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Weiss: Big Year: birds, friends, competition and tears

Three naturalists from Oxbow Park came up with a plan to make the most of their downtime during the COVID pandemic: Embark on a BIg Year for birds.

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Megan Long, in front, looks for woodpeckers or other birds while on a birding walk at Oxbow Park with fellow park naturalists Jaid Ryks and Clarissa Schrooten, who is checking an app. Contributed / John Weiss

BYRON — In the summer of 2020, with COVID shutting down so many indoor activities and people being encouraged to go outside, Megan Long had an idea: do a North American Big Year for birds.

“I thought it would be kind of fun, it would be a good goal,” said the Oxbow Park naturalist. “It would be a good way to learn about birds, get better at identifying.”

She decided it would be so much fun, in fact, that she suggested fellow naturalists Clarissa Schrooten and Jaid Ryks join in.

“I said yeah,” Schrooten said. “I want to do it because I like birds and then it became an obsession. I’m most competitive against myself. And part of it is I want to keep seeing more and more.”

“I thought it would be fun to do something fun with these two,” Ryks said. “It helped us to get to know each other better.” Secondly, “I really didn’t know birds” so it would be a new hobby.

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They found they could do it solo or together while eating lunch at the Oxbow Nature Center when they could see birds at the feeders, on trails in the park, at flood-control reservoirs around Rochester, to a big bog in northern Minnesota and even Georgia where they saw about 40 birds rare to Minnesota. They had to learn bird calls, such as the difference between downy and hairy woodpeckers. And the Big Year would take them deeper into the mysteries of birding, teach them so much more about birds, find new paths to enjoy nature and even bring a few tears.

Finally, it would make them advocates for Big Years. Here’s the thing they said - any one can do it. Yes, it can become a fanaticism, a year-consuming passion, or it can just be something you do for fun, to get outside and learn more.

For them, it was the latter, though Ryks said Schrooten “blew us out of the water” for birds seen. The tally in early December was Schrooten, 216 (it topped her goal of 215); Long, 180; and Ryks, 162.

They are even hoping for snow and cold to bring in more northern birds such as snow buntings or evening grosbeaks. “I’ve been stuck on my number for a while,” Long said.

The Big Year idea was formalized in 1969 by the American Birding Association, with a set of rules governing how far afield birders can roam and still be in boundaries for the North America count — Bermuda, the Bahamas and Greenland are out. The count begins at 12 a.m. Jan. 1 and ends 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31. You can also do a big year in a county, state or a country.

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The Big Year for North America was made sort of famous by a great book, suitably titled “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and a Fowl Obsession,” and a movie of the same title. In the book, three fanatics go to the ends of Alaska, dig deep into their bank accounts (and then some) and nearly drive themselves crazy, all to earn the title of the best in the big year.

As the three Oxbow friends talked about their not-so-crazy Big Year, they said it was an enlightening experience. For example, before Jan. 1, most sparrows were all pretty much LBBs — little brown birds. With more than 11 months experience, however, they rattled off names of sparrows they know or at least have seen — chipping, fox, white-throated, vesper, field, LeContes’ (which is really very pretty), grasshopper, song, savannah and swamp.

Long said they are lucky because they could walk park trails as parts of their jobs. But having the goal of seeing the most birds also pushed them to get outside. When outside, birds were consciously or subconsciously on their minds. During one such walk with her dog near her home, said she saw a yellow-billed cuckoo, an unusual bird. “I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “When I get overjoyed, the excitement has no way to go except outside my eyes.”

The trio has also found subsets of ways to enjoy birding, with Schrooten more into apps, Ryks using a camera for her birding and Long with a blog that includes information on her Big Year.

While they have slightly different sub-hobbies, they found joining together helped them with extra pairs of eyes in the woods, and something to talk about when having lunch. In fact, they would talk birding during lunch at the nature center.

“That’s all we would ever talk about,” Long said. Non-birders at the table would roll their eyes “but then they listened,” she said. “I think they were learning from it.” Besides, “I would roll my eyes” when others at the table talked about football.

Once the Big Year is over “I will definitely be out birding,” she said, though maybe more for her life list, which is yet another way to have more fun, and challenges, with birding. You can have life lists for a county, state, country or world.

As part of their fun, however, they are adding to world knowledge of birds by using apps to tell others which birds are being seen where, or doing a Great Backyard Bird Count, in which birders watch for at least 15 minutes Feb. 18-21 next year. It’s all part of citizens science.

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A final word from the three: beware of what you’re getting into.

“It’s addicting,” Ryks added.

“It’s pretty accessible because birds are everywhere,” Long said. “The coolest thing about birding is you are never done learning … I would say that there has never been a day when I went birding that I was disappointed.”

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Thoughts by the three on getting into birding:

  • Get a decent pair of binoculars or a good telephoto lens on a camera, then a good way to identify birds such as an app or a good book.

  • Around here, look at your backyard, or in the flood-control reservoirs for waterfowl and shorebirds. Kutzky Park in Rochester is a great place to see bird in its less-developed areas.

  • The best time is in the morning or evening when birds seem to be more active.

  • Check with Zumbro Valley Audubon Society that has a monthly birding walk for beginners - and others - the first Saturday of the month at Quarry Hill. Also, the group’s Christmas Bird Count will be Dec. 18 this year; you must pre-register for the Dec. 18 event but not the monthly walk. To learn more, go to zumbrovalleyaudubon.org .

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"

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