Average Birding


Whence a 200 bird year?

Pronoun guidance: AB1 is the first person.

It is late 2017. AB1 and AB2 are enjoying Christmas chez AB1's Mum, until these fateful words are spoken:

Are you doing a list this year then?
AB1's Mum.

A quest! And, unfortunately for AB2, both AB1 and his Mum have recently come across the concept of a two-hundred bird year. Where from? Who knows. The concept of a Big Year seems to have existed, in the US at least, for quite some time, but if I try and put a finger on why a two-hundred bird year has become a thing in the UK, it is unclear.

Lev Parikian's excellent (and inspirational!) Why do birds suddenly disappear also uses 200 as the target number in a twelve-month period. Why? A birding friend of his managed 206, so he alighted on 200 as the nearest (and slightly lower) nice round number.

There are some features on this site that suggest the folks at Birdwatching magazine have encouraged 200 as a target and they do still seem to be promoting it. So perhaps a birding acquaintance of Mum's got chatting to her about it having read that magazine, and from there the idea was seeded.

In any case, I do clearly remember putting together a spreadsheet ("2018 list plan") over Christmas in 2017, and agreeing with Mum that we'd both give it a go.

The rules:

  1. The bird must be found in the United Kingdom, strict definition here.

  2. The bird must be seen. Hearing it is not enough, even for species where the call is unmistakable (e.g. Tawny Owl or Cuckoo). Other people are allowed to find it and point it out, though.

  3. The bird must be wild (no going to an aviary). This also rules out escapees from aviaries, which can be identified by rings indicating that, particularly seen on wildfowl and overly-sociable raptors.

  4. The count is species, i.e. a male or female counts as one bird.

  5. Feral species such as Mandarin Duck and Greylag Goose may be counted. Except Feral Pigeons, because, though we may have low standards, we do have some standards.

To prepare, we work our way through the bird book (it really is the bird book), classifying 253 different species as either Easy/Medium/Hard/Very Hard.

Side note: the Collins book is thorough.

Serious birders will no doubt be wondering - only 253? It is a fair point - we are leaving some 300+ unclassified.

In our defence, the book devotes four pages to terns that neither Mum nor I (and I suspect most birders) have ever seen (in the UK, at least). The most frequently seen species (Caspian Tern) is classified as V**, i.e Vagrant (only one or a few records a year, at best), with the other terns faring worse. Serious birders describe these uncommon species as "Mega" if they turn up in the UK. We can't plan a trip to see these species, so having them in the list plan is a bit pointless. We can always add an entry to the list if we come across it by being in the right place at the right time.

Back to the planning spreadsheet. We note with interest that while one can reach 105 with only easy species, only 178 are possible combining the easy and medium species. This feels about right - previous lists of ours have topped out in the high 160s and 170s.

We add a note or two as to where some of the trickier ones might be seen. I also add some hidden tracking columns so the spreadsheet can do the counting for us; it makes it harder to double count, at least.

With our challenge laid down before us, we look forward to the onset of the New Year. In a previous attempt at a sizable year list I reached 168, so success is by no means a foregone conclusion. Here's hoping finding those extra 32 will be fun rather than fraught.