Being a brief discourse on my Little Big Year, during which I identified as many bird species as I could within the confines of Santa Barbara County (CA)

Posted January 4th, 2019 by John Callender

327. That’s how many species I ended up getting.

Among active county users of eBird I finished in first place, one bird ahead of Mark Holmgren, whom I suspect could have beaten me if he’d tried, but who probably didn’t realize it was a contest. The only times I really made up ground on him are when he was on extended birding trips away from the county.

I’m pretty sure there were at least a few other county birders who beat me. My guess is that Nick Lethaby and Wes Fritz both identified more birds than I did in the county this year. But they mostly don’t do eBird, so who knows? (Well, they know, presumably. But I don’t.)

The one-year record for Santa Barbara County is 358, set by Wes in 2008. I finished well short of that, and looking over the list he got that year I doubt I could get into that range, at least in my current state of bird knowledge. Someday, maybe.

I recorded at least one eBird checklist every day last year; at the moment my streak (which I’ve kept going) is at 382 days. A few times when I was sick I only did a 10-minute count in my backyard, but I always got at least one birding session in. I made a few brief trips to the Eastern Sierra during the year, and on my long-commute days was sometimes reduced to entering a 2- or 3-species list while walking to Starbuck’s through the bird desert surrounding my employer’s office in LA, but other than that it was all Santa Barbara county. I finished the year with 730 checklists entered in the county; the next highest total of checklists submitted was (again) Mark Holmgren with 547.

Fun facts: I had 845 checklists total entered during the year, including those outside the county, which ranks me 484th among active eBird users in the ABA area (North America north of Mexico). I’m not aware of any way to compare my single-county species total with those of other eBirders, but I think I’d probably be toward the upper part of that list, Santa Barbara being such a good county by ABA standards. But I dunno; there are a lot of counties, and a lot of birders more obsessive than I am.

My species total for the ABA area was 350, which ranks me roughly 14,000th among active eBird users in 2018. Tops in 2018 in the ABA area in eBird were Nicole Koeltzow with 775 species, which is amazing, and Barbara Combs with 11,147 checklists submitted, which is also amazing. Barbara averaged slightly more than 30 checklists per day in 2018; some poking around shows that she’s opting for maximum granularity; my guess is she’s basically entering a list of the birds seen in every 15-minute chunk throughout the day, every day.

Things I learned:

  • Birds are not evenly distributed in the landscape. I mean, I knew that already. But now I appreciate it more.
  • They’re really out there (those rare/difficult species I’d always seen in the field guide but never in person) — except when they’re not.
  • Finding is better than chasing.
  • Different kinds of birding are their own discreet knowledge domains. I was a beginner at most of them; still am at some. But I’m learning.
  • So many rungs on that ladder. I’m a way better birder than I was at the start of the year, but I’m more aware than ever of how far below the real experts I am.
  • Avid birdwatchers are a flash mob waiting to happen. All it takes is a report of a rarity (”Mississippi Kite at Alisal Ranch!”) for them to suddenly coalesce. I now know most of the top 20 people in the county eBird rankings from last year, but when I started they were just names. That’s almost all from hanging out with them at the site of reported rarities.
  • eBird is the best. I love eBird.

Favorite bird I saw this year: Prairie Falcon. I saw this species first outside the county, on March 30, during one of the trips I made to the Eastern Sierra. I first saw it in the county during the birding trip I made to the Cuyama Valley on April 29. I also saw it once on Lake Cachuma, and once along Happy Canyon Road north of Lake Cachuma. But the place I saw it the most, on four different visits, was the place I’m going to talk about next.

Favorite place: The intersection of San Miguelito Road and Sudden Road in the hills south of Lompoc. I can’t really describe why this spot is so cool to me. It’s just a grassy valley with a few farmhouses and cows. But in that grassy bowl are about 100,000 ground squirrels and a lot of amazing raptors. It was the last place I went in 2018, on New Year’s Eve, after I’d more or less given up on adding any new species because it was too windy at the other spots I’d chosen. I’d given it the old college try but the birds just weren’t cooperating. So I decided to stop trying, and just go to my favorite spot. So I went, and had a glorious time watching three Golden Eagles and a bunch of Red-tailed Hawks and the one Ferruginous Hawk that hangs out there, and then, blasting straight overhead before it landed on the hillside west of me and ran around harassing squirrels, my fave:

I appreciate all the nice comments people have made about my silly obsession this past year. If you have any questions I’d be happy to go on (and on) about it some more; the Ask Box is always open.

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Tags: carp without cars, birds, santa barbara county year list.

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