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Flocking Together

'The Big Year' captures the thrills, adventure and drama of birdwatching

By Jill Koenigsdorf

They come from Aspen, from the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Maryland and from Fair Lawn, N.J.--three men, all burning with the same obsession. Their ages, incomes and physical conditions vary wildly, yet still, in the throes of the El Niño year of 1998, with weird weather and flukes of nature thrown in their path, they tarry on. After all, the Big Year is no place for sissies.

They endure seasickness, snow where there should not be snow, the dizzying stench of garbage dumps, mountain lions that suddenly appear on deserted Texas roads, and countless storms in Attu, Alaska. Often subsiding solely on Jolt and pretzels, they tramp through volcanic muck with 20 mph headwinds just to chase a rumor and survive run-ins with fire ants in fierce competition with one another. Yet this is no ordinary sport and these are no ordinary men. They are a breed apart, known as "extreme birders," and their adventure is delightfully chronicled by Mark Obmascik in The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession (Free Press; $25).

Mark Obmascik has written a wonderful book chronicling the dreams and adventures of three men competing for the highest number of bird sightings in one year on North American soil. In doing so, he has portrayed three intriguing, complex characters whom we care about and cheer on in their quest. And while The Big Year is a work of nonfiction, it reads like a saga.

Obmascik gets the reader situated with some background on the contest: "Every year on Jan. 1, hundreds of people abandon their day-to-day lives to join one of the world's quirkiest contests. Their goal: spotting the most species of birds in a single year. Most contestants limit themselves to the birds of their home county. Others chase birds only within the borders of their home state. But the grandest birding competition of them all, the most grueling, most expensive and occasionally the most vicious, sprawls over an entire continent. It's called the Big Year."

The three contestants are reigning champion Sandy Komito, a colorful, often obnoxious fellow from the Bronx who only rents Lincoln Town cars and will fly anywhere, anytime, to get his bird; Al Levantin, a well-traveled engineer, strapping outdoorsman and Mr. Nice Guy-type from the Elk Mountains in Colorado; and, finally, an astonishingly determined nuclear power plant worker named Greg Miller, the only one who has to work during the Big Year, as his responsibility for keeping the once-dreaded Y2K virus from getting into the plant's systems remains paramount. We follow the suspense as these unlikely rivals pursue their birds, remaining neck-and-neck for most of the story.

The Big Year unfolds in a straightforward manner, skipping back and forth between the men and their often simultaneous quests for rare birds. The folks they encounter and the misadventures that transpire in various remote locales, as well as the camaraderie of other birders, keep the pages turning at a lively clip. Plus, there is a true thrill when the men do sight whichever elusive winged number they have been so dauntlessly tracking.

Relying on the North American Rare Bird Alert's (NARBA) frantically updated website, this trio is one day pointed toward a trailer park in Bentsen, Texas, and the next sent scurrying to Hammonasset Beach, Conn. But as the book points out, most of the world doesn't quite get birders.

"Over the years," Obmascik writes, the town of "Bentsen had grown on Komito. These trailer people weren't birders, but they had learned to help. Now, most had nailed up half an orange (to attract orioles) or tossed out seed (to attract everything else). . . . NARBA reported that a clay-colored robin was feeding reliably on a marshmallow at Trailer Space No. 19."

As the reader gets to know these three fellows, the victory is almost secondary to the adventures. The Big Year accomplishes that delightful feat of educating a reader about a world foreign to most without making her conscious of said education. Suddenly, battling mosquitoes in the swamps of Florida, seeing only roseate spoonbills when the goal that day was simply one pink flamingo, doesn't seem like such a crazy proposition. In fact, after finishing this book, birding--novice or advanced--seems like a perfectly wonderful, even appealing, pastime.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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