The Pandemic Big Year: a Year in Review

In 2020, I set a new record for the highest number of bird species seen in a calendar year in Cook County.

Hi TWIB readers! My name is Isoo O’Brien and I’m an avid young birder from Evanston. This week I am contributing a piece from my blog, traveltobird.com, recapping my record-setting Cook County big year and what it meant to pursue this goal during a pandemic.

They always say time flies when you're having fun. In the blink of an eye, 2020 came to a close and my Cook County big year became history. I began writing this two weeks into 2021, and big year withdrawal hit in full force as I attempted (and struggled) to fill the birding time with something productive. Part of me just wants to do it all over again; to re-live the exhilarating thrill of chasing a new year bird, and to experience that unmatched sense of reward that comes with finding it. Last year, I quickly learned that few things compare to the satisfaction of a successful big year chase. 

As thrilling as it is, I know there are a couple of "normal life" adjustments I'm looking forward to. If this were last January, you can bet that I'd be out in the freezing weather relentlessly searching for a Glaucous Gull or Long-eared Owl for my year list, something that I would never normally be doing. In 2021, I decided I'm striving for balance; less driving and gas money spent, more time sleeping and being social, and believe it or not, maybe even some birding outside the county. But rather than focusing on my goals for the new year, this post will act as a look back at 2020. This will be a fun one as it's jam-packed with photos, highlights, and any statistic you can possibly imagine from my 2020 big year. I hope you'll stay along for the ride!

The List: In 2020, I set a new Cook County big year record of 288 species! I broke the previous record of 281 on October 30 with a Common Redpoll at Montrose Point. This also tops the Lake County record of 282 species, making it the highest county big year total for the state of Illinois. You can view my entire year list with dates, species, and locations here.

The History of The Cook County Big Year Record: Cook County has one of the largest birding communities in the country, and as a result, a long history of big years. Before I get into the analytics of my own year, let’s go back in time...

In 1990, Eric Walters became the first person to do an official Cook County big year. He set the record at 274 species, an incredible total for a time and age when rare sightings were only communicated through hotlines and pay phones. Nobody came close to touching his record for a number of years.

Later in the 1990s, four birders broke the 260 barrier, something that had only been previously achieved by Walters. Those 4 people were Al Stokie (268), Dave Mandell (267), Bob Hughes (264), and Sue Friscia (260). Much of these efforts came from a group Cook County big year competition in 1992. As birding has become more popular and communication methods have improved, 260 is now achieved fairly frequently. In the last decade, this number has been broken by at least one person in eight of the 10 years.

Twenty-three years later, Walters' longstanding record had finally fallen. In 2013, Aaron Gyllenhaal and Jeff Skrentny battled for the title as Cook County's new big year record holder. Both crushed the record, but Gyllenhaal secured the throne at 281 species, with Skrentny coming in close behind at 279. 

In 2018, Ben Sanders did his Cook County big year and ended with 278 species, awarding him third place for all-time Cook big years. In the same year, Andrew Aldrich put up 270 species, making him just the fifth person to ever reach the 270 mark. 

In 2020, I was lucky enough to set a new record at 288 species, but was just one of three people to break the previous one. A huge congrats go to Skrentny and Simon Tolzmann on their big years, totaling 282 and 283 species, respectively. Prior to this point, the thought of three birders breaking the 280 barrier in the same year felt like an event that would never happen in the history of Cook County birding.

My Strategy: I often refer to birding as a real-life scavenger hunt, with similar aspects such as patience, luck, deliberation, searching, and most of all, strategy. There are a handful of reasons why I chose to do a big year, but the strategic concept of a county big year is specifically what appealed to me. On wider-ranging big years, such as state and the American Birding Association area (most of North America), there is a much heavier reliance on chasing other people's finds. It's inevitable, and simply the nature of focusing on a larger area; there's more space for others to find birds for you. I wanted to narrow my search, look for my own rarities, and master the boundaries and habitats of the Chicago area. Like any sort of big year, the number of rare birds you see is what will separate your list from the others. Almost all of my birding was centered around tracking down rare species while letting the expected ones come in naturally. I did this by visiting areas I knew had the greatest potential to harbor the specific targets I was looking for. After gaining the bulk of the common species by the end of spring migration, I also avoided heavily birded areas as much as possible. If someone was already covering an area that had potential for year birds, my strategy was to always go elsewhere; there is no point in covering an area if someone is already covering it for you. I ended up discovering most of my good birds at under-birded locations.

Planning: When people ask me about my big year, there are always two questions I receive more then any other: How did you plan for your big year? And what was your strategy? The truth is, unlike more sizable big years, there is very little planning that goes into a county big year. I didn't code my birds based on their likelihood of appearing, or even organize my possibilities on a spreadsheet. Most of my preparation came naturally from countless hours of research and time in the field, giving me the opportunity to really understand the ins and outs of Cook County. I also spent a LOT of time analyzing everything from Aaron's 2013 big year. Before 2020 even started, I had every single species on his year list memorized by heart. I also kept note of his biggest misses, total number of rarities, and species count by the end of each month so I could make sure I was on track. No wonder my parents call me an obsessive person. Here is a link to Aaron’s 2013 big year blog.

Recap: Long before 2020 even began, I knew that I was doing a big year. In 2018, I took my first serious effort at a county year list, ending with a respectable 261 species. It was the best I could do without a drivers license, which is pretty good, but I wasn't breaking any records. I knew I wanted to push myself harder, and after 2019, knew I had the experience and determination for a full-on big year. The previous record of 281 was daunting, and I was afraid that not enough birds would appear throughout the year to make it breakable. As a result, I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment, and announced 270-plus as my goal. But I knew the record was what I truly wanted. On Jan. 1, I set out with the mindset that I'd set a new Cook County big year record, and I never looked back.

Winter: The winter of 2019-2020 was a slow one here in Chicago. It certainly didn't look like the ideal set up for a big year; winter finches were absent, rare gulls were few and far between, and there were no rare birds hanging around for me to chase. There seemed to be a general lack of avian diversity across the entire area. Naturally, I still went for the hardest to find species right off the bat, and had plenty of time to nail down the usual suspects.

Spring: Spring migration is my favorite (and the best!) time of year for birding in Chicago. The lakefront closure made it a bit more of challenge, but the birds still showed themselves well. April delivered an unexpected flurry of rarities, and May brought an amazing array of warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, and more. By the end of May, I had seen most of the expected species that would make up the bulk of my list for the year. Even without the lakefront, it's always a fun time birding in the spring wherever you are!

Summer: The summer far exceeded my expectations and delivered an amazing few months of birding. As anticipated, the variety of new birds was low, but most of them were species I wouldn't see again that year.

June was pretty low-key and I enjoyed spending some quality time with the breeding birds of the area, including Monty and Rose, an endangered pair of Piping Plovers that had returned to breed at Montrose Beach for the second year in a row. I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to help monitor their well-being throughout the month, protecting them from predators or the errant dog off a leash. July and August, however, were arguably my biggest grinds of the entire year; from mid-July through August, I spent nearly every morning at Montrose waiting for rare shorebirds to drop in. By the end July, I had already made 27 visits to Montrose Beach. Most of the time, this routine felt extremely tedious, but was absolutely worth the reward. By the end of August, I had successfully ticked off almost all the species on my summer wish list.

Fall/Winter: This past fall ranks among one of the greatest in Chicago birding history. The fate of a big year often depends on how many rarities are found in October and November, what us birders call "vagrant season." It truly couldn't have been more successful. Unlike last winter, which was devoid of winter finches, Illinois experienced one of its largest finch irruptions in decades. I also had the opportunity to attend two boat trips on Lake Michigan, both of which netted me some amazing pelagic species. And perhaps most excitingly, I added two mega rarities back on land, Purple Gallinule and Cassin's Sparrow, which became by far the rarest birds on my year list. The vagrants continued pouring in all the way through New Year's Eve, which resulted in an epic finish to the year.

How Covid Played A Role

Disadvantages: I think like many others, Covid certainly wasn't a curveball I was prepared for. In late March, Mayor Lightfoot shut down the entire Chicago lakefront, which remained closed for the entirety of spring migration. I was devastated by the decision, and almost called off my big year completely. Winter hadn't lived up to my expectations, and I went into April with very few notable birds on my list. I was already down about my current situation, and I thought the lakefront closure might be the straw that broke the camel's back. But I decided to stick with it, and I never slowed down. However, I knew that at this point I had a huge disadvantage, and had to re-evaluate my expectations. The idea of breaking the record seemed nearly impossible without spring migration on the lakefront parks. I knew that I was missing rarities, especially without access to Montrose Beach. I needed to find alternatives. I wasn't worried about picking up the expected migrants elsewhere, but knew that I now faced a whole new challenge: where could I find my shorebirds? Cook County is notoriously devoid of shorebird habitat away from the lakefront, and I was at a loss. I needed to get creative. In early April I spent hours scouting remote agricultural areas in the southern part of the county that may be prone to flooding. Come early May, I came up with four solid locations that I knew had potential, and spread the word throughout the birding community. The plan worked like a charm; with the help of other birders, we found over 20 shorebird species among the four locations, including some rare ones! It was my favorite success story from the year.

Advantages: Covid certainly imposed its fair share of disadvantages, but there were a few good things that came out of this crazy mess. For one, my schedule suddenly became WAY more flexible. In the spring, I did not have Zoom classes to attend (though that changed in the fall), giving me a great range of flexibility to be out whenever I needed. Going into my big year, I knew there was the potential for me to miss birds while at school, so not having to worry about that was a luxury. The lakefront closure also forced other birders to find alternative hotspots, which meant that good birds were being found in areas that would not have been covered on a regular year. I'm not sure if it compensated for the misses on the lakefront, but I definitely fared better then I was expecting. 

Alas, we'll never know what great birds were missed on the lakefront. It still pains me to think about it sometimes. However, given the sheer number of rarities the second half of the year delivered, I'm sure I missed fewer species then I was originally expecting. 

A Few Last Words

When I set myself upon this task 10 months ago, neither I nor anyone else could have imagined the obstacles that we'd face and the tragedy of so many lives lost. Last year, I felt incredibly fortunate to have had this amazing passion and goal to pursue during these hard times. This big year gave me a sense of purpose, serving as a happy oasis when all else felt hopeless. Although I may have seen the most birds, this was a team effort involving the entire birding community. This goal would have been unachievable without the help of others. A huge thanks goes to many in the Chicago birding community for their help and support. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and that it serves as an inspiration for others to do their own big years!

Good birding,
Isoo