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, prize-winning 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.
In one of the wackiest competitions around, every year hundreds of obsessed bird watchers participate in a contest known as the North American Big Year. Hoping to be the one to spot the most species during the course of the year, each birder spends 365 days racing around the continental U.S. and Canada compiling lists of birds, all for the glory of being recognized by the American Birding Association as the Big Year birding champion of North America. In this entertaining book, Obmascik, a journalist with the Denver Post, tells the stories of the three top contenders in the 1998 American Big Year: a wisecracking industrial roofing contractor from New Jersey who aims to break his previous record and win for a second time; a suave corporate chief executive from Colorado; and a 225-pound nuclear power plant software engineer from Maryland. Obmascik bases his story on post-competition interviews but writes so well that it sounds as if he had been there every step of the way. In a freewheeling style that moves around as fast as his subjects, the author follows each of the three birding fanatics as they travel thousands of miles in search of such hard-to-find species as the crested myna, the pink-footed goose and the fork-tailed flycatcher, spending thousands of dollars and braving rain, sleet, snowstorms, swamps, deserts, mosquitoes and garbage dumps in their attempts to outdo each other. By not revealing the outcome until the end of the book, Obmascik keeps the reader guessing in this fun account of a whirlwind pursuit of birding fame.
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January 31, 2005
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Excerpt from The Big Year by Mark Obmascik
The first time I met a real birder, I couldn't tell a tit from a tattler.
I was a cub newspaper reporter, stuck on the graveyard shift and scrambling for some way, any way, to get off. If I wasn't chasing some awful car accident, I was hustling to find the relatives of a homeless man slashed in a railyard knife fight. Nobody was happy.
Then one night, an anonymous call came in to the Denver Post newsroom.
There's a man right here in Colorado, the caller told me, who is one of the world's foremost experts on birds. He's a law professor and he's old, and you should write something about him before he dies. His name is Thompson Marsh.
A chance to work among the living? I grabbed it. I called Professor Marsh the next day.
Professor Marsh, however, never called back. This really bugged me. In my line of work, even grieving widows returned phone messages. Surely a man who was one of the best in his field would want to talk, even if his field was a bit goofy. I decided to chase the story.
Slowly, from some of his friends, a picture emerged: Thompson Marsh was a birdwatcher possessed. To chase rare birds, he would rise before dawn on weekends. He would take expensive vacations on desolate Alaskan isles and pray for foul weather. He would wait for phone calls in the middle of the night, then rush to the airport for the next red-eye flight. Only five others in history had seen more species of birds in North America.
He managed to do all this while becoming a lawyer so sharp, so demanding, that many of his former students still felt intimidated by him. When Thompson Marsh was hired by the University of Denver in 1927, he was the nation's youngest law professor. Now he was eighty-two and the nation's oldest, having worked the same job for fifty-eight years. Some days he still walked the four miles from his home to class. A few years back, he conquered all fifty-four of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains.
But the old coot wouldn't pick up a phone to call me.
To hell with him, I decided -- until his wife unexpectedly called and arranged a meeting at their home.
I rang the doorbell on time, and his wife sat me down on the couch and poured tea. Behind her, in a room facing the garden, I spotted a tall, thin man with a shock of silver hair -- the birdman himself.
I stood and offered a handshake, but it wasn't accepted. The master legal orator looked down at the floor and said nothing.
His wife apologetically explained there would be no interview.
"He is a bit embarrassed by it all," Susan Marsh told me. "For some reason, he thinks it's a little silly. Why, I don't know."
Actually, she did know. The professor was a proud man who had been thinking about his newspaper obituary, and he didn't want to do anything now to change the story. Or, as his wife eventually confided, "He wants to be known as an attorney, not a birder."
Thompson Marsh, browbeater of future judges, was struck mute by a bird.
I returned to my newsroom and wrote a general story about the quirky world of competitive birdwatching and then moved on to covering murders and politicians and other typically depressing newspaper subjects. But my memory of that famed law professor, fidgeting horribly before a twenty-three-year-old reporter, still nagged me. What was it about birdwatching that gave a man such joy and discomfort?
I couldn't let the question go. Over the years I learned more about birds and their lovers, and I wrote the strange stories with glee. There was a Baikal teal that caused an international stir by wandering from its native lake in Siberia to a creek behind a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop outside Denver. There was a biologist who implanted microchips in geese so he could track the spring migration from New Mexico to the Arctic by computer from the comfort of his home. There even were twitters about a new species of grouse -- North America's first new bird species in a century! -- having sex in the sagebrush somewhere in the Utah high country.
Slowly but certainly I realized I wasn't just pursuing stories about birdwatchers. I was pursuing the birds, too. Marsh's obsession was becoming mine. My relentless pursuit of a rare subspecies of law professor had tapped a trait repressed deep in my character.
I needed to see and conquer.
This is not a unique craving. In the course of civilization, others have responded to that same fundamental urge by sailing uncharted oceans, climbing tall mountains, or walking on the moon.
Me, I watch birds.
Today I stroll in the park and I no longer see plain birds. I see gadwalls and buffleheads and, if I'm really on a hot streak, a single old squaw. A road trip finds me watching the sky as much as the pavement. It gets harder to pass a sewage treatment pond, that notorious bird magnet, without pulling out my binoculars. When somebody cries, "Duck!" I look up.
No longer is it accurate to call me a birdwatcher, a term the pros use to dismiss the spinsters and retired British army colonels who wait passively for birds to come to them. I have become an enthusiast, a chaser -- a birder.
If Thompson Marsh were still alive -- he died in 1992, at the age of eighty-nine, from injuries in a car accident on a birding trip -- he might even talk to me. He was, after all, my first truly tough bird.
Today I can say without hesitation that there are seven kinds of tits (Siberian, bridled, bush, juniper, oak, tufted, and wren) and two tattlers (gray-tailed and wandering), but I can't say this knowledge impresses anyone, certainly not my wife.
Why this happened to me, I can't easily explain. It's never been very manly to talk about feelings, especially when these feelings involve birds. But put me on a mountain stream with our two sons and give us a glimpse, a fleeting glimpse, of a bald eagle, and it's hard to tell who's more excited -- the four-, seven- or forty-year-old. I watch a hummingbird dive-bomb a feeder outside our kitchen window and marvel at its grace and energy; I pull out a birding field guide and learn that this finger-sized creature probably sipped tropical blossoms a few weeks ago in Guatemala, and I'm awed by the miracle of migration. On the prowl through the pines in the middle of the night, I hoot a few times through my cupped hands and wait. From the trees above, I detect wingbeats, then a returned hoot. It's an owl! Move over, Dr. Dolittle. I'm talking to the animals.
Birding is one of the few activities you can do from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper or the tent flap of an Alaskan bush camp; its easy availability may explain why it can become so consuming. There are one-of-a-kind birds living on the streets of St. Louis, below a dam in Texas, and amid the suburban sprawl of Southern California. One of the earth's greatest avian populations -- with 3 million birds passing through each day during spring migration -- is in New Jersey, just off the Garden State Parkway.
Birding is hunting without killing, preying without punishing, and collecting without clogging your home. Take a field guide into the woods and you're more than a hiker. You're a detective on a backcountry beat, tracking the latest suspect from Mexico, Antarctica, or even the Bronx. Spend enough time sloshing through swamps or scaling summits or shuffling through beach sand and you inevitably face a tough question: Am I a grown-up birder or just another kid on a treasure hunt?
During certain periods of our lives, the world believes it's perfectly acceptable to collect rocks or seashells or baseball cards.
The truth is that everyone has obsessions.
Most people manage them.
Birders, however, indulge them.
By the time you find yourself compiling lists and downloading software to manage, massage, and count birds, you -- well, I -- have become a hopeless addict.
As I spend another winter night by the fire, fingering David Sibley's 545-page birding guide and trying to memorize the field marks of thirty-five separate North American sparrow species, I'm jarred from self-absorption to self-doubt: Am I weird? Am I crazy? Am I becoming Thompson Marsh?
There is, I decide, only one way to fully understand my condition. If birding is an obsession that takes root in a wild crag of the soul, I need to learn how strong it can grow. I need to study the most obsessed of the obsessed.
I need to meet the birders of the Big Year.