The Big Year
The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession. 2004. Mark Obmascik. Free Press. 288 pp. ISBN-10: 074324556 (hard cover ed.).
The Big Year also deals with the obsessive birding but in a lighter vein. In this book, journalist Bob Omascik chronicles the 1998 race to break the American Birding Association (ABA) big year record. Although he concedes that he did not actually accompany any of the participating birders, he does a superb job of making readers feel they are part of the contest—in the field next to the competitors, binoculars in hand, and eager to find yet another species. He accomplishes this through detailed interviews with his three subjects and, he assures readers, a lot of fact checking.
When he began the book, Obmascik was not an experienced birder and, as in Koeppel's case, that lack of experience sometimes shows in little ways. But Obmascik gets into the spirit of birding with such enthusiasm and good will that dwelling on errors would seem petty. After all, The Big Year isn't a field guide or an ornithological treatise; it's about the birders, not the birds. Some reviewers have felt that the book trivializes birding by portraying birders as obsessive. The questions is, how else could you portray people who spend tens of thousands of dollars traveling around the U.S.—including the Aleutians islands—trying to see the most species of birds in one year?
In 1998 there were three serious competitors. Sandy Komito is a New Jersey roofmg contractor and a well-known, though not universally beloved, figure among ABA competitive birders. Al Levantin is a retired executive setting out on his first big year. Both Komito and Levantin seem to have the time and money to play in the birding big leagues. The third competitor, Greg Miller, is a forlorn computer programmer still smarting from a recent divorce. He averages forty-hour work weeks during his big year and finances his travel by maxing out several credit cards and taking out loans from "the bank of Dad."
As Obmascik moves through the year he shifts points of view from birder to birder, always being careful neither to disclose the final result nor to take obvious sides in the contest. Still one feels that he would not be unhappy if the irrepressible Komito were to lose and that he would be pleased if the underdog Miller caught a break. Along the way readers learn something of the history of Attu Island, the critical role of rarities and accidentals in big year totals, what it's like to spot a Himalayan Snowcock from a helicopter, and where to look for hummingbirds in Southeastern Arizona.
Readers also learn that going for a big year record is not for those who lack determination. You've heard it said that certain places are fun to visit but you wouldn't want to live there. An ABA big year is similar: it is fun to read about, but I wouldn't want to do it. After all, as Kenn Kaufman points out in Kingbird Highway (another highly-recommended big year book), big year birding has "few fans, no professionals and no referees."
Tom Williams firstname.lastname@example.org