The Big Year : a Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

A big year is when birders travel from Alaska to Mexico to see or hear the most different avian species from January 1 to December 31. The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, is the true story of three birders who competed for biggest Big Year in 1998 — when several factors converged to bring a record-breaking number of species within binoculars’ range of the competition grounds. The book was also the basis for the 2011 movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.

Think of it as Moby-Dick for bird nerds. Though the three protagonists never literally risk their lives like Captain Ahab did, they are just as single-minded about their quest. One risks, if not his life, at least his life savings. Another puts his livelihood at stake. And for what? Bragging rights. Anybody who has ever experienced how a pleasant pastime can become a relentless obsession will relate.

If the comparison to Moby-Dick has you certain that you don’t ever want to read this book, rest assured that author Mark Obmascik’s occasional treatises into Aleutian meteorology and human and avian nature are much more readable — and concise — than Herman Mellville’s digressions into the finer philosophical points of 19th Century whaling. I especially enjoyed the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird migration that starts Chapter Nine. It’s detailed and vivid enough that you’d believe the author made the 500 mile journey right alongside the tiny creature. Of course, he did not.

In fact, he spent zero time alongside his human subjects in 1998. His precise and vivid account of what each of the three contenders was seeing, thinking, feeling and experiencing during the Big Year comes entirely from after-the-fact interviews, from the birders’ field notes, personal journals, and receipts, and from the author’s own meticulous shoe leather reporting. “I relied on the old credo of trust but verify,” Obmascik writes in the acknowledgements page. “If a contestant recalled that he saw a bird a half hour before dawn with a half-moon still in the sky, I checked out government records for that day’s sunrise and moonset.”

Non-fiction readers will appreciate the fact-checking, especially since the official world record set during the contest required only that the winner give his word that he saw and heard what he said he did.

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