Tuesday 8 January 2019

Small Year, Part 1

Birders have a thing called a Big Year, where a challenge is undertaken to identify as many species of bird as possible in a given area in a calendar year. The area in question can be a county, a country or the whole world. Make no mistake, a Big Year takes 365 days and is... big. For example, currently, the record is held by a Dutch birdwatcher, Arjan Dwarshuis, with 6833 species seen or heard.

Often, Big Year participants will be raising money for environmental causes and writing about or filming their exploits. It can be viewed as bit of a waste of carbon, I guess, so some folk elect to not use motorised transport. Gary Prescott, the Biking Birder, had a Big Year in 2016, cycling around the UK. Here are a few of his posts from OrkneyTo be honest, it's not just birders, there's butterfly big years, and dragonfly ones. In fact, you can probably find someone who has attempted a Big Year for just about any group of wildlife.

In 2018, to no fanfare whatsoever, I decided to embark upon a control experiment to all this frenzied dashing about and ecological madness. As I explained on social media several months in:

This astounding news was met with a deafening wall of silence from the ornithological press, conservation organisations and fellow nature watchers. Well, nearly all my fellow nature watchers:

Whilst barely making a ripple in the pool of competitive natural history, I had set in train a whole 12 months of keeping a record of the species of bird I saw wherever I happened to be. Make no mistake, twitching was strictly forbidden, so despite numerous 'shouts' on the local text alert service, I didn't cheat. What was allowed was the birds I saw whilst working, or out for a walk with Our Lass, or whilst on holiday (and these locations were not chosen with birds in mind), just no specific trips to see a specific bird.

I had no idea how the endeavour would pan out, as I wasn't a twitcher anyway, although I have been known to drive halfway across Orkney to see a gull. In most circles, I doubt that even qualifies as a twitch, but it was very verboten  for me in 2018. During previous years, I had usually managed to add a species or two to my life list, mainly by visiting the Bird Observatory in North Ronaldsay, but that was out of bounds for my Small Year. Looking at my year lists since moving to Orkney in 2013, my totals for birds seen (and mainly in the UK) were 141 (2014), 133 (2015), 142 (2016) and 141 (2017). With no plans to venture further afield than England and Scotland, what would 2018 bring?

In keeping with tradition, January 1st saw Our Lass and I in deepest Fife, celebrating the New Year with close family. Since moving to Orkney, this annual Hogmanay pilgrimage had taken on quite a significance for us, as it meant that we could also see garden birds that were not the norm back home. For my Small Year, then, it meant that, for a short while at least, I would've seen species that Orcadian colleagues had not! True to form, a wander out between hedgerows and fields to stretch our legs and get a breath of fresh air yielded 23 species for my blank page. Here were some 'exotic' birds that would be difficult to see in Orkney: Magpie, Carrion Crow, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Mistle Thrush, Tree Sparrow and Yellowhammer. My only teensy bit of disappointment was the absence of Bullfinch, which we'd seen the previous day, along with all the above, but that was in 2017.

Which I think tells you all you need to know about what a pathetic endeavour the whole schmozzle was going to be!

The following day, the trip back to Orkney was a bit less productive, with Buzzard and Grey Heron spotted alongside the M90, a Red Kite over the A9 by the Black Isle, and a flock of Pink-footed Geese in fields near Dornoch.

So, with 28 species in the bag, and now back at work in Orkney, I had some hard yards to do until a family wedding would see us travelling south once more at the end of March...


Marjorie said...

I keep a life list and one for each Canadian province. I don't have the money or the time for a Big Year. I just enjoy each bird I see.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Hello Marjorie and Welcome! I think your approach is both admirable and sensible. Quality not quantity sounds about right.