Lost Among the Birds – Review

Neil Hayward. Lost Among the Birds. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. E-book.

I could not put this book down. Even though I knew the ending, I wanted to see what happened next. Let me explain a little.

Some people like to fish or hunt because when they were kids they went fishing with their fathers. A friend is a NASCAR fan, even though he is from New York, because his dad used to take him to car races when he was young. My father used to take me birding. I pored over bird books and always went looking for birds as a hobby. Neil Hayward’s experience of catching and breaking the Big Year record—which many people thought was unbreakable—is worth sharing and reading about.

The book The Big Year was reviewed on these pages. Hollywood very loosely adapted the book into a film. Even now when I talk to my wife about it, I have to say “the Jack Black character” or the “Owen Wilson character.” Hayward had made a lot of money at a company he helped found. He resigned and was at loose ends, so he began taking some long bird trips away from his Massachusetts home to see some rarities that had been reported.

Hayward was not thinking of a Big Year until at the end of February when he was with some friends talking about what he was doing. Frankly, he was not doing much other than chasing rare birds a couple of times a week. A friend said, “Maybe you should do a big year! I am sure you could beat Owen Wilson!”

Hayward’s initial reaction was “Do I look like a freakin’ idiot?” But he began thinking about it and decided to give it a try.

There was a reason why Hayward was not doing much. He was depressed. Indeed, he had struggled much of his life with depression. He was going to be turning forty in 2013 and not sure about the direction of his life. In his mind, in spite of his business success, everything he tried worked out poorly. He had lost a girlfriend of four years and had started going out with another woman, Gerri, and just assumed that the relationship with her would fail as well. The birds not only gave him something to do, but the Big Year quest gave him a focus with a goal and a time frame for it to happen.

Every now and then, the book begins to get a bit maudlin as Hayward reflects on his personal life, but then there is another bird trip. He is meeting new people, including many people who are well known in the world of birds. (Two whom I know by reputation—one I have met—are Debi Love Shearwater and Brian Patteson.) He notes how helpful other Big Year record holders were, even Sandy Komito, the 1998 record holder, now in his eighties and still out birding whenever he can.

(For what it is worth, Debi Shearwater was loosely played as Annie Auklet by Anjelica Huston in The Big Year movie.)

He is also seeing a lot of different birds. The Internet is more robust than it was in 1998, so he gets alerts about rare birds anywhere in the “legal” ABA Area. The American Birding Association is a group of hobbyists who have set the rules for different bird lists. The Big Year (capital letters) refers to a bird that has shown up in North America north of the USA-Mexico border or within 200 miles of the coast. In other words, Canada and the United States except for Hawaii.

There are around 660 birds that nest or otherwise make this part of the world their home for part of the year. Komito’s Big Year record was 748. Indeed anyone who has a North American Life List (i.e., birds seen in their lifetime) of 700 or more is in rarefied air. This means that to reach the magical Seven Hundred Club, one not only has to see all or nearly all the birds he or she expects to see, but needs to see at least forty or fifty “accidentals”—birds that do not normally come to North America but show up.

This does mean that hard core birders spend time along the Mexican border (Arizona and Texas are especially inviting) tracking down Mexican and Latin American birds that stray north. They also spend more time in Florida looking for strays from the Bahamas and Caribbean. A trip to Newfoundland for European birds that barely make it to North America is necessary. And Hayward was advised to spend as much time as he could in Alaska.

Western Alaska to be specific—that is where Asian birds often stray and even live, for parts of Alaska are not that far from Asia. Once when I was birding in a western state (alas I do not travel that much but once in a while I get away) I ran into a birder from Alaska. I asked her where I should go in Alaska if I wanted to go birding there. She said the Pribilofs, the islands in the Bering Sea near Siberia. That made sense. Nearly all the birds found in eastern or southern Alaska can be found in the lower forty-eight or Canada. But Nome, the Aleutians, and the Bering Sea islands are different because the birds there are different.

For the enthusiast, Hayward does include a list of all the birds he saw and where and when he first saw them. Timing is important as well. Some birds were gifts. He just happened to be in a place where a rare bird showed up. In many cases someone else he was with spotted it first. Others he had to track down into some difficult places including high peaks at the right time of year or mosquito-infested swamps. Some he missed. Some he had to try for several times before he found one.

Lost Among the Birds describes some of the birds in a way that show Hayward’s delight and fascination. His description of the Ivory Gull stands out.

There’s only one gull that’s entirely white, the Ivory Gull. The adult is so white it looks like a soft, albino pigeon. The simple lack of color (except for the yellow-blue bill, black legs, and liquid black eyes) makes it a surprising favorite for those birders who’ve seen one, and the most-wanted bird for those who haven’t.

This is most certainly true. The Ivory Gull is rare below the Arctic Circle, but I had the opportunity to see one that showed up on the Hudson River in New York state. I had snowed that day. Fresh snow was everywhere. But I can honestly say I have never seen such a radiant, pure white as in that gull. It made the snow look dull. There is nothing like it. I will remember it. I also will probably never see one again unless, like Neil Hayward, I visit Point Barrow, Alaska.

Hayward visited Alaska eight times. I lost track of the number of times he went to Arizona and Florida. One elusive duck from the Bahamas he never saw, though one appeared a few times that year in Florida.

Hayward does mention how the speciation of birds has been in a state of flux since the seventies. While it is virtually impossible that a new species of bird will be discovered in North America (occasionally a new one is found in the jungles of Asia or Latin America), ornithologists in recent years have frequently “split” what was a single species into two or more species because of differences in behavior and DNA analysis. Hayward mentions the Sage Sparrow was recently split into two species: the Sagebrush Sparrow and the Bell’s Sparrow. I found six “new” species that if they had been labeled in 1998 might have changed Komito’s Big Year record. One of the rules, though, is the birds have to have been recognized species in the year that they were seen. One could say it is like basketball records before and after the three-point shot was adopted.

Although it has been rarer in recent years, occasionally birds that were considered separate species are “lumped” into one species. For example, the Oregon Junco and the Slate-Colored Junco used to be treated as separate species. Now they are two of about four or five subspecies of the Dark-Eyed Junco. I noted that one species Hayward saw in 2013, the Thayer’s Gull, is now considered a subspecies of the Iceland Gull. That gull had a short life as a species. Until the eighties, it was considered a subspecies of the Herring Gull. My experience was that even if you saw one, no one believed you. It was doomed as its own species.

What is almost as exciting as the birding in Lost Among the Birds is the year-long recovery from depression. Besides deciding to do a Big Year, Hayward also decided to get some professional help. This, along with the birds and a very patient girlfriend, produces a change that hopefully will last a long time. His struggle may not be as intense as Stacey O’Brien’s fight with cancer recorded in her book about Wesley the Owl, but God’s creation really does have many things to show us if we are willing to explore.

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