2015 Recovery Big Year Recap

Kelley NunnRecovery Big Year

Hiking at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Reflecting on my 2015 Recovery Big Year

Kayaking at Lums Pond State Park, DE

Kayaking at Lums Pond State Park, DE

Birding is a remarkably motivating hobby that has prompted me to wake up before dawn to go searching for migrant songbirds, to stand in the gusty winds and heavy rains of a hurricane awaiting bird fallouts, or to scan flocks of Canada Geese for rarities in the chilling snowfall of a Nor’easter. So when it came to starting the process of recovering after being disabled for months from undiagnosed vestibular migraine and POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), looking to birding as a source of inspiration was a natural starting point. I started to think about big years, in which birders push the boundaries of how many species they can tally in a single year within a specific geographic area, and came up with the idea to push my physical limits through birding by undertaking a Recovery Big Year. I sifted through the numbers and thought back to my experiences in birding in 2013 and 2014, and composed a list of 7 simple goals for what I hoped to achieve as a birder in 2015, of which I was fortunate enough to complete 5. But the last year in birding has been about so much more than these goals– it’s about gaining confidence in my physical capabilities, starting to drive again, walking without assistance, strengthening my heart, practicing head-turning and eye-tracking, and increasing my balance by walking on non-paved trails and kayaking. I’m excited for you to read about the strides I’ve made in birding and health in my review of my 2015 Recovery Big Year.

Goals for my 2015 Recovery Big Year, in Review:

Visit over 100 unique birding locations

YES! I was lucky enough to be able to visit 117 unique birding locations in 2015– a 50% increase from 78 locations in 2014! What excites me even more than the numbers is comparing the visualization of my birding range in 2014 vs. 2015 (seen below). When I was unable to drive or walk unassisted in 2014, the vast majority of my bird watching was done within Chester County. On a few occasions, particularly later in the year, I was able to visit car-accessible locations like Bombay Hook NWR, which expanded my overall range for 2014 from only a 15 mile radius to about 25 miles.

In 2015, I was able to do far more! From the sheer number of blue point markers on the map to the left below, you can see how many places I was able to bird. And to make things even better, I was able to drive myself to everywhere in Chester County! My travel radius on this map was over 90 miles– a huge improvement from only 25 miles– with the furthest birding location being the Indian River Inlet in southern Delaware! I am so thankful for all of the amazing birding hotspots I was able to visit this year and how much of the natural world I was able to explore and discover.

2015 Recovery Big Year Birding Range Map - Blue circle showing range in 2015 vs 2014 (in red)

2015 Recovery Big Year Birding Range Map – Circles Showing Range in 2015 (blue) vs 2014 (red)
117 locations total

2014 Birding Range Map - Red circle showing range in 2014 vs 2015 (in blue)

2014 Birding Range Map – Circles indicating range in 2014 (red) vs 2015 (blue)
78 locations total

See at least 250 species of birds

I was thrilled to make it to 251 species for 2015! That’s 38% more than I got in 2014, when I tallied only 181. While 251 isn’t much compared to most big year totals, I am absolutely ecstatic about being able to see so many species in a single year! In thinking about my goals for 2016, I plan to focus on visiting new locations, being able to physically exert myself more (like climbing up to the hawk watch at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, or kayaking around Chester County and Delaware), and just simply enjoying life.

Add 10 new species to my life list

Woohoo! I added not 10, but 15 birds to my life list this year!! That’s a lot, especially considering I only added 3 back in 2014, and that life birds are harder to come by the longer you bird. I think my favorite life bird(s) for the year were the Snow Buntings Hannah Greenberg and I went to see at Fort Dupont State Park in DE, because I can remember so clearly how difficult and scary the 0.1 mile walk, or shuffle, from the car to the buntings was for sick me. The same goes for the Long-eared Owls we went to see at Coverdale Farm Preserve (private property) in Hockessin, DE– I hadn’t walked that far in almost a year, and was so tremendously rewarded by the experience of seeing the birds and achieving something so personally unattainable.

Species I added to my life list in 2015 included:

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl at Longwood Gardens in 2015 (my favorite photo of the year)
This species was life bird #2 for my 2015 Recovery Big Year list, when I was lucky enough to see a roosting group at Coverdale Farm in DE thanks to Jim White.

To submit over 500 eBird checklists

Accomplished! I ended up submitting 636 eBird checklists in 2016; that’s an average of nearly two per day! Each checklist represents an instance in which I was able to go birding, whether it be from my yard, from a local preserve, or from a birding hotspot over two hours away. I am so happy that I was able to spend so much time birding this year! Last year, when I was suffering from undiagnosed vestibular migraine and POTS, there were too many days in which I was unable to go outside, watch the feeders from a chair by my bedroom window, or sometimes even sit up in bed. On my good days, I could make it out to the porch, but tracking the birds with my eyes made me endlessly dizzy for hours or days. Coming from this awfulness, being able to watch birds in any form over 600 times in a single year is a stunning improvement!

Complete all eBird monthly challenges for 2015

I did it! I really really love these eBirder of the month challenges, and have made a point of completing each one since I first came across this fantastic program– sponsored by Zeiss Sports Optics, one of my Recovery Big Year sponsors– in mid-2014. In addition to getting me out of the house and into the field, these challenges help to improve my birding, observing, and eBirding skills. My favorite monthly challenge of the year was December’s, in which you had to submit 15 checklists containing rich media, like photos or audio recordings. Here are some of my favorite photos from 2015 below:

Northern Bobwhite at Bombay Hook NWR, DE

Northern Bobwhite at Bombay Hook NWR, DE

Flyover Forster's Tern at Indian River Inlet

Flyover Forster’s Tern at Indian River Inlet

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Longwood Gardens

Yellow-rumped Warbler at Longwood Gardens

Go on a pelagic birding trip

2015 was just too early for this goal to become a reality. The closest I was able to manage was the half hour I spent on a water taxi in search of a Brown Booby during my Impromptu Big Weekend. I doubt that a 12-hour pelagic boat tour will be possible even in 2016, but I’m hoping I can start out with smaller, similar trips like riding the Cape May-Lewes ferry, going on a whale watching boat, or taking a short 2-3 hour pelagic trip.

Bird in at least 8 states around the U.S.

Unfortunately, I got a bit ahead of myself with this goal, and ended up birding in only 3 states this year (Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland). When I came up with these personal goals back in early 2015, I had no idea if I would be 100% back to normal or still bedridden by the end of the year. Turns out I ended about somewhere in the middle– I estimate my recovery at this point to be about 35% complete. Perhaps this will make a good goal for Recovery Big Year 2016!

Saying Goodbye to RBY 2015

Hiking at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hiking Down the Mountain at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA

Reviewing my accomplishments from my 2015 Recovery Big Year make me feel as though I’ve achieved the unachievable. From my first bird walk on a non-paved trail to driving myself an hour to see a Rufous Hummingbird, 2015 has been a remarkable year of progress and change for my physical health. I’ve seen my condition improve in ways I feared were utterly impossible. I’ve been lucky enough to witness mind-blowing natural spectacles like the shorebird migration feeding frenzy along the Delaware Bayshore and raptor migration in the Appalachian Mountains at Hawk Mountain, along the peninsula at Turkey Point MD, and from the sand dunes of Cape Henlopen.

In saying goodbye to my 2015 Recovery Big year, I wanted to thank all of the people who have helped to make my these seemingly impossible goals a reality:

First and foremost, I want to thank my good friend Hannah Greenberg for driving countless hours to many of these amazing locations, for being an endless source of encouragement and support, and for believing that my recovery was a possibility. Thank you to my mom, Ellen Nunn, for helping to prepare food before and after these big trips! (Because I am 100% compliant with the migraine trigger avoidance diet, I have an incredibly restricted diet, and am unable to eat anything other than what is carefully prepared at home.) Thank you to my dad, Michael Nunn, for driving me to some of these locations, like Bombay Hook NWR for the DOS Shorebird Trip! I also wanted to say thanks to my sister, Kristen Nunn, for coming birding with me from time to time, and for believing in my RBY and the MMB website!

Thank you to my birding friends and colleagues, who have helped me in their guidance, encouragement, and kindness (in no particular order): Holly Merker, Larry Lewis, Molly Daly, Derek Stoner, Mike Gardner, Bill Stewart, Anthony Gonzon, Chris Bennett, Patrick Millar, Ian Stewart, Dan Walker, Joe Sebastiani, Jim White, Kim Steininger, Andy Urquhart, Rick Robinson, Frank Rohrbacher, Hank Davis, Sally O’Byrne, Erik Enbody, Ian Davies, and Marshall Iliff.

And last, but not least, thank you to my sponsors, the Delmarva Ornithological Society and Zeiss Sports Optics, for supporting my Recovery Big Year and My Migraine Brain endeavors!

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