A Monumental Big Year

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one pickup camper—all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road

In case you didn’t see the movie The Big Year, a Big Year is a personal quest to find as many species as possible during a calendar year. There are personal variations on this simple definition, but any way you do it, a Big Year is a serious undertaking that takes an absolute dedication, lots of free time, and some extra cash, as most participants do a lot of traveling.

Gambel’s Quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enter an ambitious young birder, Taylor Páez, who planned her Big Year, saved money, and left her office job; then ready, set, go—she was off, with the hope of finding 700 different birds in the lower 48 states.

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting at her home in northern California, she looped south through Arizona, southern Texas, and around the Gulf of Mexico; then turned north, passing through many eastern states to New Hampshire and Maine. Next: New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan including the Upper Peninsula, and Wisconsin. Then it was back to the West: the Great Plains, Colorado, on to Washington, and back home to California—all by July; traveling solo, living out of her compact truck camper, and experiencing the ultimate bird search day by day.

Green Heron at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As she traveled cross-country, Taylor monitored bird sightings reported on eBird, the American Birding Association’s state by state Birding News, Audubon listserves, and local birding groups’ posts on Facebook. Sometimes she even learned of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or by word-of-mouth from birders she interacted with at popular birding hotspots.

Western Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a month-long break to re-charge at home, Taylor began the “zig-zagging” phase of her Big Year, driving through southern California, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, then zigging and zagging before taking a boat trip off the coast of Maine; on to New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, and back to California to finish the year. Taylor explained her zig-zag pattern: “Toward the end of the year it was pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones;” so when a rare bird showed up cross-country, she might begin a heated chase.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After her sweeping bird quest across the country—twice—Taylor had a tough time picking just one favorite local. The country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she enjoys it all. But if she had to pick a favorite, Taylor would pick the subtropical region of southern Texas. During one day at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds, the most new species she listed at once.

Roseate Spoonbills along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Her favorite birds: Green Jays, Roseate Spoonbills, Greater Kiskadees, and Audubon’s Orioles—all found in the above-mentioned wildlife refuge.

Plain Chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After spending a year in the great outdoors and tallying 634 species, Taylor did not go back to her office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: Working as a park naturalist and a stint conducting hummingbird surveys.

Tri-Colored Heron at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I wanted to bring them accessibility to nature and the outdoors. We need it now more than ever,” Taylor said. “I never thought I would do what I did—before that I played everything safe. I didn’t take risks, ever.”

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Such a long trip was a big challenge, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are well worth the payback.

Black-necked Stilt at Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original article about Taylor Paez’s Big Year appears on the BirdsEye Birding website. BirdsEye’s free photography website is a comprehensive library of photos submitted by nature enthusiasts.

Great Horned Owl at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

What Is Birding?

Your life is going to be better with birds in it

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US, Canada, and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability. It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Roseate spoonbills on the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada. Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done. 

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

Gambel’s Quail at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

Great Kiskadee at Edinburgh Wetlands World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Ring-necked duck at Gilbert Riperan Preserve at Water Ranch, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

Pauraque at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Ibis at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Royal terns at Padre Island National Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

Vermilion flycatcher at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

Altamira oriole at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Redhead at Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion