The Green Big Year Costa Rica: A Couple of Birders

In the time it took for me to open this document and write the first sentence of this blog, I just saw 5 species of birds. This is without a bird feeder, or even any binoculars. I am just sitting on my front porch, looking out into our jungle garden.

Curt and I have always loved the colorful birds in the Drake Bay area. But one year ago, somewhat inspired by the comedy film “The Big Year”, we began recording the species that we saw. To make our Big Year list even more special to us, we decided to only count the species that we saw together. This was partially inspired by a visit from my Aunt and Uncle in June of 2017. They are both passionate about travel and wildlife and really enjoy sharing birding experiences together.

I say “partially inspired” because a not insignificant part was due to the fact that our last functioning camera went kaput this year, and we wanted to be as accurate as possible with our identifications. So it seemed like 2 pairs of eyeballs would be the best way to go.

But I digress.

To give people some inspiration, we have compiled our Big Green Year list into a video. We have used a combination of our own photographs, photographs from the amazing citizen science website iNaturalist, and information from our well-loved copy of The Birds of Costa Rica.

I wanted to write this blog about our Green Big Year for two reasons: the first is that we have received overwhelming feedback from our bird videos on YouTube. Secondly, we recently learned about the environmental concerns that surround “The Big Year” birding competition.

If you haven’t heard of a Big Year, very briefly, it is a competition that involves recording bird sightings for one entire calendar year. You may identify the bird either by sight, or by call alone. Ideally you will get a photo or recording of the bird, but it is not 100% required. The birds must not be captive birds and the American Birding Association asks you to “refrain” from breaking into someone else’s property in order to view birds. No kidding.

The current record for North America is 836 species.

For our story, we did not actually officially register for the competition, and we certainly didn’t go running around and jumping over people’s garden fences. In reality, we just recorded the birds we saw in the course of our normal activities. So, we have now clocked a total of 185 species in 12 months. To be fair, living in Drake Bay, our normal activities are quite different than for those living outside the jungle. Our region is surrounded by primary rainforest, mangroves, rivers and beaches. I even saw a new species last week on a trip to the bank.

In the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica alone, there are upwards of 500 species of birds. In a 25×35 mile area. That means that without even taking one flight, you could get yourself within spitting distance of the record.

This fact struck us as important because although the Jack Black film is a comedy, birder’s can be wonderfully comical in real life. When Curt had his amazing banana bird feeder at the restaurant, we were frequently awoken to the sounds of birders clambering over our closed front gate. To be met with the phrase “Oh, it’s ok, we’re just looking at the birds, are you open?”

This is a video from the restaurant we had from 2010 to 2018….

Essentially, many birders are willing to go to incredible lengths to spot that one elusive species. Apparently, the average “Big Year” contestant spends upwards of $100,000 on their adventure. Whizzing all over the USA by plane at breakneck speed.

We wanted to share our Green Big Year story to show people that they don’t have to be millionaires to participate in this wonderful and truly addictive pastime. You just have to choose your location correctly. With the possibility of 500 species in one peninsula, and over 1000 in Costa Rica, it is hard to go past Drake Bay, for your Big Year headquarters. Costa Rica itself is about the size of West Virginia, and the Osa Peninsula is less than half the size of Rhode Island. Not much need here for expensive flights.

Apart from reducing the costs associated with birding, reducing your environmental impact is of great concern. In one report, a Big Year competitor had a footprint of 142,000 tonnes of carbon from flights and car trips alone. The average person in the United States has a footprint of 16.5 tonnes. The average person in Costa Rica? 1.6.

Many people in the last few years have been advocating for Green Big Years. Cycling all over the continental USA, gaining sponsorship from local companies and raising money for bird conservation. Their efforts have been amazing, with one birder raising $45,000 for non-profit organizations. But what if you love birds, and the concept of maintaining a habitable planet, but are not all that keen on cycling for 17,000 miles? Drake Bay could be the answer.

But, let’s get back to the birds!

Over the course of the year, we have watched amazing bird species in various habitats.

  • We have done several trips into the Sierpe Mangroves (the largest wetland system in the world).
  • We have done hikes into the primary jungles around our house, and Corcovado National Park.
  • We have have sat on our patio and watching the hummingbirds, flycatchers, and tanagers in our garden.
  • We have had picnics by rivers and waterfalls.
  • We have watched the sandpipers manically run about on pristine beaches, and the Macaws munch on Beach Almonds.
  • We have woken up to 100s of Red Lored Parrots scattering from the trees.
  • We have watched Great Frigatebirds, Boobies and Shearwaters, soar around the boat on whale and dolphin adventures.
  • We have even identified some birds that were not previously known to be in the area such as the Green-breasted Mango and Black-Crowned Night Heron.
  • We haven’t taken a single flight.

One of the truly great things about our Big Green Year experience, was being able to share our different interests and priorities. It may (or may not) surprise you to learn that competitive birding in any given year is between 80 and 99% male dominated. On the other hand, citizen science projects, conservation volunteers, and birding organizations are approximately 70% women.

That’s not to say that I haven’t loved counting all the bird species we have seen. It is very addictive. But this Big Green Year has been great for us as a couple. We have been able to indulge an activity that involves relaxation, competition, conservation, and adventure combined.

We get excited every time we see a new bird or a new behavior. In a location such as this, many of our species have not been widely studied so we often discover information that cannot be found online. Recently we observed both the male and female Cherrie’s Tanager feeding their babies in the nest. This is the first time we have seen the dad participate actively in feeding. So cool. We have also learned a lot about bird conservation, evolution, and the importance of birds in various eco-systems.

You can download our free bird identification field guides using the buttons below. They were extremely helpful in making quick identifications before the subjects flew off. Don’t’ hesitate to contact us if you have any ideas for a birding trip in Drake Bay.

Classic Tropical Birds

Oceanic Birds


Drake Bay Birds