2008 Santa Barbara County Big Year

On Jan 1st 2008, I had a remarkable day of 130 birds in the county. Then, it seemed like the winter birds were coming in easy. I thought “Wow, I should do a Big Year”. Knowing that Dave Compton & Joan Hardy had set the bar high, I knew that this would be a daunting experience to try to come close to the previous County Big Year record. I had always wondered if I could get one new bird per day in the course of a year. After living in the county for 9 years and birding almost every day, I felt comfortable using the habitats and time windows to focus on my target birds. By February, I was committed to this task. I looked over the Big Year 2000 Spreadsheet. I divided the county checklist into 3 columns: for-sures, maybes and forget-its. I divided that list into timing sections of winter, spring, summer, breeders, dispersals, and fall birds. I methodically started searching for the birds on the lists, according to the habitat that I chose to search that day. After pursuing every possible bird, my final bird was a Mountain Plover, added on 12-9-08 for a total of 358 for Santa Barbara County.

My favorite finds of 2008: Cook’s Petrel, Red-billed Tropicbird, Least Storm-petrel, Sprague’s Pipit, Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo (as a yard-bird), Eastern Kingbird, Red-throated Pipits and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. I saw many other birds thanks to all the SB Co. birders who reported birds and also to those who invited me into their yards. Actually, any new bird during a Big Year is your favorite bird!

I feel like the biggest “misses”, in my search for birds, were Laysan Albatross, Swainson’s Hawk, Ancient Murrelet, Bell’s Vireo and Baltimore Oriole. These were all on my “for-sure” list, but no one had reported seeing these birds in county. California’s normal migrant trend was well below average in 2008. Also, I missed the Pine Warbler in January because I had not committed to the Big Year at that point. A huge miss was Nick Lethaby’s Eastern Yellow Wagtail. But that was during one of my 5-day pelagic trips, and I had picked up 9 birds on that trip. It seems like a good trade.

The best thing about this 2008 Big Year was that it was done on public property. I did not use VAFB for any birding days. I have a strong interest in pelagic birding. I do not miss many boat rides. I did two 5-day pelagics and 13 day trips. I spent a total of 14 days camping on Santa Barbara Island. I probably birded the Cuyama Valley no less than 30 times, searching for Mountain Plover, Swainson’s Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk. A positive note on Cuyama was the number of Burrowing Owls, the colonies of breeding Tricolored Blackbirds and the first confirmed Cuyama Valley breeding record of Great-tailed Grackles. I had a seed feeder hidden on Figueroa Mountain that held 40 lbs of grain. I kept that stocked, and visited other mountain sites regularly.

I still believe that a new bird could be found each day in the course of a year. Timing is everything, along with a good spring and fall migration, and a couple great deep-water pelagic trips. Of course, we all depend on birders promptly posting their birds, with great directions. I want to thank my wife and everyone who helped me during this once-in-a-lifetime dream of doing a County Big Year.