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Taylor Páez is a Dirtbag Birder

643 bird species, 44 states, two trips across the country and back, one 2002 four-cylinder Ford Ranger  – all Taylor Páez needed to complete her Big Year on the road.

By Amanda Grennell

In 2017, Taylor Paez road-tripped her way across the United States, at times zig-zagging from one rare bird sighting to another. Her goal: complete a Big Year with 700 birds species identified. Photo credit: James Adam Taylor.

After seven months on the road, living out of her truck and tracking down as many bird species as possible in the lower 48 states, Taylor Páez was tired. It was November, and she’d already identified several hundred birds at wildlife refuges, parks, and landfills across the country. Almost all of them were new to her, outside the range of her native California. And now there were just a few rare birds left on Taylor’s list.

Based on a tip from fellow birders she’d met at the dump, Taylor drove to the National Butterfly Refuge in search of one of those rare sightings – the Audubon’s Oriole. She had already visited this popular birding spot earlier in the year, a beautiful swath of the Rio Grande valley nestled at the border of southern Texas and Mexico.

Amidst the butterflies, and the butterfly watchers, Taylor scoured the early morning landscape for her bird, but came up empty.

“By that point I had learned what Altamira Orioles sound like, so I could hear them chattering down the trail a little bit,” Taylor recalled. “I thought, maybe I’m not going to get the Audubon’s, and I guess that’s okay. I did try my best.”

About to leave as the afternoon heat took over, Taylor’s ears pricked up.

 “I heard this really beautiful, kind of sad Oriole call in the distance: a-choo-choo-choo,” Taylor said, “I had never heard an Audubon’s Oriole before in my entire life, but I knew this had to be it!”

Tip-toeing around a corner as quickly as she could, Taylor found the Audobon’s Oriole, a beautiful black and yellow bird, stealing from a basket of rotting fruit that’s technically there for the butterflies.

“I was so delighted. I didn’t expect to see it there, I didn’t know what it was going to sound like, but I was somehow right. It was a reaffirming moment for me,” Taylor said.

That affirmation gave Taylor the motivation to get through the last couple months, ending 2017 with a total of 643 bird species identified. She ended up ranking 8th on eBird, the site where most Big Year “competitors” track their sightings.

Taylor’s sighting of the Audubon’s Oriole at the National Butterfly Center. Taylor kept friends and family updated on her Big Year adventures via Instagram, @needsmorebirds.
Photo credit: Taylor Páez.

Taking on a Big Year

A Big Year is not a formal competition – there are no prizes, no trophies, no money, little fame. Instead, it is a challenge that birders take on to see as many bird species as possible in a certain area during a calendar year.  In February 2017, Taylor hit the road without much thought of the competition – just her own goal of finding 700 species in the lower 48 United States by New Year’s Eve. She was 26.

Before her Big Year, Taylor had what every Millennial craves– a decent job with benefits, a future where she could stay in one place, supportive friends and family, a good, comfortable life. But she also felt discontent brewing.

Taylor worked at a credit union, and between a frustrating work environment and the great big windows in her office, Taylor longed to be outdoors. In a moment of frustration one day, Taylor jokingly dreamed about quitting her job to live out of her truck and watch birds. But her joke stuck.

“I just couldn’t get it out of my head from that moment on. I was like ‘What’s stopping me?'” Taylor recalls.

Taylor started talking about her idea with friends, who she credits with giving her the confidence that she could actually do it. There wasn’t anything to stop her but herself – except the fear of telling her parents. But with the promise of daily phone calls, they were on board with Taylor’s dream.

So Taylor saved money and planned how to live out of her truck – something easy to find online these days due to a surging movement to build out vehicles, like vans and trucks, into livable spaces. Taylor bought a shell, or canopy, so she could sleep in the bed of her truck and store lots of gear. She started looking at blogs about living out of her truck, and was inspired by the lifestyle of “dirtbag” rock climbers, who pioneered the idea of taking time off to do something you love, while also living a low-cost life on the road.

“I met a couple of climbers who were dirtbags,” Taylor said, “And I thought I could do that, but I really like watching birds. So why don’t I just be a dirtbag birder?”

The benefits of dirtbag birding: excellent vantage point. Featuring Taylor’s Ford Ranger, the truck she lived out of for 10 months. Photo credit: Taylor Páez.

Dirtbag life

In January 2017, Taylor committed to becoming a dirtbag birder: she put in one month’s notice at work and began final preparations to live on the road in search of birds she’d never seen before, in places she’d never been.

One issue we can’t get around is, of course, safety. Though Taylor met many other young women travelling alone, she fielded lots of questions from concerned strangers about the dangers of a woman doing something completely by herself. But Taylor said her top safety issues were the weather and the prospect of meeting a mountain lion — only rarely did other people make her feel unsafe.

“You should be prepared. You should always be mindful. But we don’t have to live every day in a state of panic that someone is going to attack us,” Taylor said.

Just like anyone else adventuring outdoors alone, Taylor made sure someone else knew her plans. She told her parents where she would be, and for how long, usually checking-in with them every morning and again in the evening. Her mom looked up her location using the “Find my Friends” app, which sometimes lead to confusion when Taylor spent a few days at sea.

Taylor’s route was a road trip of epic proportions. Starting in Northern California, Taylor looped down South through Arizona, Southern Texas, around the Gulf of Mexico, then sped North to New Hampshire and Maine. She then hit New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan and the upper peninsula, and Wisconsin. Next up was back to the West: Colorado, the Great Plains, Washington, and back to home base in California.

Getting a taste of home made it tough for Taylor to get back on the road. It was July, about five months into Taylor’s experiment with dirtbag birding. But after a month-long break Taylor pressed on, into the “zig-zag” phase of her Big Year – Southern California, Montana, Arizona, a boating trip off the coast of Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Minnesota, Nebraska, Mississippi, Texas, and finally back to California to finish the year.

“Toward the end of the year it gets pretty crazy because it’s less about the common birds and more about the rare ones,” Taylor said, explaining her zig-zag pattern.

A beloved birding spot threatened with destruction

After her sweeping survey of the country, Taylor has a tough time picking just one favorite locale — the country is filled with amazing biodiversity, and she loves it all. But if she has to answer, Taylor picks the subtropical region of Southern Texas.

In one day at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge she identified 35 new birds — the most she ever checked off at once. But plans for a border wall, intended to curb illegal immigration, could destroy the habitat that allows wildlife to flourish.

While funding for construction through Santa Ana, the National Butterfly Center, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park has not been passed, conservation leaders are still concerned.

“All bets are off,” says Marianna Treviño-Wright, the Butterfly center’s executive director told Audubon Magazine. “The heavy equipment is literally next door.”

Taylor recalls fondly several birds she saw for the first time in South Texas: Roseate Spoonbills, Green Jays, Kiskadees, and of course, the Audubon’s Oriole.

“It’s such a treasure that I think a lot of Americans don’t know about or don’t understand. It would be just a devastating loss to bulldoze it,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s favorite birds

To bag as many birds as possible, Taylor relied upon sighting reported on eBird, Audubon Society listserves, and local birding groups on Facebook. Sometimes she’d even learn of rare bird sightings on Instagram, or word-of-mouth at popular birding spots.

Here are a few of Taylor’s favorite sightings.

Audubon’s Oriole, National Butterfly Center, Texas
“I probably cried at the Butterfly Center.”

Audubon’s Oriole. Photo credit: David Hollie.

Green Jay, Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Texas
“I remember looking at bird books at thinking I’m never going to see this bird. It’s just so beautiful and vibrant, I can’t believe this thing exists,” Taylor said. “But, like Crows and Ravens and Blue Jays are on the East Coast, they are just everywhere and they are obnoxious.”

Green Jay. Photo credit: Dan Tallman.

Roseate Spoonbill, Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Roseate Spoonbill. Photo credit: JC Knoll.

Common Greenshank, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, New Jersey
Taylor spent four days on the same 13-mile, one-way loop to spot this rare bird. An update on a birding message board before Taylor entered the refuge on her last morning pinpointed the bird at mile marker 4. “If you see a bunch of birders and they’re all looking in the same direction, that’s a really good sign.”

Common Greenshank. Photo credit: Richard Lowe.

Lessons from a Big Year or birding

After spending a year in the outdoors and nearly reaching her 700-bird goal, Taylor did not go back to a stable office job. Instead, she turned to opportunities in the natural world: working as a park naturalist and then on hummingbird surveys.

“I realized I not only wanted to be outside, but I wanted to make a positive impact on people. I want to bring 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.”

Taylor’s next adventure is a 220 mile, 20-day through-hike on the John Muir Trail, which she’s planning with her best friend for this August. Such a long backpacking trip is a new challenge for Taylor, but after her Big Year, Taylor knows the risks are worth the payoff.

The view from Taylor’s truck-bed and home for ten months. Slab City, California.
Photo credit: Taylor Páez.
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Tips To Complete A Successful Big Year

Birders take part in a bird walk led by the Fort Indiantown Gap (PA) wildlife staff, May 27, 2015.

The beginning of a new year brings hope, the setting of resolutions—and a fresh opportunity to complete a Big Year. A Big Year, in birding parlance, can be either a formal or an informal challenge among birders to identify as many species as possible in a single calendar year. According to the American Birding Association, a Big Year officially begins at 12:00 AM on January 1st and ends at 11:59 PM on December 31st of that same year, based on the local time of the location of the birder at each time threshold.

Many people complete a Big Year for the fun and challenge. Others participate more formally in events hosted by local birding organizations. The Audubon Society of Greater Denver (Colorado), for example, is hosting a Big Year competition in 2019 to celebrate their 50th anniversary. The event challenges local birders to spot as many birds as they can in their local county and also provides field trips and support for beginning birders. Many birders track their progress on eBird, which also serves as an unofficial leaderboard for national Big Year participants. (Our BirdsEye app can be synced to eBird accounts to help you achieve your goals.)

To kick off 2019, we interviewed three birders who have recently completed a Big Year. These birders offer their tips and advice for successfully completing a Big Year in 2019. Our birders include:

  • Tom Ford-Hutchinson (TFH), who accomplished a Big Year in 2013 in Orange County, California.
  • Betty Glass (BG), who is running and promoting the Denver Audubon Big Year competition across six counties in Colorado.
  • Aija Konrad (AK), who completed a Big Year in the lower 48 states in 2018 and spotted an astounding 577 species! You can view some of her husband Ed’s photos of her Big Year on Flickr.

Aija Konrad chasing her Big Year along the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington.

Why should somebody try to complete a Big Year?

BG: If you can keep at it and commit for the full year, you will learn so much about birds, conservation, habitat, other species (mammals, insects, etc.), and ecology. You will become a more involved and aware person.

AK: Doing a Big Year was so rewarding and exciting! We never expected to get to 500 species and finished the year on New Year’s Eve in Portland, Maine, looking for a Great Black Hawk. We saw a lot of the country and visited 36 states and 35 national parks and wildlife refuges.

TFH: That’s the million dollar question, and I feel like most people who have done one would say you shouldn’t, haha. There’s no prize or plaque at the end of it, so if you’re going do it, do it for yourself or use it to promote something you care about.

What kind of time commitment is required for a successful Big Year?

TFH: A big year is whatever you want to make of it and can be whatever sort of time commitment you want to make it. Proper planning and local knowledge can significantly decrease the amount of time you spend on it. In the end, I missed a bird because I went to Coachella for a weekend, and I was still working full-time. So you make it what it is. If you aren’t enjoying it, what’s the point?

BG: If you want to win, you’ll be out birding every day. If you’re going to participate and learn more about birds in your area, you can go out two to three times a week, and you’ll be successful. You can also just watch your backyard every day.

AK: It takes commitment, serious drive, and lots of time to do a national Big Year! And you have to be a little bit crazy. We ended up taking 10 major trips, drove 30,000 miles, flew many more, were away from home for 110 days.

What essentials do birders need to have a successful Big Year?

AK: Once we made the commitment, we looked up festivals and birding trips around the country. Ebird was our biggest source for what to go after. We would often recreate itineraries of tour companies. It also helps to have a partner—I could not have done it without my husband, who was as committed as I was. When we traveled, we would almost always bird from dawn to dusk. That was essential for making the most of our time. It was exhausting but exhilarating.

BG: First of all, think about the birds you are likely to see nearby, find places in your county that you can find them, and research when they are likely to arrive in the area. The other part is to be aware of when new species come to the state and know where you can find rare species. The Denver Audubon Society is putting together resources that discuss 50 birds you can see without binoculars, 50 sights you might want to check out in the region, and 50 things you can do to make Denver more bird-friendly. Resources like these can help you plan your year.

TFH: Equipment-wise, a good pair of binoculars goes a long way, as does some sort of digital camera to document your sightings. A good spotting scope (or a friend with one) can also be critical to find seabirds or shorebirds. The number one thing that birders to need to succeed in a Big Year, however, is an understanding of the status and distribution of species. This couldn’t be easier now with all the data available on eBird. Birding apps (like BirdsEye) can help someone discover what birds to look for during a specific week of the year based on previous records and/or bird sightings in surrounding counties. They can help you be in the right habitat to find them when they show up in your area. Also, being aware of the weather can also help you predict where and when to be somewhere. Lastly, the saying that the early bird gets the worm really is true—birds are most active from right before dawn to an hour after the sun rises. This is by far the easiest time to find most rarities as they search for food.

What kinds of things to birders need to plan in preparation for a big year (timing, location, etc.)?

TFH: Stakeout and find winter rarities early. Plan on May/June for Spring Migration, Late July/August for shorebirds, Late August/Sep/Oct for Fall migration, and December for anything that is found on the Christmas Bird Counts.

BG: Right now (winter), get all the waterfowl. All the ducks are out and in breeding plumage and are easy to see. Get ready for spring migration, which starts the end of April and goes through the beginning of June (in Colorado). Summer is really great for breeding birds in Colorado because you see them in their nest, and see juveniles. Fall is the reverse migration—it is exciting because you see Alaskan birds in Denver sometimes. Participate in a Christmas Bird Count toward the end of the year.

Plan carefully to capture hard-to-find birds, like the Greater Prairie Chicken. Photographed by Ed Konrad in Nebraska.

From your experience, what were some unexpected challenges during your Big Year?

AK: One unexpected challenge we faced was when we were driving to Florida for the American Flamingo in November. I was driving on a rural road in Georgia, and a large log flew off of an oncoming truck and hit my windshield. It was horrifying…I had 30 surface cuts to my face and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, but thankfully released after treatment. Our car was totaled from the glass damage. But I got right back out there and 2 days went back for the bird and got it!

BG: You can get tired by the end of the year, but remember that you’ll complete it just by definition unless something drastic happens. Even with illness and injury, you can keep it going. It’s easier to do a Big Year when it’s local because you’re not killing yourself doing field trips, camping, traveling long distances.

TFH: My first challenge was sleeping through the January pelagic trip and missing a couple of birds that wouldn’t show up again for the remainder of the year. A couple of stakeouts were particularly boring. It can also be challenging when you’re hiking through the full summer heat looking for a yellow-billed cuckoo or sitting on a distant island waiting for Lucy’s warbler to show up.

Any other words of advice?

TFH: Birders are inherently helpful and friendly. Many people like to live vicariously through others’ Big Year journeys and are more than happy to help out. Use this to your advantage to help promote and advance birding. Document your journey on eBird, share your experiences through the local birding listserves (http://birding.aba.org/), or better yet, create a blog and share your own story through blog posts. And remember to pay it forward yourself after it’s all over.

BG: One of the things I want to stress is that this is a friendly endeavor. If you find something spectacular, text other people and let them know. Be friendly, be helpful, and don’t be too competitive. Encourage others to participate.