Birdy McBirdface takes on the Big Year

Toby with monocular (Photo by Joanna Streetly)

Toby with monocular (Photo by Joanna Streetly)

July 7, 2016 | by Wendy Ho

Recently I had the chance to speak to a young lady, who is not only knowledgeable but passionate about birds and their conservation, and about her birding quest – pursuing a Big Year challenge at just 11 years old.

Meet Toby — resident of Tofino, British Columbia. Raised in a family with a love for nature, she has been building a bird species list, now around 150, since beginning of this year, and she’s blogging about it. As a fellow birder, albeit a beginner, I was eager to learn more about Toby’s ambitions and story.

Big Year: an informal competition between birders or a personal quest to identify the largest number of bird species by sight or sound within a calendar year (although Toby’s personal rules do not allow her to identify a bird by sound only).

WH: Why did you decide to do a Big Year in 2016? Are you competing against anyone?

Toby: It’s more of a personal quest. The thought kind of got started when I watched the movie The Big Year starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin. Some of my friends were extras in the movie too.

WH: One of the first things I noticed was the name of your blog. Is Birdy McBirdface a nickname your family gave you? How did it come about?

Toby: I had a hard time coming up with a name for my blog and my uncle sent an article about how there was a call to invite people to name a UK polar ship, and people voted for Boaty McBoatface. I read that and thought why don’t I name my blog “Birdy McBirdface”?

WH: Caught my attention for sure! How did you get into birding?

Toby: My dad is a birder and I enjoy birding with him. I love birds because they fly, which is really cool! My dad started birding when I was young but I only started getting into birding seriously at the beginning of this year. I started my Big Year on January 1st.

WH: Do you have a favourite species?

Toby: What I really want to see is a smew. It’s a Eurasian duck species. You don’t get often come across something called a smew. A couple of times when I was out with my dad and he’d see any old bird and call out, “It’s a smew!” and I would laugh, almost falling overboard.

I love owls as well. My favourite is the northern hawk owl, which I have not yet spotted. I have seen the barred owl, though, that goes “Who, who, who cooks for you!” which is my favourite sound an owl can make.

WH: Love the sound they make! Was there a special moment in your childhood that made you go, “Wow I want to see more birds”?

Toby: My first bird was probably a robin or a crow, but when I was five years old I saw a burrowing owl. It was sitting on a helicopter landing pad at the top of a hospital and turning its head. I was with my mom and dad wasn’t there; he just missed it by the time he came over.

WH: That’s an odd place for a burrowing owl to be!

Toby: Yeah! Actually we’ve seen a lot of cool birds at the landing pad. Just a while ago somebody saw a cattle egret there, it seems like a spot where birds hang out!

There’s also a golf course where I look for birds. Recently there was a code five bird [accidental species spotted five or fewer times in the ABA Checklist Area]. It was a bird from eastern Asia called white-cheeked starling [read the news here]. My mentor Adrian Dorst saw it and it was the first sighting ever in Canada.

WH: What was your parents’ reaction when they heard you are doing the Big Year?

Toby: My parents are very supportive. I’ve liked birds all my life but never identified them. It used to be like, “Oh it’s a bird,” and now it’s more like “It’s a Pacific wren!” My dog, Schooner, also goes out with us on trips all the time. Obviously she can’t look through my binoculars but she’s a good girl.

WH: Do you fundraise to cover your travel expenses?

Toby: For environmental reasons I’m not going all over the continent, [so there aren’t many travel expenses]. I am visiting Whistler and Newfoundland this summer to look for birds. My mom has helped me establish connections with local birders who are really supportive. I’d also like to connect with birders in Newfoundland to help me plan my trip.

WH: What equipment do you use?

Toby: I don’t actually use binoculars; I use a monocular, but I dropped it and it broke. Luckily Pentax supported my Big Year by repairing it at a discounted price.

WH: On an average day how many birds to you see?

Toby: I don’t go out every day, but as my Big Year progresses, it gets harder and harder to check birds off my list. On a good day I could have 18 species. At the beginning, you spot all the common birds and now I don’t see as many – it could be one bird a day, or I could go for some time without seeing any new birds.

WH: You’ve already surpassed your initial goal of 120 bird species. How many more do you hope to see?

Toby: I’m at 148 species now. I would like to up my goal to 200. I expect to see many new species in Newfoundland; birds that are not present in British Columbia. It’s going feel like I’m starting over, with spotting the commonest birds on the East Coast.

WH: What’s next after December when your Big Year comes to a close?

Toby: I hope to start a life list and keep on counting birds. I also want to do marbled murrelet banding. I also want to study ornithology; I know this is where my passion lies. Through my Big Year and the blog I want to get more people out into nature, to love and conserve nature! If people continue to follow my blog, I would like to keep posting.

WH: Thanks Toby! This has been a great chat. All the best to you for the rest of your Big Year and future birding adventures!

Follow Toby’s Big Year on her blog, “birdymcbirdface.”

Wendy Ho (Photo by NCC)

About the Author

Wendy Ho is Nature Conservancy of Canada's editorial coordinator.

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