SNAP! How I Photographed 585 Species in One Year to Benefit Hawaiian Birds

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik captured on film during his 2013 big year. (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

Whiskered Screech-Owl, one of the 585 bird species David Pavlik photographed during his 2013 "big year." (All photos in this post by David Pavlik.)

By David Pavlik, graduate student in Conservation Biology, University of Minnesota

Wow, what a year. From Northern Hawk Owl to Great Kiskadee, my 2013 “photographic big year”—focused on raising funds for ABC to help out Hawai'i's endangered bird species—exceeded expectations in every way thanks to so many bird enthusiasts, and maybe including some of you!

Back at the beginning of 2013, I made a plan to travel a lot, taking photos of different species of birds. I asked potential supporters to consider donating either a flat amount for the year-long campaign or a set amount for each species of bird that I photographed.

My target was to photograph 500 distinct species—and I am pleased to announce that I exceeded that goal. The final tally was 585 different species photographed and a whopping chunk of change to help out the birds: almost $6,000!

I initially thought that I might get a few pledges from some close friends, and maybe a few more from conservation-minded birders. As the year went on, it quickly became obvious that there was much more support for this type of project than I thought. ABC promoted the project in newsletters and on Facebook; articles were written in local newspapers; and eBird supported the project with an article on their home page.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Elegant Trogon, a sought-after species photographed in southeastern Arizona.

Following all that help, the pledges started rolling in, and my big year was on its way to becoming a success.

Zig-Zag Route from Michigan to California

My big year started in Michigan. Winter birding in Michigan can be tough, but I made a trip to the Upper Peninsula where I photographed some great birds including Northern Hawk Owl, Snowy Owl, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Hoary Redpoll.

At the end of January, I headed south to Florida for my job working with Brown-headed Nuthatches at Tall Timbers Research Station. I left a week early and birded from northern Florida down to the Everglades, then back up to the Panhandle. This was a tremendously successful week and I picked up some great birds including Western Spindalis and La Sagra's Flycatcher. Sticking around Florida until early May meant I hit peak migration in the Panhandle and, before returning to Michigan, I had already photographed 300 species of birds.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of Western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

Green-tailed Towhee, a colorful resident of western sagebrush and shrub habitats.

After Florida, I had a few free weeks before I needed to head out west for my summer field job. I used my frequent flyer miles to catch a flight to Alaska to attend the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, where I photographed some tough-to-find species including Yellow-billed Loon, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Tern, Marbled and Kittlitz's  murrelets, Pacific Golden-Plover, Eurasian Wigeon, and Aleutian Tern.

The rest of my summer was spent in the Great Basin of Nevada and California conducting butterfly surveys. My friend and fellow Michigan birder Kevin Welsh and I drove to Nevada, making a small detour to southeast Arizona. We saw most of the Arizona specialties including Montezuma Quail, Mexican Chickadee, Scott's Oriole, and Elf Owl.

Best of the Big Year: Hawaiian Petrel

Of course, while in the Great Basin, I paid attention to the birds (not just butterflies) and spent my free days chasing birds all over California.  I even managed to get on two pelagic trips. The highlight of my year came on a trip out of Monterey Bay with Shearwater Journeys, where we saw a Hawaiian Petrel! This endangered Hawaiian species is extremely rare off the California coast and was a life bird for just about everyone on board.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel, photographed off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

The rare Hawaiian Petrel off the coast of California—the highlight of the year.

Next, I talked myself into making a long drive over to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. This was another successful trip, where I found two Himalayan Snowcock, many Black Rosy-Finches with young, Dusky Grouse, and Ferruginous Hawk.  At this point, I had already passed my goal of 500 birds and still had big plans for the rest of the year.

Ending with a Bang in the Rio Grande

It was mid-August by the time my job ended and it was nearly time to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Luckily, there were still plenty of common birds for me to photograph during fall migration in Minnesota. I picked up new birds in Duluth, Minneapolis, and at Sax-Zim Bog, including Winter Wren, Northern Goshawk, Great Grey Owl, and Philadelphia Vireo.

Great Grey Owl, North America's largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

Great Grey Owl, North America's largest owl species. This photo was taken at Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota.

With the year winding down, along with my first semester of grad school, I booked a flight to south Texas. What better way to end the year than with a winter trip to the Rio Grande Valley? I spent four days birding with my friend Mike Lester and we did really well, picking up Muscovy Duck, Tropical Parula, and many South Texas specialties like Green Jay, Great Kiskadee, Common Pauraque, and Audubon's Oriole.

Ongoing Inspiration, An Invitation

In addition to thanking all the individual supporters, ABC, and eBird, I also want to thank Debi Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys for donating  the pelagic trip out of Monterey Bay, where the photograph of a Hawaiian Petrel became the highlight of my year.

This project has inspired me to continue raising money for conservation. If anyone is interested in buying a high-quality, matted print of any of the pictures taken on my photographic big year, I'll donate a portion of all profits to ABC to support even more Hawaiian bird conservation. (Did you know that Hawai'i is the bird extinction capital of the United States?) Prints won't be available for all photos due to image quality, but contact me at and I'll see what I can do.

I was incredibly fortunate to visit many great birding spots and had some good friends to keep me going throughout the year. And of course, this project certainly wouldn't have been possible without the wonderful conservation-minded supporters who donated to this cause. Thanks to all!

David Pavlik graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in zoology. He has done bird research in Florida, Arizona, California, Nevada, Wyoming, Michigan, and Alaska. He is now a first-year graduate student in the Conservation Biology program at the University of Minnesota.