When Rob Fergus told me about his backyard Big Year* idea, I was hooked. But it was for a totally different reason than racking up as many species as possible in one year. At the time, my husband and I were parents to three children under the age of three. My time birding had shrunk to nil as I juggled being a mom and starting a small business from home. The backyard Big Year challenge gave me permission to let go of chasing and listing, and begin a new practice at home.
Fast forward five years. Not only do I have stats on our backyard birds, but we also have an annual family tradition that everyone can participate in. Last year was the first year that all three of our kids could write their sightings on the giant post-it paper on the wall where we track our birds. Their scrawling writing makes the memory of each individual bird even richer. Then there’s my husband, who doesn’t consider himself a birder, who pointed out that my sighting of a chestnut-sided warbler was redundant because he had written it on the list a week prior. That threw the list all out of whack and we had to renumber to fix my double-reporting error.
Our last new-to-the-yard-bird came in November after a crazy rainstorm rocked the region. The kids came running inside yelling, “BIG WHITE BIRD! BIG WHITE BIRD!” I ran out just in time to watch a Great Egret take off from the rushing brook next to our house. The kids didn’t know the species, but they knew enough to know that it was not a normal bird for our yard. It was an entirely new record—we had never had one in our yard before.
Our tips to you for a family-style backyard Big Year:
■ Keep your list in a place where you’ll see it every day. We use a giant sheet of paper like the ones used at conferences. It’s in our sunroom, where we can look out over most of the yard and our feeders. ■ Use colorful markers to document your birds. We use one color for a day’s worth of sightings. It’s a cool visual way to look at how busy some days were, especially during migration. ■ Kick off your list at the beginning of the year, if you can wait. Learning your winter resident birds gives you a good foundation to build upon as spring migration comes. ■ Use eBird and your state or province checklist to help you predict what might be arriving and when. Start making predictions with the kids for the first bird seen or heard when stepping outside to play. ■ Hustle your birder friends for second-hand binoculars and a scope that you can beat on with your kids. Real tools help build real skills, and you won’t freak out if the kids drop the binoculars or knock over the scope. ■ Keep simple field guides handy and birdy posters up on the wall. We have feeder bird posters from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a backyard bird poster for the Northeast, and a laminated folding guide from Waterford Press. ■ Stay curious together. Our kids have asked some amazing questions, noticed things most adults overlook, and made me a better birder along the way.
*Editor’s Note: A “Big Year” is a “personal challenge or an informal competition among birders who attempt to identify as many species as possible by sight or sound, within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area.” (Wikipedia)
Bridget Butler, aka The Bird Diva, lives in northwestern Vermont and is known for her legendary Barred Owl call. She specializes in what she calls Slow Birding– reimagining how we connect with birds through our sense of place. Bridget has worked for Audubon in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. You can connect with Bridget at www.birddiva.com.
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