Birds & Birding

How to Green Birding’s ‘Big Year’

January 7, 2015

Birding in New Jersey. Photo © Anita Gould/Flickr.

For some birders, the end-of-year frenzy isn’t about shopping and returning. It’s about racking up as many bird species as possible in the last few weeks of the year in that peculiar activity known as the Big Year.

As popularized by the movie “Big Year” (adapted from Mark Obmascik’s much darker book The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession), this competitive birding event sees these extra-insane birders — who have been crisscrossing the country all year trying to set a record for the most species seen in a single annum — pull out all the stops to get just a few more as close in on December 31.

Right now, for instance, someone in Seattle might be booking a flight to New York to try to see that Cassin’s Kingbird at Floyd Bennett Field at the southeastern tip of Brooklyn. This wayward semi-tropical bird is “countable” because it is on the checklist of the American Birding Association. While in the neighborhood, the birder will no doubt stop by the West Village to tick the equally lost Couch’s Kingbird.

As dramatic as it sounds, the Big Year has some downsides for nature and people. Here are three that loom large:

1. Economic cost (which I’d estimate at ~$100,000 per birder): Few birders can afford to take a year off work, much less foot the bill for this obsession. The Big Year puts some birders in big debt. Alan Davies and Ruth Miller of North Wales saw 4,327 different species during their year-long tour of six continents. To do it, they had to sell their house. When that money ran out, they had to borrow money from family. All in all, it cost about $40 per bird.

This cost is generally unavoidable. In addition to the extensive planned travel, Big Year birders have no choice but to chase rare birds around the country (mostly by flying). When the chance to add something that others may not get comes up, an extra set of flights must happen.

2. Massive Environmental Costs. All that flying and driving carries an enormous carbon cost. One birder reported flying almost 200,000 miles and driving over 50,000 miles. That Big Year belched about 200,000 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere.**

3. The HUGE birding cost. Most big years are limited to a single country and entail chasing every rarity. It is not uncommon to take a flight just to see one bird. Even if you don’t care about anything but birding (the basic definition of birder), think about all the birding you could be doing for that money and effort on well-planned, intensive but focused birding trips. That kind of scratch could fund 10 good, intensive trips — and maybe more — supporting local eco-tourism efforts (especially local bird-guides), staying in eco-lodges, and leaving enough left over to donate a hefty amount to conservation.

Introducing the Green Big Year

Some birders have found a way to reconcile their need to see as many bird species as possible with their concern for the environment — the Green Big Year.

Green Big Years are done by bike and on foot. Using public transportation (buses/metro) to do one is still under debate because, while it uses no additional fuel per person, it still entails the use of fossil fuel. There are no official rules, so each Green Big Year birder has the option to consider using public transportation at some point.

Birders at the San Pedro River. Photo © William Herron/Flickr.
Birders at the San Pedro River. Photo © William Herron/Flickr.

Here are some great examples of recent Green Big Years:

  • Dorian Anderson – Biking for Birds – hopped on his bike in Boston in January and cycled the country without even a support vehicle. He racked up over 17,000 bike miles, 500 miles by foot, and 617 birds species – almost double the previous Green Big Year record. Through donations, he has also raised $45,000 for conservation.
  • Arizona’s Ron Beck covered 3,067 miles and hiked between 500-600 miles; he raised $4,500. If he happened to see a bird while traveling by car, he would return by bike before adding it to his list.
  • In California, Mark Kudrav has done two Green Big Years, reaching 326 species and 4,781 miles without using any fossil fuels.

Green Big Year is now a thing. It has a website, a forum, a book (by Richard Gregson, who originated the concept in 2008), and even a T-shirt.

Even allowing for dozens of blown tires and other bike repairs, the cost of the Big Green Years is miniscule compared to the traditional carbon-fueled version.

How to Green Your Birding Whether You Do a Big Year or Not

Everyone can green up their birding without doing a Big Green Year and even without traveling dozens of miles by bike:

  • Fill that car! Most birders don’t carpool. They should.
  • Don’t make a special trip to see that Summer Tanager that forgot to migrate. They are easy enough to see all summer with the other neotropical migrants.
  • Be the weirdo who walks the flat two or three miles between ponds — say, at Bombay Hook. (Pro hint: You may even see more birds that way.)
  • Do you really need to see three Snowy Owls? Won’t one do?
  • Combine birding with trips taken for other purposes by adding on a couple of days in the area.

Most of all, substitute quality for quantity. Spend more time birding your local area and getting great views of the birds that come your way. One sad truth about most of the big numbers racked up in international birding: they involve only frustrating glimpses of the birds, and even the best views are usually short.

But with intensive local birding, you can find and monitor nests — nothing better than watching the parents hatch the eggs, feed the chicks, and see the young fledge! You can also learn the variation in song and plumage, observe fascinating behavior, and every so often, an unusual species will cross your path.

Birding this way is deeply satisfying, super-easy on the wallet, and easier on the environment.

Full disclosure – in 1992 I took what could be considered an Accidental Greenish Big Year. Two friends and I took a year off, flew from South Africa to the western hemisphere, and birded the US for four months (mainly out west), Guatemala for two weeks, Costa Rica for two months, and Ecuador for three months. The last three countries we used public transport, hitchhiking and lots of walking. Species seen – 1700!

**[car 51,000 = 47,000 pounds of carbon; plane 193,000 = 142,820 pounds of carbon]

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for the plug for this most excellent means to see and enjoy birds and the link to the green birding website

  2. VIVA BGBY (Big Green Big Year) BIRDING!
    Great article Timothy. Being a birder I found green birding to be a wonderful challenge: it got me on my bike a whole lot more that I would have otherwise, it made me think much more strategically about where and when I would find certain species within a 10-20 mile radius of home, and it reinforced something I thought I already knew: you see (and hear) MANY more birds when you’re on a bike or walking than you do when you’re driving! The bike seems to be the perfect compromise – since you can still cover much more ground than walking, but you’re exposed to a 360 degree soundscape when you’re moving, plus bikes are cool. So get some panniers for your scope, strap your tripod to your rack, carry your ‘nocs like a sidearm, and round up some year birds greenie-style!

  3. Excellent points! It’s important that the idea of green birding offer many options. Very few of us can take off an entire year, like Dorian Anderson did in 2014. But all birders can make it a point to use less gasoline or jet fuel. I have been riding my bicycle to bird my local area for the past several years. Another huge benefit is all of the exercise I am getting. I think the health aspect is one that should also be emphasized.

  4. I’ve just found your excellent article, and plan to work some of the above points into my PhD thesis on North American birding couples who travel internationally. Thanks very much.

    Denise L. Goodfellow
    Northern Territory, Australia

  5. I forgot to add that I was a specialist birding/natural history guide in Australia’s Top End for over thirty years. I now spend my days trying to conserve bird habitat (a vulnerable species, Partridge Pigeon is found on our property). For hours each day we weed and restore native grassland and forest. I also do my best to encourage others to do the same.

  6. Yes, I see lots of good deeds. Water, number one ask the Kennedy’s on this count how we’re doing. Then Ag on the use of chemicals and alternative’s they’ve contributed. Just a thought.
    Kindest Regards,
    Deborah A Evans

  7. Fabulous to see an article on Green Birding. This has been my passion for a number of years now. Initially as a platform for raising funds for the UK’s nature conservation charities, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and the WWT, Sir Peter Scott’s Wildfowl & Wetland Trust, I cycled to every one of both charities nature reserves both in 2010 and repeating this in 2015. Blowing my own trumpet maybe but what experiences!
    At the moment I am over nine months into my BIGBY for 2016 and approaching an unheard of total for the UK, the magic 300. Currently on 292, my list isn’t ‘pure’ due to having to use a few ferries to get to the islands. This puts a big ‘F’ after my name on Jim Royer’s Green Birding records blog. fair enough. I do stick to Richard Gregson’s rule though of starting and finishing from and to my home in Worcestershire, UK. 9,000 miles plus last year.
    The intense pleasure of birding this way is beyond words. So please take up this incredible birding pursuit, do the human race a favour and get back to nature. You’ll feel fabulous for doing so whether it’s for a day, a month or a year etc. If you do then please get in touch. i would love to know of your efforts.
    All the very best to you all,
    Gary Biking Birder Prescott —- Biking Birder 2016 – The Quest for 300 (facebook & blog name.)