Back on January 1st I began a Self-Found Big Year in my home state of Connecticut. Uncertainty in my work schedule for 2019 meant that travel would be difficult to plan and I would be spending far less time out-of-state than I would in a typical year. I had been toying around with the idea of a "SFBY" for a few years, and the fact that I would be home for most of the year led to an attempt in 2019.
What is a Self-Found Big Year? The idea is that you can only count towards your total those birds that you, well, find yourself! In other words, no chasing, not even for common species. How great is that?! But as it turns out, there is a massive gray area within the definition of a self-found bird, which is something I will illustrate with examples later on. There are no official "Self-Found" rules, so I have had to work through this as I go. I had given the potential ground rules quite a bit of thought over the years and had discussed the concept in some detail with friends, particularly with Ian Davies and Steve Howell, both of whom have developed some version of their own personal guidelines.
I was not at all sure if I would finish the SFBY, or how long I might last. It would all depend on how much fun I was having with it. Back a handful of years ago I started a traditional Big Year on New Years Day. I did not last even two weeks. Chasing all those birds found by others was boring, tedious, and honestly miserable. That is not why I bird. Among many other reasons, I bird for the thrill of the discovery. For the unknown. To explore.
Going into the year, I had some questions. What was my self-found total from 2018, which felt like a typical year in the field for me, just to serve as a reference? What is a reasonable target number?
As it turns out, it's impossible to retroactively come up with a SFBY total. Why? Partially because of that gray area of what exactly constitutes self-found, and partially because it's impossible to remember the circumstances of every sighting. If the presence of any bird at a particular location is known in any way, it does not count as self-found. This means that even if you're walking down a trail by yourself and you overhear someone mention that they had a Bay-breasted Warbler a few minutes ago, that bird can no longer count as self-found if you see it later on. Or if you know the two places where Upland Sandpipers return to breed every year, those don't count either. Without delving deeply into particulars (yet), that is probably the most basic self-found rule there is.
Given the impossibility of recalling such details of circumstances for every species, I couldn't come up with an accurate self-found total for 2018. But here's what I figured based on my knowledge of birding my home state for over 20 years now. I thought that, with some effort, 250 would be fairly easy given my experience level. But 300 is a fantastic traditional (with chasing) big year in CT, so that would probably be out of reach. So, why not shoot for something like 275?
As of today, I stand at 252 for the SFBY. So far, so good!
I know now that I'm going to finish this thing. It has been a total blast, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
At the end of the year I'll be writing a piece for the ABA's Birder's Guide series and will likely give a couple talks for local clubs. My hope is that the SFBY will gain some traction and become a thing. In the meantime, I will probably provide the occasional update in this space.