Birdist Rule #99: Make Some New Year’s Birding Resolutions

Let 2017 be your best birding year yet.

Birders might be the only people in the world who weren’t wishing for 2016 to end. For us, it was a pretty good year. Four birders broke the previous American Birding Association Area Big Year record, and another broke the just-set World Big Year record. Listers also found a bunch of species new to certain areas, including the Pine Flycatcher in Arizona, an Amethyst-throated Hummingbird in Quebec of all places, and a Cuban Vireo in Florida, which even I saw!

Yes, it was good for me, too, even though my numbers were down from previous years. I ended up with 363 species in the ABA area in 2016, my lowest total since 2012. Whatever. I still picked up 17 lifer ABA species, including a Gunnison Sage-grouse on a frigid dawn, my long-sought California Condor, and the aforementioned Cuban Vireo. I’m at 679 now, and primed to hit the big 700 soon. Plus, I got to write this column all year, which has been a blast. So, 2016 was pretty great.

But it wasn’t perfect. New Year’s is the time to take stock of ourselves and figure out how we can improve. And while everyone is out there saying that this is the year they're going to get fit or save more money, birders see their eBird Year Lists flip back to zero, and suddenly we have a whole bunch of decisions to make.

What kind of birding year do you want 2017 to be?

Are you really gonna get after it this year? Maybe you’re ready for that Big Year you’ve always wanted to try. (If so, I hope “spend more time with the family” wasn’t one of your other resolutions.) Don’t let the fact that the previous ABA Big Year record was just demolished deter you— go for it! Alternatively, you could focus on your state or county or even backyard. Dedicate yourself to diligence and find as many species as you can in a certain area.

On the other end of the spectrum, maybe this is your year to just relax and enjoy birds and nature more. Maybe you can focus on a certain group of species, like those freaking gulls, and really learn them. Maybe this is when you finally get your head around sparrow songs, or flight notes, or flycatchers. 

Maybe you travel! Let 2017 be the year that you finally go see some new birds in a place you’ve never been. Seeing new birds in their native habitat—especially if that habitat is very different from wherever you live—is one of the true joys of birding. Pick somewhere new and resolve to go in 2017.

There are so many choices, and the best part is that it’s all completely up to you.

Of course, I’ve got my own set of 2017 birding resolutions. Here’s what I’m promising myself this year:

1.) I won’t wait until May to re-learn warbler songs.

I don’t have the best memory, so I need to re-learn bird songs all the time. It’s not really an issue until spring, when woods are suddenly filled with neotropical migrants making all kinds of noises. Most years I forget to refresh my memory until, like, the pre-dawn car ride to the first big migration fallout of the year. It’s not pretty. I eventually get the hang of things again, but by then it’s mid-June and nothing is singing anymore.

No longer. This winter I am going to make an effort to get myself in acoustic shape for when spring rolls around. I won’t let a single chip get past me.

2.) I am going to chase more.

On December 30, ace D.C. birder Hugh McGuinness was taking a binocular-less stroll through his suburban neighborhood and happened to spy the area’s first-ever Black-throated Gray Warbler in a neighbor’s tree. He got the word out quickly, and when I learned about the sighting, I pulled the classic birder move on my wife—“I need to go. I need to go right now.”—and ran out the door. I sped up the George Washington Parkway and into deep Northwest D.C., managing to find the bird just before dark.

A lot of birders look down their nose at chasing birds. Their argument is that you’re just seeing birds someone else has already found. So what? Chasing rare birds is fun as heck, and I had forgotten that. There aren’t many other hobbies that require you to, say, think up an excuse to leave work and go stand in the cold in a suburban backyard, you know? I like the spontaneity of chasing, the anxiety that you’ll be too late, and that sweet, sweet relief of seeing the bird you’re after. I am going to chase more this year. 

3.) I am going to see a Connecticut Warbler.

Enough. Enough of missing this bird. The Connecticut Warbler is the only breeding passerine in the Eastern U.S. that I haven’t seen, and I’m tired of it. They’re hard to find even if you’re looking, but still, I’ve run out of excuses. I’ve struck out on them a number of times in D.C., where they’re rare but regular in the fall. I was just a few days too early for them in the Florida Keys last spring. I’ve had various other opportunities, but nothing’s clicked. Until 2017. I’m not letting one get away this year. Resolved.

I hope you do some thinking about what kind of birding year you want for yourself in 2017. Once you do, make some resolutions that’ll help you along. With some dedication, this could be your best year of birding yet. And if not, there’s always next year!