How did I prepare for my Green Big Year?I’m a planner. Not everyone is a planner, and Big Years can even happen accidentally or without anyone knowing that you’re embarking on one. However, most people do some planning, and even sometimes fly around the world on recon trips in the years before their Big Year!
But it seems like no one talks about their planning (well, almost no one). That was disappointing for me, the planner, when I was first thinking about what it would take to do a Green Big Year. It’s nice enough to read everyone’s lists of species on their daily blog posts – but what did it take to have a successful year? And how can I learn from others to improve my own chance of success?
Some of the necessary knowledge can be inferred from birding generally: You need to know where the birds are if you want to find them. Similarly, you need to be able to ride your bike for a while if you plan to go on multi-day biking trips, and there are resources for learning about how to train for bike-touring (although the birder who holds the Green Big Year world record had never ridden more than 32 miles in one day before embarking on his trip across the U.S.!). But it might often be helpful to do more detailed planning than that.
Here’s what I did:
1. Know the area.I’ve only lived here for a year, but that was enough to get me started on learning about the area. More local experience would have been even better, but we might not live here for another whole year after this. The first year I did a lot of birding, and toward the end of the year it was intentionally with an eye toward gathering information for next year. I should note that all my birding in the first year was by bike, and when I decided toward the end of the year that I would attempt a Green Big Year, I made sure not to do any scouting by car, in keeping with the green spirit.
2. Find out where to find birds.I used eBird and an old-fashioned paper book (scroll down to Bird Haunts) to learn where to find birds in Wisconsin, and when to go look for them. My day job involves some computer programming, so I’ve even written some scripts to help evaluate when (and whether) a trip to a particular place would be worthwhile for species that I won’t find closer to home. I made a map of Wisconsin that shows the areas that would be most worth targeting, relative to what I am likely to find in my home county, in each month of the year:
The map shows how many species are likely (recorded on ≥10% of checklists) in each area in each month, minus any species that I have a good shot at seeing in La Crosse County (in the southwest), with the color-coding defined in the legend at the bottom left. I used raw data from eBird to inform the map (all eBird data are freely available for non-commercial purposes), and used R to process the data and make the maps. The grid size is somewhat arbitrary: 30 km (18.6 mi), which is large enough to contain multiple birding hotspots and small enough to realistically cover by bike on one trip. Blank spots indicate places that did not have at least 10 checklists for the month - we need more birders in northwestern Wisconsin! The gray Wisconsin-shaped background shows all the points included in eBird data year-round, so the white spots show that there are some places that have never been eBirded!
So, the map highlights a few places that would be particularly lucrative, especially in certain months. I decided not to go anywhere in May, because that’s easily the most productive month of the year, and I would rather spend a lot of time birding – therefore not so much time traveling – during that month. That way I can get most of the northern breeders while they migrate through my home county. Most of the southwest doesn't look very promising on this map, but that's just because I was ignoring the species that I can likely find close to home. Biking long distances across Wisconsin in the winter would be logistically challenging, so I probably won’t do that unless I find a good weather window. The biggest trip I’m envisioning will be to Lake Superior and the Northwoods in September/October in search of seaducks, gulls, and northern forest birds. Lake Michigan in November will be a backup plan if I miss a lot of the waterbirds at Lake Superior. I’ll also likely take a trip to Horicon Marsh in late summer for shorebirds and waterbirds. Horicon Marsh doesn’t show up very well on the maps because it spans multiple grid cells (so the total in any one of those cells is not very high), but it’s a very productive area with high avian diversity and several species that can’t reliably be found anywhere else in the state. I’m planning a few shorter trips around southwestern and central Wisconsin, too. That being said, there’s always a chance of anything showing up closer to home (especially if I’m out birding on a daily basis), so I’ll be reassessing my plans throughout the year based on what I’ve seen to date.
Finally, I follow a Wisconsin birding listserv and various groups on social media, which has been informative for general patterns, anomalies, and what is currently moving through or on its way to the area. Information about rare birds can be distributed via any of those websites – I can’t assume that everyone is submitting timely checklists to eBird – so I will be watching all of them closely over the year. I’m not counting on being able to chase many vagrants this year – I live on the edge of the state, so it would take me too long to get most places to chase most of the rare birds that might show up. But you never know when one will be close enough and stick around long enough when my work schedule is flexible enough to allow me to chase it.
3. Find out where to bike.I’ve used a combination of Google Maps and paper/PDF maps from the Wisconsin Bike Federation and DOT to evaluate routes to my chosen destinations. The maps show the roads color-coded by traffic volume and shoulder width, which is a great help for planning a safe and pleasant route. I planned out several multi-day trips in advance, including maps of the route, birding stops, notes on rest stops and services along the way, and options for accommodation. I’ll reevaluate all plans when the time comes, as I might want to make some birding detours along the way depending on what species I’m still missing at the time.
4. Get your gear sorted.I assessed my gear for biking and birding and made some additional purchases. I’ll be trying to find a good weather window for most of my multi-day trips to avoid lightning and incessant headwinds, so it’s important that I have everything in place to leave on short notice. Specialized gear is not strictly necessary for bike-birding, but over the last few years I’ve discovered a few things that are convenient to use. I already had good backpacking gear, which doubles as bike-camping gear, and I can carry everything I need on my bike in panniers or a trailer. I’ve also made sure to have plenty of biking/backpacking-type food on hand so that I can pack meals for a trip on short notice (quick snacks to eat while I’m on the go, and lightweight quick-cooking meals for dinner). I even bought a new bike, because my old aluminum commuter had already exceeded its expected lifespan. I made sure to get the new bike dialed in before the turn of the year so that I could focus on birding after that.
Of course, much of the appeal of birding is that you can’t plan every detail – you never know what you will end up finding! I’ll miss many targets, and I might find a couple birds that will be totally unexpected. I'm sure I'll also learn a lot about how I should have planned my year. But having some plans in place will hopefully maximize my chances at finding the moderately uncommon or highly localized species.