As much as I love the snow and Maryland winters, around this time of year, I start yearning to get outside, hear the birds chirp, and breathe in some fresh air. When my friend Kari E'nama approached me about participating in a "big year," I knew this would be a great opportunity to get outside and gain a better appreciation of our local wildlife.

You may be wondering what a "big year" is. I learned about this type of friendly competition a few years ago while watching the movie "The Big Year," starring Steve Martin and Jack Black. The movie was obviously a comedy, following three men on their quest to identify as many species of birds as they could in the United States in one year. At the time, I did not know this sort of competition existed, but when Kari mentioned it to me, I was intrigued. She knows I am a nature lover and that I have a passion for animals, as well. So, the research began.

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According to an article on about.com by Melissa Mayntz, a birding/wild birds expert, a "big year" is a friendly competition among birders to identify as many different species of birds as they can in one year, beginning the first of January.

There is no official competition, and there are no formal guidelines, teams or participants. You could compete with members of your local birding group or with your family members, or in my case, a group of friends. There are many ways to document your findings and many variations in parameters. You could even participate in a "big month" or "big day," recording all of the birds you viewed in a shorter period of time.

I decided that if I was going to participate in this "big year," I would have to get the right supplies.

After doing some reading, I found that I would need some birding binoculars. These can range anywhere for $10 to over $300, depending on how serious you are about the sport. I also wanted a good guidebook to help me identify the species of birds I was discovering.

After trolling around the local bookstore, I picked up "A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America" by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson. This book has wonderful detailed photographs of the bird species in our area, but also information about how birds live, fly, migrate, what sounds they make, and many details about the individual species.

Now that I could see and identify the birds, I knew I would need somewhere to document my findings. I am sure a notebook and camera would be sufficient, but Kari told me about a great app called the Audubon Birds Pro app.

This app can help you identify the birds, make your big year list, document your location, and will even allow you to upload photographs you snapped of the birds the birds. There is also an amazing app called Merlin Bird ID. It will ask you for details regarding where you located the bird, including region and natural setting, what size it is, colors of the bird, distinctive markings and, with that, will help you narrow down the species. It will even play the sounds of the birds, so you can make a more accurate comparison.

After practicing with the apps, putting on some warm clothing and strapping my binoculars to my coat, I was ready to go birding.

Yes, there are some wonderful birds in my backyard, but I wanted to branch out and use this as an opportunity to get some walking in. According to the article by Mayntz, winter is a great time to search for birds. The trees are free of foliage, which makes it easier to spot birds.

I am excited to start my "big year," and I hope this sparks some of your interest in our local natural surroundings and wildlife, too.

Kelly Scible is a Reisterstown resident and can be reached at kellyscible@gmail.com.

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