Plan a Big Day of Birding to See More Species

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

big day of birdingKen Keffer
Don’t have time for a Big Year? Gather your supplies for 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. Maybe a single day is more your style. A Big Day can be as simple as counting the birds in your backyard. Or, you can take part in a large national or international event such as Global Big Day or World Migratory Bird Day. You might even 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 birding 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 of birding a memorable one.

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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.”

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Scout Locations in Advance

bird big dayKen Keffer
Birding with a group will help you see birds you might otherwise miss.

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. And don’t forget to pack your binoculars and favorite field guide.

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Be Flexible and Have a Back Up Plan

northern parulaCourtesy Lucian Parshall
Northern parula during spring migration in Michigan

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.

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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.

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Pace Yourself

What's a Big Day and Why Are People Doing Them?©Rob Ripma
On a Big Day, get up early to spot birds like this blue-headed vireo.

Perhaps you have a diurnal big bird 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 Good 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.

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Have Fun

Exciting Fall ShorebirdsRob Ripma
Don’t forget to look for shorebirds like this upland sandpiper

Sure, there can be competition during a bird 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.

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Ken Keffer
Ken Keffer has a degree in wildlife biology and is an award-winning environmental educator and author. His career has been spent highlighting the importance of nature and encouraging people to explore the outdoors. Ken is the current president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He recently put down roots in Bloomington, Indiana, where he and his wife Heather Ray own a backyard bird feeding nature shop. His work can be found at