Wings Big Year: Amazingly useful and empowering

Fiery blue wings

An hour a day sinking into research on some of the fundamental questions about our Earth’s birds, as preparation for my travels with and writing about those species … I’ve stuck to the schedule diligently. I have ten research days left and am currently working through Colin Tudge’s brilliant “The Secret Life of Birds: Who They Are and What They Do.” It’s perfect for me. Tudge burrows into crucial questions like how birds evolved and which bird species are more ancient.

If you do happen to be interested in something, no matter how technical or dense, may I suggest you try something similar. I’ve tried the “one hour a day, please do it even when busy” approach twice now, with different subjects involved, and have found a year’s steady, unstressed work on something can work miracles.

My Big Decade: The first 4 years

Big Decade years

I’ve been on this Earth a bit over 64 years. Four years ago, I launched a Big Decade of goal-oriented daily obsession. I’ve run 11 Big Years since. Were they worthwhile?

As discussed a few days ago, my four grandiose writing-related Big Years packed a punch but were not unqualified successes. In contrast, as trumpeted yesterday, the three very different Big Years that targeted my body rather than my mind succeeded brilliantly.

At age 60, I envisaged some nutty cultural blitzes. “Read a book every day, Andres,” I promised, for example. Well, I’ve only tried one such Big Year, listening to a rock music every day over 2017. Although that habit hasn’t maintained much momentum, the Big Year was a hoot and hugely enriching. That said, I can’t see myself trying any other cultural extravaganzas for the next couple of year at least.

Something I did not imagine in 2015 was the idea of doing some interesting study each day, but I’ve tried the concept twice in recent years, with satisfying results. In 2018, my Tractor Big Year saw me committed to researching, each and every day, the vista of self publishing. Two mystery novels in late 2018 and early this year were the heart-warming result. And this year my Wings Big Year, covering the generalities of birds, has given my knowledge a fillip it wouldn’t otherwise have had. I don’t think 2020 will see any such “new knowledge” Big Year, but surely I’ll try something else in future years.

Weirdly, my 2018 Stillness Year, which involved only ten minutes a day of Headspace-app-based meditation, was a spectacular triumph. Who would have thought allocating so little daily time would add so much? Enriching my days with tiny stabs at something new will probably be a feature of the next six years.

Overall, the Big Decade idea rocks! I’ve worked harder, stayed healthier, learnt more, and added variety. Bring on the next six years, I say.

Now I understand how birds navigate

David Barrie book

My 2019 Wings Big Year is a sheer pleasure. Every day I force myself to take time out to pursue an aspect of birding and birds that I’d not tackle otherwise. Over the last two months, I’ve been lucky to work through David Barrie’s masterful “Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation.” He’s a real navigator as well as a wonderful researcher. Whilst I don’t actually understand fully the wonders of how birds navigate, I’ve got a fair handle on the topic and can probably write about it. All from one book!

I had intended to find ways to create my own maps of how my beloved Cranes pulse across the world annually. But it turns out there’s no need. The International Cranes Foundation has just issued fifteen brand new location/migration maps, one for each species.

What I will pursue over my final month and a half is the more general issue of bird migration. How many bird species migrate? How far? Why? Is it baked into their genes? Do they fly high or low? Do they fly in the night or the day? How do my Cranes fit into this panoply of migration scenarios? What impact have we humans had?

I can’t wait to get cracking. Day by day.

Wings Big Year update

Birding near Nijmegen

From Nijmegen we cycled out into the Ooijpolder park area and worked on our rusty birding skills. Quite a few species although the only unusual bird (for us) was a Snipe pointed out by a grizzled fellow birder. We also took binoculars yesterday when cycling out from Bruges to the North Sea but we only saw the dozen or so garden variety of birds one sees everywhere. I get the distinct impression that Europe has terraformed its land so much, and shot so many birds, that not much is left. One is reduced to waiting at annual northern-Europe-Africa flyways for passing species.

Now that’s the kind of thing that interests me, understanding what is actually happening at very macro levels. To what extent is Europe now a bird wasteland save for those flying through? Where are the pockets of ongoing local bird species? Etc., etc.

So on this trip I’ve mostly kept to my daily requirement to do some birding-related work. Not every day (as is strictly required by the Big Year, but hey, I’m ahead on total hours) but I’m retaining some pride. Right now I’m reading up on how birds migrate, something I need to understand accurately and very broadly.

Create something worthy?

A way forward

Quite some time back, I went to a bookshop reading by Marina Benjamin, author of the remarkable “Insomnia.” Quoting Miles Davis on how he “plays what’s not there,” that is, invented new forms of music, Benjamin observed that writers find the idea of writing what’s not there (that is, inventing new fields and forms of writing) as “very seductive.” My immediate excited thought was: can I frame my nearly-dead Cranes book as a new way of writing about birds and birding? One reason this notion is “seductive” to me is that I now know (and this has taken me years to realise) that the normal books about birds are not ones in which I can shine. I’m neither a good birder, nor a naturalist, nor a travel writer.

But if I reframe the project and the book, can I create something worthy? Can I save the world?

Out of that bookshop brain niggle came my 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene idea. More on that later.

Wings Big Year – a resounding success so far

Little Raven photo

Allocating an hour a day to something quite nebulous sounds like a bad idea. But forcing myself to attend to what I actually want to do in the future with birding and writing and all the ideas and emotions attached to the confluence of those two activities … well, it’s been a life changer. Originally I thought I’d do a 2020 Big Year based on a birding idea but that idea proved undoable, but nagging at the idea has transformed it into a major project to unfurl over the next half decade. Without the Wings Big Year, I’d have nothing.

Now comes a dilemma. I’ll be focussing on Cranes and climate change and what a novice might write about those subjects in tandem, but what now for the Wings Big Year, its final five months. One hour a day, remember?

Well, I’ve decided to scratch away at all those impediments to being a good birder/naturalist/writer. More specifically:

  • How to learn more about ornithology without boring myself silly
  • How to get crane images, a recurring problem (see the image above, that’s me photographing a Little Raven – is that good enough for a book? Spare me!)
  • How to produce compelling maps of how Cranes migrate
  • What is migration and how does one think about it and write about it without being either “gee whiz” or boring
  • Etc., etc., etc.

An hour a day on this shit? Thrilling!

Wings Big Year: Retooling

Wings Big Year

As I inch towards a big project that marries birding to writing, something I’ve toyed with for years, it’s time to retool. Most birders keep lists – it doesn’t make sense (at least to most birders I know) to watch the bird life around you and then consign the experience to fickle memory. We’ve been using purchased software, a program called Birders Diary, for a number of years. It’s comprehensive, allows for different taxonomies (official bird lists), and has good reporting. But it’s clunky and fully private without any sharing.

On impulse a few years ago, I did a course on shorebird identification (it didn’t take, I still can’t ID them!) at the Broome Bird Observatory. I remember being blown away by the dedication and professionalism of the staff there. They constantly logged their sightings using eBird, an app and immense database managed by Cornell University. I recall they recommended using eBird, if only because all my observations would go into a worldwide pool and contribute to knowledge.

So … let’s grab eBird. How impressive it is! The website is stunning and motivating. The homepage doesn’t need to sell much because these are the numbers: eBird has data on 10,423 bird species (which is about the official total, are there are any species eBird hasn’t captured?) gathered by half a million birders who have submitted 37 million sessional checklists.

In the late morning, on the wonderful Mangrove Boardwalk at East Point in Darwin, I christen eBird with 17 observed species. A small step…

The modern way to find my Cranes

Wings Big Year

I’m amazed at the scope and power of Cornell University’s eBird, an app and a huge global database and much, much more. I’m starting to plan a road trip up north to find the Sarus Crane. Well, with eBird I can look up dated sightings at hundreds of locations, telling me where I’m most likely to get good results. Interestingly, some bird species are classified as sensitive, their locations not to be revealed. These are birds that the world needs to keep private because of very low numbers, or systematic hunting, or rapacious land developers, etc. Of my fifteen Crane species, only three are shielded by eBird: the Whooping Crane (but only in Wisconsin), the Common Crane (but only in the United Kingdom), and the Sarus Crane (but not our Australian race, instead one in an Indian location).

Wings Big Year: Liftoff!

Wings Big Year

Never underestimate the power of regular, indeed obsessive, tasking. Do something every day and sure enough, one day, something big happens and you have liftoff! I am a little over halfway through the year of doing daily thinking and researching towards some kind of big birding/environmental project, and in the last few days, ideas have poured in and information has coalesced and… I have liftoff! I’ll start a new major writing/birding project with a separate blog site and Twitter identity, and I’m going to have fun!

Wings Big Year: I’m getting excited!

Wings Big Year

I’ve kept burrowing away, daily, at the complexities of birds and my birding and how everything fits in, and some decisions are nearing. Cranes will be the focus of both my birding and my attempts to make sense of humans in the Anthropocene era in which we’re remodelling our Earth (for the worse). One of the items I came across today cheered me up. Led by amazing George Archibald, the International Crane Foundation has set up a network of 270 dedicated scientists in 55 countries, piecing together the global facts needed to defend the family of cranes. Presumably most of them are professionals employed in various capacities, with some of them only part time on this work, but still, the knowledge of this effort buoys me. What I need to do is figure out what this group knows, how they present it, and just what I need to extract from all that.