Every January 1, a quirky crowd storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year—a grand, expensive, and occasionally vicious 365-day marathon of birdwatching. For three men in particular, 1998 would become a grueling battle for a new North American birding record. Bouncing from coast to coast on frenetic pilgrimages for once-in-a-lifetime rarities, they brave broiling deserts, bug-infested swamps, and some of the lumpiest motel mattresses known to man. This unprecedented year of beat-the-clock adventures ultimately leads one man to a record so gigantic that it is unlikely ever to be bested. Here, prizewinning journalist Mark Obmascik creates a dazzling, fun narrative of the 275,000-mile odyssey of these three obsessives as they fight to win the greatest— or maybe worst—birding contest of all time. (Goodreads)
Reviewed by Sarah Hofhine, bibliophile and birder
I love it when great movies lead me to good books. You may have seen or heard about last year’s release “The Big Year,” starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin, about a trio of birders (hard core bird-chasing fanatics) who are each pursuing a Big Year (an expensive, whirlwind of travel to see as many bird species in the continental U.S. and Canada as possible in a calendar year) and competing to get the distinction of being the best birder in the world (the one with the most number of species sighted). It’s a fabulous movie (and rated PG!) which our whole family, including our preschoolers, enjoyed. And then we found out it was based on a non-fiction book chronicling one actual, fateful big year. OH MAN.
In 1987 Sandy Komito picked up a big year record of 721 species, beating the previous record by 10 species. Several years later his record remained intact, although it had been severely challenged by a good friend of his. He decided to do another big year in 1998 and attempt to beat his previous record. As fate would have it, two other men had decided to do a big year and try for the record as well: Al Levantin, a wealthy and energetic retired executive, and Greg Miller, a 40-something divorced computer programmer working full-time to debug a nuclear plant before Y2K. To their benefit, that year the extremely strong El Nino weather deposited “an unprecedented cornucopia of lost birds on the shores of North America,” leading to an astounding final count.
It’s a supremely interesting book. Mark Obmascik performed hundreds of hours of interviews with the three contestants and a few dozen of their loved ones and fellow birders to recreate the events of that year (luckily for him, birders tend to keep detailed documentation of their birding trips). And out of those interviews he crafted a narrative that is entertaining, amusing, and educational. Interspersed with the narrative action is backstory on each of the contestants and a history of birding, our understanding of migration, and the Japanese occupation of the Attu island of Alaska during WWII (seriously, how could I not have been taught that in high school?). Obmascik handles the often crazy antics of some of the world’s most obsessive birders with humor (he describes a path full of runners and cyclists as a “river of human Lycra”) and with sympathy; he’s a birder himself.
On a side note, the movie is not a direct lift from the book. At the beginning of the movie it says “This is a true story; only the facts have been changed.” What a brilliant and funny way to describe the genius of the adaptation. The best part of taking in both the book and movie are figuring out what they changed and what they included from the book, sometimes in unexpected ways. So go read the book and see the movie, or the other way around. It might even inspire you to pick up a pair of binoculars and a field guide.
VIOLENCE: None (I don't think a mention of birds being shot for scientific collection counts)
MATURE THEMES: None
Seriously, I'd rate the book PG.