Accompanying Sneed and Braden Collard is a pleasure whether or not you’re a birder. And if you’re not, these travels might get you started.
To bird-watchers, a “big year” means setting off on Jan. 1 to see as many species as possible in a designated area by the end of Dec. 31. The American Birding Association (ABA) includes America’s 49 continental states, Canada, French islands St. Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland plus some adjacent waters; Hawaii was added in 2016.
In this informal competition, records depend on eligible territory and the ABA’s currently accepted species list. John Weigel holds the 2016 records of 836, 832 and 783, depending on qualifying regions.
To Montana father-and-son team Sneed and Braden Collard, however, a goal of 350 species seemed just possible. Author of many natural-history books as well as a speaker at schools and conferences, Sneed had a living to earn; Braden, turning 13, was still in school. Time and finances were limited. What wasn’t limited was their growing passion for birding, which they decided to indulge in a big year of their own.
Gloomy cold weather greeted them on Jan. 2, 2016. They headed out anyway, making a few sightings en route to Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). More than 200 refuges nationwide protect, manage and restore habitat for both resident and migratory animals. Until he began watching birds, Sneed admits, he “hadn’t fully appreciated the magic” of this preserve, which includes wetlands, riparian areas and ponderosa-pine forest. Refuges would play a big part in this big year.
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Despite ice, they see mallards, buffleheads and other water birds; they’re delighted to spot a small falcon called a merlin, Canada geese and a great blue heron. Since it’s a slow day — bad weather, they’ve learned, can keep birds hunkered out of sight — they drive to a burn area to hunt for woodpeckers, which often prefer such habitat.
No black-backed woodpeckers and they get stuck in the snow, but a couple of guys help them out and the birds they see on the way home bring the year’s total to 25. However, Montana in winter promises little, so the pair travel to Arizona, “a brand-new ecosystem” for them “with ornithological riches beyond our imagination: exotic hummingbirds, flycatchers, woodpeckers, raptors, buntings — maybe even a tropical trogon.”
At the San Bernardino NWR, they have a memorable mishap with killer bees, but Saguaro National Park, Madera and Ramsey Canyon, Half Moon and Slaughter Ranch keep their binoculars busy. They make many friends and discover “meta-birding,” which means locating birds by first spotting other birders.
Sneed confesses to hearing difficulties, which hamper his ability to locate species by song. Braden, though, gains confidence as time passes, and the big year rewards father and son as they enjoy their time and interest together, honing their skills.
A trip to Texas, Sneed writes, “would fundamentally change my understanding of birds and birding. The reason?” A “second mecca of American birding — High Island.” They can hardly keep up with the variety: caracara, cattle egret, roseate spoonbill, green heron, hummingbirds … Together with Smith Oaks, “it would be our most amazing day of birding ever.”
Until the Galapagos. Although the exciting offerings — boobies, frigatebirds, finches — didn’t qualify for their big year, the family trip was big in its own ways.
Things slow over the summer: work for Sneed, camp for Braden. To boost chances of reaching their goal, they fly to California in September. A day trip on the ocean nets some pelagic species; another, inland, 90 species, “demolishing our single-day record.”
Accompanying Sneed and Braden is a pleasure whether or not you’re a birder. And if you’re not, these travels might get you started.
“Warblers & Woodpeckers — A Father-Son Big Year of Birding” by Sneed B. Collard III, Mountaineers Books, 253 pp., $24.95