Not all birders are nuts, but some are. Rich MacDonald has just published his new book “Little Big Year — Chasing Acadia’s Birds.” It narrates his year-long attempt in 2018 to find as many bird species in Hancock County as possible. Spoiler alert: he found 268.
Humans can make a competition out of anything. There are many types of birding competitions, but most revolve around one objective: finding as many species as possible within a defined area and time limit.
In 2019, John Weigel of Australia set the North American Big Year record by finding 840 species in one calendar year. The world record of 6,852 species was set in 2016 by Arjan Dwarshuis of the Netherlands. A team associated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology set the North American Big Day record by finding 294 species migrating into and through Texas on May 2, 2013. Loyal readers may remember that I joined a Maine Audubon team in the World Series of Birding on May 9 last year — a day that happened to coincide with the worst May snowstorm in years, darn the luck.
Birding competitions would be even more interesting if they were like sporting events, with one side trying to score, the other side trying to stop them, and maybe cheerleaders yelling “Defense!” But they are actually more like golf, where competitors just do the best they can, and the other side stays respectfully silent. At the end of the day, you sign the scorecard and head for the 19th hole.
As in MacDonald’s case, a Big Year is often just a personal challenge. If he stuck to his own home county, could he find 250 species in a year?
2018 was the centennial year of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. For 100 years, this law did much to slow the decline of songbirds in America. 2018 was also the beginning of the five-year Maine Bird Atlas project. Whether these were inspirations, or merely excuses, to undertake a Big Year, MacDonald logged a black-capped chickadee on Jan. 1 and was off to the races.
I don’t typically review books. I wrote “The Official Guide to the Maine Birding Trail” in 2009, and since it was the perfect book, I feel it’s unfair to critique the work of other authors. Instead, I scoured MacDonald’s book to learn how someone could possibly find 268 species in a single Maine county, in a single year. That’s some pretty good birding.
Here’s how experts find and identify birds quickly. Steal this stuff and surprise yourself and friends with your newfound abilities this spring. Much of this skill-building happens before you even see your first bird.
First, learn what’s locally possible. Field guides are packed full of species — too full, in fact. Many of the birds in a guidebook simply aren’t found in Maine, or are rare visitors. Knowing what’s likely to be present not only makes identification faster, it also makes an oddball stand out when a rare wanderer does appear. Before the year even started, MacDonald had a list of birds he knew he would have to find in Hancock County during his Little Big Year.
MacDonald also knew where to look. Every bird has a preferred habitat. Understanding and recognizing habitats is profoundly useful. Take a swamp sparrow, for example. Starting right about now, look into any swampy, marshy area near you, and you’re likely to find one singing its slow, musical trill. They are literally everywhere, but only in wet spots. No exceptions.
Get used to finding the birds around your home. There are many more than you think. Then slowly expand your geography, getting to know the birds in other places you go.
Notice birds. Before you can identify a bird, you first have to notice it. Watch for movement in trees, and listen for unfamiliar songs. Then track them down. Eventually, you’ll even recognize their unique behaviors. For instance, do you see a bird walking headfirst down a tree? It’s a nuthatch, no doubt.
To really start exploring the birds of Maine, use available resources. Maine Audubon runs an email Listserv that alerts members to unusual sightings. Maine eBird is an app that allows users to database their sightings, and can alert them when a bird has been sighted in Maine that they’ve never seen before. Join an organized bird walk. Go out with experienced friends.
Eventually, you may be ready for your own big challenge. One thing you will need above all else: a tolerant spouse.