Prior to 2016, I had only been on a plane several times in my life. The last time I'm thinking of was when I was a little kid and before I had reached any double-digits age wise. 2016's birding led me to some crazy goals. I took four trips out of state during the year that required me to travel via airplane, all because of birding reasons. I will admit that before my first flight, I had always been scared of flying. There's no for sure facts or explanation of why I was afraid of flying, I just was. Fear is never a good excuse to keep us from what we want to do in life, and luckily, I didn't let that fear take over the ambition I had inside of me to travel. While I'm not a man who is made of money, I do spend most of my money on experiences and I make sure those experiences are ones that will last. They do say this tactic results in averages of more fulfilled and happier people, and I'd have to agree. During every year in my birding career, I usually come up with a major goal along with several "side goals". The major goal usually involves something that I am very passionate about and I have to come up with detailed plans, money put aside, patience, stamina, and strategy. 2016's major goal was something I didn't think I'd be attempting, and that was to see and photograph every species of owl that breed in North America. The goal was named T.O.B.Y.: Tommy's Owl Big Year.
North America is home to 19 species of breeding owls. These owls are a diverse family, and come in all different looks, shapes, sizes, and plenty of other things. A worldwide scale of owls results in over two hundred species, and these birds who are incredible hunters, inhabit every part of the world except Antarctica. Owls have intrigued man kind for centuries. They can be described as magnificent and beautiful to ghostly and haunting. Because of the nocturnal habits that most owls favor, a lot remains in question about these mysterious birds. Finding them requires a lot of experience, strategy, and patience, as well as a good flashlight. Perhaps that is why I like owls so much, is because of the challenges that most of them represent. Out of the 19 owls in North America, I wouldn't call any two species the same as far as finding them is described. Every species brings something different to the table, and these owls range from extremely easy to find to very difficult to find. The Big Year is overplayed in North America now. It seems as if the record becomes more attainable year after year. Four birders broke the 2013 Big Year record that is highly talked about, and some of them even smashed that 2013 Big Year record that is highly talked about. While I don't have the desire as well as the money to attempt a North American Birding Big Year, I decided that an Owl Big Year for North America's Owls was something that would be both adventurous and something that I could afford. Focusing my attention for a Big Year on one awesome family of birds was something awesome for me to do that hardly anyone else has done. Although Tommy's Owl Big Year came on a much smaller scale than other big years, it had small pieces of what every Big Year is like on a grand scheme of things.
Why Owls? In 2015, owling became my favorite form of birding. I love challenges, and owls became that challenge to find in my birding life. The field became my hangout for many nights from deserts to forests where I studied, looked for, listened to, and photographed these mysterious avian predators. I learned a lot each night when in the field, and some owls gave me more trips to find them with success than others did. Before I knew it, I had seen and photographed all thirteen of Arizona's Owls. When this adventure came about, I wanted it to go beyond Arizona. But Arizona was the place to start, and many of 2015's memories led to an unforgettable quest I would seek out in 2016. Here are a few of those 2015 highlights..
When 2016 began, I left home chasing rarities around my home county, Maricopa. I was entertaining the idea of another Maricopa County Big Year, something I did in the years of 2010 and 2011. Bird chases of 2015's leftovers filled the first week of 2016 before I realized I didn't want to attempt a Maricopa County Big Year at that time. I had no idea what my main goal was for the year. With a trip coming up to Minnesota at the end of January, several northern owls: Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy; were all on my mind. I was hoping for those three owls to the highest point possible. At that point and time, they were three of my most wanted birds in North America. The focus was to get them, and within the first month of 2016 I wasn't thinking that I would be going all out in an extreme adventure to see and photograph every breeding owl in North America. During the first part of January while I was Maricopa County listing, I was walking around Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler with my friend Melissa, and I spied this Great Horned Owl sitting in a willow. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it would be the very first owl of many owls in a life changing ride....