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A North American (pretty) big year

In early 2021, I drove to the Florida Keys to see the Black-faced Grassquit pictured above as well as Cuban Pewee. Little did I know at the time that these birds would add to my 500 species big year.

Birding big years have become a thing. A very expensive, all-consuming thing for those who want to shoot for all-time records. A birding big year is an effort to see as many species as possible in a specific area—usually within a county or state or some other political boundary. For most birders in the U.S. and Canada, seeing as many species as possible in the US and Canada (traditionally excluding Hawaii) is the category of big year that gets the most attention. This is called an ABA (American Birding Association) big year. Until 2011, birding big years were a thing known only to birders, but then 20th Century Fox released the movie The Big Year starring Jack Black and Steve Martin. After that movie, birders no longer had to explain big years to non-birders.

Even if I had the money and time to try to chase the North American big year record, I wouldn’t attempt it. A serious big year involves too much chasing of specific rare birds—waiting hours or even days--often in parking lots, dumps, or tiny suburban yards--for a specific individual bird to show up. I’ve done enough of that sort of stakeout birding to know that it is almost never any fun and a full year of it would definitely not be fun. I much prefer to go birding and to find what I can on my own. While I don’t love going after stakeout birds, I do love setting my own bird listing goals.

I was not working on an ABA big year in January and February 2021. I spend my weekends working on my county lists focused on common birds like Field Sparrows.

I did not go into 2021 with any thoughts of a continent-wide big year. I can prove this is true because in January and February 2021, I didn’t go to places where unusual winter birds show up. I did have several bird-oriented trips lined up for 2021. I was scheduled to go to California in April and September to help with a research project focused on understanding migration in White-crowned Sparrows. I also was booked on a May pelagic trip off the coast of North Carolina that had been rescheduled after being cancelled in the pandemic year. In March, I did a spur-of-the moment road trip to Key West to look for Cuban Pewee and Black-faced Grassquit (got them both), but I made no effort to find numerous south-Florida specialties that would have boosted a continent-wide big year. When my friends Jim Cronin and Dave Carr invited me to go on a four-day trip to Arizona in August, I was already looking at a year list of over 400 species of birds. That Arizona trip along with my September research trip to California, pushed me over 470 species of birds and suddenly a 500-bird year looked very possible. The most species I had ever seen in a year in the U.S. and Canada prior to 2021 was 417 in 2017, so I was anxious to see how high I could push what would likely be the biggest ABA birding year of my lifetime.

Five hundred species in a year in the U.S. and Canada was hardly an impressive big year by the standards of hotshots chartering planes and pursing listing full time. For example, Sandy Komito saw 745 species in the ABA area (excluding Hawaii) during the big year chase that was the basis for the movie (a record broken many times since then). Nevertheless, five hundred bird species in the lower 48 states in a year was bigger than any year list I had ever amassed, and it seemed like a fun personal goal. After my August Arizona trip, a 500 bird year seemed to be within reach, even with my busy fall schedule.

In May 2021, I went on a makeup (from the pandemic) pelagic trip off Hatteras NC. We had a fantastic trip and saw Long-tailed Jeagers along with many other fantastic pelagic species.

Even though I was within relatively easy striking distance of 500 species when I got to 470 species in October, there was no way I was going to get to 500 species by birding around my home in Auburn, Alabama. As I approached 500 species in the US and Canada, I was also approaching 300 species for the year in Alabama, so I had exhausted most the birds to be seen around Auburn. I needed one more really good birding trip to put me over 500, and the obvious place where I could most easily pick up 25-or-so year birds on a weekend excursion involving a short plane flight was the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) in Texas. I checked my calendar and saw that I had nothing scheduled on Friday November 5, so I booked a weekend trip to Texas, Nov 5 to 7.

At mid-morning on November 5, I landed at San Antonio a few minutes earlier than scheduled, got my rental SUV quickly, and headed south down I-37 around 10am. The weather was fantastic—clear, cool, calm. My first stop was an area with large agricultural fields just off of I-37 near Edroy. I picked up two nice year birds almost immediately—Sprague’s Pipits (474) flushed from the side of the road and White-tailed Hawk (475) soaring over the fields. As I drove around scanning the vast plowed fields, I spotted a flock of shorebirds flying in a tight ball. These plovers had clean white breasts and lacked orange rumps. It was a flock of Mountain Plovers (476). I had been in Texas less than two hours and I already had added three birds to my year list.

I found Mountain Plovers in ag fields south of San Antonio, they were year bird 476. The photo above was taken in Colorado a few years ago.

The pipit/plover stop only took about 30 min and then I was back on the road headed for edge of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge were Aplomado Falcons now breed and are pretty easy to observe. I pulled into the falcon viewing area and was disappointed that the birds were not visible on any of the perches (cell tower, nesting platform, telephone poles) where they are regularly observed. I was getting close to giving up when I noticed some birds soaring right over me. Along with Turkey Vultures riding the early afternoon updrafts was a much smaller and very graceful raptor—an Aplomado Falcon, easy to identify by its dark ventral plumage, distinctive falcon shape, and long tail (477). It was exciting to see an Aplomado Falcon soaring; previously I had only seen them perched.

From the falcon site, all of my birding areas lay to the west of me, so I drove toward the afternoon sun. My next stop was Harlengen City Lake, an urban pond that hosts a big flock of whistling-ducks. I pulled in, set up my scope, and started sorting through the throngs of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that sat on the concrete wall that lined the lake. I put 300 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks on my ebird list but that was just a conservative guesstimate. There could have easily been 500. It took a few minutes of careful scanning but eventually I found three Fulvous Whistling-ducks (478) mixed in with the Black-bellied. Spotting the Fulvous Whistling-ducks among the hundreds of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks gave me a strong sense of Déjà vu. Thirty years earlier, I had spotted my lifer Fulvous Whistling-duck scoping through piles of Black-bellied Whistling-ducks at a pond a few miles away in Brownsville. I almost didn’t take notice of four Olivaceous Cormorants (479) that flew in and splashed into the lake as I scanned the whistling-ducks. I expected that species to be easy during my birding weekend, but amazingly, those ended up being my only Olivaceous Cormorants of the whole trip. I’m really glad I noticed them.

I missed Red-crowned Parrots (year bird 486) on the first evening of my Texas trip, but Ryan Rodriguez helped me find a big flock in MacAllen the next morning.

By the time I found my Fulvous Whistling-ducks, it was late afternoon. My plan was to look for Red-crowned Parrots at dusk in McAllan, but that still left an hour of birding time, and I decided to spend the hour at Estero Llanos Grande State Park, one of the best parks for all-around birding in the LRGV. The park was officially closed when I arrived a few minutes after 5pm, but all of the trails were still accessible. I spent the next hour skimming the easiest of the easy LRGV birds. The LRGV is the most popular birding destination on the continent because it has a long list of birds that you can see nowhere else in the US, and most of these species are tame, easy to find, and beautiful or interesting. I wasn’t even out of my car when I heard the ringing Kisk-a-dee call of the Great Kiskadee (480) and the very Red-bellied Woodpecker-like call of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker (481). A few steps down the trail to the visitor center and I was looking at a flock of Chachalacas (482) on a feeding station with Green Jays (483) hovering around the feeder waiting for their turn. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird fed at a nearby bird feeder. The hummingbird by all rights should have been a new year bird since it is a LRGV specialty, but I had chased and seen a Buff-bellied Hummingbird in Alabama in January. Near the visitor’s center, I added Altamira’s Oriole (484) and Black-crested Titmouse (485) to my rapidly growing year list. After the bonanza of new birds in the late afternoon I drove the neighborhood where Red-crowned Parrots were reported to regularly come in during the late afternoon and evening to roost. These parrots are big and loud, and if there is a roost around, you can generally locate it by driving around with windows rolled down. I spent 45 minutes searching in vain for flocks of parrots. I ended my first day in the LRGV with 485 species but with many easy birds to get during my full birding day on Saturday.

Ryan Rodriguez, an exceptional teenage birder from McAllen, graciously took me around the LRGV on my day chasing year birds. Here Ryan is checking out a road-kill indigo snake north of McAllen.

For my full day of birding around the McAllen area, I had some expert help. When I was checking eBird for the best places to find my target birds, I kept running into the lists of a young birder named Ryan Rodriguez. He gave his email address in his eBird profile, so I sent Ryan a note to see if he wanted to go birding with me on Saturday. He wrote back that he was excited to do a full day of birding on Nov 6, so at 650 am on Saturday Nov 6, his dad dropped him off and we set out to find as many species as possible in the McAllen refuges. Since I had missed parrots the evening before, we started out driving around near Frontera Audubon to see if we could hear Red-crowned Parrots coming off their roost. As we rolled slowly toward the refuge with our car windows open, both Ryan and I heard the distant shrieks of parrots. We drove toward the sound and within 2 minutes we were looking at about 30 Red-crowned Parrots (486) flying around in a tight flock. A block away from the parrots as we started our drive to our first birding site, Ryan yelled, “Gray Hawk” and I pulled over and stopped. There, in the top of a tall tree in a residential yard, was a beautiful adult Gray Hawk (487). I would have missed the bird on the day if it hadn’t been for the sharp eyes of Ryan. From the hawk spot, we headed over to Estra Llanos Grande State Park, the same place where I had birded briefly the afternoon before. Our target was a bird for which Estero Llanos Grande State Park is famous among birders—Common Pauraque. This relative of the Whip-poor-will does not call often in the fall and winter and can be very hard to find even though they are common in all the larger refuges. However, there is a bird at Estero Llanos Grande State Park that sleeps in the same patch of ground each day. Local birders, including Ryan, know where this spot is and Ryan took me right to the sleeping Common Pauraque (488). These birds are so well camouflaged that it took Ryan a full minute to spot the bird even when he knew which small patch of leaves it was likely to be sleeping on. On the way to and from the pauraque we also spotted White-tipped Dove (489), Long-billed Thrasher (490), and Olive Sparrow (491). We also had a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese fly past. These were not new big year birds for me, but the geese were a new species for my Texas list and they were county listers for Ryan (he was in a battle for biggest year list in Hildago County).

Clay-colored Thrush was waiting for us when we arrived at Frontera Audubon Sanctuary in McAllen.

We hoped to turn up our own rarity at Estero Llanos Grande State Park, but by 9am we had checked some of the best places and decided to change locations. We drove over to Frontera Audubon Sanctuary, and hadn’t gone 50 feet down the first path when we started seeing the bird that Ryan promised we would see at this refuge—Clay-colored Thrush (492). We ended up seeing about a dozen of these bird drab, American-robin-like birds. After the thrush, we spent some time looking for Couch’s Kingbird, which Ryan said are almost always present, but for once, we missed our target bird. As a matter of fact, I ended up missing Couch’s Kingbird for the entire trip, by far my worst miss on my trip to Texas. But we got so many hard-to-find birds, I can hardly complain about one miss.

From Frontera, we drove over to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Santa Ana NWR and Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, are the two largest preserves in the LRGV. They are each so large that we had to make a choice of going to one or the other, so we went to Santa Ana. Our first stop in Santa Ana was the observation tower which give a view of the entire refuge and really the entire area including Mexico, just across the Rio Grande. It was now about noon and hawks and swallows were up in the updrafts. There were more than a hundred Cave Swallows over our heads. These would have been year listers but I had seen the Caribbean subspecies in South Florida in February. Most of the raptors were Turkey Vulture but in the spotting scope, Ryan picked out a mid-sized hawk with very broad wings soaring in wide arcs about a half mile away. It mostly soared like any other raptor but every 45 seconds or so, it would transition into a weird flutter flight, unlike anything I had ever seen a Cooper’s Hawk or any other raptor species do. I mention Cooper’s Hawk because that was the other species it could have been. The combination of broad rounded wings, long tail, and the flutter flight convinced us that it was a Hook-billed Kite (493). After the kite we spent the next hour or so birding around the numerous ponds that dot Santa Ana and we found both Green Kingfisher (494) and Least Grebe (495). That ended the haul of year birds for me at Santa Ana. Before I dropped Ryan at his house just at sunset, we watched 100 Green Parakeets (496) mass on the wires at the mall near his house. Even if the location wasn't very scenic, Green Parakeets are beautiful little birds. I said Goodbye to Ryan four birds short of my goal of 500 year birds and with one morning left in Texas.

As with many of the bird species in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas that added to my year list, I saw only one Least Grebe during my quick 3-day trip.

On Sunday, November 7 I had about two hours to bird in the morning before I had to drive to San Antonio to catch my flight home. I spent my last two hours of birding in Texas at the banks of the Rio Grande at Salineño. There is a fantastic feeding station and bird refuge at Salineño, but it didn’t open until 8 am and by then I had to be driving to San Antonio. But you don’t need to go to the gated refuge to see great birds at Salineño. I got to the edge of the river just at first light and it was a birdy place. Ringed Kingfisher (497) were calling loudly and continued to call all morning. As it got a bit lighter I started walking down a trail along the river north of the boat landing. Audubon’s Orioles (498) started to sing and I flushed a couple of Scaled Quail (499). I was hoping to find a Morelet's Seedeater (499), which used to called White-collared Seedeaters. Amazingly, at the first patch of cane I stopped next to, a female seedeater perched out in the open and let me see and photograph it. The Morelet's Seedeater was my 500th bird of the year.

Morlet's Seedeaters was my 500th ABA bird of 2021. It proved to be easy to find in the reeds along the river at Salineño.

I arrived home from my Texas trip having achieved my goal of 500 species in a year in the continental U.S. Now I wanted to see how far past 500 I could go with local birding. So, the next weekend I drove over to Georgia to get a bird that cleaned up a bad miss from my Arizona, California, and Texas trips—Burrowing Owl. For the past 10 years or so, one Burrowing Owl has returned to the same pasture in east Georgia, about 2 hours drive from my house. I drove up to the little fenced area put up to protect this rare Georgia bird and there was the Burrowing Owl (500) sitting at the entrance to his burrow.

After missing Burrowing owl in California, Arizona, and Texas, it was odd to get my year-lister Burrowing Owl in southern Georgia.

I finished off my ABA big year as I also worked on my state big year. In Alabama, a year list over 300 is big. The record year list is 328. In 2019 I worked hard on an Alabama big year and totaled 320. I had no aspirations to beat that personal record in 2021 but when I got back from my Texas trip, my state year list was as at 294 and 300 was within easy reach. It was especially fun the rest of the year to get birds that aded to both my Alabama and ABA big years. One such bird was LeConte's Sparrow, which I found with some effort in wet fields at Eufaula National Wildlife refuge where several winter every year.

As I pushed my ABA list as high as I could and chased 300 birds for my Alabama year list, LeConte's Sparrow was a "2-for" because it added to both of my lists.

By December, I was running out of both state birds and ABA bird to add to my year lists without getting on a plane or driving far out of state. In early December, I drove down for a nice day on the beach at Dauphin Island and got Black Scoter for both year lists. I went north to the waterfowl refuges along the Tennessee River in Alabama and got several Alabama year listers along with Whooping Crane and Ross' Goose for my ABA list.

I ended the year with 310 birds for Alabama and 505 birds for my ABA list. It was the best big year I've ever attempted because I felt no pressure to get every bird. If I missed a target bird, it was not a big deal. I wasn't setting any records, just having fun birding in a lot of great places. I doubt that I'll ever get an ABA list higher than 507, but who knows. I do like traveling and birding and that combination puts you in front of a lot of species of birds.


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