Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book Review: The Big Year

by Bonnie Wong

            A substantial account of any Big Year competition is difficult to write for at least two reasons.  First, the competition lacks extensive guidelines.  The American Birding Association provides a mere two pages expositing five rules for any birder, not just competitors, to follow only if one wants an official record of total birds observed within a particular area and time frame.  (Contrast this with the 4-page rulebook for the national yo-yo contest held every year in Chico.)  Second, tracking competitors’ daily whereabouts is nearly impossible.  Unlike most contests, the Big Year allows competitors to remain obscure until the official results are published, but after the big reveal, notes on spontaneous jaunts from the previous year can go missing from even the most meticulous records.  Despite these challenges, The Big Year author Mark Obmascik presents a clear and animated study into the quirky world of competitive birding.
            An anonymous call alluding to the newsworthy, but overlooked, world of birding led Obmascik to follow three birders on their Big Year exploits of 1998.  These birders’ intensely singular focus to make history for observing as many bird species as possible in North America is matched only by their disparate life experiences, personalities, and approaches: Sandy Komito, an industrial contractor from New Jersey, doggedly pursues his birds from one coast to another to break his previous Big Year record established in 1987, while sparing time to badger, agitate, and alienate people potentially useful to him.  Al Levantin, a retired chemist-turned-salesman-turned-executive, relies on his bird acumen and natural charisma to earn goodwill from fellow birders and ultimately build alliances with Greg Miller, an immediately likable, determined, recently divorced software programmer forced to juggle a heavy heart, his love for birds, a precarious credit line, and his tedious job of scanning computer code for Y2K bugs.
            Following these characters alone makes for a fascinating story, but instead of burdening readers with birds’ names, places, and dates, Obmascik unhesitatingly articulates birds’ characteristics and locations to draw readers into the inherent beauty that touched off the Big Year tradition.  More delightful, though, is the fact that Obmascik never hesitates to lend gravity to a competition that has few rules and no prerequisites to enter.  First, and most obviously, participation in a Big Year demands a staggering financial and time commitment.  Komito, Levantin, and Miller spend at least $31,000 over a minimum of 125,000 miles.
            Second, with money and time on the line, these tenacious birders also contend with temperamental El Nino weather of 1998, which at once sweeps nonnative birds into North American territory for an unpredictable period and dumps enough inclement weather to thwart even the most ardent competitors.  Indeed, the most interesting stories in The Big Year involve Komito, Levantin, and Miller’s race to observe birds in remarkably terrible weather on brutal, uninhabited Attu Island, part of the Aleutian Islands and a depository of rare birds.  Finally, even after making every personal and financial investment to exhaustion, Obmascik’s main birders strive to respect the remarkable history of a competition that surprisingly began as contests to kill as many birds possible in a single day and gradually evolved into modern-day birding.  As bird fervor grew, so did the number of birding guidebooks, making the competition accessible to non-experts but vulnerable to tactics that seemingly defied unspoken requirements to compete in a Big Year - knowledge, interest, and self-reliance.  In this light, Obmascik traces Komito, Levantin, and Miller’s chase of a Big Year record, with some toeing the line of birder-integrity more incessantly than others.
            Despite the book’s strengths in presenting each birder’s perspective, The Big Year suffers one minor flaw: the three birders inexplicably go silent on the question of why they pursue the Big Year record when they no longer seem to want to.  Perhaps they love competition in itself - outpacing, out-traveling, out-spending each other; perhaps they adore birding in itself - nature, beauty, variety.  Rather than asking his subjects directly, Obmascik relies on descriptions of continually adverse conditions and homesickness each endures and finally allows a random rock-climber to tell Komito why he still birds: “It’s a rush.”  This uncharacteristic reticence leads readers only to feel pity, not sympathy, for the birders who have become slaves to the Big Year record.
            Despite its slight weakness, The Big Year offers lively and satisfying insight into the Big Year competition.  For those who hope to participate in their own birding competition or for those who just want a fascinating read, The Big Year should be at the top of the list.

If you would like to participate in your own birding competition, try this spring's Birdathon!
Pick up your copy of The Big Year at Tucson Audubon's Nature Shop!