‘The Big Year’
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SPOKESPERSON: There’s a great blue –
SPOKESPERSON: Oh yeah. That’s beautiful. Over there.
SPOKESPERSON: Oh look at that.
MARGARET WARNER: Bird watching is usually thought of as a genteel and gentle hobby, and for many of the 50 million Americans who like to watch birds, it is. But for competitive birders, like those who compete to spot the greatest number of species in a single year, it can be a brutal sport.
SPOKESMAN: It was amazing.
MARGARET WARNER: Former newspaper reporter Mark Obmascik has written about them in a new book: “The Big Year, A tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.” We met up with Obmascik at Huntley Meadows Park in northern Virginia.
MARGARET WARNER: Now what is it people love about this so much?
MARK OBMASCIK: I think it’s the challenge, it keeps your brain going, you feel like a little kid on a treasure hunt. You’re poking around the trees, and looking for little hidden tidbits.
MARGARET WARNER: The three central characters in Obmascik’s book, the top finishers in the 1998 Big Year competition, were clearly looking for a challenge. Tell us how the Big Year works.
MARK OBMASCIK: Well, the Big Year is a contest with no referees and few rules. The idea is, who can see the most species of birds in North America in one year. So you can see them however you want. You can fly to see them, ride a bike to see them. In one case, they even took a helicopter to see them in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.
MARGARET WARNER: And they chase the birds through the canyon, as I recall.
MARK OBMASCIK: They did, up and over peaks, and one guy had a horrible seasickness problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Said he just hoped he could hold his breakfast together.
MARK OBMASCIK: And he did, and he got the bird. What a great bonus.
MARGARET WARNER: Obmascik first got turned onto the story by Sandy Comido, who years earlier had set the big-time record of 721 birds.
MARK OBMASCIK: He’s a New Jersey industrial contractor who has a voice that starts about three floors below the basement, really kind of a man’s man, in one of the most macho businesses anywhere. And he started telling me about how he devoted a year of his life to chasing around fragile, delicate, beautiful birds. And I just thought what a terrific contrast, a man who employs guys who almost look like Hell’s Angels, who’s roofing a factory top in New Jersey in the summer, and he loves birds.
MARGARET WARNER: In 1998, Comido decided to try to beat his own record before anyone could. He quickly found himself spending an average $10,000 a month to hopscotch all over the country chasing birds. Equally driven and financially comfortable was Al Levinton, a chemical company executive. He just retired to Aspen, Colo., after decades as a hard-charging businessman.
MARK OBMASCIK: He was working 60, 70, 80 hours a week, he was traveling 100,000 miles a year, and when it came time for him to retire, his wife was ready for the two of them to hang out. But what did the road warrior want to do? He wanted to do a Big Year and chase birds, hundreds of thousands of miles chasing birds. But he had 40 years of repressed obsession to deal with, because he had worked so hard.
MARGARET WARNER: Also obsessed but without the same resources was Greg Miller, a nuclear power plant software writer in Maryland. His 1998 big year began the day after his divorce became final.
MARGARET WARNER: Greg was already in debt, he had to go more deeply in debt, had to keep working all the while he was doing this, unlike the other two.
MARK OBMASCIK: Well, Greg would try to rack up the hours, thinking that 11 hours today can get me to Vancouver to see a Zantusis hummingbird. Greg lived for three days in the Dakotas, on nothing more than a jar of Jif peanut butter and a bag of Mr. Salty pretzels because he wanted to see the bared sparrow. It was all hand to mouth, and Greg actually ended the year as a financial wreck. He went broke. He maxed out five credit cards at age 40.
MARGARET WARNER: Birding held a common fascination for these three very different men.
MARK OBMASCIK: The three of these guys really worked pretty industrial jobs, if you think of it. There’s an industrial contractor, a Fortune 500 guy from a major chemical company from Philly, and a nuclear power plant worker. And you know, what better release for them to go chase rare, delicate, feathered creatures in some of the most spectacular landscape anywhere in the world?
MARGARET WARNER: As you point out in the book, there are only 675 indigenous species in the U.S., Yet the record is already 721. So describe what they have to do to find these other birds.
MARK OBMASCIK: What they do is turn into maniacs. They chase rarities. In 1998, they set a record that probably never will be broken, and for a few reasons, but the biggest of that is that it was the strongest El Nino on record. So there were all these freak birds that kept getting blown in by weird storms from Europe, from Asia, blown up from Latin America, and as soon as they hit North American airspace, you’re golden, you can count them, you just got to find them.
MARGARET WARNER: And they get together because a word comes out on this North American rare bird alert. So they know where something’s suddenly been sighted.
MARK OBMASCIK: Well, the communications revolution has just dramatically changed birding. There are rare bird alerts where people will get phone calls in the middle of the night at a cost of about $25 a call that says there’s a Zantusis hummingbird in Gibsons, B.C., get on it. And they’ll go. A rare bird, it’s almost impossible for it to land without having its every movement transmitted and broadcast on the Web.
MARGARET WARNER: Some of the places they race to after an alert, like Gamble Island in the Bering Sea, seen here in Greg Miller’s home video, were pretty bleak.
MARK OBMASCIK: For birders, it’s this weird paradox: The worse the weather, the better the birding. These guys would stay on this island of ice, of snow, and wait for freak winds to blow Asiatic birds into North American airspace, and they would sit on the edge of the sea with these scopes, these telescopes as long as my arm, and point them out there. And it’s ten degrees, 20-knot winds, and they’re calling out these rare birds that are flying by. Is this your idea of a $5,000 vacation? For these guys there’s nothing better.
MARGARET WARNER: Part of the appeal for these bird-obsessed men, despite their competition, was the camaraderie.
MARK OBMASCIK: Almost every birder has a story about how they’ve been mocked or teased over the years. Sandy Comido was teased so much that when he was in the Army he used to hide his binoculars in his five-pocket fatigues. Greg Miller was always called Miss Jane Hathaway from the “Beverly Hillbillies.” So when birders go to a place like Gamble, nobody is giving them a hard time, they’re just with 50 or 60 other people who share their same one consuming obsession.
MARGARET WARNER: In the end, of course, only one of the three won the competition. Do you think the other two felt like losers?
MARK OBMASCIK: No, not at all. In many ways, the Big Year cost them dearly. It cost them financially, it cost them their health, it wrung them out emotionally. But if you talk to them today, they had the time of their lives. It was really a terrific thing. I mean, how many people get to do the one thing that they really want to do and do it for a whole year? I mean, how many people get to chase their dream like that for a year? Birding may not be your dream, but for these guys it was. These guys went for it. Most people live their lives with the brakes on.
MARGARET WARNER: And after a year working on this book, Obmascik’s been bitten by the bird bug too.
MARK OBMASCIK: These guys got me hooked. It’s fun. You can do it almost anywhere. It doesn’t take much to pack binoculars when you go along somewhere, and it’s a different way of looking at the world.