The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession
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Every January 1, a quirky crowd storms out across North America for a spectacularly competitive event called a Big Year—a grand, expensive, and occasionally vicious 365-day marathon of birdwatching. For three men in particular, 1998 would become a grueling battle for a new North American birding record. Bouncing from coast to coast on frenetic pilgrimages for once-in-a-lifetime rarities, they brave broiling deserts, bug-infested swamps, and some of the lumpiest motel mattresses known to man. This unprecedented year of beat-the-clock adventures ultimately leads one man to a record so gigantic that it is unlikely ever to be bested. Here, prizewinning journalist Mark Obmascik creates a dazzling, fun narrative of the 275,000-mile odyssey of these three obsessives as they fight to win the greatest— or maybe worst—birding contest of all time.
sparrow, unstreaked underparts distinguished a grasshopper sparrow. The natural history museum’s lock on bird identification was broken. In the depths of the Great Depression, Peterson’s book, with its forest-green cover and bufflehead flying below the title, sold out in one week. So did the next press run. And the next. Eventually more than 2 million copies of his field guide were sold. Peterson was so rich he never had to work again. But he did—he worked and worked and worked. His original
Just off the starboard side spouted a pod of gray whales. Komito braced himself. The Big Year clock was running. He needed every minute for birds. Would Shearwater paralyze him with the torpor of whale watching? Amazingly, the boat continued on. It was fifty degrees with ten-knot winds, but Komito felt an undeniable warmth. Maybe, just maybe, an old hatchet was buried. (The truth was that Shearwater had lost some of her fascination with gray whales. When she’d first started running trips in the
warblers—warblers!—with orange faces and blue backs and yellow bellies and sides with zebra stripes. Beside that thousand-winged art show, the female ruby-throated hummingbird was a mere plain Jane, a pinkie-size creature with green back, dull belly, and brown flanks. Her goal, however, was astounding Tonight she would try to fly five hundred miles over the Gulf of Mexico. If she stopped just once to rest, she would die. If she made it, she would earn the chance for two or three seconds of
had joined in the no-man’s-land of the Nevada desert to charter a helicopter for, of all things, a Himalayan snowcock. Everyone knew Komito loved to make things sound more miserable than they actually were. If he said the snowcock was easy, then it must be easy, right? But all last night, snow had pounded the Ruby Mountains. When Levantin and Miller had woken, the peaks weren’t even visible; the top fifteen hundred feet of the entire range—the place where the birds lived—was engulfed in clouds.
system. His power of persuasion was that strong. He looked me in the face with those sky-blue eyes and soothed my guilt with that assuring deep voice, and the next thing I knew, he had me feeling like the most important person in the universe. Then the waiter came—and Komito ordered his salad chopped. Mine came that way too. I don’t eat my salad chopped into one-inch squares. I don’t know anybody else who does. But Komito has his own tastes, and I found being with him was like riding the