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Birders of a Feather Flock Together for Travis County's Big Year 2015

Birders in the Austin area have collaborated to sight more than 300 birds over the past year in Travis County, including the Vesper Sparrow.

A “Big Year” is a tradition in birdwatching when a birder tries to spot as many bird species as they can over the course of a year in a certain place. It’s an intensely personal thing, when a man or woman travels to far-flung locales just to check another bird off their list. But this year, some Travis County birders put a new, more social spin on the tradition.

Nate McGowen helped organize the Travis County Big Year in 2015. He says what’s different about this big year is that so many people that are contributing to the list of birds seen and heard throughout the county.

“We’ve got a website set up, and we can see what birds have been checked off,” he says. “And our goal is to see how many birds we can get documentation for.”

That’s another difference. When you’re doing a “big year” on your own, you know what you saw and you don’t need to prove it to yourself. But, with 40-plus birders taking part in the competition, sometimes collaboration requires proof – either video or audio. Though sometimes, an audio recording is more helpful than visual evidence, McGowen says.

“The Willow flycatcher and Alder flycatcher are visually inseparable,” he says. “Looking at them, if you don’t have them in the hand, you can’t say which one it is.”

So, one of the birders in the collaboration, Arman Moreno, provided that audio evidence after finding both near Mills Pond in Wells Branch in May.

They’re two different kind of Wits, McGowen says. One’s a little thicker and richer, and one's a little "buzzier."

So far, the birders have spotted 304 birds which, he says, seemed like an out-of-reach goal for the collaboration when he launched it on the first of the year. You can check out the progress McGowen and his troop of birders are making as they wind down the year at the Travis County Big Year’s website.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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