A Big Year in Utah

Utah Big Year Records
Courtesy Utahbirds.org/records/

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

Birders are flocking to theaters to see the new movie The Big Year. The story is based on a real life competition among birders in which they race around to count the most birds within a particular geographic boundary in a single calendar year.

To do a Big Year, you need to follow some simple rules. To count a bird it must be alive and wild and unrestrained when encountered. You have to see enough or hear enough of the bird to absolutely be sure it’s the species you are claiming to see. And the bird must be within the prescribed area and time period of your particular Big Year competition. For instance if you are doing a Big Year for the state of Utah, you can’t count a bird that you see across the border in Idaho. However, you can be standing in Idaho looking at a bird in Utah, and you can count it.

To be competitive in a Big Year you have to find ALL the usual or common birds in your designated country, state or area. This means hitting all the major birdwatching spots at critical times during the year. In Utah you might want to start in the southwestern corner of the state picking up desert species such as vermillion flycatcher and greater roadrunner . Then head to the high Uintas to see Rocky Mountain alpine and subalpine birds such as the rosy finch and northern goshawk. You’d want to check out the Great Salt Lake in all four seasons and make frequent trips up and down the Wasatch canyons as different elevation zones harbor different species. Whenever possible you should be scouring wetlands and riparian zones for whoever might be perching, wading or fishing.

To push your count up beyond that of your competitors, you would need to spot rare birds, esp. vagrants. Vagrants are birds who have wandered or been blown off course. For example, when setting the Big Year record in Cache County, Ryan O’Donnell saw an Iceland Gull who was obviously terribly lost. And a Mexican Whip-poor-will that had somehow drifted up from Southern Arizona.

Modern communication technology is incredibly useful for locating rare birds and vagrants. Big Year participants monitor chat lists like Birdnet and BirdTalk run by Utahbirds.org. Ebird also helps spread the news of sightings. Email hotlines operate in several Utah regions. It always helps to maintain a network of birding friends who can text you the location of birds you haven’t seen yet.

Thanks to Frank Howe and Ryan O’Donnell of Utah State University’s Dept. of Wildland Resources for their assistance in developing this Wild About Utah story.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Table: Courtesy utahbirds.org
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

American Bird Association https://www.aba.org/

Utah Birds https://utahbirds.org/

Ebird https://ebird.org/content/ebird/

Bridgerland Audubon Society Cache Birders Hotline https://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org/hotline.htm

Official movie site: https://www.thebigyearmovie.com/

A Tribute to Birders

Outdoor enthusiasts on a
birding adventure in Logan Canyon
Courtesy Stephen Peterson

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

According to Chris Leahy, in his encyclopedic book, Birdwatcher’s Companion, birdwatching refers to “the regular, somewhat methodical seeking out and observation of birds, whether for pure aesthetic pleasure or recreation, or for a more serious, quasi-scientific motive.“

If you are in America, the term birdwatcher is most often applied to people with a passing interest in birds, perhaps as backyard bird aficionados. In contrast, birders are people who seek out birds “in a more serious and energetic manner, either to hone field-identification skills, or to amass an impressive life list.” A life list is simply a record of all the species of birds that one has seen during his or her life. An impressive list in North America may consist of 6 00-700 birds. A person who travels to see birds may have a list of 4000+ .

The demographics of birders are interesting. A 2001 study estimates that there are 46 million birders or birdwatchers 16 years of age or older in the US. Within this collective group, the average person is 49 years old , has a better than average income and education, and is more likely to be female, white and married. Among Utah residents , 27 % of the population qualify as birdwatchers. Utah ranks 18 among states according to % of residents who watch birds. Montana is first at 44%, followed by Vermont at 43%.

However, 88% of the birders considered by this study were categorized as casual or backyard birdwatchers. If you consider only avid birders with carefully-honed identification skills and people who keep life lists, the gender balance shifts dramatically. That’s why most sources consider birding a strongly male –dominated activity. In fact, birdwatching has been described to be an expression of the male hunting instinct as well as linked with the male tendency for “systemizing” which has to do with organizing, categorizing, listing and counting.

A subset of the avid birder group is formed by twitchers. A twitcher is devoted to ticking off as many birds as possible for his or her lifelist. I am told that in the UK twitchers will appear suddenly as a ‘flock’ in some remote corner of the country (or someone’s backyard) whenever a very rare bird has been spotted—usually a migrant blowing in from Europe or North America. Twitchers use the latest in communication media –hotlines, mailing lists, eforums, bulletin-boards, and web-based databases to find out when a rare bird is in the vicinity. Then they will use whatever means available –perhaps a helicopter!—to get there as fast possible. Here in Utah, a twitcher might use the hotline on Utahbirds.org as one source of information.

Those of you who associate with birders will probably agree that they are as fascinating as the birds themselves. Here’s to you, my avian-loving friends.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.


Photo: Courtesy Stephen Peterson, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Leahy, Christopher. 1982. The Birdwatcher’s Companion. An Encyclopedic Handbook of North American Birdlife. NY: Grammercy Books.

Maddox, Bruno. 2006. Blinded By Science Birding Brains: How birding in Central Park in an age of terror makes the man. Discover. Science, Technology and the Future. published online November 30, 2006 (https://discovermagazine.com/2006/dec/blinded-twins-birding-instinct accessed February 14, 2009)

Pullis, La Rouche, G. 2003. Birding in the United States: a demographic and economic analysis. Addendum to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Report 2001-1. US Fish and Wildlife Service. Arlington, VA.


Mobbing: Crows mobbing a barn owl, Photo Courtesy Daily Mail and Copyright Andrew O'Conner ABC, Photographer, dailymail.co.uk
Crows mobbing a barn owl, Photo Courtesy Daily Mail and Copyright Andrew O’Conner ABC, Photographer, dailymail.co.uk
Mobs reveal a dark and terrifying side of human nature, whether it be the chaotic urban masses crying for the guillotine during the French Revolution, or a shadowy crime syndicate ruled by a guy named Joe Bananos. Many birds practice a different sort of mobbing, wherein there is rarely an injury and the little guy prevails.

When a predator such as an owl, a hawk or even a large snake ventures into a location, they may be detected by a resident bird. That sentinel will make a noisy, dissonant fuss to recruit reinforcements who will join in harassing that hawk or owl. Just who participates is a matter of size matching and a species’ predilection. Tiny predators such as a screech owl or a merlin will be plagued by tiny birds, with chickadees often leading the charge.

When you hear crows or magpies stirring up a ruckus, chances are that a large hawk such as the red-tail, or perhaps a great horned owl, is at the center of the melee. As the harassment escalates, the hawk will typically take wing in a disgruntled huff, trailed by its fussing mob. By remaining perfectly still, an owl can sometimes become seemingly invisible, its smaller marauders gradually losing interest and dispersing.

Why a predator doesn’t lose its temper and turn on its unwelcome mob I don’t know, but I have not seen it happen.

And the purpose of mobbing? Perhaps in loudly announcing a predator’s presence, the hunter’s advantage for stealth and surprise is lost. Or maybe the mob is just telling the hawk or owl to: “Push off and leave our neighborhood!”

By imitating an owl’s call or by producing the right dissonant “pishing” noise, like this “pishpishpish”, I can sometimes lure a small mob briefly into view, one often led by a valiant chickadee. Soon recognizing my deceit, after a few minutes, the group will quickly disperse, leaving me to smile at just what a frisky mob that was!

Photo: Courtesy Daily Mail CO.UK and Copyright Andrew O'Conner ABC, Photographer
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane