Alternatives to the Perpetual Big Year

Justyn Stahl


As the final days of 2019 pass, and January 1st looms, many organizations (eBird, BirdsEye, etc.) are promoting more and bigger birding in 2020, often with a “How to Do a Big Year” theme. Meanwhile, I had been contemplating writing an email proposing a different strategy:  one discouraging the seemingly perpetual county year listing habit that has developed in San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Granted, we all bird for different reasons, with different styles. However, while some think of Big Years as primarily exploratory (and perhaps they are in less populated areas), long year lists are usually comprised of large numbers of species found by other observers that required chasing, often with few rarities or unexpected birds actually found by the owner of the list. Big Years on any scale have increasingly become  a product of how successful a person is at chasing birds found by other people, with little time devoted to exploration and a great deal of time earmarked for running after reported rarities. Clearly birding with this approach is satisfactory for many, but there are other, potentially more gratifying ways to bird than just being caught in an empty, unending cycle of chasing year birds.

Admittedly, year listing has a long tradition. However, since the inception of the Top 100 in eBird, the ephemeral year list has taken on a life of its own.  Chasing rarities has always been a part of birding, but chasing the rarity du jour is now repeated every year by everyone scrambling up the Top 100 until falling back to zero on January 1st.  (Clearly Sisyphus kept a year list.) A major downside to this is increased visitation to sensitive or restricted areas, with many eBird users not plugged into local listservs simply setting their maps app to direct them to the coordinates of the rarity, with no understanding of access restrictions.  Behind the scenes, eBird reviewers are cringing, dreading the onslaught of all of the known winter rarities being reported again and again the first week of January by dozens of birders anxious to get all the known rarities out of the way. So, as January 1st approaches, I’d ask that people reflect on how much Needs Alerts from eBird drive your behavior? Are they set to Hourly for Year Needs? How much time do you spend going to look for birds found by other people for your year list? Does that bring you the same satisfaction as unexpected discoveries or birding in new areas? Are public data displays like Top 100 your primary motivation?

Late last year, after learning about the 5-mile radius (5MR - ) approach to birding, I encouraged many birders to try it out, and several did. (Missed out? It’s not too late! Draw your circle with this tool: ) This has been a very successful style of birding for a lot of people, a new way for folks with limited time or money to stay active and engaged, and a number of new local hotspots have been found. Many folks have told me it has rejuvenated their interest in birding! The main point of this challenge was (and is) to encourage exploring the local nooks and crannies around your neighborhood. (I, for one, largely ignored Point Loma this fall as it fell outside my circle.)  Not all circles are equal, and the competition was really just intended to be with yourself – how many can you find, regardless of what others (in perhaps better locations) are finding? Where to get shorebirds if you’re land-locked? Checking that golf course pond repeatedly in hopes of a snipe or Spotted Sandpiper. Scouring small parks or residential streets for a rare warbler or vireo versus visiting the same famous hotspots every day. And so on. Exploration and discovery is major part of learning the status and distribution of birds in your neighborhood, your county, or your state. What is expected and not expected, when and where. Let’s do it again next year. It need not be a year listing approach, but simply adding to your cumulative patch total. Or – just throw the list out the window and bird with a sense of discovery and contribute to the ever-changing status and distribution of our local or state species. Yes, one is allowed to travel outside your circle, and visit famous sites, and chase rare birds, but I encourage you to spend more of your time exploring under-visited areas of the county or state.

Will you consider making a detour to check a park on your return from a (un)successful chase across the county? Large gaps in coverage are evident from looking at eBird maps – how much of this is being driven through without checking?

Take a look at this map of House Finch observations in San Diego, for example:

This species likely occurs across nearly all of empty space on this map, but they’ve not yet been recorded there by eBird users, almost certainly due to poor coverage.

Let’s look closer at North County:

And now the southeast corner:

The red pins in the very southeast are from Jacumba, related to searches for a recently found Lark Bunting. To the northwest of that, the Laguna Mountains, and the trail out to where Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills delighted many. What awaits discovery between your house and Jacumba, and how many of you stopped somewhere else on the way to or from the Laguna Mountains?

If the eBird coverage of something as ubiquitous as House Finches is incomplete, just think of what the situation is for species of local and conservation interest like California Gnatcatcher or Cactus Wren. And how many rarities are hiding out there awaiting discovery? I get it, many people have stated that they don’t want to bird in residential areas or business parks. (However, many of these areas are certainly visited by folks when rarities are reported from there!) But what about the large swath of rural and undeveloped habitat in east San Diego County? Or any number of the more aesthetic state and county parks?

Not all of these unexplored areas are public, and most of them will not turn up anything “rare” on the first visit. But they may after multiple visits at different times of year. More importantly, however, by simply birding these hinterlands, you are updating and expanding our combined knowledge of status and distribution. By submitting eBird checklists from these areas, we fill in gaps on the maps. Another Greater Pewee checklist from Balboa Park this winter is a drop in the bucket compared to a visit to Barrett Lake or Portrero County Park. (Ever been to either of these locations? Me neither!)

Will you return to Jacumba in 2020, regardless of what’s reported from there? Will you check other trails in the Lagunas or the Cuyamacas for crossbills this winter? On the way to or from these spots, will you stop off for a quick 5-minute stationary eBird count in the middle of nowhere?

Hopefully, while you’re out in the far corners (or in the nearby nooks and crannies) you’ll be using breeding codes in your checklists, when appropriate. See the following link for a full explanation on when and how to use them:

Noting a bird on a nest, or one carrying nesting material increases the value of your efforts. A revisiting of Unitt’s San Diego County Bird Atlas (which included coverage through spring 2004) is overdue, and eBird data may one day be utilized as the basis for a new version, much in the way iNaturalist data helped drive the San Diego County Mammal Atlas.

We all, well most of us at least, enjoy listing. I’ll be on my way as soon as possible to see a new county bird, and given the distance, a state or life bird, but in the mean time I’ll try to focus on finding one on my own, or trying to familiarize myself with some new part of our vast county and state. Hopefully, by foregoing a list driven by Year Needs Alerts from eBird (Unsubscribe! As noted 5MR birder Karl Marx said, “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”), you’ll reduce stress in your life, explore parts of the county or state you’ve never heard of or been to, and, with luck, build a more satisfying list of “self-found” species of your own discovery. And, yes, reduce the workload of your poor eBird reviewers! By all means, bird more in 2020, but bird differently!


Best birding in 2020, regardless of your approach.

Justyn Stahl

San Clemente Island