Thursday, July 01, 2010

Mark Obmascik: Big Year

Every year, all over the place, birders challenge themselves to do more, to be more, to find more. The birdiest of the birders participate in a "Big Year," a competition to find the most birds in one calendar year in the areas including the continental United States, Canada, surrounding waters, and some islands nearby. Mark Obmascik has written a engaging account of the landmark competition of 1998, when three birders broke a long standing record and each saw over 700 birds in a cutthroat contest to beat each other and themselves. Readers learn a lot about what it means to be a serious birder- it's not just a casual hobby, you know- and about human nature. Two of the three contestants are very wealthy, and spend vast sums (about $100,000) to find their birds, though one does it in a secretive, snarky, competitive way, while the other is a laid back, sometimes retired outdoorsy guy, who birds when he feels like it. The third competitor, who finishes in second, is a divorced computer dude who works full time plus in between frantic scrambles to find birds for his list and ends up in debt that he is still trying to pay off when the book ends.

I have a confession to make. I am a birder. These guys do crazy things to see birds that they "need" to get to the top of the list. They are addicted to finding birds, sometimes to the detriment of their lives, to their jobs, their relationships. They take long trips to far away places and suffer extreme climates to see birds that sometimes they've already seen before. Sometimes, they see them for two seconds, because it's not polite to stand too long at the front of a line of birders waiting to look. Sometimes they see the birds for two seconds because birds don't wait around to be birded. The birders are addicted.

About a year ago I wrote about my addiction to baseball. I'm actually not a birder at all. I can't tell you a crow from a raven, or even if they are two separate birds or just two different names for the same black bird. I know what a pigeon is, but I don't find them interesting. I care about birds, in that I think we're destroying the environment. But I loved this book, because I'm a birder: I'm an addict for the chase, for the need to see something through, to collect. When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards. Where birders read and studied field guides and then had a moment of bliss when they saw a bird in the wild and could positively identify it because of their hours of poring over books, I loved to know all of the players faces and stats on the back of the Topps cards. Then, when I could see them at games, and know what teams they had played on before, it was like a moment of clarity: THAT'S the one, the bird in the red and white uniform with the "C" on the chest that I've been looking for this year! The same dorky drive to collect keeps me pulling over to take pictures of the sofas around town- look, a rare velour straddler spotted two miles south of its native habitat! That's 140 for the year!


"The Big Year" is a great read. You don't have to be a real birder or a fake birder, like me, to enjoy it. But being a collector or something brings out an extra level of enjoyment- Obmasik tenderly describes a group of outcasts that have found their niche and become part of an in crowd. The birders have their favorite places, and when they show up to find a rare bird, everyone knows why they are there. They are a club of people with kinks in their neck from looking up. It's like being an A's fan- you know when you go to the game that the 8000 other people there with you are addicts, following a pathetic club just like you. Wearing green and gold, cheering pathetic almost major leaguers, just like you. All grit, no glory, taking one for the team.


thb said...

A velour straddler hasn't been seen in E-ville in over 30 years!!