Scott's Reviews > The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik
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's review
Dec 30, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: sci-tech
Read in January, 2009

This book is all about a birding "Big Year" undertaken by three separate birders in 1998. The "Big Year" is the goal to see as many different species as possible in North America in one calendar year.

This is extreme birdwatching. Example: fly on a $5,000 tour to a remote island in the Alaskan archipelago, spend two weeks in miserable weather (wet, blustery, frigid) in barely passable accommodations (rat-infested abandoned government compound) in order to see birds common in Siberia, but only seen in North America due to freak storms.

The three men (and who doubted it would be men doing this?) presented contrasting narratives. Two grew up poor in the Bronx and made it big in business before entering semi-retirement, one as a chemical company executive and one as a self-made man who started a successful industrial roofing company in the hurly-burly competitive environment of Northern New Jersey. The other man was a middle-aged contract computer programmer, nearly broke, recently divorced, who grew up Mennonite in Ohio and worked at resolving Y2K problems for a nuclear power plant in Maryland.

All spent profligately, rushing around the country to catch rarities and unusual vagrants (the only way to build a list larger than the total number of breeding species in North America). The nuclear plant worker, Greg Miller, maxed out six credit cards and spent $31,000 in cash to find 715 species. He also asked his dad for thousands of dollars. Twice. As of the publishing date of this book (2004), he was still digging out of the debt incurred in his Big Year effort. He finished second to the Skua, Mr. Pants, Sandy Komito, the industrial contractor from Jersey, who spend a whopping $8,000 to $12,000 per month chasing, and seeing, 744 birds in North America.

This leads to lots of questions about obsession and competitiveness, particularly for those of us who happen to be men. As a very amateur birder myself, I would think that the pressure to find new species and keep moving would drain all the fun out of birdwatching, and the birders would not be able to enjoy watching the bird behavior for any length of time. However, Komito set his alarm clock on December 31, 2008 for 5:30 am. There would be good birding on New Year's Day 1999, and he would not be counting for another Big Year.

The author does a good job of keeping his writing style out of the way of the story. Amazingly, the book was written without direct participation in the Big Year itself; the story was reconstructed through interviews, records, and even receipts of the competitors. The effort involved in creating such a personal, driven account from second-hand knowledge of the event is remarkable - it felt like I was looking over the shoulder of the birders.

You don't have to like birding or what I would call "extreme birding" to enjoy this book. While some bird knowledge is helpful, it is definitely not necessary to understand what is happening. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys stories about human obsessions and enthusiasms - anyone who is a die-hard sports fan (or opera lover, or bookworm) would recognize something of themselves in these curious and very human individuals.

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