Bemused appreciation from Denver Post reporter Obmascik of a year-long quest to eyeball or hear as many bird breeds as possible in the US and Canada.
The Big Year was 1998, the protagonists were Sandy Komito, a roofing contractor from New Jersey; Al Levantin, a well-heeled businessman; and Greg Miller, a software jock for a nuclear power plant. As enjoyably chronicled by Obmascik, all three went to punishing lengths to tally the highest number of bird species encountered for the year. It was a bit like The Great Race, except that here there would be no fraud or deceit: witnesses would be good, photos even better, but trust was imperative; there would even be instances of “honor among top birders: if one asked for help, the other provided it.” Pocketbooks would be stretched, as would the limits of physical endurance, in mad dashes for vagrants, accidentals, and true freaks made public by rare-bird alerts. Sometimes a good sighting was just a matter of being in the right place, or of reaping the bounty served by El Niño, and chasing birds via air travel was certainly easier in those pre-9/11 days. The author, a bit of a birder himself, knows how to wring joy out of this birding bender; he vividly conveys the delight in identifying a white-throated robin, a clay-colored robin, a rufous-backed robin, a chachalacas (“that sounded as if Ethel Merman had swallowed a rusty trombone”), a yellow rail (“the Greta Garbo of the bird world”), or “the green microburst of energy called Xantus’s hummingbird.” Obmascik will light a tinderbox of bird lust in unsuspecting readers who have never given a thought to “Le Conte’s thrasher, a notoriously elusive soil-digger of the saltbush desert.”
You’ll gladly add this one to your own list—of surprisingly good books.