Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Post #90 - The death of the ABA Big Year.....(and Wood Duck photos!)

First, a quick housekeeping note. I have started an Instagram account specifically for my bird and travel photography. I'd love for you to follow along! Also, PLEASE feel free to share any of my content (blog, flickr, Instagram, etc) with other birders or potentially interested parties. It would be huge help as I try to build my birding brand and a community around it. Thank you in advance for anything you can do! Now down to business.....

I was this week contacted by Olaf Danielson of recent ABA Big Year fame. He asked me what - if any - connection I think exists between Big Years and bird conservation. I told him that I would integrate those thoughts into an upcoming blog post on which I was working. I think that his question provides both a nice starting and an ending point for some recent musings I've anyway wanted to share with you. I present these thoughts as point-counterpoint, and I'll from there tell you what I see as the future of the ABA Big Year.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld
(on stomach in mud and goose crap)
***As always, click images for higher resolution views***

Point - Put a stick in the ABA Big Year. It's over, done, kaput....
It has never been easier to find birds in North America than it is right now. There are more birders covering increasingly fragmented habitat, and news of any notable finds spreads instantaneously through phone, text messages, eBird, Facebook, and a host of other electronic means. With everyone privy to exactly the same information, information no longer matters in the Big Year equation. Information rendered moot, money becomes the overriding - almost perversely so - predictor of Big Year outcomes. Number of species observed correlates only to the funds expended; Love of birds, ability to identify them, drive to educate others about them, or desire to conserve them have exactly zero bearing on the numerical outcome of a Big Year. The fact is that anyone with a big enough checkbook can amass 750+ species during a Big Year.

Beyond that obvious - and potentially fatal - flaw to the Big Year model, increased amounts of information further skew the already unbalanced ratio of birding time to travel time towards the latter. With rarities being reported from multiple places at once, there's little to enjoy one bird before the rush for the next commences. This imbues birds with the qualities of temporary bounties, a mindset that does not lend itself to anything outside of running up one's list.

The environmental impact of Big Year associated travel should not be ignored. Yes, the planes are generally going wherever they are going with or without Big Year birders aboard, but there needs to be more discussion of what this might mean moving forward. It's only a matter of time until someone uses a private jet for a Big Year. That is exactly why we need to have this discussion before it reaches that ridiculous point.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning the confusion including Hawaii in the ABA region will cause. It seems a "+ Hawaii" or "- Hawaii" designation will have to accompany any Big Year moving forward in order to give it the appropriate context. It's just cumbersome. Travel to Hawaii will required yet more money from Big Year birders and compound the financial considerations outlined above.

Summary - When money becomes the prime indicator of outcome, it's over. It's as sadly true in birding as it is politics or sports. This is why the ABA Big Year as currently modeled is dead.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

Counterpoint: The ABA Big Year is alive and well!
With the aforementioned access to information, Big Year totals once mythical are now completely possible. It's inspiring to see what can be achieved with the aid of these new technologies and speed of communication. This past year was a perfect example of this; Having 4 birders break the previous record was fun, especially for those folks unable to undertake such indulgences themselves.

Secondly, not every Big Year need establish a new record to be valuable or worthwhile. A Big Year is a personal journey and a fun experience and a birder can take it as seriously as he or she desires. No one has to spend the $100,000 that a record breaking Big Year requires. Big Year birders inevitably report that the people are the best part of the adventure. The birds are just the excuse to interact with the world and the people that populate it in new and interesting ways. 

The travel that birders do is negligible in the grand scheme of general world overpopulation. PR is priceless, and the attention Big Years garner will outweigh their environmental impacts. The community would be advised to spotlight Big Year efforts; That exposure will likely draw additional people into birding. The wider the tent, the greater collective our birding voice will be. If properly harnessed, that voice could be a potent force for conservation. Any attention paid to birding is ultimately a good thing. 

Summary - A Big Year is a personal project. If birders and those beyond latch onto it, that's momentum on which the entire community would be well-advised to capitalize. We should therefore encourage similarly ambitious efforts moving forward.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

At this point we're right back were we started, at Olaf's question. Is there a connection between Big Years and conservation? In my mind, than answer is a loud and resounding "No". Which Big Year birder blogged the most about conservation last year? Who raised the most money for conservation? Were funds raised significant compared to the cost of the Big Year itself? We don't know because as a community, we generally don't care - at least in the context of Big Years. We ask about species totals, but generally ignore the conservation, outreach, and education aspects of the equation. 

We, as a birding community, need to demand that Big Years be about more than species totals if the existing big money, big travel model is ever to evolve into something more substantive and sustainable. We need more creative Big Year propositions, efforts that try to do more while using less. How many species can be found with only $5,000? With only 10 flights? With just hitchhiking? With only a bicycle? There are an infinite number of possibilities. How about a Big Year with a ~week in each of the 58 National Parks? How about a public transportation Big Year? It would be fun and easy to put an education or conservation slant on any of these alternatives, and I think they'd be really popular within and beyond the birding community.

The Big Year isn't dead, but it does need some fresh life breathed into it if it's going to be relevant well into the future. Right now it's a circus - a really fun and exciting circus, but a circus nonetheless.

NOTE: My dream Big Year if I had the money and/or the desire? I'd put 52 ping-pong balls into a bag, 1 for each state and 2 wild-card balls that must be used on Canadian provinces. Every 7 days (as I went along, not ahead of time) I'd pull a ping-pong ball and immediately fly/drive to the state/province indicated and bird that area for the next week. Once a state/province was visited, the ball would be tossed out so that each area is visited only once in the course of the year. I would make some form of rule so as to avoid going FL > AK > SC > HI, for example, but generally the entire adventure would hang on the balls (ugh, that didn't come out right, sorry). Pull Alaska in January? Rhode Island in June? That's the adventure!

Curios to see if I get skewered or supported on all of this. Have at it in the comments section either way!

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II on EOS 1D Mark IV
1/4000 at f/5.6, ISO 800, handheld

16 comments:

  1. I follow a small circuit of blogs that seem to be eschewing the traditional Big Year while still fully embracing birding competition. I have seen (and participated in) a "taken for granted" challenge where one birder from a distant place selects a few specific birds that seem really great to them but might not be fully appreciated by the birder living where they can be found. This puts the emphasis back on appreciating all birds, and not just rarities. There also is a big push for birding inside of a 5-mile radius from one's home with both big days and big years inside of that circle. And I am now in my third year of doing a green year, where I am trying to see as many birds as I can without a vehicle. I feel like these smaller challenges are much more interesting, and the numbers and species much more variable. I would like to see more specific challenges like this pop up. It makes it easier to participate, too.

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    1. Some really interesting ideas here, Greg. Thanks for sharing them. Yeah I think the local birding movement is really gathering steam, particularly as more birders use eBird realize that their everyday sightings have scientific value beyond the listing realm. Photography has really helped me appreciate the common stuff so often taken for granted when I am in full-on birding mode. Curious to hear you you own green efforts turn out - please keep us posted!

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    2. Thanks! In 2015 I had 137 species and last year I made it to 143. This year it's 150 or bust.

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  2. I think you nailed it on all points, and agree that there needs to be more creative aspects (handicaps if you will) incorporated into the Big Year scheme. Your Biking for Birds years was a great model. Must say they Ping Pong big Year sounds exciting too !! Great wood duck images also. -- Jon Corcoran

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    1. Thanks for kind word about the post, the photos and my BFB project, Jon. Yeah, you really get handicapping idea - that's precisely what would make these other approaches interesting. Sure species totals would suffer, but that's a trade I would make to see more interesting approaches to Big Years.

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  3. Dorian: I really enjoyed and appreciated your blog on this topic. I found it thought provoking, and innovative in your proposals for alternative type Big Years, most of which, I admit, I had never considered. I also believe your opinions should be more widely shared, and encourage you to submit this blog to other publications for wider sharing.
    For discussion purposes, however, I will add a few of my own thoughts.
    1) Big Year requirements: While I totally agree Big Years of these magnitudes do require significant financial resources, I also think subsequent success depends on other factors as well such as skill, stamina, good health, ( very important ), a good weather year, and yes, luck.
    2) Although your comment about future Big Year birders chartering jets may have been an intentional exaggeration, we may not be that far off already. There is clear evidence of Big Year birders chartering airplanes to chase a single species of bird, and, of course, exclusive boat charters would probably not be uncommon. Additionally, Big Year birders hiring exclusive guides/advisors, and paying to have them accompany said birders have been well documented.
    3) Current Model Big Years Dead? Personally, I don't think so. Although attempting such a year may be well beyond the capabilities of 95% of birders, in my opinion, there will always be a few birders in subsequent years who will want to rise to this challenge. Is it our call to deny them this opportunity? After all it is their money. Now that Hawaii is added to the ABA count area, you can be sure there will be someone(s) out there who will want to break the record. Starting in 2017 Big Year Birders will be able to plan their Hawaiian trips to maximize count potential.
    4) Entertainment Value: Perhaps a guilty pleasure of some birders is following the exploits of this genre of Big Year Birder without having to go through the pain and expense of doing it ourselves!!
    5) Finally, to address your pivotal point of whether there is any correlation between Big Years and conservation, ( at least potentially ), I would say yes. Perhaps the unanswered question may be offsets from doing a Big Year?
    I know from following your Big Green Year you addressed and advocated for a number of conservation issues, which I read and seriously considered in my daily living.
    John Wiegel called his Big Year " Birding for the Devils " in the hopes of raising public awareness towards the plight of the endangered Tasmanian Devil.
    I know Olaf's trips to Hawaii really affected him in relation to the dire circumstances the Hawaiian endemic birds find themselves in.
    I don't think any of this is cheap talk. It seems to me that all Big Year birders share a common trait, and that is that you are all " driven " individuals. How else would you explain what you do? If this energy level, and competence is translated into conservation efforts, who would you rather have as advocates?
    I look forward to your future posts on this topic.

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  4. Yes, I agree with Jon. I think you nailed it - thoughtful point/counter point arguments. For me the most engaging part of taking on a Big Year would be entirely the personal project aspect of it - whether I saw 500 or 700 birds would probably not matter - I'm bound to see some new birds in that effort whatever the final tally. And, I'd spend no where near $100,000 - not even a fraction of that amount. When I started out in birding, I was gun ho on the listing part. It seemed to be the way things were done. Now the listing part of birding - seeing a bird just to check a box - it a turn-off. I can look back nearly 10 years and recall the details of the trip where listing went south for me. It's nice to be competitive and all that - but, over the years I've observed too much bad behavior. Finally, I think one of this year's Big Year birders was a woman. Generally, however, the Big Year seems to be a guy thing. Something that may be overlooked is a point that separates the guys from the girls, so to speak. There are just some things a guy can do and places a guy can go where a woman would be unwise to do the same. Oh, say, like ride my bike around the country ... I agree entirely with your point that Big Birding this or that needs to be more creative and way more sustainable. I'd like birders to be more focused on the conservation of birds and other species as well. Because, look, this is now more than ever our central challenge; climate change, habitat loss, over population, budgetary cuts, elimination of the endangered species act ... time to stop.

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    1. I agree Cathy. I think a Big Year should be about birding. Right now they're more about travel. One of the things I liked about my bicycle Big Year was that I was birding the entire time. Sometimes it wasn't very exciting, but birds could fly by at any moment. I can tell you that if I am ever lucky enough to make it to Attu, Gambel, or (most attractively to me as a photographer) the Pribilofs, you can bet you're life I'm gonna stay more than a day!

      Your comments about female specific concerns are interesting. I though about that a lot on my bike trip. There are things that women must constantly worry about that I could generally ignore. It's terrible - but sadly the say the world currently works.

      I wonder if we'll see more female Big Year's moving forward. Not only are more women getting into birding these days, but contemporary women are independently accumulating wealth in ways previous generations did not (though they're still getting paid less than men). So, maybe in the future we'll see more women with both the drive and the funds to embark on Big Year type projects.

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  5. The Oregon Birding association has had "Circle Lists" (a 15 mile circle; the same size as a CBC) and "Motorless Lists" as year birding categories for several years now. I really enjoy both and find that frequently birding areas near my neighborhood lead to very enjoyable birding. A bicycle birder in the Portland, Oregon area came up with a new idea last year: A motorless county tick list (adding the total birds seen in all Oregon counties without the use of a motor). You can read more about it here: http://birding.aba.org/message.php?mesid=1225575&MLID=OR01&MLNM=Oregon

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    1. Hey Vjera - good to hear from you! Yeah, leave it to Oregon to come up with something like this. Beyond this, it would be cool if eBird had an option for a non-motorize or green checklist so that the the information would be public. I think we'll get there eventually, so there's hope on that front!

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  6. The ABA Big Year is alive and well, and look to Laura Keene's 741 *photographed* in 2016 as the next big thing people go shooting for (see what I did there?)

    Anyone can define any "big year" area, or restrictions, they choose. People have been doing state/province, county, local patch, cycling, walking ... etc. big years, well ... for years.

    In Cook County, IL last year, for example, the forest preserves district promoted a Cook County Forest Preserves Big Year, and teams were formed that birded each of the preserves during the year. Brought a lot of attention/awareness to the properties, and got people out looking for birds in places they might not normally go to. Win, all the way around.

    As to the dynamics of Hawaii: the ABA Area as we have known it will remain as "ABA Continental".

    The ABA Area will start from scratch later this year--for life, year, and other lists--as a listing area, when the ABA Checklist Committee releases the checklist additions.

    In the meantime, as far as 2017 year lists are concerned, anything seen in Hawaii this year that is included in the forthcoming Checklist will be countable for the year.

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    1. Greg and I have spoken extensively on Facebook on this topic, so I won't rehash everything here.

      As for photographic Big Years, they hold less than zero interest for me. Trying to photograph everything adds an interesting dynamic to the process but does generally nothing to pare down the already overdone Big Year process. I know that I would rather have a few really good frames than 700, out-of-focus, poorly lit, and distant record shots. Call me a photo snob, but them's the facts! Photography is best done slowly and deliberately. That just doesn't fit with the current big money, big travel Big Year.

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  7. I know many people who consider themselves Conservationists, but few who practice what they preach regarding funding. Not that financial contributions are the only way to be conservative minded. There are plenty of was to practice conservation than throwing money at it. However, many birders I know and have run into through the years really do very little to practice conservation. And please note I said many, not most. And too many never actively participate in conservation.

    These individuals think they are doing great things even if they fail to realize their behavior significantly impacts the very birds they work so hard to see, in negative ways. There is no such thing as a non-consumptive user in my mind.

    Dorian, your BFB was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen in birding, and conservation minded. The 2 Big Year Birding blogs I followed in 2016 were less than impressive due to the blatant travel across the continent.

    One way to look at the 2 general types of (Big Year) Birding could be to compare them to hunting and trophy hunting. The local birder without the time and resources to jump on a plane at a moment's notice, multiple times a week are like the hunter who enjoys time afield and natural food for the table. The high powered Big Year Birders, like an exclusive trophy hunter, may primarily be a lister or collector, interested in showing off their trophy to impress others?

    There are certainly exceptions to each of these categories, but enough similarities for me to make the comparison. Just because some are primarily a trophy hunter, or Big Year Birder, doesn't mean the vast majority of those of us who are not filling a list or a freezer don't enjoy all our time in the field chasing our own dreams. Dreams of that rare bird or a nice buck to hang our tag on.

    I am both a hunter and a birder, often at the same time. The best memory of my latest deer hunt will always be hearing and then observing about 200 Sandhill Cranes flying south overhead. Their primeval calls never cease to grab my attention and that will never change.

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    1. Hi Scott, thanks for the thoughts and the kind words about my own Big Year. I never would have thought about the analogy to hunting, but I think yours is a good one. There is a general disconnect between birding and conservation, and I am struggling with how I can resolve that both in myself and the larger birding community. This blog is part of that process as I hope that highlighting relevant issues will resonate with at least a few people in some small way!

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  8. I'm curious, does anyone know (ballpark) how much Christian spent? I'm under the impression is wasn't six figures, but I could be wrong. He broke 750, but deliberately limited his total to avoid spending too much money. And I know that the record breaker this year frequently mentioned conservation as his focus, and asked people to donate to the conservation fund he was championing. According to his blog, he also spent a considerable amount of his savings on buying carbon offset credits..

    To me, a Big Year, like any other Big birding event, is all about perseverance. Money is the means to make it happen, but you still need to put in the hours, thousands and thousands of them. It's always been that way, tracing it back to Peterson. It's never really been about skill or fieldcraft, it's always been about perseverance. You need to be dedicated and focused. That's what excites me about Big Years. I disagree that money is all you need to do a big year. It's a prerequisite, sure. But that's true for most competitive sports. I for one will still enjoy following Big Years, and look forward to the next one that includes Hawaii.

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  9. Hi David - Christian certainly did not spend close to 6 figures, but he didn't limit his bird total to save money. It was the other way around; His money did the limiting. He did fly to Alaska at least twice, and he made it to Attu which alone is $8000. So, it's all relative. I am sure though that the ~30 species separating him and John/Olaf cost them more than Christian's total for the whole year. It's those last few birds that are always the most expensive.

    As for the whole stamina argument, I hear you - sort of. The thing is that if you don't have the money to do the travel, then the stamina argument is rendered moot. Also, after biking 18,000 miles during my own 2014 Big Year effort (and driving 0 and flying 0), I have a really hard time listening about how tiring a Big Year is. It's a bit self-righteous, sure. But until someone does more with less and puts his/her body through anything close to what I did in 2014, I've got that ground to stand on!

    We'll see what happens in the future. Hopefully some really creative stuff!

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