Most people have an obsession with something. For some folks, that obsession is with birds. More specifically, that obsession is with finding birds. These people feed that passion by birding—that is, bird watching. Birders from all walks of life scrutinize every crook and cranny of the earth in search of bird species. One popular competition within the birding community begins each year on January 1, when birders compete to find the most bird species in one calendar year. The game is appropriately called a Big Year. In 1998, three men took this game to the next level: they quit their jobs, cleared their entire schedules, and dedicated 365 days to a fierce competition of bird watching. Their adventures were documented and retold in a humorous, honest, third-person narrative: Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.
An obsessed birder himself, award-winning journalist Mark Obmascik brings to this story his own knowledge and experiences of birds and the humans that pursue them. The narrative follows the lives of three men: Sandy Komito, an industrial contractor from New Jersey; Al Levantin, an executive from Colorado; and Greg Miller, an unemployed computer technician from Ohio. Although Obmascik did not participate in the competition himself, he presents an intimate account of the men’s wild ride based on interviews and journal notes. Beginning with an introduction to each of the characters just before the game begins on New Year’s Eve, the book follows the thoughts, adventures, and rivalry of the three birders as the year progresses. Like a good novel, the book has a well-developed plot that draws the reader into the story. Although the primary focus is on the three men and their quest, Obmascik manages to weave in bits of birding history and avian science between the anecdotes. While many books have been written about Big Years in the past—most notably Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway—this narrative reaches to a broader audience, written not only for birders, but for anyone interested in human behavior, passion, and adventure.
The Big Year successfully captures the true spirit of birding in a humorous, honest story of three of the world’s most obsessed birders and their epic journeys across the North American continent. Although Obmascik never actually witnessed the events he describes, he depicts the characters, dialogue, and locations as if he had experienced everything himself. His vibrant writing style, accompanied with a wry sense of humor, makes for an enjoyable read. By focusing on the birders and their quirky personalities rather than on the specifics of Roseate Spoonbills and Bay-breasted Warblers, Obmascik holds the interest of the average reader regardless of his prior knowledge or enthusiasm for birding itself. This book allows readers to enter that strange and fascinating world of birding with all of the misadventures that accompany the birding game, such as Greg Miller’s encounter with a Border Patrol officer in the Arizona desert while looking for a Sage Thrasher. Or Al Levantin’s quest to track down a Tamaulipas Crow in a dump. “For the past thirty years, the Brownsville, Texas, Municipal Landfill had been the only reliable place in the United States to see a Tamaulipas Crow. Nobody besides the crow liked going there. To say it stunk did injustice to the word stunk. It reeked. It rotted. It marinated decades of throwaway table scraps in the fecund humidity of the Rio Grande Valley and then roasted it under the south Texas sun. It smelled so bad it made grown men cry.” These men walk, drive, fly, and boat across the continent, chasing birds. And Obmascik takes us along for the ride. Occasionally, Obmascik loses focus of the main story with subplots involving the men’s personal lives—including Greg Miller’s failed attempts at romance—but these additional anecdotes help the reader to better understand the characters, and add to the entertainment of the book.
The Big Year is written for the reader who enjoys adventure, passion, and chasing dreams—no matter how extreme. For birders, this book does not disappoint. For non-birders, this book does not disappoint either. A fast-paced narrative with memorable characters and hilarious moments, The Big Year is a tale that will inspire and entertain.
And if you like The Big Year, be sure to check out the upcoming film comedy based on the same story, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. The movie, sporting the same title as the book, will be released in U.S. theaters October 2011.