Review: The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession

Mark Obmascik (2004)

In the world of hard-core birding, a Big Year is when you race around trying to see as many different species of bird as you can in one year. To say that people who do this are obsessed is an understatement.

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
follows three birders as they compete in the 1998 North American Big Year. Hard-core birders competing in A Big Year devote the majority of their time, not to mention a small fortune, to achieving that goal. They will charter a plane, boat, helicopter or hire a guide, just to bag one unusual bird that will give them the edge over their competition. They will travel hours and hours and miles and miles to spend as little as five minutes sighting a bird, only to turn right around and race off to the next location. These are not people who bird for their health, for relaxation or to commune with the great outdoors. On the contrary. They make themselves physically ill, stress out over the competition, the logistics and the money, and in some cases, rack up debt, all to win the Big Year.

Timing is everything. Hit a major birding flyway at the right time of the year, say spring migration, and a Big Year birder can knock off a number of birds in a day. One location equals many birds for minimal effort, relatively speaking. That’s because there are a few key places (Dauphin Island, Alabama or the Alaskan isle of Attu, for example) where many birds pass through during their migration; from there they take off in hundreds of different directions. Catching them at a major “hub” is an important part of the strategy. So the pressure is on: Miss a bird when it’s a “gimme” and you’re left having to run to the four corners of the hemisphere playing catch-up.

The Big Year of 1998 was a Really Big Year–birders blew away previous records, recording over 700 different birds from Jan 1 to Dec 31. 1998 Big Year totals were even more impressive when you realize that there are only 675 species native to North America. The record-breaking totals were a byproduct of El Nino. That year, El Nino’s winds blew a tremendous number of birds off course and a long way from home. These rarities, known as vagrants and accidentals, are bonus finds for any birder racking up species for their life list, but for Big Year birders, these species meant the difference between a good year and a really phenomenal one.

The Big Year is an entertaining book–for birders and non-birders alike–about three men with diverse backgrounds, strategies and motivations, who share the same obsession. Obmascik juggles between these three top competitors, relating their experiences, celebrating their challenges and victories along the way, all the while building to an exciting neck-and-neck-and-neck culmination where one is crowned the top birder. [****]

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