"The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession"
(reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 23, 2004)
“The first time I met a real birder I couldn’t tell a tit from a tattler,” says author and reporter, Mark Obmascik in his hugely entertaining account, The Big Year. I too couldn’t; I still can’t. But I picked up The Big Year out of sheer curiosity. I have birder friends who have tried to convert me to their league. A few years ago, in my effort to support my local Audubon sanctuary, I signed up for one of their pledge drives---I would give a dollar for every species of bird the top birder spotted over one weekend. I had visions of forking over twenty dollars. The grand total was $162.
The Big Year is definitely much bigger a deal than a weekend bird-spotting event. The premise is simple—whoever spots the most species in a year is the winner. It is one of the biggest events in birding, a sport that is driven by obsessive birders who will stop at nothing simply to be labeled the winner; there is no cash prize or trophy. One of the first things that is immediately evident is that the Big Year also needs big moolah: “A Big Year is ultimately a numbers game,” says Obmascik, “There are 675 birds that commonly live in North America, and there are 365 days to see all of them. Find two new birds a day and you’re the new champ.” Given that the chances of finding more than ten of these in your backyard are very slim, participation in the Big Year requires big cash. The serious contestants (who can afford to) also subscribe to NARBA (National Rare Bird Alert). Once you get an alert, you pretty much have to drop everything and fly across the continent to sight the bird.
Obmascik tracks three competitors through their Big Year: Sandy Komito, retired from the construction business in New Jersey, is a previous Big Year winner and he is trying to replicate his earlier win. Al Levantin has retired extremely rich after serving on the board of a chemicals company. He lives in a gorgeous house in Aspen, Colorado. Greg Miller is the underdog—he doesn’t have much money. He has maxed out five credit cards and has borrowed large amounts of money twice from his parents in his efforts to do the Big Year. To get some cash, he works endless hours at a nuclear power plant debugging Y2K code (the account is of the 1998 Big Year). Work limits his time available to chase down the birds.
The Big Year is a wild ride full of hilarious episodes. One such relates Levantin’s quest to track down a Tamaulipas Crow: “For the past thirty years, the Brownsville, Texas, Municipal Landfill had been the only reliable place in the United States to see a Tamaulipas crow. Nobody besides the crow liked going there. To say it stunk did injustice to the word stunk. It reeked. It rotted. It marinated decades of throwaway table scraps in the fecund humidity of the Rio Grande Valley and then roasted it under the south Texas sun. It smelled so bad it made grown men cry.”
There are dozens of hilarious episodes of the men shivering in the Alaskan winter outside an Anchorage resident’s house to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, of Levantin staring down a mountain lion in one of his adventures (he was so close he could count the whiskers) and of being out in the remote desert chasing down one solitary rare bird. Miller even has to defend his sport to a cop who thinks he is out chasing drugs in the Arizona desert: “Someone knocked on his window. He jumped. He wiped away the fog and saw a Border Patrol officer peering in."
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Birdwatching? What are you watching for?”
“Sage thrasher, curve-billed thrasher, Crissal thrasher, Bendire’s thrasher.”
“Well, I have never seen anybody out here before. It’s a rainy day today.”
Miller didn’t know what he was supposed to say to that.
“What have you got in your hands?”
“I want to hear the tape recorder. Play the tape recorder. Turn it on.”
Miller turned it on and felt relieved. The tape was proof: that bird was a sage thrasher.
The Border Patrol agent still looked perturbed. Nobody came out here to look at birds, he said. What they looked for was air dropped drugs.
Miller showed the agent his binoculars and field guide. The agent turned and left.
Obmascik has written The Big Year mostly from accounts and interviews. He never actually witnessed any of the events he describes. Yet his fast-paced account has a breathless style that almost lets you in on the action. To his credit, the book reads like a suspense story. Obmascik also manages to weave in some history about birding in the United States including the introduction of the famous Peterson’s guides and the start of the Audubon Society.
While The Big Year is centered around birding, you don’t really need to know a thing about birds to appreciate the book. Ultimately, it is a fascinating account of an obsession, about the ways and means that extreme followers of a pursuit will follow to realize their dreams. In a sense, the account can pretty much be applied to any obsession. As Obmascik rightly observes at one point in the book, the obsession might be built around birds but it is also about people—about one-upmanship.
The Big Year is a rollicking account of an obsession seen through to fruition. Yes, the Big Year record is important. Yet the glazed look in these birders’ eyes almost convinces the reader that the record is not an end in itself. The means to the end are just as rewarding and fun, if not more so.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Big Year at SimonSays.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Consumer's Guide to Water Conservation: Dozens of Ways to Save Water, the Environment and a Lot of Money (1993)
- The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (February 2004)
- Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled--and Knuckleheaded Quest for the Rocky Mountain High (2009)
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About the Author:
Mark Obmascik has been a journalist for two decades, most recently at the Denver Post, where he was lead writer for the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and winner of the 2003 National Press Club Award for environmental journalism. His freelance stories have been published in Outside and other magazines, and he has aired numerous political stories on public affairs and television news programs. An obsessed birder himself, he lives in Denver with his wife and sons.