Big Days, Big Years and Bird Races

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Although I’m not a twitcher (more on that later), most Januarys see me head out near the start of the month for a birding ‘big day’. I usually pick a few sites and try to see as many species as I can just for fun. Some people turn the idea of a big day into a competitive bird race with teams competing to see the most species. There is often a charity element to these, too. Then there is the ‘big year’. As its name suggests, this is a big day extended to a whole calendar year. All three can be simply just an enjoyable day (or series of days) out. On the other hand, they can also be obsessive, nerve-fraying emotional rollercoasters! Whatever your point of view, though, they can all be great fun.

Twitching or Birding?

First things first, what do I mean by ‘twitching’? Many non-birders tend to label anyone who likes birdwatching as a twitcher. Twitchers, however, are a special breed of birder with a particular approach to the pastime. Many birders will happily enjoy whatever birds they happen to see at any given time, from their local house sparrows to something a bit more unusual passing through. A twitcher’s aim is to get as many different species on their ‘list’ as possible, though. This often means haring the length and breadth of the country chasing rare birds lost on migration. In ye olden days before websites and smartphones, bird news companies sent details of anything unusual via pagers to their subscribers. Nowadays, in an era of WhatsApp groups and Twitter, news travels a lot faster, of course.

American Wigeon
Although not a twitcher, I will sometimes go and see a rarity on my doorstep. This American Wigeon turned up in Inverness when I lived there a few years ago

Now, many twitchers, of course, enjoy their local birds as well. They are simply the ‘collecting’ type of person who feels a need to see or tick off as many of something as possible, whether it’s birds, trains or stamps. Unfortunately, a few over-obsessive and unscrupulous twitchers periodically give the pastime a bad name, however. Some terrible behaviour is often reported from places that attract a lot of rare birds during spring and autumn migration. Shetland hit the headlines last autumn, with twitchers accused of unnecessarily ‘flushing’ birds. This refers to approaching them as close as possible in order to make them move so they can see them better. This puts enormous pressure on often exhausted birds that have flown hundreds of miles and need to feed and rest in peace. Many birders also feel uncomfortable with the large carbon footprint flying and/or driving all over the country generates.

A Birding Big day

So, now that’s cleared up, back to big days and the like. For those birders who keep a year list of all the species they see in a calendar year, a big day in January is a great way to get it off to a good start. This is especially true if you make sure you head to some bird-rich sites where you know a large range of species are likely to be. This might be a single location or a combination of places representing a few different habitats to maximise counts. Even if, like me, you aren’t really a lister, it is still a fun day out. What’s not to like about seeing lots of different birds in a single day, whatever your motivation?

Dark-bellied brent goose
One of the species we saw on the Exe Estuary this January was brent goose

This year my partner and I headed to two of my favourite places for a big day at the start of the month. First up was the Somerset Levels. With a mix of reedbeds, woodland, water bodies and fields, this area is home to a huge number of resident and wintering species of bird. Great white and little egrets, a bittern, marsh harriers and a number of duck species were quickly on the list. Although big days aren’t really about rarities, we also managed to see a bonus drake American wigeon. This has been hanging around with his Eurasian cousins this winter.

Male cirl bunting
Cirl buntings, like this male, are a Devon speciality

The second half of the day was spent down on the Exe near Exeter. Stops at Topsham and Exminster not only gave us views of hundreds of black-tailed godwits but also avocets, brent geese and some beautiful cirl buntings, a Devon speciality. We finished the day with exactly 70 species seen. But to be honest, we would have been just as happy with 30 or 50. It was a treat just to see some lovely birds in lovely places with good company.

A Big Year of Birding

Although many birders like to keep a list of every bird species they see in a year, some take this to the next level by making it a bit more competitive. This means they will put more effort into going to see new species. Some might add a bit of twitching. The beauty of a big year, though, is that unless you are signed up to someone else’s challenge, you can set any rules you want. You may just want to compete against yourself by beating your own previous high score. You might decide to set certain limits to your list such as birds seen within a certain distance from home or seen on your particular ‘patch’ or favourite site. Or you might just count those seen while travelling by bike, for instance.

To get chough on a year list you have to travel to one of its strongholds

A few people have gone to extremes and tried to see as many species as possible in a year worldwide. Birdwatching couple Ruth Miller and Alan Davies did just that in 2008. They set a new record of 4,341 species seen on their ‘Biggest Twitch’. The record has been broken twice since then. It now stands at 6852, set in 2016 by Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis.

For those who like to stick closer to home, but still want to add a competitive angle to their year’s birding there is the Patchwork Challenge. First run in 2013 by birders Mark Lewis and Ryan Irvine, this friendly competition limits birders to a patch of no more than three square kilometres. Different species have different scores in recognition of their rarity. As well as a bit of fun, the challenge is also a fantastic way to get to know an area and its species really well. Logging sightings on the BTO’s BirdTrack portal can then provide valuable data for conservationists, too.

Hoopoe Dudley
The least salubrious UK hoopoe location ever?

On a personal level, I only once very half-heartedly tried a bit of a big year in the UK. This was more for fun than from any particularly competitive instinct. Possibly my finest hour was seeing what may have been the least glamourous location for a stray hoopoe. Hoopoes breed across southern Europe and migrate to Africa for the winter but vagrant birds turn up in the UK every spring and autumn. This particular bird had actually spent the winter in Dudley in the West Midlands. Despite the nearby fly tipping and residential estate, it seemed happy enough though…

Bird Racing

For those with nerves of steel and a real competitive streak, though, bird races are the ultimate challenge. Essentially a big day for teams of birders, the aim is to see more birds than everyone else rather than just adding to a year list. Because of the competitive angle there will usually be a set of rules to follow. These might include everyone in the team having to see or hear each bird. Birds’ welfare is also always paramount over getting a tick. Whereas you can head out for as little or as long as you want for a relaxed big day, bird races are usually over 24 hours and often in spring to take advantage of longer days. Spring also means there are often still plenty of wintering birds around as well as some spring migrants.

Feral pigeon
Feral pigeons are worth just as much as any rarities on a bird race

The beauty of a bird race is that all species count the same. This means it is just as important to spot a feral pigeon as an extreme rarity. The most serious teams will plan a route with military precision to maximise their chances of ticking certain birds at certain times of day. Many bird races are charity events, set up to raise money for conservation projects. Champions of the Flyway is one of the most famous. It has been run annually in Israel since 2014 to raise awareness and funds to protect migrating birds from illegal killing.

Red-breasted Goose
The Champions of the Flyway event 2023 aims to raise funds for red-breasted goose protection

I took part in a race closer to home in 2017, helping to raise money for the World Land Trust. We were also hoping to recreate a series of early 1980s bird races competed between a team including Bill Oddie and one from Country Life magazine. (Interestingly, Alan Davies of the Biggest Twitch actually created a bird race board game in 1988, endorsed by Oddie). Our race was fairly typical in its trajectory, judging by accounts of past races. Lots of enthusiasm early on as the species are racked up. But as the day wore on, over caffeination and lack of sleep started to take its toll. This resulted in lots of conversations along the lines of:

‘Are you on the goldcrest?’

‘No, not seen it yet, where is it?’

‘There, next to that twig.’

‘Which twig?’

‘THAT @%*£# TWIG!!!’

Tears and recriminations are a common feature of bird races, I’m told…

Big Days, Big Fun

Whether you are the competitive type or not, big days, big years and bird races can be really rewarding. Even just dipping a proverbial toe into them can provide a great incentive to get outside and simply look at the natural world. They are also a fun way to raise money for some good causes. And you don’t have to stick to birds, of course. You might want to spend a year trying to see as many butterflies as possible, or as many moths, orchids, mammals or anything else you fancy. The beauty is, as your challenge, you set the rules.

Further Reading

Bill Oddie and David Tomlinson of Country Life wrote a very funny account of their 1980s competitions called The Big Bird Race. Although it’s now sadly out of print, it is well worth tracking down second hand.

You can read all about Ruth Miller and Alan Davies’ big year in The Biggest Twitch. The book follows them as they travel the world, hoping to see more than 4,000 species.

Noah Strycker was the first person to break Ruth and Alan’s record. His account is a highly readable armchair trip around the world.

For those wanting to spend a big year on something other than birds, James Lowen’s book is the perfect inspiration. He spent a year searching for Britain’s rarest moths while also documenting the species found in his garden. The paperback is available to preorder now.

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