Tiffany Kersten drove east through Kansas at a perilous speed, racing toward Wichita. She nervously tapped her fingers against the steering wheel. Over the past two days of driving, starting in Colorado, she’d watched the Rocky Mountains recede in her rearview mirror; now she passed through a sea of sere plains. After four hours on the road, she’d made it all the way to the outskirts of Wichita—and slowed down considerably—when she noticed a county sheriff’s patrol car tailing her. Damn!
Kersten watched cautiously, driving with care. She slowed her rental SUV, hoping the officer would speed past. For a moment, it seemed he would. But he flicked on his lights. Kersten’s stomach rolled, and she gripped the wheel nervously.
Pulling over to the shoulder, she took a deep breath. She couldn’t afford to get a ticket. She had no job and was burning through her savings to pay for this trip. What worried her more was that only a few hours of daylight remained. If she were going to see this thing through, she had to go—now. The police officer approached her window.
“Are you looking for the flycatcher?” he asked.
In fact, she was. After flying from her home, in the Rio Grande Valley town of Mission, to Denver, Kersten had driven 250 miles to Kansas in search of birds, including a rare species called the fork-tailed flycatcher. She hoped to check it off her Big Year list—a birdwatching term for the effort to spot as many species as possible in a calendar year. Kersten was chasing a sighting that someone had posted earlier that day on eBird, an online database, indicating that a flycatcher might still be hanging out along this stretch of highway. To her surprise and relief, the officer explained that he too was a birder. He’d even been the one to post the sighting. Because this stretch of road had already drawn other birders in search of the flycatcher, and because Kersten had been driving slowly near the spot where the bird had recently appeared, the officer had pulled her over on a hunch. Instead of writing her a ticket, he gave her detailed instructions to the exact location where he’d seen the flycatcher and wished her luck.
For those who love birds, the romance of birdwatching is self-evident. Birds are some of the oldest animal species alive—little dinosaurs that perch in your backyard. They are wildly varied, beautiful, musical, and often easy to spot. With a whopping 659 species, Texas is host to a stunning array of birds; nationally, we’re bested only by (sigh) California. When COVID-19 hit, visits to birding websites soared, as did purchases of gear. One birdseed vendor reported that sales spiked by roughly 50 percent from 2019 to 2020, while amateur naturalists broke an eBird record by logging more than two million observations on the site in a single day. Even as pandemic restrictions eased, birding seems to have maintained its surge in popularity. More Americans than ever now care about birds and the habitats they depend on.
Millions of birders track their sightings on eBird, which also contributes to scientists’ knowledge of where each species travels. The site gives every birder an individual tally, creating a national leaderboard and gamifying the experience. Kersten, in her mad dash from Texas to Colorado to Kansas, was taking that game to its ultimate level. By that day last April when she was heading to Wichita, she’d already spent more than two months racking up bird sightings, airline and rental car miles, and credit card debt. She still had eight months to go. This surreal moment, chatting on the side of the road with a birdwatcher cop in rural Kansas, was just one step forward in a quixotic attempt to do something no one else had done before—spot more than 724 different species across the Lower 48 in a single year.
Two months earlier, Kersten was unemployed, stressed about paying her mortgage, and still reeling from the emotional distress she had suffered since being sexually assaulted in 2018. The then 34-year-old had recently lost her job at the McAllen Nature Center and felt adrift personally and professionally.
With no real plans other than trying to make some money, Kersten started guiding small birdwatching tours in South Texas. She’d led sporadic birding trips over the past ten years, and this freelance work seemed like a good way to help pay the bills.
As luck would have it, one of her first clients was an avid birder named Charlie Bostwick, who was visiting Texas while working on a Big Year. As they traveled across the Rio Grande Valley looking for green jays and great kiskadees, Kersten confided in him about the transition she was going through. Bostwick suggested that she go for a Big Year too.
She immediately rejected the idea. “I have a house. I need to get a job. I need to get my life in order,” Kersten thought. “I can’t just run around the country looking at birds.”
Even beyond these impracticalities, Kersten had never been interested in the scorekeeping aspect of a Big Year. When she was growing up in small-town Kaukauna, Wisconsin, her interest in nature had always been more contemplative than competitive. Her parents, a stay-at-home mom and a carpenter, would send her and her three brothers outside to entertain themselves. She often collected toads or crushed up blades of grass into a chlorophyll goo. During fishing trips with her dad, he would point out the difference between terns and gulls as they waited for their lines to tighten. At age twelve, she fell in love with birds while watching the mating rituals of sandhill cranes in the central Wisconsin wetlands.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from Northland College, in Ashland, Wisconsin, Kersten began to seriously consider birding as a career. She spent a fall interning on a hawk-watching platform in Cape May, New Jersey; placed tracking bands on birds as part of a Michigan Tech program in Hawaii; and eventually came to Texas for a job at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. In college, she’d often driven around with an old CD of birdsongs playing on the stereo, not only to hone her identification skills but also to bring the forest with her. Many birders view a Big Year as a bucket-list achievement, not unlike a casual runner hoping to someday complete a marathon. Kersten had never seen the appeal.
Then, about a month after meeting Bostwick, during a dry spell between guiding gigs, Kersten went camping alone at Franklin Mountains State Park, in West Texas. She spent a few nights under the stars, looking for birds during the day and warming up canned minestrone in the evening. When it came time to leave, she hopped in her car and headed out of the campground at dawn. Just then, a covey of scaled quail exploded out of the brush and zipped past her into the morning sky. She felt it was a profound sighting—as though they’d been waiting for her.
That moment convinced Kersten that if there were ever a time to do a Big Year, it was now. On February 10, with only five days of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a tent packed into her little purple Chevy Spark, she set off west across the desert toward California. She realized the journey didn’t have to be all about checking boxes. Instead, maybe it was a chance to take on a real adventure and feel alive again. Kersten started a blog to chronicle her Big Year, later writing, “I was unemployed, I was seeking birds, I was free.”
In contrast to the serene, meditative approach taken by many casual birdwatchers, Big Years are fast-paced, intense, and expensive. Birders follow a checklist of 1,128 accepted species compiled by the American Birding Association. Those pursuing a Lower 48 Big Year crisscross the contiguous United States, much like the migratory species they’re chasing, in an attempt to spot as many as possible. (There’s no one standard way to do a Big Year; other birders tackle all 50 states, Canada, or even the globe.) The first few hundred birds come easily, but each passing species is more difficult to find. To track down the last few dozen, Big Year birders rely on reports from other avian fanatics to chase rare sightings across the country—often buying same-day plane tickets, spending hours in airports and rental cars, and sinking thousands of dollars into meals and hotels, all with the understanding that each feathered quarry could soar away moments before they arrive. All sightings are on the honor system, but Big Year birders make every effort to document their finds on eBird with photos and locations. There’s no prize money on the line, and the pursuit is ultimately a loosely organized personal challenge. The most-comprehensive records of Big Years are kept by a trumpet player in Chicago, another birding fanatic who has taken on the role of volunteer record-keeper.
Hundreds of Americans have done a Big Year—the feat was even the subject of an eponymous 2011 movie starring Jack Black, Dallas native Owen Wilson, and Waco-born Steve Martin—but few have made it into the big leagues. Only thirteen birders have spotted more than seven hundred species during a Big Year in the Lower 48. “You clean up the easy birds throughout the year,” says Greg Neise, a staff member with the ABA. “But by the time you get to mid-November, any bird you add is going to be extremely rare.”
Kersten enjoyed one big advantage over competitors from other states: she lives in South Texas. The region is an international birding mecca, the northern extent of the tropical climes of Central America. It’s a migratory stopover point with a huge coastline and a rich mix of ecological influences from the eastern and western United States. Few places in the nation can rival the density and diversity of birds in the Rio Grande Valley, especially in April, when migration is at its peak. Of the approximately 1,100 species of birds that spend all or part of their lives in the United States, more than 500 have been spotted in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Big Year birders can count all sightings in any single calendar year; a brief trip to Florida in January, combined with her guiding jobs, had already given Kersten 286 species even before her West Texas camping trip. She decided to try to hit the 700 mark—more species than she had seen in her entire 22-year birding career—by the end of December 2021.
Kersten chose Arizona for her first birdwatching foray outside Texas. There, doubt began to creep in. A windstorm near Phoenix forced her to abandon plans to camp. She spent a few hours calling around, looking in vain on the outskirts of the city for a hotel room before realizing it was Valentine’s Day. Ultimately, she shelled out $212 for a suite at a Best Western Plus in Scottsdale—the only open room for miles. She wasn’t even sure which birds to target next. “I didn’t have a plan at all,” Kersten says.
Still, her species list was growing: sagebrush sparrow, violet-crowned hummingbird, Williamson’s sapsucker, rufous-backed robin. Although the listing aspect of a Big Year had never spoken to Kersten, the pursuit wasn’t entirely out of character. Friends describe her as driven; Kersten says “addictive” is more accurate. Prior to the pandemic, she had been training single-mindedly to compete on American Ninja Warrior. Before that, she spent years traveling around Texas on Latin dance teams. She has even competed in target archery. When Kersten’s passionate about something, she falls for it completely—but that’s not to say she does everything full throttle. Thoughtful and introverted, she doesn’t own a TV and prefers listening to an audiobook over going to the movies. And she’s extremely capable, especially when it comes to bird spotting.
Kersten decided to continue driving west, seeing the California gnatcatcher and western gulls around the Salton Sea, snowy plovers and marbled murrelet on the California coast. While there, she read a post from a woman who said she had been sexually assaulted while birding. The allegations brought back frightening memories. About two years earlier, Kersten says, an authority figure had sexually assaulted her at a private ranch in the Rio Grande Valley, and she’d been struggling with post-traumatic stress and anxiety ever since. “I had felt nervous at times, but it was manageable,” Kersten wrote in her blog. “With this news, it suddenly felt less manageable.”
Camping in remote locations made her feel exposed. Kersten imagined her car breaking down and felt her stomach jump into her throat. Whenever she encountered a man on a trail while out birding, it was all she could do to stop from sprinting in the other direction. Once, at a parking lot on top of a mountain, Kersten saw two men smoking cigarettes by their car, and she nearly had a panic attack. “Am I being stupid, just asking for something bad to happen, or am I brave?” Kersten wrote. “Where is the line?”
Beneath her fear was a deep frustration. Kersten just wanted to look at birds. Why was she instead stuck constantly running through a safety checklist? Look in the back seat. Don’t walk alone at night. Keep your keys in hand in case you need to use them as a weapon. It was unfair.
When an ad for a personal safety alarm popped up in her social media feed, it got her thinking. What if her Big Year was about more than just birdwatching? Kersten knew better than most the fear that came with traveling alone as a woman, birding in isolated places. But she also knew that these experiences were life-affirming and healing. Maybe she could give these alarms to women she met out on the road, in some small way helping them feel safe to pursue their own adventures. Kersten sent a message to the company, serendipitously called She’s Birdie, proposing the idea, and a marketing representative promptly agreed to partner with her. On March 8, International Women’s Day, she launched a fund-raising page for the alarms and her travels.
As Kersten made her way up the West Coast, she was surprised by the friendliness of the women she met. Handing out alarms to fellow travelers, she sparked conversations about not just safety but other shared experiences: adventure, isolation, natural beauty, and birds. The open road began to feel more welcoming than threatening. Female birders she connected with on Facebook frequently offered Kersten a place to stay when she came through their towns.
After three and a half weeks, she headed home to work a few more guiding gigs, spotting new birds along the way: a red-headed woodpecker near College Station, a red-vented bulbul in Houston, whooping cranes on the Gulf Coast near Rockport. So far, Kersten had been birding by the seat of her pants. Now it was time to get organized. She made spreadsheets of target birds, timelines, locations, and backup locations. She sorted birds by geography and rarity. But Kersten wasn’t sure where all this work was leading. “I still figured at some point I was going to have to quit and give into real-life responsibilities,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Is this worth going into debt for?’ ”
But within weeks, she was back on the road, spending dozens of nights sleeping beneath the stars, tracking the phases of the moon. The radio in her car was broken, so Kersten often drove in silence, learning to keep herself company. In May, camped out in a canyon called California Gulch during a second trip to Arizona, she spent an idyllic afternoon drinking wine with birdwatching friends. In September Kersten flew back to the West Coast to see species she’d missed in the spring. Once, in a grove of redwoods, on a whim, she shed her clothes and walked naked among the giant trees. She knew that she was healing. “How lucky am I to be spending my days,” she wrote, “not unlike the birds, wherever the wind takes me.”
Most songbirds migrate at night. During the day, they bide their time in some thick clutch of brush or on the limb of a great oak tree, puff out their feathers, and chirp quietly against the wind. It’s only when the stars emerge that migratory birds set out, following a primordial imperative to trace sweeping arcs for thousands of miles, back and forth across and between continents.
These birds do not make a permanent home. Researchers are still unraveling the mystery of how exactly birds navigate on their long-distance flyways, but they believe that the creatures follow the positions of the stars. Migratory birds also tap into the earth’s magnetic field to track their location and destination. Eventually, they return to where they started. In a calm spot at night, during Texas’s peak migration season of April and May, if you listen closely, you’ll hear songbirds far above you, singing in the darkness.
Sadly, that sound has become harder to detect. Even as more and more Americans are taking up birdwatching, there are fewer and fewer birds. A 2016 census survey estimated that more than 45 million Americans take part in birdwatching. However, according to a 2019 study, North America has almost three billion fewer birds today than in 1970. The loss of habitat to urban sprawl and farming, along with increased use of pesticides and herbicides—which can kill or poison insects and plants that birds eat—has led to a 29 percent decline in North American bird populations over the past fifty years. Kenneth Rosenberg, a retired conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and a lead author of the 2019 study, says, “That’s a net result across all North American birds, which is pretty dire.”
That reality places birders in the position of serving either as witnesses to the decline of something beautiful or as advocates for measures to reverse the trend. Some of the birds that Kersten was searching for throughout her Big Year, such as the short-tailed albatross, may not be around much longer. “You drive through these sprawling cities, and you know at one point it was just wild mountains and nature,” says Kersten. “It feels very special to see a bird that so few people may be able to.”
The good news, though, is that most birders are enthusiastic and informed. They can make small changes that have a big cumulative impact, including planting native flora in their backyards. (Native plants host as many as twenty times the number of insects as non-natives; they also provide food for birds through their seeds and the nectar in their flowers.) Although much habitat loss is probably permanent, as people clear forests and grasslands for residential and commercial development, birds continue to do well in preserved natural areas. “If we want people to care about bird decline, getting them out birding is a great way to do that,” says Maureen Frank, an assistant professor and wildlife specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. She points out that there is no barrier to entry: fancy binoculars and cameras are optional. “The bottom line is, if you are identifying birds, seeing birds, caring about birds and their conservation, then you’re a birder.”
By the end of February 2021, Kersten had ticked off 445 birds. After she sailed on birding boats to find offshore species in California, Virginia, and Oregon, her count grew: 503 birds by April 1, then 603 by May 17. She took road trips through Colorado and quick flights to Orlando. Catching just a few hours of sleep over several days in August, Kersten woke up in the back seat of a rental car near Mount Rainier, drove four hours in the dark to the Oregon coast, looked at a tufted puffin for fifteen minutes, drove back to Seattle, and caught a flight to Philadelphia. The next day she drove to Delaware to glimpse a curlew sandpiper and a little egret, a small, delicate heron with a slender beak. She had never seen the latter bird in her life, and it was wildly beautiful. But within hours Kersten was heading back to Philadelphia and hopping on a plane to Phoenix.
Even with all her planning, many of Kersten’s sightings were pure serendipity, a snap decision to go in one direction rather than another. Plenty of times, Kersten counted on luck—that the bird wouldn’t fly away before she arrived. But she made her own luck too. A rare degree of skill is required to find so many birds in so many wildly varied environments. Kersten had developed a preternatural ability to identify minute details; she could distinguish the feather shaft of a gilded flicker from that of a northern flicker. In an effort to spot nocturnal species, Kersten would set an alarm to go off multiple times throughout the night. She’d wake up and lie silently in her tent, wearily listening for owl calls.
On October 2, thanks to a blue-footed booby she spotted off the coast of California, Kersten finally hit 700 species—her original goal. The all-time record in the Lower 48 was 724, set by Ohioan and Navy veteran Jeremy Dominguez the year before. Although Kersten had never intended to break any records, the number suddenly seemed attainable. “At that point, a record wasn’t super likely, but it was possible,” Kersten says. At the same time, though, she was tired of camping and living out of her car. She missed her rescue mutt, Puppet. And she’d spent more than $15,000 on travel expenses, draining her savings and GoFundMe donations and maxing out an American Airlines credit card. The rational thing to do, clearly, was head home—so that’s what she did.
Kersten arrived back in Mission to find that her house’s air-conditioning was out and that one of her tires had a slow leak. In total, she had been on the road for more than a hundred nights. Now she was going into debt to do this damn thing. Sure, she loved seeing spectacular birds and technicolor sunsets. But much of the time, her Big Year felt like a grind. She’d usually hike no more than a few miles, spending the majority of her waking hours on highways and at rest stops, sometimes traveling all day just to glimpse a bird for a few seconds. The isolation weighed heavily on her too. Missing her friends, Kersten had sometimes found herself sobbing in her car. Her world had become a loop of unfamiliar places and endless identifications.
Almost as soon as Kersten was back home, her phone lit up with texts from friends in Sacramento and Humboldt notifying her of two rare species—an emperor goose and a dusky warbler—that had popped up in Northern California. Kersten wasn’t sure she wanted to keep going. She’d already set an impressive record, one that only thirteen birders could claim. Seven hundred, said a voice in her head, was more than respectable.
But another voice reminded her that seven hundred wasn’t the all-time record. With a record, Kersten would be making a powerful statement about the capabilities of female birders. She’d been on enough nature walks to see how common it was for male guides to steamroll women, either by talking over or ignoring them. More women than men partake in casual birdwatching, but that proportion flips in competitive settings. According to studies of gender differences in birdwatching, although men and women report similar levels of commitment to the sport, men are far more likely to go on birdwatching trips, purchase equipment, and claim a high level of proficiency.
Throughout the year, whether at the rim of a canyon in Arizona or in a forest in Maine, there were moments when Kersten felt moved to tears by the joy and wonder she felt. For a long time after her assault, she’d worried that she wouldn’t be able to experience these emotions anymore. Now she had encountered something larger than herself, and she wanted to encourage other women to pursue that feeling. “In the interest of self-preservation,” she wrote, “we as women are repeatedly missing out on solo experiences that have the power to make us feel fully alive.”
This revelation, more than any sense of competition, was what pushed her to keep going. After two days spent hemming and hawing, Kersten bought a same-day ticket for a flight back to California. She was going for the record.
The next three months were a blur of airports and rental cars. The pursuit often felt more maddening than meaningful. Kersten would book three flights, all for the same day, to three destinations where birders had spotted species that she hadn’t yet checked off her list. She studied the latest reports online to see which bird seemed most likely to stay in the area where it had been sighted, then she’d take the flight she had reserved to that location, canceling the other two reservations. The thrill of seeing new species was tempered by an increasing sense of pressure. When she finally spotted a bird she’d been looking for, there was little excitement, just relief. Many nights, she would stay up and pray that the next bird she was seeking would fly away, so that she wouldn’t have to get on a plane at five the next morning. During a two-day stretch in November, she spent 16 hours in Florida, 3 in California, and 25 in airports and on planes. Her journey would eventually include 31 states.
On December 18, with her Big Year racing to its conclusion, Kersten found a Smith’s longspur—her 724th bird—near Tulsa. With thirteen days left, she needed to spot just one more species to break the all-time record.
That morning, she got a tip from a friend: a bat falcon had been spotted in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, south of McAllen and not thirty minutes from Kersten’s house. This was also the park where she’d worked when she first moved to Texas.
Kersten immediately boarded an afternoon flight back home, arriving in McAllen at 4:30, with only 75 minutes of sunlight remaining. The bat falcon had never been documented in the United States. It seemed too good to be true that this rare bird, in this place where Kersten had such a personal connection, could be the record-breaking species.
She pulled into the wildlife refuge and bolted from her car, rushing past other birders as she took off down the road toward an observation tower. The pressure of the past year was suddenly released into an all-out sprint, her sneakers slapping the pavement as she picked up speed. It came down to this. One year later, like a songbird, she had returned to her point of origin.
She bounded up the tower and spotted another birdwatcher with a scope trained on top of a tree. With a quick nod, he gestured for Kersten to look; she saw it immediately. The striking, velvety black bat falcon was framed perfectly in the scope, perched peacefully on a dead tree about thirty yards away. Number 725: a new Lower 48 record. (She would later add one final bird, a northern lapwing, in New Jersey.)
As the sun set, Kersten realized she was weeping. Breaking the record almost felt beside the point. “It’s about so much more than a number,” she says. “Traveling solo, connecting with woman birders along the way—it’s been a life-changing, transformative experience.” She pauses, then adds, “But I’ll never, ever do it again.”
On the morning of February 16, Kersten is pacing quietly on a stone-lined path at the Valley Nature Center. The tiny urban park in Weslaco, a half-hour drive from her home, sits just off a busy road, next to an AutoZone and a KFC—but step onto its six quiet acres and you’ll find a hidden world.
In a back garden, dense thornbush grows on either side of walking trails. Large birds called chachalacas, which look like pheasants but sound like the pterodactyls in Jurassic Park, hop among mesquite trees. Although it’s just a small piece in a patchwork of preserved bird habitat in the Rio Grande Valley, the garden is a portal into the wilderness that once characterized South Texas.
Kersten is here leading a birding tour. A couple dozen members of the Louisiana Gulf Coast Bird Club are waiting nearby, some encumbered by twenty pounds of binoculars and camera equipment. The Louisiana birders have hired Kersten to help them spot a golden-crowned warbler, a rare species roughly the size of a lemon. The bird has been seen at the nature center before, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be here today or that they’ll be able to find it.
About twenty minutes into the tour, right when everyone seems to be getting a little antsy, the group leader’s phone buzzes with a text from Kersten: she has a lead on the warbler. The Gulf Coast Birders hustle down the path until they find their guide pointing quietly into the brush.
“To the right and behind the tree,” she whispers.
There’s a sudden rush of cameras and binoculars as Kersten redirects the birders’ attention, somehow picking out the tiny creature in a tangle of branches. Then a brief moment of silence, the kind you might hear in the Louvre when a group encounters the Mona Lisa. And there it is: what looks like a small cartoon rendering of a bird, resting lightly on a twig. The golden-crowned warbler. A bright brushstroke of yellow on its chest gently rises and falls.
As the Gulf Coast Birders snap photos and jockey for position, Kersten smiles and lets out a breath.
Once everyone has their fill of the warbler, Kersten briefs the group on the identifying features of the next species, a social flycatcher. The birders take a short hike to a series of oxbow lakes near the Rio Grande. There, they fan out, looking through binoculars into the palm trees. A warm breeze carries the scent of freshly mowed grass.
After a while, Kersten hoists her four-foot-tall tripod over a shoulder and slips away from the group. She spots the flycatcher on the other side of the lakes, perched atop a leafless tree. She sets up her scope and frames the bird, which sports a yellow body and a white stripe across its head. It’s far from its home turf, which typically ranges from Brazil to central Mexico. “It’s fascinating when birds aren’t where they belong,” Kersten says. “I find myself thinking, How did they get here? Are they lost? Are they adventurous? I like to think they just want to explore.”
She looks back at the flycatcher, which cocks its head, maybe wondering how Kersten got there too.
Will McCarthy is a freelance print and audio reporter.
This article appeared in the June 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Really (Really!) Big Year.” A shorter, similar story originally published online on January 10, 2022. Subscribe today.
Additional credits: Set design: John Robinson; live birds: Sky Kings Falconry; hair and makeup: Tara Cooper; wardrobe: Cristina Bocanegra; plants: Austin Plant Supply.
video: after the big year
After taking her thousands of miles across 48 states, Tiffany Kersten’s adventure led her right back home, where she lets us tag along for a birding tour at Estero Llano Grande State Park.