For competitive birders, the Big Year is a big deal. Months of preparation and travel planning often go into the year-long competition to identify as many birds as possible in North America. The Big Year competition dates back to the 1930s after the publication of Rodger Tory Peterson birding guides and increased popularity of travel inspired birders to cover more ground. Today, birders traverse the United States to find rare birds and different species in the country’s diverse range of habitats. The competition was even captured in the popular 2011 comedy, Big Year, starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin.
For Tiffany Kersten, making 2021 a Big Year was a spur of the moment decision. Having already logged hundreds of birds with a friend while visiting Florida in January, Kersten considered herself lucky to find so many rarities during the memorable trip. Riding this wave of excitement, and newfound freedom between jobs, Kersten spontaneously flushed a dozen scaled quail out of their hiding spot while driving on a quick trip to Arizona. In that moment it hit her, and she logged bird #287 and the official start of her Big Year.
A little birdie told me
As a kid, Kersten took to birding like a duck to water. At age 12, she attended her first birding classes with her mother and experienced an “a-ha” moment while witnessing sandhill cranes perform their dazzling courtship displays. Kersten backyard birded for many years, often standing out as the youngest in the group, before going on to study Natural Resources at Northland College in Wisconsin. It was during a field ornithology course where she realized she could identify birds she didn’t even know she remembered, reflecting on just how much she retained from her classes as a kid.
Kersten’s career path took her across the country, and her love of birds came with her. She researched honeycreepers in Hawaii, performed bird surveys at Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, served as a field naturalist for Cape May Bird Observatory, worked for New Jersey and Massachusetts Audubon, and even joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Visitor Services Specialist at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey and at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas.
During this Big Year, her cross country travels soared; she found birds in 25 states and drove through even more. National wildlife refuges were a common stop for Kersten, as these protected lands are home to some of the most iconic ecosystems and serve as essential stopover sites for birds to fuel up and rest during migration. By the end of May, her year list contained 614 birds. She added gray vireos to her ‘life list’ along with Virginia’s warblers, a common black hawk, and a blue-throated mountain gem.
As October came around, so did an incredible accomplishment. On an early morning boating adventure searching for seabirds, Kersten had the opportunity to spot and photograph Craveri’s murrelets and blue-footed boobies! Seeing these two species brought Kersten’s bird count to 700 species.
“I’m officially the youngest woman to ever see 700 species in the Lower 48!” Kersten wrote in her blog post, as she celebrated with friends on board the boat — a celebration made sweeter by the fact the blue-footed booby was a lifer for Kersten, and one she’ll never forget.
Birds of a feather
A Big Year doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Kersten had her fair share of obstacles, including being stranded on an island and unsettling encounters with strangers. As a survivor of sexual assault and often birding alone, Kersten is an advocate for creating a safe space for women in the outdoors and shares her birding successes, experiences, and elevates important conversations through her Birdie Big Year: Elevating Women Birders blog. Additionally, Kersten gifts personal safety alarms, aptly named “She’s Birdie”, to women she meets on her travels.
Kersten says there’s no one answer to the question of how to stay safe on these adventures. “Have general awareness and listen to your intuition. Use common sense. Find what works best for your comfort level and sense of adventure.”
Looking back at her year so far, Kersten explains how she couldn’t have made it this far without the help of everyone she’s met along the way.
“I thought this year would harden me from navigating tough situations, but it really taught me how many good people are in this world and there’s always people looking out for you.”
One of the most memorable moments of the year, other than reaching her goal of 700 species, had nothing to do with birds at all. Driving alone through the California redwoods with a broken phone charger, dying phone, and several hours from her destination, Kersten found herself in a pickle. While she waited for her turn to drive through a construction zone, a female worker noticed Kersten fumbling with her cables and offered directions. Then, to Kersten’s surprise, the worker returned from her truck with a charger and refused money for it. In return, Kersten gave the worker a She’s Birdie alarm — both women looking out for women.
Kersten has handed out hundreds of She’s Birdie alarms and keeps a running list of more than 200 people who have helped her throughout the year with meals, advice, or a bed to sleep in.
With Kersten’s passion for wildlife and her desire to represent women in competitive birding, her new goal is going for the Big Year world record. For this, Kersten needs to see 725 bird species in the lower 48 states by the end of December to surpass the current record. Making her way towards New England to finish out her Big Year, Kersten can be proud of her birding success and the positive impact she’s had on everyone she’s met along the way.
Racing to #725
The wild goose chase continued as Tiffany Kersten inched closer to the world record Big Year in the Lower 48 States. Spotting the next 25 (or more!) birds posed an exceptional challenge, with many being seasonal visitors, rare birds, or vagrant birds that that pop up outside their normal range. Kersten’s flights spanned from coast to coast and back again, chasing birds with little sleep often days between warm meals.
November chaos took Kersten to Miami, Florida for a gray-tailed tattler, to San Diego, California for a red-throated pipit, and back to The Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Texas to share a sighting of the elusive ferruginous pygmy-owl with a guided group of bird lovers. Kersten’s wild month of travels ended with 708 species and nearly 50 flights for the year!
On the west coast, pelagic boating trips helped Kersten find a few more species including glaucous gull, Laysan albatross, and short-tailed albatross, all birds that spend a great deal of their lives on the open ocean and only venture on land for short periods to nest. Other birds, like ancient murrelets, Iceland gulls, and slaty-backed gulls could be spotted from the coast! Of the birds still to see, one wild goose got the unofficial title of “nemesis bird” as it’s evaded Kersten for over a decade. After returning to her old stomping grounds at Cape May, New Jersey, she put the ten-year streak to rest as she saw the unmistakable pink foot of the pink-footed goose through a spotting scope, disguised comfortably in a large flock of Canada geese.
During her time in the Northeast, Kersten birded Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware and Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. With five more birds needed to reach the World Record, Kersten headed off to Pennsylvania, where she found a small barnacle goose also hiding in flock of Canada geese, scoring bird number 720!
A quick stop John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum turned into a chance meeting with another woman birder at the top of her leader board — Sara Bush was also just five birds away from breaking the Pennsylvania Big Year record! Together, they located the rusty blackbird, number 721, before Kersten dashed to the airport and flew north.
New England birding brought more wins for Kersten with a flock of dovekie in New Hampshire and a black-headed gull in Massachusetts. Kersten migrated back to Tulsa Oklahoma with high hopes of a longspur to tie the record! She saw it before she heard it, but it wasn’t long before her binoculars landed on bird number 724, the Smith’s longspur! With barely any time to let this tremendous accomplishment sink in, a new rare bird report brought Kersten back to the airport and heading home to south Texas, where it all started.
As Kersten rushed off the plane, through the airport, to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, still sporting her winter layers, she found her Big Year world record bird waiting patiently for her. A photogenic bat falcon perched in clear view welcomed Tiffany Kersten home to Texas as the new world record holder. In addition to the amazing encounter with the cooperative falcon, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge already held a special meaning for Kersten. In addition to having worked at the refuge, Kersten currently sits on board of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a non-profit group that supports Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
“An American Birding Association first, in my home county, in this special place incredibly dear to my heart, was the perfect way to break the Lower 48 Big Year.”
What’s next for Kersten with a few days remaining in 2021? A chance to spot a vagrant eagle could bring her back to Massachusetts, or a rare bird sighting could have her searching out west.
One thing Kersten knows for sure, “This isn’t just my big year, it’s our big year. A Big Year for all women.”