CT Self-Found Big Year 2019

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.

 - NB


  1. These rules might enter your considerations?


    At least proves that birders have given the matter thought!

    1. Thank you, Nick. I've read those rules before. It's great that they've put those together. I agree with some of them and disagree with others. At some point, at the end of this, I'll post my personal self-found rules here. Once I get them on paper :)

    2. Hello Nick,

      As I'm starting a SFBY in the coming year I'm curious what your personal self-found rules are/were. Couldn't find 'em anywhere on your site. Thanks in advance.

      Cheers from the Netherlands

    3. Hello Robbin!

      Enjoy your SFBY. Since there are no universally adopted rules, I played it by ear. By the end, here is what I decided on, taken from a writeup I did elsewhere:

      "My goal here is not to propose a set of rules, but I will share the couple I consider most important. First and foremost, any bird that I spot and identify counts as Self-Found, as long as its presence was not previously known by me. I found myself stalking eBird and listservs a bit less aggressively while I was in the field on a given day, but I made sure to keep up on unusual sightings on a daily basis. I also eliminated from contention all known returning breeding and wintering birds. Being the first person of the year to spot the returning Upland Sandpiper to their last breeding stronghold in the state does not count; there’s no discovery there. Same goes for that drake Barrow’s Goldeneye that has been wintering in the same cove for the past three years; just because you’re the first to spot it this winter doesn’t mean you’ve “found” it in the traditional sense.

      Second, for fear of being antisocial for the entire year, I decided to include birds first spotted by friends as long as we were actually birding next to one another at that moment. I ended up working quite a few weekends in 2019 and birded mostly on weekdays, which meant I was on my own quite a bit. As it turned out, most buddies weren’t interested in joining me on my quest anyway! What’s that, you don’t want to stare at a salt marsh for three hours on a rising tide on the chance an American Bittern might flush? Suit yourself!

      Given that someday the ABA may decide on a set of rules for this sort of pursuit, I kept notes for each species that was not 100% obviously self-found, such as when a bird was first spotted or identified by a friend. That way I could come up with a number to fit any set of potential rules. As it turned out, only two species fit into the “debatable” category at the end of the year."

  2. Thanks Nick. How do/did you deal with common species in uncommon places? In other words; discoveries of pretty common birds in locations where they were not seen before)? For rarities it's pretty straightforward, but I'm struggling with this group a bit...
    And what about vismig spots? Does my first Barn Swallow (a common species overhere) of the season on my vismig spot count as a self found?



    1. Hey Robbin, I felt like anything discovered in a spot where they were not known to occur *to you* is certainly self-found, no matter how common. Vismig spots present a bit of a difference, especially if a location that is well-known and visited by many. We have one such spot here, called Lighthouse Point, that I just avoided entirely on weekends because of the crowds, and I personally wanted places that I had to myself, as that felt more genuinely self-found to me.

      I would sure count that Barn Swallow at your vismig spot, especially assuming you spotted the bird (if there are indeed other birders present), and that individual is thought to be in active migration (versus a local breeding bird, which would not count). Use your best judgement.

      I wouldn't over-think the common migrants. It should not be difficult to find your own common species in migration.

      Common breeders perhaps a bit more difficult. I handled common breeders by just finding places where I knew they SHOULD occur based on my knowledge of their habitat preferences. This had the added benefit of taking me to places I had never been before, even if rather local. Again, I don't see the need to over-think this :)


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