Super excited to return to the Rio Grande Valley today! A favorite hotspot for Mom’s Big Year, the Valley NEVER disappoints! I’m absolutely thrilled to return to Harlingen for the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. https://www.rgvbf.org. If you haven’t experienced this incredible event, go ahead and put it on your calendar for next year!
I’ll be leading trips Thursday and Friday and will present “Mom’s Big Year” Saturday at 2pm, followed by a Big Year panel at 3:30pm. (If you’re in town, talks are FREE with your Kiskadee Pass.)
Looking forward to seeing many of you there and throughout the festival!
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms… I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” ~ Mary Oliver
This week marks one year since an unprecedented tornado tore right through our backyard. The feelings I experienced during the storm event reminded me without a spec of doubt what is truly important to me. As my life and the lives of my immediate family members passed before my eyes, everything else simply melted away from my mind. I realized in the end.. it was the journey with the people in my life~ the relationships, the experiences with them, and the connections between us all, that mattered.
Plain and simple as that.
(Check out my tornado blog post here: At that moment I knew… It went viral and was the most popular Mom’s Big Year post of 2016! I gather that people really like tornados or something. lol)
Reflecting on that surreal experience inspired me to write this blog post today, highlighting my gratitude and counting my blessings for some of the deep connections and special new friends that walked by my side during my Big Year.
On my recent trip to Maine, a friend asked me what it is that I miss most about the Big Year. I can be pretty indecisive, so much to my surprise, it took me only a split second to respond. “I miss the journey and meeting new friends like you along the way.” I answered with conviction.
During Mom’s Big Year I made every effort to grant myself the time, the space and the bandwidth to breathe in every single bird, AND to take time to appreciate every person and vista that crossed my path (unless I was running after a mega-rare bird 🙂 lol!)
And in doing all that.. I loved every. single. minute. of this journey!
I truly felt alive.
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I believe that every person crossing my path has something to teach me… and our meeting is not by accident. I honestly cannot recall a single plane trip during the Big Year where I did not learn the name of the person sitting next to me and some interesting information about them by the end of the flight.
Most recently, Don sat next to me on my flight back from Maine June 5th. He was eagerly returning from a 6-month deployment in the Middle East as a radio officer for the Army. He showed me pictures of the classic car he was going to buy when he returned to his home in upstate New York. We talked about the challenges of raising teens and the ins and outs of setting up radios and encrypted military communications. He was pleasantly surprised when he found out I was a licensed amateur radio operator and could hold my own as he described the technical parts of his job. I told him of my Big Year and why I had been visiting Maine. He told me about the birds he saw in Iraq. We talked the entire flight. Many folks could look at us and think that we had not a thing in common… but I guarantee we’d prove you wrong in a heartbeat.
The Mom’s Big Year journey contained many people, old friends and new, that played big and small parts in my travels and simply changed the course of my year for the better. They caused me to stop and take time to savor the journey in the midst of the planning and all the challenges of a Big Year. Several new friends I met in 2016 come to mind as I write this post and I cannot begin to list them all. (Many of you know who you are.) Like my steadfast old friends, these new friends made me a better person as a result of their wisdom, their unconditional support (for me and for my family) and their friendship…. Driving me to places when I could not drive myself, spending extra hours hiking miles to reach ‘just one more bird’ 🙂 , giving me little good luck charms to carry, and sending me encouraging messages to get me over that next bridge.
I am… in a word…
It’s my hope that I can give back even a fraction of the love and support that has been granted me on this journey.
I’d like to introduce you to just a couple of my special new friends I met during the course of the Big Year. They are beautiful to me inside and out and I count my lucky stars every day for having people like them (AND people like you) in my life!
This is the lovely Patti! I met Patti on one of my first local Mom’s Big Year trips. It was a Maryland ‘owl prowl’ and we had a blast! Her positive outlook and genuine love of our natural world and of learning caused us to hit it off right away! She’s a super sharp birder to boot! Read about our first time out in the field together here
Since that first day of birding together, I feel so very fortunate that Patti has become a dear friend and an awesome supporter of Mom’s Big Year. We had wonderful opportunities to bird together during the Big Year and also during the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Florida this January. I look forward to getting out in the field with her again soon and hopefully for many years to come!
Deb and I met through my Mom’s Big Year blog and I am soooo glad she reached out to me! She’s truly an inspiration! Deb lives with FSH Muscular Dystrophy and shared with me that Mom’s Big Year inspired her to stretch beyond her wildest dreams and to do her very own physically accessible mid-Atlantic Big Year! She’s in the midst of it right now and I am simply tickled to hear how well she’s doing with it! The picture of us here was taken just after my presentation to the Howard County Bird Club. Deb drove an HOUR each way at night to come see my talk and completely surprised me when she introduced herself and presented me with flowers and the sweetest of notes. I was utterly speechless and brought to tears! Deb started her blog that VERY night after hearing my talk! I encourage you to support Deb and follow along with her Big Year and check out her super-inspiring blog “Gimpy Girl Goes Birding” here—>Gimpy Girl Goes Birding
Kim is the most recent of my new friends to cross my path. After purchasing an organic farm in Pennsylvania on a whim earlier this year, she was nervous she had gotten in over her head. She shared with me that the Mom’s Big Year story empowered her and helped her to realize that she’s on the right path to success with her new endeavor. We met in person after my keynote at the Acadia Birding Festival and had another unexpected and whimsical meeting in the airport as we discovered we were on the same flight home. She then shared a more personal struggle and told me that the Mom’s Big Year story had inspired her to finally try to quit smoking once and for all. We exchanged contact info and she has committed to keeping me posted along the way. Good luck, Kim! We know it’s not going to be easy.. but we’re rooting for you and all know you can do this!!
I have learned that new friendships, deep connections, and relationships like these feed my soul. I am so thankful to every one of my friends for renewing my spirit and my passion for life during 2016 and beyond. These connections and inspiring and heart-warming stories borne out of Mom’s Big Year were honestly not something I ever anticipated. A bonus! I love that! ❤
In the end, my Mom’s Big Year bird species counts were good and actually much better than I ever guessed they would be. (Stay tuned for upcoming posts describing the cool ending to the Big Year with all the stats!)
But numbers are simply numbers, my friend..
When all is said and done, what is it that really matters?
Was it the sound sound of the Black-capped Chickadee?
the scent of the balsam fir?
the sight of the paper birch trees?
or the kindness of new friends and old that made Maine feel
Just. Like. Home to me? ❤
I was raised in Northern New Jersey where the familiar sound of the Black-capped Chickadee consistently rang out in the trees. We had a balsam fir pillow in our rec room and the scent chased you down and swirled into your head every single time you entered the space. My dad was from Michigan. He was no stranger to the Northern forests and planted a paper birch tree in our front yard. I clearly recall building my very first snowman with him in front of it.
I traveled to Maine earlier this month to serve as the keynote speaker for the Acadia Birding Festival. And to say that I was ‘over the moon excited’ about this opportunity is an understatement.
My fellow keynotes were Pete Dunne (one of my childhood birding heros) and Luke Seitz (an amazing young birder/professional guide)
From the start to the end of the festival everyone involved felt like family. Becky Marvil and her entire team of volunteers and guides is nothing short of *amazing*! I am indebted to Becky for tapping me for the festival and am truly honored to have played a part. She’s runs the event like clockwork and truly fosters a deep sense of place and community. I had heard that all was the case.. and I now know ~first-hand~ that every last bit of it is true. Special thanks to friends, Bruce and Toni Evans who looked out for me and made sure I had all the pieces in place to make it such a successful Mom’s Big Year presentation and festival for me!
I simply cannot WAIT until next year. I would pack the car now if I could! If you haven’t already~ I encourage you to check out the festival website and wonderful movie about it on its home page here: Acadia Birding Festival
I hope to see many of you there next year!
Those of you who have been following along know that I’ve been juggling working 3 days a week as a biologist at the North American Bird Banding Laboratory and 2 days a week teaching environmental science at University of Maryland. I simply love love love both jobs and wouldn’t trade either for the world.
Well, all that said, the semester snowballed this spring leaving little time for anything else and I have yet to blog about the exciting ending to Mom’s Big Year! Now things are calming down with school ending and only working 3 days a week.. so I’ll be playing catch up on the blog. BIG TIME! And I’m thrilled to have each of you following along.
Before going back to catch up.. I just couldn’t WAIT another day to blog about my trip up north to the festival!
Thanks to to all my fellow guides and festival participants for being such great team players and for making our excursions so much fun and educational for everyone! Each time I led a trip with any combination of these festival guides, I felt like we had the A-team for sure! These top-notch guides all worked hard to make the festival a super special experience for all!
The festival’s annual pelagic trip is a highlight for participants and guides alike!
On my last morning, I was fortunate to squeeze in some additional time birding with these lovely ladies!
And special thanks to Billy Helprin, Director of Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, for giving us a tour highlighting the impressive work happening throughout his preserve. The Wildlife Sanctuary serves school groups, teachers and the general public ~ engaging them in a host of citizen science programs (including monitoring Common Loon nests and territories as well as Alewife migration at several locations.) FUN! I encourage you to check out all the things that Billy and the sanctuary’s summer employee, Alex Douwes are doing to protect, preserve and enhance the Somes-Meynell watershed. Click the link below to learn more about what makes this sanctuary on Mount Desert Island such a special place… Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary Facebook page
Alex Douwes & Billy Helprin
Billy explaining the fish ladders used by Alewives during migration
Mountains. Evergreens. Rocky shores. Water.
It is beauty. tranquility. power…
To me, Maine has all the things I love.
And in a place where all these things meet…
In my mind, that’s simply magic.
As I sat gazing a trance-like gaze along the shoreline on my last evening there, my eyes dulled to a blur. I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. I felt big. I felt small… honored, humbled, filled, empty…… larger than life and smaller than a pea.. all at the same time. (This place reminds me so much of Alaska… but perhaps a non-steroidal version of Alaska, if you will. 😉 )
With all due respect to my friends and family down south… There’s no denying this girl is a Yankee through and through.
And the sights, sounds, and smells of Maine made me feel that I had finally come home. ❤
There’s SO much to share from these last few weeks, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s been a whirlwind of travel, final exams, family, friends and holidays. BIG fun!
After an amazing trip to the Rio Grande Valley in November, I stepped up the birding again in mid-December to finish the year strong. With the immeasurable help and support of family, colleagues, and friends at this crazy time of year, I felt so fortunate to squeeze in trips to Minnesota, Southern Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and an unplanned trip to my childhood home in New Jersey… all before the ball dropped. I closed out 2016 with some very exciting hits, some tough misses, and a rather exciting finish to Mom’s Big Year!
Now, I’m getting back to reality.. unpacking my suitcase and starting the laundry. I just submitted semester grades this morning.. so, this month I’ll have more time to blog and recap on what I would consider to be the best year of my life so far! It was certainly a huge year of birds.. but as you all know, for me, it was much more than birds… It was a year chock-FULL of learning, growth, love, healing, travel, adventure, new friends, old friends and family.
I am grateful. I simply couldn’t ask for more.
Speaking of which…Here’s one of my favorite songs, by Sara Evans, I Could Not Ask for More. I’ve posted it before and I’m posting again as I love it so much. I sing it to my kids and hubby all the time. It really captures how I’m feeling right now about them, and you, and my entire support network for Mom’s Big Year.
“These are the moments
I know heaven must exist
And these are the moments
I know all I need is this
I’ve found all I’ve waited for, yeah
And I could not ask for more
I could not ask for more than this time together
I could not ask for more than this time with you
And every prayer has been answered
Every dream I’ve had’s come true
Yeah, right here in this moment
Is right where I’m meant to be
Here with you here with me”
Just arrived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas today after a fantastic and VERY fruitful trip to San Diego.
I spent three full days birding, including a pelagic trip out of Mission Bay. Southern California exceeded my expectations for sure! I ticked 46 new species and brought my total to 475 for Mom’s Big Year!
Very special thanks to Steve Ritt for providing me an unbelievable amount of help and expertise to make this such an ‘over-the-top’ successful trip! And thanks to Paul Lehman for meeting up and for providing additional useful info regarding my target birds.
You may recall that I headed to Cape May on my last MBY trip just over a month ago. I’ve been doing the mom/work thing big time ever since. I took a break in the action to chase a Vesper’s Sparrow a few times and to bird our local landfill. Before I switch gears back into full-time birding mode, I thought I’d share a few pics that give you a glimpse of the “mom/work” side of Mom’s Big Year from these last few weeks.
Just landed in San Diego Friday! Three full days of birding ahead including a pelagic! Then it’s down to the Rio Grande Valley of TX for a boatload of birding, friends and hopefully BIRDS!
Well, it’s exam season in the Environmental Science class I teach.. But this round, the students aren’t the only ones being “tested.”
I’ve been wanting to tell you my MOST exciting news about my recent excursion to Cape May for the pelagic trip! I’m sorry to leave you hanging for so long. I’m sure many of you understand what I’ve been doing since my last post… I’ve been doing the ‘mom thing’ and the ‘work thing’. Next post about that coming soon. And sooner this time.. I promise!
I cannot tell you how much the texts, prayers, messages, calls, and emails of support have meant to me as I attempted this challenge and as I navigate through this year. I truly believe that the deep level of support I feel from all of you is a critical part of the healing I’m experiencing on this multifaceted ‘Big Year’ journey.
I headed back to Cape May September 17th for the rescheduled pelagic trip with See Life Paulagics out of Wildwood Crest, NJ. With a handful of exciting target birds as my carrot, this time I decided to drive a bit out of my way to attempt… <insert drum roll here> the Chesapeake Bay Bridge… AND…the Delaware Memorial Bridge before ducking my way down to Cape May.
Now, time is short and it’s getting late, so I’ll cut to the chase….
I passed my BIGGEST test of Mom’s Big Year so far….. and I did so with flying colors!
How did I do it?
My original plan was to bring a birding buddy and ask them to drive me over the bridges and highways (I had been avoiding) to get me to Cape May. But, much to my alarm, there was only ONE spot left on the pelagic when I signed up and I had to make a huge split- second decision. The one open spot was mine for the taking and would be gone in the blink of an eye. So, sweaty palms and all, I took a deep breath and went ahead and booked the reservation. As my palms got sweatier, my anxiety level increased and I started getting short of breath on the phone while reading my credit card numbers aloud to finalize the reservation. My next question was no surprise to me.. I asked about last minute cancellations and refunds.
I was looking for my exit… just in case I chickened out.
But, at that particular moment I resolved that I was not going to let my driving/bridge anxiety keep me away from the birds I wanted to see SO very much!
So, when the time came and I actually approached the bridge, I had my eye on the prize. I played my favorite music, put in bird song practice CD’s, donned my new ‘good luck’ ring, gnawed on some gummy bears and just. did. it! I crossed the Bay Bridge without any issue and a short time later, did the same over the Delaware Memorial Bridge!
And that was just the beginning. The weekend was chock full of rewards, that’s for sure!
Within a couple hours of arriving in the Cape May area, I ticked piping plover (#418) at Stone Harbor, NJ .
The overnight pelagic trip was amazing. Several folks commented that I was very brave to do an overnight trip as my first pelagic. It was ‘camping style’… so you boarded at 10:30 pm, found a spot on the deck, laid out your sleeping bag and supplies/food for the next 20 hours and “slept” until they started chumming around 4:30 am. I was super excited about the trip, but with everything I have going, I fell asleep within about a minute of my head hitting the pillow. The trip in short was awesome! I ticked 11 new species for the year and made several new and awesome birder friends to boot!
The highlight of the trip for me was Black-capped Petrel.
Here’s the list:
Special thanks to See Life Paulagics for one amazing overnight trip! The full moon, awesome birds, excellent guides, and really cool marine mammals made it particularly memorable!
And special thanks to Bill and Karen for hosting me again in Cape May for a second weekend in a row! As if that wasn’t enough to make it the perfect weekend….two more dear friends, Tom and Connie Halliwell, happened to be in Cape May, visiting from northern NJ for a butterfly field trip. They stopped by on their way out of town to say hello. It’s always a treat to see them, as Tom gets full credit for getting me hooked on birding back in 1986!
As I headed out to start my trip home, it was raining cats and dogs! Many of you know that is not enough to keep me from making one final visit to the Meadows before leaving town.
Just before the rain got really heavy and as I pulled into the lot at the Meadows, I ran into Pete Dunne. To those of you in the birding world, Pete needs no introduction.. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper and a budding environmentalist, Pete helped me pull together testimony for a public hearing in my attempt to save last tract of untouched forest in my hometown in northern NJ. To see him this morning and thank him for his support and inspiration was simply ‘icing on the cake’ to what proved to be an *unbelievable* weekend for me!
A weekend with wonderful people and amazing birds in my *favorite* place…And all this, after facing some of my demons HEAD ON!
Definitely THE highlight of Mom’s Big Year for me.
Here’s my song (see below) that gives you a slice of how I’m feeling at this incredible and pivotal moment in my Big Year journey.
Lots to do now as I leave for San Diego on Thursday!
“I’ve had the highest mountains, I’ve had the deepest rivers
You can have it all but life keeps moving
I take it in but don’t look down
‘Cause I’m on top of the world, ‘ay
I’m on top of the world, ‘ay
Waiting on this for a while now
Paying my dues to the dirt
I’ve been waiting to smile, ‘ay
Been holding it in for a while, ‘ay
Take you with me if I can
Been dreaming of this since a child
I’m on top of the world
I’ve tried to cut these corners
Try to take the easy way out
I kept on falling short of something
I coulda gave up then but
Then again I couldn’t have ’cause
I’ve traveled all this way for something
I take it in but don’t look down
‘Cause I’m on top of the world, ‘ay
I’m on top of the world, ‘ay
Waiting on this for a while now
Paying my dues to the dirt
I’ve been waiting to smile, ‘ay
Been holding it in for a while, ‘ay
Take you with me if I can
Been dreaming of this since a child
I’m on top of the world”
I’m trying this again. Last weekend’s pelagic is rescheduled for tonight and the conditions have all the makings of a great trip!
I’m heading to Cape May this morning, even though the simple thought of it makes my palms sweat, my heart race, and the hair on the back of my neck raise up. This week my driving anxiety ebbed and flowed… Some days much less comfortable than I expected after such great success last weekend.
That said, I’m still riding the wave and I’ve decided to try a route today that takes me over my biggest challenge yet on the Big Year bucket list-
the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
I need to add Piping Plover and pelagic birds to my year list.
And I’m determined to drive myself right over that stinkin’ bridge to get them.
Time is short this week, but I’ve been itching to share this post with you all! Thank you for the calls, messages and emails inquiring about how my trip to Cape May panned out.
Here’s the scoop… Bad news first..
I found myself 9 minutes outside of Cape May mid-day last Saturday and received a call from long-time friend, Bill Boyle, informing me that the Sat-Sun pelagic trip (the main reason I had done the trip) had been postponed due to high seas. 😦
<<Insert crying-like-a-baby sounds here>>
So, I may have traveled 4+ hours to get there prior to hearing this…
BUT the really good news is that I drove to Cape May…
ALL. BY. MY. SELF!
Those of you who have been following along know.. That’s a HUGE check for the MBY bucket list!
There unfortunately were not any birds I needed to chase for Mom’s Big Year in the area.. BUT I was thrilled that I had the chance to spend some time in my *favorite* place with some of my *favorite* people.
And the ‘always a treat’ flight of migrants didn’t happen the one morning I was there.. But special thanks to Vince Elia for being so very sweet to come out to meet me to go birding, even when there weren’t any birds! Depite the quiet morning, we all *beamed* ear-to-ear, as we were simply happy to be out birding Higbee together once again.
Special thanks to my dear friends, Karen Thompson and Bill Boyle for always serving as the most gracious hosts during my visits to Cape May. It’s such a treat to catch up with them and hear about all of their latest birding/nature travel adventures!
Here’s a cooperative Northern Waterthrush we enjoyed for a bit in The Meadows.
I just can’t even begin to tell you how TICKLED I was to reconnect with all the great folks from Cape May. Some of my friends there have been fixtures in the community for decades, while others are new on the scene. I even got to meet up with a local birding friend from Maryland, Kurt Schwarz, who kindly joined me to chase a salt marsh sparrow. Alas, no sparrow this time.. but smiles and laughter nonetheless.
It was super fun for me to get to spend time with Brett Ewald and Erik Bruhnke on Saturday. I knew both of them from different chapters in my life, and they both have relocated to Cape May! And to have us all meeting up in Cape May at the same time…
Well, that’s simply MAGIC to me!
Based on the concert of big smiles in this picture below…
can you see how much each of us simply loves Cape May to pieces!!!???!!
Erik, Hawk Counter extraordinaire
Nancy & Erik
I cannot close this post without telling you about the traveling part of my trip TO and FROM Cape May. I mentioned in my last post the large amount of anxiety I was feeling about doing the drive for this trip. The major highways, the bridges, the Saturday traffic… all not sitting well with me. At all..
How did it go, you ask?
Well, I was feeling some stress about the highways on the way there, so I took back roads to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. And then, when I got to the bridge…. I sailed my way over like it was NOTHING.
After 11 years, it was an anticlimactic pile of nothing.
I floated through the rest of the trip, without issue. And the trip home was even easier for me than the way over.
How did that happen?
I have absolutely NO idea, my friends. It just DID!
I’ll admit, during the last hour of my trip home, I sobbed like I haven’t sobbed in a very long time. The enormity of the transformation that had happened during my trip this weekend had finally hit me.
And this is the incredible scene I was treated to just minutes before I arrived back home.
Can I do it again this weekend for the rescheduled pelagic trip?
I have NO idea! I know this journey of healing is not over. I have felt the gnarly tendrils of anxiety creeping back as I’ve been driving highways near home this week.
BUT I do have a feeling there’s nothing…
that can keep this girl away from Cape May. 🙂
Special thanks to all of my dear family and friends who are carrying me through this amazing Big Year journey of birds, travel, self-discovery and healing. It’s not over yet and I’m certain there’s still some incredible adventures ahead. I am grateful to every one of you for following along and can truly feel the unconditional support of all my friends and family, old and new, near and far.
Special thanks to my dear and most wonderful husband, Paul. (It’s good he’s sleeping now.. because he’d never let me post this about him if he saw it…He’s so humble.) Many of you have heard me say he’s a living saint, who has made me realize this Big Year story is about SO much more than the birds. It’s truly a love story. A story about a love of birds, friends, travel, family, and an incredibly deep love between a husband and a wife. It’s a story in which a husband loves his wife so very much, that he has made a huge sacrifice in giving his wife a gift that no one else on the planet could ever give her….
the gift of a Big Year.
Here’s a link to a song below that seems fitting for how I’m feeling about you all.
I’m back from Southeastern Arizona and my head is spinning. I’ve been so busy playing catch-up, I have not yet had the time to digest the depth of this incredible trip. The desert…the night sky….the canyons….the birds….the scenery… the fun times with friends…. Continue reading →