Plan a Big Day of Birding

Don’t have time for a Big Year of birding? Try a Big Day instead!

A few years ago, a movie called The Big Year starring comedy giants Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black put birding’s biggest competition in the spotlight, portraying the scramble to find as many species as possible in a single calendar year. But what about the rest of us?

Most of us don’t have the time or the money to take on a Big Year. Last spring I was so busy I opted for a Big Half-Hour instead! Maybe a single day is more your style. A Big Day can be as simple as counting the birds in your backyard. Or, like many others, you might choose to take your adventure on the road, putting together a team and counting as many species as you can in 24 hours. Remember, this is your Big Day, so you can define the pursuit as you see fit. You can even go green by tallying only species you find on foot, by bicycle or via public transportation. Here are a few tips to make your Big Day experience a memorable one.

Plan Your Birding Route
The key to finding the most bird species is to visit diverse habitats. However, time spent behind the wheel is rarely the most productive for finding birds. Find the right balance between birding the hot spots where you’ll find lots of species, and traveling to specialty habitats where a limited number of unusual birds might be. A veteran of more than 20 Big Days in four states, Jessie Barry notes the importance of having a plan early on. “In particular, figure out the best place to spend sunrise, that magic hour when all sorts of species can be seen or at least heard. Dawn is often an incredible, mind-boggling experience as you listen to the birds wake up,” she says, “so don’t leave your sunrise location to chance.”

Scout in Advance
You’ll see more birds on your Big Day if you put some effort into research beforehand. With the click of a mouse, you can learn about all kinds of recent sightings in your area. Scouting out a rare bird in advance can save precious minutes during the Big Day. Many local species can be surprisingly elusive, so having a couple of areas staked out for them can really pay off.

big day of birding
Try to plan a route in advance, but be flexible. Birding with a group will help you see birds you might otherwise miss.

Be Flexible
If you want to meticulously plan out a route beforehand, by all means, go right ahead. But if living in the moment is more your style, roll with it. One thing to keep in mind, though: Never feel locked in to your plans. Each day is different, especially during migration season. Flocks of finches, flycatchers and warblers may have been crowding the park just days before, but if the birds aren’t around when you’re working an area, you might have to make the call to move on. That said, don’t give in to the grass-is-always-greener mentality. There’s a fine line between the urgency of a Big Day and running around like a sage grouse with your head cut off.

Don’t Forget the Snacks
While you can make time to eat an occasional meal during a Big Year, there’s often no such luxury during a Big Day. Some folks justify a lunch stop as a chance to tally feeder birds, but others prefer to get their calories on the go. Personally, my enthusiasm is fueled by coffee and lots of snacks throughout the day. Whatever your vice, don’t forget to pack plenty to keep you going while you’re birding.

Pace Yourself
Perhaps you have a diurnal Big Day crew. Or maybe you’re in it for the long haul, a midnight-to-midnight push. Either way, Big Days are surprisingly strenuous. For me, the anticipation and excitement of finding a new species to tally keeps me going all day. But everyone is different, and you have to plan according to your strengths. For Jessie, her intensity kicks up a notch during the final hours of daylight. “It’s often a make-or-break time,” she says. “A couple of hours after the sun goes down, I’m usually overwhelmed by fatigue, but then it’s time to rally to rack up a few more rails or owls.”

Bird for a Cause
Many Big Days are held as bird-a-thon fundraisers. It’s like a walk-a-thon, but the money pledged is for each species tallied instead of every mile walked. Jessie often birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Team Sapsucker. Every year, the team raises more than $200,000 to support the Lab’s programs with a Big Day of birding. You can do something similar, using the opportunity to benefit a local nature center or bird observatory. It’s rewarding to support conservation efforts while doing something you love.

Have Fun
Sure, there can be competition during a Big Day. You might be up against other teams vying for the top spot, or maybe you’re hoping to find more species than you have in previous years. But really, it’s supposed to be fun. Appreciating birds is what it’s all about. That and the camaraderie keep me coming back year after year. Above all, remember there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Just get out there and seize the Big Day.

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.