Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Nook - The Big Year

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik:

I had no idea that Big Years existed until I saw an article in an old magazine (Country Living, actually) and heard about the movie based on the book.  When I came across that old article again recently, I was reminded about Big Years and wanted to read about something completely new to me: the world of birding.

A birder who sets out to see as many different types of birds as possible in North America in one year (the record being 745) is said to be doing a "big year."  There is a huge amount of travel involved, as you can imagine, as well as expense (one of the competitors in the book spent $60,000).  There are quirks that one must try to work around, such as getting the bird identifications correct, and making sure you have some proof that you actually saw this bird, like a witness.  A common bird in your area might end up being tough to find, and you'll spot it several states away.  You'll probably need to charter a helicopter to spot a Himalayan snowcock (and might even have to find it in its mountain home in a snowstorm).  You might return home after days or weeks of non-stop travel, only to receive an urgent phone call that a rare bird you need for your list has been spotted across the country - and you pack your bags and head right out again.

All of these scenarios happened to the three birders in this true story: Greg Miller, Al Levanthin and Sandy Komito.  I'm not sure which is a better description of these three men: determined or insane.  The lengths they go through to find specific birds is mind-boggling to the non-birder.  Birders reading this book, however, will probably find themselves quite envious of some of the rare species found in far-flung places (a great knot at Attu....terns, boobies and noddies at Dry Tortugas).  There are birds spotted in strangers' backyards, birds spotted at the dump, in parking lots, in National Parks, on pelagic trips, in fields in the middle of nowhere.

I was chatting with a birder about this book and he said that birding isn't really competitive.  But I could see how Miller, Lavanthin and Komito fell into serious competition: each was giving up a lot of time and money to see if they could break the record.  They also happened to be competing in 1998, year of El Nino and crazy storms that washed up all sorts of unusual birds on Attu and elsewhere.  They were in the right place at the right time, and would stop at nothing to win.

I think I'll stick to just photographing local birds, but I loved reading about the great lengths some people will go just to spot a once-in-a-lifetime bird.  As the book's title shows, it is an obsession.


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