For many people, birdwatching is a great way to get outdoors and become immersed in nature. The YYC Big Year Birding Challenge is an example of ways for birdwatchers to get outside, but avid birders were put to the test this year with COVID-19 restrictions.

A “big year” is when birdwatchers try to identify as many species of birds as possible in one calendar year. This has produced many outstanding results, such as American birder Dorian Anderson, who documented 618 species of bird species in one year. 

In Calgary, the challenge is represented by the YYC Big Year Birding Challenge, which got its start in 2000 and has only been held two twice before this year. The YYC Big Year is less of a challenge and more of a gateway for introducing more people to birdwatching. As Howard Heffler, one of the main organizers of the event says, the event is a friendly competition used to entice people into a new hobby. 

“I call it a competition, but my buddies say, ‘well it’s more of a friendly challenge.’ And while some of the more experienced birders will try to find as many birds as possible, really the objective was to bring out new people and allow them to see the natural areas around Calgary, and to introduce them to birding and to help them develop their skills.” 

A Mallard resting near the shore of the pond at Bowness Park. These common ducks can be found anywhere in the city wherever there is water. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD

Encouraging new people and younger generations has become easier in the past 10 years, especially with the widespread usage of social media. Birdwatching has embraced it fully, using specifically designed apps like E-bird to facilitate cooperation between birdwatchers participation in the event. 

Gavin McKinnon, a 17-year-old birdwatcher participating in the event, demonstrates how new generations are getting involved and speaks to the fact that it doesn’t matter how skilled you are, only how much you are enjoying yourself.

“I think the main thing for new people is they just need to get out and start birding. It doesn’t matter if you are spotting gulls from a kilometre away or you can’t tell the difference between a chickadee or a robin. Just getting out and enjoying the birds is what’s most important. As Ken Kauffman [a British birdwatcher] said, ‘what makes a good birder is someone who enjoys birding,’ that’s what you need to focus on,” says McKinnon. 

An illustration of an American Robin. Although illustrations like these are beautiful and inspired some of the first birdwatchers, it doesn’t do the real thing justice. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD.

The event faced a hurdle this year in the form of COVID-19. Interest in the event was strong when 2020 began, but as the pandemic hit, field trips and other activities that encouraged people to birdwatch together were cancelled or restricted, which then led to that interest tapering off. The government has currently banned all outdoor gatherings.

To get over this hurdle, social media apps such as E-bird were used to help participants contact and notify each other when rare birds were spotted. This brought everyone involved together and fostered a helpful and friendly atmosphere, says McKinnon.

“The interaction between everyone has been great. There’s no animosity between anyone because someone sees a bird that someone else doesn’t. Everyone’s really supportive, and with COVID, people are still out in the field, just separate and using E-bird. Everyone’s super friendly.” 

Gavin McKinnon

This comraderie amidst the struggles of COVID-19 shows that any hint of competitiveness within birdwatching is nonexistent. There is no jealousy or obstruction to keep people from building up their bird count. People are more than helpful and always ready to let others know when something new is discovered. 

Despite the disappointing reality that people couldn’t go out together as was intended, this didn’t stop the event from being a success, as Heffler says. 

“For two or three months, we didn’t have any field trips as we had planned. When COVID first started, we cancelled them entirely. In June, we resumed them with physical distancing. So, that’s really cut down on the ability to go birding together. However, many people have continued to go birding on their own. And looking back at it and our objectives, it’s been successful despite COVID.”