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Day One

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

September 5, 2020

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

- Chinese Proverb

Black-billed cuckoo

Today was the first day of my Little Big Year.

For those who don’t know, a big year is when someone tries to see as many species in one year as possible. This is usually done from January 1st to December 31st, but I am doing one from the start of this school year (today, 9/5/2020) to the end of summer next year.

People do big years for all sorts of reasons.

Some do a big year because they are competitive; they love the excitement of the chase but they also love and want to protect nature.

Some do a big year because it makes birding feel “fresh” to them; birds that they might have seen hundreds of times, and that they might otherwise take for granted, again instill the childlike sense of excitement when spotted (for the first time that year).

Some do a big year because of the need to be especially careful when identifying a bird in a big year. Counting a bird as a new species seen in a big year is a big deal. There is an ethos among birders that you must really see the bird well and be really sure of what you are claiming to have seen. As such, doing a big year really tests a birder’s bird identification skills.

I love all of those reasons for doing a big year, but my reason is a bit different. In this time of Covid, I am doing a big year because it provides the little extra motivation needed to get me out of bed and into nature early in the morning, when others are still in bed, in a safe way (with a mask on and far away from others). Honestly, I would not have tried to do a big year now but for Covid. Big years usually are for really experienced birders, some of whom are legendary. Me doing a big year is like a kid playing H-O-R-S-E in his driveway showing up to play in the NBA bubble the next. However, I think experienced birders will understand why I am taking on the challenge of a “little” big year at this time. This year has been rough for us all, and with school online and extracurriculars cancelled, birding is a great and safe and very inexpensive way for me to regularly get outside and do something I love to do.

One cool thing about being a birdwatcher is the amount of trust that is given to you. The community trusts you (1) to correctly identify each species and to omit species that you weren’t able to identify and (2) to respect the environment and not to disturb the natural world. In a time of Covid, the community also trusts you to take proper health precautions for yourself and others. Above all, they trust you to remember that you are not birdwatching to check a box, but that you are birding… for the birds… to better understand nature and our role in it. I embrace the collective trust that comes from being a birdwatcher and am happy to accept the duties of honesty and stewardship.

And, yet, I still woke up late this morning! Six months of quarantine has “trained” me to sleep in. So, after a quick breakfast, we got to Montrose Point by around 9:15 a.m.. Hopefully, my body will adjust to waking up early as school starts and I start birding more often. My bird outing was cut short by a surprise call from my mom at 10:30 a.m. reminding me that I had an orthodontist appointment at 11 a.m. This was definitely not good planning on my part! But it was a great first morning, nonetheless. I saw eighteen bird species to start my year off… which is not terribly good for a first day of a big year, but I had a fun first day, and that is what matters.

The day was memorable not only because this is the first day of my big year but also because of where I went and when --- Montrose Point on Labor Day Weekend in the time of Covid. Montrose is a very popular beach on the Chicago lakefront, and because today was Labor Day Weekend, I would normally expect to see hundreds of people already setting up their spot on the beach in the morning. However, because of the pandemic, the roads to the beach were closed and guarded by the police, and the beach was near empty. The birds must have been quite happy that they were being left alone.

As I walked towards the beach, my first bird species of my big year was the Canada goose. I saw several of them near the harbor. It would be strange to see a rare bird as a first bird, and these birds certainly are not rare. The Canada goose is one of the most common species of birds in the U.S., partly because of its ability to make its nests in a large variety of sites. In other words, they can build their homes almost anywhere. Often, large groups of geese can form “gangs,” where they all walk around and feed as a group, providing extra security against potential enemies. You can often see them migrating in their well-known and easily recognizable V-formation overhead in the spring and the fall.

The highlight of the day was a black-billed cuckoo that was perching on a low-hanging branch. Black-billed cuckoos are medium-sized birds that breed in the spring and summer in the northeast and midwest and winter in South America. In a few weeks, the bird that I saw today will fly 4,000 miles across the Caribbean to Colombia or even further south.

One interesting thing about black-billed cuckoos is that, on occasion, they will lay their eggs in other birds’ nests! The other species of birds will often then take care of the parent cuckoos’ eggs and chicks for the cuckoos. I would love to go back in time to see the scientific unfolding of how this evolutionary trait emerged! And is it not just the black-billed cuckoo that does this. Its European cousin, the common cuckoo, pulls this trick of planting their eggs in other species’ nests even more; as does the ubiquitous brown-headed cowbird. I have seen the comical situation of a small momma warbler feeding a much larger cuckoo chick that she had raised. Nature’s comedy can be awe inspiring.

Stay tuned for more interesting tidbits as the year unfolds.

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