great Backyard Bird Count. eBird collects checklists from birders around the world, creating a huge and scientifically valuable data set, and also providing a great tool for anyone who’d like to become more familiar with the birds in their area. You can, for instance, search for recent local sightings of a species you’d like to see, generate a list of birds for a favorite park, or stay up to speed with reports of rare birds.

The Thoreauvian Big Year

  1. Introduction: How many birds can I find in a year within 10 miles of my Novato home, without using a car? I kick off the Thoreauvian Big Year.
  2. The Three Week Update: The easy resident and wintering birds pour in – along with a few surprises – among the highlights of the first 115 species. What local sites should you visit in January if you want to see more birds?