Mark Obmascik needed a change. The Denver Post reporter had spent too much time with death and disaster. He'd been lead writer on the Columbine High School massacre, a series that won the Pulitzer Prize. He'd covered the Texas Seven jailbreak and the devastating Colorado wildfires. "It was one gruesome story after another," he says. "I wanted to write something my kids could read. I wanted a break."
Trolling for something lighter and a lot more fun, he contacted the American Birding Association. Obmascik, who received the 2003 National Press Club Award for environmental news coverage, had written about birders before, knew of their sometimes-quirky nature.
He soon found himself enthralled by master birder Sandy Komito, embodiment of an odd competitive birding subculture.
Obmascik knew a good story when confronted with it, identified it as easily as Komito could identify a Nutting's flycatcher.
He had his subject, obsession. He'd write a book about extreme birders (primarily men) who give up a year of their life to crisscross North America on a moment's notice simply to compile the longest list of sighted species. Ptamigans in Colorado, hummingbirds in the Arizona desert, owls in Minnesota and boobies in South Florida.
In the birding community, it's called the North American Big Year. It begins before sunrise on Jan. 1 of each year. And 1998, for a convergence of reasons, was a remarkable year.
An amazing 745 species were sighted by the top birder, a record many experts say may never be broken.
Among the crazed contenders were 1987 winner Komito, a bass-voiced New Jersey industrial contractor and legendary storyteller; Al Levantin, a chemist and retired Fortune 500 executive from Aspen with "40 years of repressed obsession"; and Greg Miller, a 5-foot-7, 225-pound nuclear power plant computer contractor from Maryland who was pining over his recent divorce, but who, Obmascik notes, "got more hugs per mile than any man I've ever met."
This unlikely mix of characters had only one thing in common: "a consuming passion, birds."
For that, they endured danger, exhaustion, sickness, and in the case of Miller, mounting debt.
"They were like grown-up Tom Sawyers, gallivanting around the globe chasing creatures that have a brain no larger than your belly button," says Obmascik, who was in South Florida recently to promote the resulting book, The Big Year, A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, (Free Press, $25).
Obmascik never witnessed a single day of the grueling 1998 competition, having begun the book well after the year ended. But through interviews and fieldwork and compelling storytelling ability, he has imbued the tale with a riveting immediacy.
Besides re-creating the intense rivalry of the obsessive, breakneck chase and the hardships encountered, he intersperses in the pages a fascinating mix of bird science and birding history.
There are 675 homies, or homegrown birds, in North America, he notes, birds that either live here or migrate through. The additional 70 birds that made for the '98 record "were all birds blown off course by the strongest El Niño on record, or just birds that got lost. These birds are reported on the Internet and through rare bird alerts."
Extreme birders pay to be alerted by pager or phone. Hundreds if not thousands of people in North America, says Obmascik, drop everything when an alert comes in.
Obmascik's competitors were no exception. "They were," he says, "away from home for 270 days, they traveled 270,000 miles, they lived for weeks on end on a desolate Alaskan isle [Attu] that is 1,700 miles from Anchorage and 200 miles from Siberia. And they stayed and waited for ... El Niño ... to blow Asiatic birds into North American air space just so they could count them."
That icy destination paid off in an avalanche of numbers.
In their feverish pursuit, the trio stood in sleet and rain, helicoptered into cloud-shrouded mountains, slogged through swamps, muck and landfills, the latter whose stench could make grown men swoon, and they suffered sleeplessness, seasickness, loneliness and hunger, just to see a bird.
While their paths sometimes crossed, and they'd find themselves uncomfortably sharing the same boat, the same mountaintop or island, they were pitted in a heady, solo competition.
The kicker: Their claims, while sometimes witnessed and photographed, are based on honor and integrity alone, for the final tally always is self-reported.
As Komito puts it, "The only way to get a reputation in birding is to earn it."
Or as another said, "Credibility is like virginity. You can only lose it once."
No effort seemed too great for Obmascik's binocular-and-scope-burdened trekkers. Komito, he recalls, "grew determined to find a Ross's gull. A seagull that's a little bit smaller than the rest and a little bit pinker than the rest. So he went from his home in New Jersey all the way to Point Barrow, Alaska, one of the northernmost points on the continent." It was a trip that took three or four flights.
"He didn't see the bird. Afraid he'd be stranded in a snowstorm, he returned home." Gnawed by the failure, he waited for the weather to clear, and sometime later "day-tripped back to Point Barrow."
"Luckily, this time he did see it. But not every time in the Big Year went that well," says Obmascik. "There were many times when these guys would fly in the middle of the night, catch a red-eye with hopes of seeing some rare bird, and they got there, and were told, `Well, you should have been here yesterday,' Or even worse, `You should have been here 15 minutes ago. The bird's gone now.'"
Keep in mind no prize money goes to the victor. The adventure is its own reward.
One time birding alone in West Texas's Big Bend National Park, Levantin, a man accustomed to being in control, came face-to-face with a mountain lion. He had thought the rustle in the bush was a bird he was tracking. Instead, he turned to see the lion at his back. Twenty feet apart, the two stared at each other. Levantin raised his arms to make himself look larger. The lion was not impressed. Levantin started screaming, "Get out of here. Go away." Seconds passed before the creature finally moved away. Later when he related the incident to a park ranger, the ranger remarked how lucky Levantin had been. He'd worked there eight years, he said, and had yet to see a mountain lion.
Miller, who would work 80-hour weeks to finance his quest, ate Spam from the can in the Dry Tortugas until some women in bathing suits took pity on him and shared their bounty of shrimp. He also got lost briefly in a canoe in the Everglades in search of flamingos. Stuck on mud flats, he slipped out of the canoe only to sink thigh-deep into a gooey mess that gripped his feet like glue.
He looked like a mud wrestler when he finally made it back to the dock.
Each of the men headed more than once to South Florida, host to about two dozen species inaccessible elsewhere on the continent. They visited not just hot spots such as the Everglades and Dry Tortugas, but lesser-known places, says Obmascik, "around an elementary school in Kendall for example, because there is a rare species of spot-breasted oriole that hangs out there and a red-whiskered bulbul. They were also out at Loxahatchee looking for a smooth-billed ani."
Dream chasing does not come cheap.
Komito sank $8,000 to $12,000 a month into his quest. By the end of the year, Levantin had dropped $60,000. Miller had no such resources. Incredibly, while doing the Big Year, he held down a full-time job, trying to crack codes to insulate his nuclear plant from any Y2K disruptions. He'd work four days, then rush off on long weekends to tag another species. "He maxed out six credit cards and he lived for three days in the Dakotas on nothing more than a jar of Jif peanut butter and a bag of Mr. Salty pretzels."
Just for the love of the chase.
Though there were times when they got discouraged, when money, grit, and hardship failed to produce a sighting, hope always held out. "Hope never got crushed, no matter how sick or how broke the competitors got," says Obmascik.
For a writer, recapturing that drive and passion was exhilarating. "Someone who turns over a year of his life to chase a dream is just an interesting concept," says the veteran journalist, who left the Denver Post to write The Big Year. "What would you do if you had one year to do one thing and only one thing that you really wanted? Well, these guys chased birds and had an amazing adventure."
Their zest and glee in the pursuit ultimately sucked in Obmascik, transformed him from a casual bird-watcher to bird chaser. "It was like a virus. I caught it."
The last bird in the great competition of '98, No. 745, was a white-cheeked pintail, which Komito found Dec. 29 in Delray Beach. "This time, it wasn't even much of a chase," writes Obmascik. The bird, which under normal circumstances would have been in the Caribbean, was "nibbling in wetlands fed by a sewage plant just up the road from one of South Florida's biggest retirement condo complexes."
Miller finished the year in second place with a count of 714, Levantin was four birds behind for third.
It had been by every estimate an incredible birding year, aided by a fortuitous set of circumstances: the strongest El Niño on record, the trip of the century on Attu, and a climate that allowed spontaneous passenger travel. It would not be easy today to "log 270,000 last-minute miles through the increased security of today's borders and airports," notes Obmascik. For all those reasons, he says, it's unlikely Komito's record will be broken.
On Jan. 1, 1999, Komito, the only birder to win the Big Year twice, rose at 5 a.m. to greet the New Year and to begin yet another chase.
Margo Harakas can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4728.