Obmascik’s The Big Year is for the Birders

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

I really hesitated to read this book. Though I have only recently become a birder myself, I have loved the film adaptation of this book for years. It is, for reasons I am not sure I can explain, in the top five of my all-time favorite films. So when I read a review that said the book is darker and not as lighthearted as the movie, I was afraid to read it in case it ruined one of my favorites.

I had nothing to worry about. The movie is so far removed from the book that one has no affect on the other, and I would hardly call it dark. Funny, entertaining, and informative certainly, but not dark.

Mark Obmascik begins with a brief story about how he got into birding after being urged to interview a professor who had a prodigious life list, which is birder speak for a list of every bird that a birder has seen during his/her lifetime. Why he starts with this, I really can’t say because he never comes back to his own interest in birding which just makes the end seem a bit incomplete, but since it’s not really the meat of the story, let’s get to the good stuff, the core of the book: three birders who decide in the same year that they are going to do A Big Year, i.e. a year in which they try to break the North American record for most birds seen by a birder in a one-year period beginning on January 1st at 12 am and ending on December 31st at 11:59 pm.

I wonder if there is some kind of footnote for leap years that denotes their extra day of birding? Hmm, I digress…

A Big Year only includes the continental United States (was anyone else shocked that Hawaii doesn’t count? I mean, think of the number of birds one could see there!), yet somehow does not exclude the Aleutian Islands and the bird mecca that is Attu, a destination closer to Russia than to the U.S., but that birders say must be visited in order to win A Big Year. It also includes pelagic cruises off either coast of the Unites States to catch those elusive land-dissing seabirds that simply have no use for shores or binocular-clad stalkers.

In 1998, three men from completely different geographic, financial, and career backgrounds set out to complete A Big Year only to find out that they have some very stiff, very avian-obsessed competition, which eventually dissolves into an orchestrated battle plan of one-up-manship and psychological warfare.

Obmascik could not have done a better job of describing Greg Miller, Sandy Komito, and Al Levantin, whose personalities, love of birds, and very different approaches to birding come alive in the pages of this book. From the brash and grating Komito to the self-doubting, underfunded Miller, they are simply a delight to read about. I can’t imagine flying 100,000+ miles in a single year or taking out a $9,000 loan from the Bank of Dad after maxing out six credit cards just to see some birds…and yet while reading this I could completely understand their drive. Go big or go home is the number one rule of A Big Year, and none of these men went home!

It was a nice feeling to not only be entertained by a well-told story, but to be learning about birds at the same time. Who knew (not including experienced birders) that the Chiricahua Mountains were an ideal place to see four different species of owl? I certainly wish I had known that when I was there. Or that our dimwitted government spent $750,000 to import Himalayan Snow Cocks for sport hunting only to have them be too difficult to actually hunt? Good on you, birds! Who’s the bird brain now, government?

So whether you are a hard-core birder, a person who watches birds through your windows from the comfort of a recliner, or just someone who occasionally notices that winged creatures are flitting about, you can find humor and enjoyment in this story. Even if you can’t understand birding, all humans understand competition. And A Big Year is a 365-day marathon of competition.