Mark Obamscik. The Big Year. New York: Free Press, 2004. Print.
This is the original true story that the film The Big Year is based on. Birders got a kick out of the film. The film was done well, though fictionalized, but the book really gets into it.
A big year is the attempt of competitive birders to see how many different species of birds they can see in a year. There is no prize, just recognition by other birders. Usually there is a geographical limit, and in the United States and Canada a North American big year is a true challenge, especially if taken seriously.
By North America we mean the 49 continental United States and Canada. This is sometimes called the ABA (American Birding Association) Area. Birders will try to see how many species they can see or conclusively identify by sound if they cannot see them (think owls).
The big year in question is 1998 when three very different birders each saw and verifiably identified over 700 species of birds in a year.
Let us put that into perspective. Most birders, even widely-traveled professional ornithologists seldom see that many in a lifetime. Roger Tory Peterson, the most famous American bird specialist of the twentieth century, had seen about 660—and he wrote books and traveled extensively. I have lived virtually my entire life in three Northeastern states and have had few opportunities to travel outside that region. My life list is about 450, and that is for over 50 years. (My father was a member of the American Ornithological Union and took me birding the way some fathers take their sons fishing.)
The Big Year notes that there are only 675 birds that nest in the ABA Area—and some of those are quite rare. Not many people see 700 North American birds in a lifetime, but the three protagonists of The Big Year are all trying to do that in a year. They succeed and total number for the “winner” of the three is 745.
He saw nearly every breeding bird (I think he missed one), but then had to see seventy birds that are not normally found here! That may be the Cy Young record for birding. No one may come close to that number again.
1998 was an El Nino year. Those unusual winds and currents blew and attracted an unusually large number of extralimital birds to North America. It was also the next to last year that the public was allowed to visit Attu, the westernmost Aleutian island whose bird life is Siberian and was usually good for twenty to forty Asian birds that are virtually never seen anywhere else on North American Territory.
The most competitive and “Type A” personality of the three big year seekers was Sanford “Sandy” Komito, a New Jersey contractor and salesman with a big voice and a preference for Lincoln Continentals. He is a wheeler-dealer who always negotiates with motel clerks to get a better deal.
While most people enjoy his story telling style, he had managed to rub some important people in the birding community the wrong way—usually over money. That included Larry Balch, the operator of the only tours to Attu open to the public, and Debi Shearwater (played by Anjelica Huston in the film as Annie Auklet), the foremost operator of pelagic (i.e., oceanic) bird trips on the Pacific Coast.
In the film, a character loosely based on Komito is played by Luke Wilson. While the film script makes for more conflict, it is not an especially accurate portrayal. Komito was older, semiretired, and a happily married empty nester. But Sandy does obsess about birds and does have doubts about being a thousand miles from home trying to track down an elusive owl in a cold Minnesota swamp on Christmas Eve.
Komito had done a big year once before. When he wrote about it, he said that he would have had about five more birds if he had been more selfish. Most birders are happy to show others a bird they have found or wait with others until everyone has seen it. Komito was really no different, but that admission likely gave the screenwriters license to portray his character as truly selfish and the antagonist of the film.
Then there is Greg Miller. Even though he runs marathons, he is slightly overweight and his personal trainer wife has left him just as he turned forty. He is also more than broke. Still, Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway—about how Kaufman hitchhiked around the country for a big year in the seventies—inspires him to give a big year a try. He is still working full time as a computer programmer for a government agency trying to fix all the Y2K bugs; it is truly amazing that he had the time to break 700 in less than a year. Five years later he was still paying off some of his credit cards, but it had to be worth it.
In the film, Miller is the Jack Black character. However, unlike the film where the father gives Black a hard time, Miller’s biggest fan was his father. His father was a birder, too, but serious health problems would keep him from doing much birding any more. He lives his birding vicariously through Greg during the year and also bails him out financially.
Al Levantin is the third serious contestant for the big year. He is a retired chemist turned business executive who lives in Aspen, Colorado. Of the three, he can afford to travel, but he also misses his wife when he is on the road. He gets encouragement from her. He also helps out other birders who are on the big year quest. He is the Steve Martin character in the film and his portrayal is closer to the situation and personality of the his model than the other two.
To give a sense of the book, in the film Black and Martin climb a remote snowy mountain to see a Pink-Footed Goose. (A European species that has shown up in North American maybe a dozen times). In the book that goose was scored much earlier in the year, and those geese usually do not have much to do with mountains except to fly over them.
That scene was based on a much wilder scene in the book. Miller and Levantin hire a helicopter in December to take them over 10,000 feet in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada to look for Himalayan Snowcock. Not only does this illustrate that birders are really more of a community than competitors, but also how dedicated/obsessed/crazy birders can be.
There are many other similar scenes. Obamscik makes the Spartan accommodations and severe weather of Attu and the challenge of birding from a rocking boat come alive. From Attu and the Pribilofs to Dry Tortugas and the Keys, from Ft. Huachuca to Newfoundland, The Big Year is a wild year.
The film was worth seeing, and for the most part clicked with people who are actual birders. But as so many have said of other movies, I liked the book better. Read it and compare it yourself.