Finding Uncommon Birds – How Much Time is Needed?

In the last post on finding uncommon birds in your local area, I stated that to find uncommon birds you must bird a lot. But how much is a lot?

The current literature states that you should bird as much as you possibly can. Sage advice. But how much? Common sense says the more you bird the more you’ll see. And the smarter you bird, you should see even more. But if I bird five hours more a month how many more birds will I see? I’ll give you a round number in a few paragraphs.

In August 2012 I decided I was going to bird at least an hour a day. The goal was to track the start of fall migration. I got some interesting data for migration but that is for another post. I ended up birding a minimum of 45 minutes a day in August for a total 49 hours. That is actual birding time and does not include driving to and from birding sites.  The total driving time was an additional 15 hours. And since I often stopped on the way to and from work, I did not include that time.

So before I present the data let me say what follows pertains to my way of birding and that all the data was from my local area at the time – the Southern half of LaSalle County Illinois. At that time I usually birded on weekends and a couple days a week before or after work. I would try to rotate through all the habitats in a month’s time to get a good census of my local area.  By doing this I usually came close to matching par for the month. I’m also aware that weather and climate affect what species I see in a given month. Plus the fact I have improved as a birder from year to year which also improves my chances for finding different species. With all that said, what can I tell you from the data?

Aug 2012 Chart

Looking at the data of my birding for 9 months, I can see that by birding around 30 to 35 hours a month I can usually match par for my area. So for example if I expect to see 100 species in my local area for a given month, par is 100, and it should take 30 – 35 hours to see 100 species.  (more about par here –  If I bird less hours I will usually come up short of par and will end up only seeing 90 to 95 species. So by birding at least one hour a day I ended birding 49 hours total in August 2012 and I beat par by 21 species or almost 20%. (129 species versus par of 108). I then went back and figured my best month ever for the same area, May 2010. That month I birded 50 hours and saw 155 to a par of 135.  So I need to bird an additional 50% time wise or in this case 16 hours to beat par by 15-20%. That equates to about an extra bird an hour.  I guess that makes common sense but I never realized this until I did the math.

So what uncommon birds did I come across birding daily in August 2012? I found a Common Merganser that had been hanging out at the local nuclear plant lake, a Snowy Egret along the Illinois River, plus Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. I also saw a single Bonaparte’s Gull and Franklin’s Gull.  And there was an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling at the only known spot left in the county.  A Peregrine Falcon flew over which is uncommon for the county. And I also got my county life Blue Grosbeak that month. I whiffed on Orchard Oriole and Dickcissel though I tried numerous times early in the month.  Most of these birds I would have missed if I hadn’t been out the extra time.

Ruddy Turnstone - Illinois River Widewaters 080412 A rare visitor to the area  Check out all the junk in the river - not a rare visitor.
Ruddy Turnstone – Illinois River Widewaters 080412
A rare visitor to the area
Check out all the junk in the river – not a rare visitor.

I know the laws of diminishing returns states that no matter how many hours I bird I will reach a plateau. But from my data I know that most months I have to bird at least 30 to 35 hours to have a good chance to match par and if I want to find more uncommon birds the total time needs to be up in the 50 hours a month range.

2 Replies to “Finding Uncommon Birds – How Much Time is Needed?”

  1. Sorta like sabermetrics for birding. 😀

    Though I’ll never be as dedicated as you are to exact numbers, this seems to validate my overall experience. Hmmm. “Sorry, honey, have to go birding–stats demand it.”

    (Well, he’s usually off chasing par, too–the other kind of par…)

    1. Yea, once I get an idea in my head I usually try to use stats to see if it is correct. Even though I knew putting in the extra hours would produce different results I didn’t know by that much. It is going to effect my birding time going forward. And yes, my wife is going to hear about stats demanding it…

      I did the other kind of par years ago. I think I enjoyed it because it was outside, even though it was in a manufactured area.


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