This Was Supposed to Be Their Birding Big Year—and Then the Coronavirus Arrived

These extreme birders know there are much more important impacts from the pandemic, but it still hurts to watch their plans dissolve.

Birds swept Jeremy Dominguez off his feet in 2014. An Ohio native, he was in the Navy and stationed in Alaska when an officer dragged him along for a day of birding. He couldn’t believe her enthusiasm. “This lady freaked out over a goose,” he says. But by the end of the day, he was freaking out, too. Before long he was guiding other birders, and dreaming up plans for a Big Year—a challenge to identify by eye or ear, in one calendar year, as many avian species as possible in a set geographic area.  

After eight years of military service, Dominguez graduated college last May with a degree in ecotourism. He saw his chance. He wasn't planning to break any records, but gave himself the personal challenge of finding at least 600 species in the contiguous United States, knowing he'd be on a shoestring budget. The record for that area now stands at 723. Many other birders search the entire area designated by the American Birding Association (ABA)—all of North America north of Mexico, basically. The current Big-Year record for the ABA area is 839 species.

“This is the first gap in my adult life when I had an opportunity to do something just selfish for myself and go out and see as many birds as possible,” Dominguez says. “So I said, ‘OK, this is the year.’”

Now, he is watching his plans fall apart. He was supposed to be on the road right now, selling merchandise for his friend’s band, the New Jersey deathcore group Fit For An Autopsy. That tour is canceled, wiping out a big chunk of his funds for the year. So are the Warblers and Wildflowers Weekend and the Biggest Week in American Birding, both in Ohio, where Dominguez was supposed to earn a few more bucks—and add a lot of spring migrants to his list—by working as a guide. Over the next couple of months he has trips planned to Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, but he might have to cancel them all. “It’s starting to compound for me,” he says, “the hit of this virus.” 

Compared to the death and disruption the COVID-19 pandemic is causing, spoiled plans for extreme birding may seem inconsequential. Still, it's one more example of how the coronavirus is reaching into every aspect of life in 2020. To their credit, the birders Audubon magazine spoke with shared a healthy perspective about what's most important during this crisis. But they've put a lot of passion and planning into these adventures, and while they’re taking it all in stride, their disappointment is evident.

“I’ll be honest, last week I was getting pretty down,” says Colin Dobson, a freshman at the University of Illinois whose goal was to become the youngest big-year birder to pass 700 species in the ABA area. Dobson knows internships and other responsibilities will soon demand more of his time, so this may be his only shot for the foreseeable future. “It’s all very uncertain,” he says. “Does this end by May and everything’s OK, or does it get worse through the summer?”

He learned recently that his courses will all be online for the rest of the year, which in theory gives him freedom to travel. But travel, for now, is basically out of the question. He’s already had to call off a pelagic birding trip off the coast of Washington, the first and among the hardest-hit states. He’s supposed to be in Alaska in May and June, but that’s looking less likely all the time. Without species he can only find there, it’s hard to see a path to 700. “I don’t know what to do,” he says. 

Charlie Bostwick, who owns a sustainability-focused architecture and homebuilding company in Atlanta, is better-positioned to take another crack at his Big Year later if it becomes impossible this year. His business recently reached a point where staff can handle day-to-day operations without him, so he decided this was the time to pursue a traditional Big Year, aiming, like Dobson, to see at least 700 species in the ABA area. 

Until a couple of weeks ago, Bostwick hadn’t spent more than a few consecutive days at home this year. He’s been flying around the country—his wife bought him carbon offsets for Christmas—and racking up more than 420 species so far. But now, although feeling healthy, he’s in self-imposed quarantine for a couple of weeks after spending time with someone who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. “There are other things that are more important, I must admit, like people’s safety and my business,” he says. 

Bostwick says he’s thinking about ways to keep moving forward. He drives an electric vehicle, and thinks continuing his Big Year while keeping its battery charged could make for a fun challenge. Still, it’s hard to think about being foiled after so much preparation. “April’s gotta be a strong month,” he says. “If I don’t get another bird between now and April 15th, that’s OK. If come May 15th I haven’t been able to bird, it’s probably pretty hard to call that a Big Year.”

Florida birders Tammy and David McQuade were also hoping to cross the 700-species mark this year, but that goal is looking harder and harder to reach. They’ve already called off a San Diego-to-Vancouver cruise in April that they were counting on for several pelagic birds, and the outlook is grim for a planned Alaska trip in May and June. “We still have high hopes, but we’ve had to cancel some pretty significant trips,” Tammy says. “If in July we’re still not able to travel easily, it’s gonna be a real bummer.”  

Still, the McQuades count themselves lucky. Every year is something of a Big Year for them; their work together in financial services involves regular travel that puts them within striking distance of rarities and local specialties all over the country. If this year’s a bust, they’ll be back at it in 2021. “We have a lot of free time in the morning,” Tammy says, “because nobody wants to get up and talk finances at 7 a.m.”

Editor’s note: Jeremy Dominguez went on to set a Lower 48 Big Year record with 724 species in 2020.