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Birding on a Budget: Birders Renee and Michael embark on a frugal Big Year

Renee and Michael. Photo by Allan Delesantro

For most people, the thought of traveling around the country to see as many birds as possible seems like an unfeasible and expensive feat best reserved for people with a lot of money and time. However, two passionate birders named Renee and Michael have turned that idea on its head.

Renee Rubin and Michael Delesantro, a retired couple who have been married 35 years, are currently doing a Big Year, but they’re doing it without spending the big bucks.

They’ve set themselves up with a reasonable budget of $10,000 (which includes gas, lodgings and fees for two). This budget is comparable to birder Kenn Kaufman’s frugal $1,000 budget for one person back in 1973.

The two had an interest in nature and birdwatching early in their relationship, but kids and work put all of that on hold. After they realized they hadn’t been to some of their favorite birding spots and couldn’t even remember seeing some of the birds on their life lists, they decided to embark on a Big Year.

Many hardcore birders with a lot of time and money plan for years in advance and can spend upwards of $60,000 for a single person. Because they didn’t have an excessive amount of money to spend and wanted to make this reasonable to everyday birders, they decided to go on a tight budget.

I contacted Renee and Michael, who run the blog Birding on a Budget about their adventures, via email because they’re busy traveling around the country to hear more about their story.

Here is a Q&A with them about the things they’ve learned, the most difficult part of a Big Year and advice for birders trying to do their own budgeted Big Year.

Q&A With Renee and Michael


You’ve already seen or heard nearly 600 birds this year, did you set any goals to how many birds you’d like to count?

Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Renee and Michael.

We decided to try to see at least 600 species, a number we consider to be a typical Life List goal for the “average” birder. Also, we stated that we would like to see “90% of the birds seen on a typical Big Year on only 20% of the cost.”

What’s one of the major things you’ve learned so far halfway through the year?

We have learned that there is so much more to learn! Michael was a more experienced birder and Renee more of a novice when we started but it didn’t take long for us to realize how much we didn’t know. We have increased our knowledge of birds and birding a great deal during the year. But we are still just scratching the surface of what there is to know!

You’ve already been throughout the United States to 28 states, has these six months been exhausting?

Being on the go all the time is taxing at times but it has not been overly exhausting. Birding is fun and so is traveling. To paraphrase an old saying: A bad day of birding beats a great day at work. So, there’s nothing “hard” about it most of the time. Of course, there are days when you just want to chuck it all and go take a nap.

What advice would you give to people without a lot of money who want to embark on a big year?

Be reasonable when you set your goals and do it for the fun of it. Budget birding will not break any “records.” Besides, being competitive is not really what birding is about. Make it about the journey and not the final destination.

South Polar Skua. Photo by Renee and Michael.

Without a doubt it has been all the fantastic people we have met along the way. Birders are such a great group of knowledgeable and helpful people. We have met total strangers who have invited us to stay at their homes to help save money for our budget. Everyone we meet is eager to share their tips on where to find target birds we need for our list. Even birding guides who are leading tours with their paying clients have taken time out to show us where to find birds. It has been great.

What’s been the most difficult?

You can’t be two places at once, even though you need to be to see everything you want to see. Logistics of getting to the birds at the right time of year is the hardest part so far.

Tell me a little more about yourselves, such as where you worked, how long you’ve known each other, etc.

We met in college at Rutgers University/Douglas in New Jersey in 1973. We have been together ever since. We’ve been married 35 years.

Michael’s main jobs have included being an environmental scientist for the Bureau of Reclamation in New Mexico, being a nature tour guide, and he retired with 23 years of service as a science teacher, 14 with the Science Academy of South Texas.

Renee’s main jobs have been as a newspaper journalist with the El Paso Times, in public relations for New Mexico Institue of Mining and Technology, as an elementary school teacher, and she retired after 14 years as a college professor at the University of Texas in Brownsville, Texas.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think is important?

Spruce Grouse. Photo by Renee and Michael.

Although we still have six months to go, we have begun to reflect on what we have done well and what we could have done better.  Our choices to drive and camp much of the time have been good ones for birders on a budget. Camping also allows us to be in birding habitats 24 hours a day.

We are satisfied with our choices of birding locations, but perhaps we could have spent less time in some locations in order to visit other ones.  We wish we had gone to Minnesota in winter to get the rarities that occur there and gone to see grouse during lekking time.

We also really wish we had learned our bird songs and calls better before embarking on this journey.  We have told people planning to do Big Years in the future that learning those songs and calls well will make the year much easier.

As mentioned before, we have met great people. We have names and e-mails of people in almost every state in the country who have helped us or offered to help us when we get their way. Getting up-to-date information from people who know an area is so much more valuable than simply reading about birding locations on a blog or in a book.

Sometimes these people tell us that despite what the books say, we are not going to see a specific bird in their area at the time of year we are visiting. This information is just as valuable as the information that helps us get a new species because we have more time to spend where the birds are.  We are very thankful for any kind of help we can get.

Check out the posts on our blog, particularly the older ones from December and January, for more information about our ideas of our Big Year, planning, etc.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

3 Comments

  1. Hi from Italy. Renee is coming in Italy next October. I know she are contacting local birders. Please share my website to her. Many thanks

  2. Congratulations, Jody. Thanks for all your years of service. I hope there’s a lot of relaxation and birding planned!

  3. I just retired after 37 years in education.

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