Mark Obmascik has been a journalist for two decades, most recently at the 'Denver Post', where he was lead writer for the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and winner of the National Press Club Award for environmental journalism in 2003. An obsessed birder himself, he lives in Denver with his wife and sons.
Mark Obmascik has documented the "Big Year" of three extreme birders - Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller - as they try to beat a record and each other during 1998. This is more a sporting competition than natural history or science. They could just as easily had been train spotting for the largest number of different boxcars. The goal is of course to record the largest number of bird species seen in one year and they have a tough standard to play against. James Vardaman had recorded 699 birds in 1979, Benton Basham had seen 711 in 1983, Komito himself had gotten 721 in 1987, and Bill Rydell had gotten 714 in 1992. In 1998 all were trying to beat 721 and all were unbelievably driven. I won't tell you who won, but it certainly is a remarkable tale indeed! As a sometimes birder who is a professional biologist I understand the thrill of the chase and at least these listers are not killing their quarry. However, I am a bit astonished at the amount of money and time some of these extreme birders will spend to get over 700 birds on their list in a year. I have only about 250 birds on my life list (I'm not against listing) and I doubt that I will ever make 500 for my life. The story of their competition to reach over 721 birds in a single year is gripping, but I tend to agree with at least one of the left behind wives that they are also a little bit out of their minds. Everybody has a right to follow their dream (as long as they don't hurt others in the process) and birding is relatively harmless. I personally would prefer to get to know the birds a bit better than that. Perhaps that is a bit of academic snobbishness, but it is also my individual taste. In any case I recommend this book to anyone who would like to try to understand the drive to record the maximum number of birds seen in a year.
THE BIG YEAR tells the stories of three men determined to set a new record in North American birding. Not exactly the sort of topic that sounds like it would have mass appeal, right? I will say at the outset that yes, I am a birder, but no, I have never attempted a Big Year, or even a Big Day. Still, when I read the write-up of this in a book club catalog, it was too much for me to resist. I'm glad I allowed temptation to take hold. As a birder, I certainly identified with the excitement each of these men felt upon sighting a new or unique species. I enjoyed the more avian terminology. Most of all, I enjoyed reading about three men obsessed with their goal to the point of maxed out credit cards, strained relationships and loss of work. In other words, I enjoyed the stories of those who dared to follow their obsession to the extreme. Anyone who has ever wished they could just take a break from their regular life to follow a dream will find this an enjoyable read. The three men chronicled are as different from one another as they could be. Sandy Komito is a self-made working class man, who already had attained a Big Year record. Brash, charismatic and determined to have a leg up on the others, he muscles his way to birding "hot spots" ahead of the others, often leaving a greeting with other birders to say "Sandy says 'hi.'" Al Levantin is recently retired and a devoted husband, whose wife tells him that now is the time to follow his dream. His birding exploits look a bit like the XGames as he cycles, hikes and packs into difficult viewing venues across the continent with an ease and grace belying his retired status. Greg Miller is a recently divorced, out-of-shape, computer specialist racing the clock to bring everything into Y2K compliance at a New Jersey nuclear power plant. It is the interplay of the three very different men, and their very different approaches to meeting the same goal, that is the real core of the book. I found myself cheering on one in particular, but another reader may find themselves pulling for one of the other two. Obmascik does an excellent job of detailing all the salient character traits of each birder, while maintaining a fair and neutral stance toward each. Favorites are not played, which allows readers to choose for themselves. Along the way, we experience birdfall at spring migration along the Gulf Coast, the vexing gray owl in the northern Minnesota boglands I remember from my own youth and the harsh extremes of Attu Island in Alaska, as birders seek to add rare bird sightings from migrants blown east from Asia. In the end, one birder sets an incredible record of 745 bird sightings in 1998, a record unlikely to ever be surpassed. Want to know who it was? Read THE BIG YEAR.
The Big Year : A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik chronicles the 1998 "Big Year" Birding competition through the experiences of three participants. After reading the book I decided that Obmascik got the title a bit out of order. What this actually is is a book about fowl obsession, Men and, lastly nature. For those who don't know-which I expect is most everyone-The Big year competition is a largely unregulated contest to become recognized by the American Birding association as the person who cataloged sightings of the most bird species in North America in a given year. Given that there are few rules, no referees and no real prize other than the acknowledgement by the Birding association, you'd think this would be a fairly laid back, congenial affair. You'd be badly mistaken. This is a frenetic, cutthroat and exceedingly expensive undertaking for those who want to win. Obmascik follows three men who really want to win. Two are well heeled retirees and one a I wage slave. All three have, to be honest, lost their marbles and have abandoned life as they knew it in search of the prize. It's a fast paced, interesting if somewhat inexplicable tale that Obmascik gives us, full of tidbits about birds and their habits as well as the in's and out's of the hunt. Obmascik has a clipped, fast paced writing style that actually enhances the rendering of this tale, mirroring the angst, intensity and obsessive nature of the competition. He deftly sprinkles in his info on birds, heir habits, best locations for various sighting and such in a manner that compliments rather than distracts from the underlying quest story. He's objective-he doesn't allow the text to color our opinion of the story, which is good as he doesn't have to do that. The insanity of this quest stands quite well on its own. In the end Obmascik has provided a psychological window into a peculiar obsession as well as a fairly through review of the current state of north American birds. All in all a quite informative and compelling book.