A Big Year in Birding: Record-Breaking Sightings and Discoveries


A Big Year in Birding is a term used to describe the challenge of identifying as many bird species as possible within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area. This personal challenge or informal competition is popular among birders who seek to test their skills and knowledge. A Big Year in Birding can be done anywhere in the world, and it is a great way to explore new areas, observe different bird behaviors, and connect with other bird enthusiasts.


Many famous birders have achieved impressive records in their Big Years, such as Kenn Kaufman, who identified 671 species in 1973, and Neil Hayward, who broke the North American record by spotting 749 species in 2013. These records require extensive planning, dedication, and perseverance, as well as a bit of luck and good timing. However, a Big Year in Birding is not just about setting records or winning competitions. It is also about enjoying the beauty and diversity of birds and their habitats, and contributing to their conservation by raising awareness and supporting conservation efforts.

In this article, we will explore the concept of a Big Year in Birding, famous birders and their records, planning and executing a Big Year, the impact of birding on conservation, and frequently asked questions about this exciting and rewarding activity. Whether you are a seasoned birder or a beginner, we hope this article will inspire you to take on the challenge of a Big Year in Birding and discover the wonders of the avian world.

Key Takeaways

  • A Big Year in Birding is a personal challenge or informal competition to identify as many bird species as possible within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area.
  • Famous birders have achieved impressive records in their Big Years, but the activity is not just about setting records or winning competitions.
  • Planning, dedication, perseverance, and a love for birds and their habitats are essential for a successful Big Year in Birding.

The Concept of a Big Year in Birding

A Big Year in Birding is a personal challenge or an informal competition among birders. The objective is to identify as many species of birds as possible by sight or sound, within a single calendar year and within a specific geographic area. The challenge is popularized in North America, and big years are commonly carried out within a single U.S. state or Canadian province, or within larger areas such as the Lower 48 contiguous states.

The American Birding Association (ABA) maintains a checklist of birds that are eligible for counting during a Big Year. The ABA states that every bird that’s counted must be from their appointed checklist for that year. A Big Year in Birding competition goes on all year long, starting at midnight on January 1st and ending at exactly one minute to midnight on December 31st of that year.

To win a Big Year, a participant should expect to identify more than 700 species, travel 270,000 miles, and spend 270 days away from home. It takes 100 percent of your concentration and requires a lot of dedication and hard work. The challenge is not only about identifying the birds but also about keeping track of them, and it involves a lot of planning, logistics, and resources.

In summary, a Big Year in Birding is a challenging and exciting pursuit for birders. It involves identifying as many species of birds as possible within a specific geographic area and calendar year. The challenge requires a lot of dedication, planning, and resources, but it can be a rewarding experience for those who take it on.

Famous Birders and Their Records

Throughout the years, many birders have attempted to break records and achieve their own “Big Year in Birding.” Here are some of the most famous birders and their notable records:

  • John Weigel – In 1998, Weigel set the North American Big Year record by spotting 727 bird species.
  • Sandy Komito – Komito held the North American Big Year record for over 15 years, with 745 species spotted in 1994.
  • Neil Hayward – In 2013, Hayward broke Komito’s record by spotting 749 bird species in one year.
  • Olaf Danielson – In 2016, Danielson set the world record for a Big Year by spotting 6,042 bird species across 40 countries.
  • Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson – These actors starred in the 2011 movie “The Big Year,” which was based on Mark Obmascik’s book of the same name. The movie follows three birders attempting to break the North American Big Year record.
  • Greg Miller – Miller was one of the birders portrayed in “The Big Year” movie and held the Ohio Big Year record for over 20 years with 354 species spotted in 1998.
  • Lynn Barber – Barber was the first woman to break the 700-species barrier in a single year, spotting 723 bird species in 2008.
  • Chris Hitt – Hitt holds the Hawaii Big Year record with 174 species spotted in 2016.
  • Robert Ake – Ake holds the Arizona Big Year record with 379 species spotted in 2017.
  • John Vanderpoel – Vanderpoel holds the California Big Year record with 544 species spotted in 2016.
  • Christian Hagenlocher – Hagenlocher holds the Colorado Big Year record with 346 species spotted in 2016.
  • Laura Keene – Keene holds the Florida Big Year record with 331 species spotted in 2016.
  • Yve Morrell – Morrell holds the Michigan Big Year record with 357 species spotted in 2016.
  • Ruben Stoll and Victor Stoll – These brothers hold the New Mexico Big Year record with 347 species spotted in 2016.
  • Richard Dean and Gaylee Dean – This couple holds the Oregon Big Year record with 332 species spotted in 2016.
  • Nicole Koeltzow – Koeltzow holds the Texas Big Year record with 522 species spotted in 2016.
  • Dan Gesualdo – Gesualdo holds the Massachusetts Big Year record with 326 species spotted in 2017.
  • Alan Davies and Ruth Miller – This couple holds the World Big Year record with 6,833 species spotted in 2016.
  • Pete Dunne – Dunne is a renowned birder and author who has spotted over 700 bird species in a single year.

These birders and their records have inspired many others to attempt their own Big Year in Birding.

Planning and Executing a Big Year

When embarking on a Big Year in Birding, careful planning and execution are key to success. Here are some important factors to consider:


Travel is a crucial part of a Big Year, as it allows us to explore new habitats and encounter a wider range of bird species. However, travel can also be expensive and time-consuming. To make the most of our time and resources, we should plan our travel routes carefully, taking into account the locations of our target birds and the timing of their migrations.

Identification Tools

Accurately identifying birds is essential for a successful Big Year. We should invest in high-quality binoculars and a reliable field guide, and practice using them before we begin our journey. We may also want to consider using birding guides or attending festivals to learn from experienced birders.


As birders, we have a responsibility to protect the habitats and species we encounter. We should be mindful of our impact on the environment and follow ethical birding practices. This includes respecting private property, staying on designated trails, and avoiding disturbing nesting birds.

Target Birds

To maximize our chances of identifying a wide range of species, we should research the habitats and behaviors of our target birds. This may involve studying their calls and songs, learning about their migration patterns, and using a spotting scope to observe them from a distance.


Sound is a crucial tool for identifying birds, especially in dense foliage or low-light conditions. We should practice listening for bird calls and songs, and consider using a sound recorder or smartphone app to help us identify unfamiliar species.


A Big Year in Birding is a challenging but rewarding pursuit that requires careful planning and execution. By investing in high-quality identification tools, practicing ethical birding, and researching our target birds and their habitats, we can increase our chances of success and gain a deeper appreciation for the natural world.

The Impact of Birding on Conservation

Birding has become an increasingly popular hobby in North America, with millions of people participating in A Big Year in Birding. However, birding is not just a fun pastime; it also has a significant impact on conservation efforts.

One way birding contributes to conservation is by raising awareness about the importance of habitat preservation. Birders spend a lot of time in natural areas, and they are often the first to notice changes in bird populations or habitat degradation. By sharing their observations with organizations like the Audubon Society, birders help identify areas that need protection and restoration.

The American Birding Association (ABA) and the Audubon Society are two organizations that have played a significant role in bird conservation efforts. The ABA has helped establish birding ethics and guidelines, and they have also worked to protect important bird habitats. The Audubon Society has worked to protect wildlife refuges and other important habitats, and they have also lobbied for legislation that protects birds and their habitats.

In the lower 48 states of the United States, birding has become a billion-dollar industry, with birders spending money on travel, equipment, and bird-related activities. This economic impact has helped support conservation efforts, as organizations like the Audubon Society and the National Audubon Society can use these funds to protect and preserve bird habitats.

Ornithologists, scientists who study birds, also play an essential role in bird conservation. They conduct research on bird populations and habitats, and they use this information to develop conservation strategies. Their work helps ensure that bird populations remain healthy and that their habitats are protected.

In conclusion, birding has a significant impact on conservation efforts in North America. By raising awareness about the importance of habitat preservation, supporting organizations like the ABA and the Audubon Society, and contributing to the economy, birders help protect and preserve bird populations and their habitats.

Frequently Asked Questions


Who are some famous birders who have completed a Big Year?

Some famous birders who have completed a Big Year include Kenn Kaufman, Sandy Komito, and Greg Miller. Kaufman completed his Big Year in 1973 at the age of 19, while Komito set the record for most birds seen in a Big Year in 1998 with 745 species. Miller’s Big Year was the inspiration for the book and movie “The Big Year.”

What is the current Texas Big Year record?

As of 2023, the current Texas Big Year record is held by Neil Hayward, who saw 522 bird species in Texas in 2013.

What is the true story behind The Big Year?

“The Big Year” is a book by Mark Obmascik that tells the story of three birders competing to see the most bird species in North America in a single year. The book was later made into a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. While the characters in the book and movie are fictional, they were inspired by real-life birders and their experiences doing Big Years.

What are the rules for participating in a Big Year?

The rules for participating in a Big Year vary depending on the competition or personal challenge. Generally, the goal is to see as many bird species as possible in a single calendar year, within a defined geographical area. This can be a specific region, state, or country. Some birders set additional rules for themselves, such as only counting birds seen in the wild or without assistance from other birders.

What is the cost of completing a Big Year?

The cost of completing a Big Year can vary greatly depending on factors such as travel expenses, lodging, and equipment. Some birders spend tens of thousands of dollars on their Big Year, while others complete the challenge on a much smaller budget.

What is the world record for birding in The Big Year?

The world record for birding in The Big Year is currently held by Arjan Dwarshuis, who saw 6,833 bird species in a single year in 2016. Dwarshuis traveled to 40 countries on six continents to achieve this record.



In conclusion, embarking on A Big Year in Birding is an exciting and challenging endeavor that requires careful planning, dedication, and a love for birds. We have learned that a successful Big Year requires a combination of factors such as choosing the right locations, utilizing the right tools, and having a bit of luck. It is important to remember that a Big Year is not just about the number of species seen but also about the experiences gained and the memories made.

We hope that this article has provided you with valuable insights and tips on how to plan and execute your own Big Year. If you have attempted a Big Year before, we would love to hear about your experiences and any additional tips you may have. Please feel free to share your thoughts and comments below. Happy birding!

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