Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: The Big Year by Mark Obmascik

Birding has long had a competitive side, which is most evident in the completion of big years. Compiling a long life list has an element of competitiveness, but it requires steady effort over many years to rise to the top. A big year, on the other hand, requires an intense effort over a single year, often to the exclusion of other activities. A big year birder is competing against previous records, personal milestones, and any other birders that might be doing a big year in the same year. It requires both visits to regular hotspots and chases for individual rarities, some of which may occur at unexpected sites.

A big year is the attempt to see as many species as possible within a defined area during a single calendar year.  The geographic area for a big year can be large or small. It could be done at a city, county, state, or national level. It could be restricted by means of transportation, as BIGBY birders do. For North American birders, the most prestigious big years are those that cover the entire ABA Area, which includes the mainland United States and Canada, plus a handful of nearby islands and pelagic zones.

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik chronicles the efforts of three birders – Sandy Komito, Greg Miller, and Al Levantin – as they attempt an ABA Area big year in 1998. Each of the birders came from a different background and approached the big year with different resources. Levantin and Komito were both well-funded with steady lives at home, but Miller was barely afloat financially after his divorce and only completed his big year with extensive borrowing and overtime hours at the nuclear plant where he worked. Each of the three had their own reasons for starting a big year and only learned of his competitors as the year progressed.

It would be hard to imagine a better year than 1998 to break a big year record. Airfares were relatively cheap, and security was not as tight as it is now, making it possible to make more last minute flights. More importantly, a powerful El NiƱo created unusual weather patterns in and around North America. These weather patterns pulled many vagrant species from Asia into Alaska and from Mexico and Central America into the southwestern U.S. Other birds showed up in odd places too, like a Xantus's Hummingbird in British Columbia. Because of the high degree of vagrancy that year, it will be very difficult for future birders to break the record set that year.

This book is a good introduction to the competitive side of birding for anyone new to the subject. For that reason, it does not surprise me that The Big Year appealed to filmmakers. Obmascik does not assume much knowledge about either birds or the history of birdwatching as a hobby. He spends a chapter on the development of birdwatching, starting with Audubon and continuing through Peterson and Fisher's first North American big year up to the years before Komito, Levantin, and Miller each decided to attempt a big year in 1998. There are some inaccuracies in this account. In particular, Obmascik overstates the role played by Peterson's 1934 edition of A Field Guide to the Birds. However, the historical account is informative on the whole and provides the necessary context for someone new to birding to understand what Komito, Levantin, and Miller were trying to accomplish.

If you are a birder, chances are that you already know who finished in first place that year and how many species he saw. If not, there are a few places during the narrative where the outcome seems in doubt. Either way, the narrative is engaging and dramatic. In addition to telling a compelling story, Obmascik offers colorful descriptions of the places, birds, and situations the birders encountered during the big year. Consider this description of the Brownsville Municipal Landfill, home to a vagrant 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.
The version I read for this review was a special edition of The Big Year published in conjunction with the movie version that was provided to me by the publisher. This edition has a promotional photo for the movie on the cover. The paper and binding feel rather cheap and flimsy. This was the first time I read The Big Year, so I do not know how it compares physically to older editions. The movie opened in theaters this weekend; here is the trailer.